Jewish culture and religion have a lot of information that can be seen and interpreted in many ways. There is one principal book but many rabbis or masters that interpret the information and pass it onto people have been around for many centuries. Some of them have left us amazing teachings that are still useful and applicable in our days.
One of those rabbis is Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Laidi who was one of the most important Rabbis in the 18th century and 19th century. He is very well-known in the Jewish community as he is remembered because he was a mystic person, an activist, a philosopher, a religious authority and a Talmudist. Apart from all this, he was also known as a very important and wise spiritual guide that made it easy for anybody to approach divinity. Rabbi Schneur Zalman lived in a time where change was happening and where the whole world was experiencing new ideas and revelations. His life continues to be an inspiration for many and his teachings will still be useful for many years to come.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was born on the day number 18 on the twelfth month of the Jewish civil year and the sixth month of the ecclesiastical Hebrew calendar, also known as the Elul in the year 1745. He was born in the town of Liozna, in Mohilev, in White Russia. He was one of 3 sons that Baruch and Rivkah had. He and his three brothers were amazing Talmud academics and Rabbis.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s father was a man that was not poor. He came from a family that lived in Bohemia and were directly related to Rabbi Yehuda Lowe (Maharal) of Prague. Schneur father was a follower of the Baal-Shem-Tov, and he took his son, Schneur, to see this rabbi when he was 3 years old for the traditional haircutting ceremony. Then as a rabbi, Schneur was blessed by Baal-Shem-Tov’s who had wished for him to follow his own path of Chassidus.
After all this, he became a world-famous rabbi that passed many teachings to his students and followers. Some of those teachings are the following:
Spirit over Matter
Rabbi Schneur Zalman described an eternal battle within between the spirit and the material world out there. It happens to men and within the creation. Rabbi Zalman describes it as the conflict that the “animal soul” and the “Godly” soul have between each other. The animal represents the physical person, the relation he or she has with the physical world, the motivations to exist and to be, the self-preservation, self-fulfilment and self-enhancement instinct that exist within every person; The Godly soul on the other hand, is the place where our spirituality lives, is where our spirituality and faith start and are rooted. It is also seen as the motivation to self-transcend, the power above us. According to Zalman, life is the fight between these two forces that are present in every act, word or thought that we have, this small battle always goes on. For example, you want to say something or answer to a situation, any situation. You will always have a conflict of saying what you really think or what should be said. There will always be this battle within and the winner will have the possibility to use the body to express the feeling.
Faith versus Reason
For many years people believed that faith and reason were simply two opposite concepts and that they were just too far away from each other two have a relation. Faith could be defined as unequivocal, as the supra-human and for that reason unreal; and reason can be defined as something simply reasonable, that is rooted in tangible arguments, something that is made for humans, categorized and drained of wonder and life. Rabbi Zalman understood these two worlds and understood that there was a faith-reason concept and relationship that created a symbiotic relation between them. He did not separate one and other as many people used to do, but instead he thought that one can take to the other, can feed from the other and in the end represent the other. Rabbi Zalman taught his followers that study, comprehension, and meditation where the ways to make faith real, and those were the tools that made faith be expressed through emotions and actions.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman left us with many more teachings which will be seen in further posts. Zalman passed away at the age of 68 in the middle of one of Russia’s winters when he and his family were in the open roads due to persecution and harsh times. He became very ill and it was in a small village in the district of Kursk where he had his last breath.
Be sure to also read this post on an easy introduction to kabbalah: the mystical path to Judaism