The teachings of Chabad Philosophy are contained in Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya (1796), the further teachings and discourses of he and his successors through seven generations and, particularly, in the voluminous writings of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Seventh Rebbe (b.1902).
Chabad is an acronym of the initial letters of the three Hebrew words Chochmah, Binah, Da’at, meaning Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. The movement has this name because of its emphasis on exploration and contemplation of spiritual teachings which provide a sense of meaning and inspiration in the study of Torah, prayer and general observance of halachic Judaism.
What are the basic themes of Chabad teaching? An outline of the contents of Tanya provides a brief introduction. The first section concerns the two Souls within the individual: the Vital Soul (also called Animal Soul), closely connected with the body, seeks self-gratification largely in terms of physical activities. The Divine Soul longs to connect with the Divine through Torah study, prayer and observance of Mitzvot (Commandments). This dichotomy is similar to the traditional Talmudic theme of the Evil Desire versus the Good Desire, yet has manifold further dimensions by being linked with kabbalistic concepts.
These two Souls battle within the person, seeking to express themselves and gain their respective goals through the individual’s Thought, Speech and Action. According to Tanya, a person is able to ensure that the Divine Soul always wins this battle, and that his or her practical life connects with G-d, through observance of Jewish teaching, rather than separating from Him by behaviour contrary to the Torah. However, further levels of attainment are possible, such as the silencing of the Animal Soul so that it ceases to act as a force for evil, or even its transformation so that it becomes a positive force for good.
This section of Tanya includes central Chabad teachings such as the religious importance of joy and of love of one’s fellow.
The second section of Tanya can be read as a kind of preparation for saying the Shema. It concerns the nature of existence. Every detail in the universe is constantly being kept in existence by a flow of energy from G-d. Through contemplation the person can come to the realisation that ‘all is G-d’. The phrase in the first line of Shema declaring that ‘G-d is One’ can be understood as meaning ‘there is Only G-d’. However the second line of the Shema is explained as meaning that ‘G-d is all’, and that everything in life is an expression of G-d, so one can discover G-dliness in every detail of existence.
The third section is about Repentance, describing the Soul as being connected to G-d by 613 strands, corresponding to the 613 Mitzvot. Sin has the effect of weakening or breaking the strands, Repentance repairs them.
The fourth section, consisting of letters by R. Shneur Zalman, largely explains the spiritual effect of giving Charity in a number of different ways. For example, through giving Charity the person redeems his or her inner being from its state of alienation in materiality (sec. 4). The fifth section of Tanya has more kabbalistic terminology and treats topics such as the mystical importance of the Practical Commandments