Sunday 17 July 2016



It is not the intention of this article to debate the virtues or otherwise of Chassidim and Mitnagdim nor to attempt to adjudicate the intricacies of their respective philosophies. Rather, the reader is requested to remain theologically and emotionally neutral as we take a look at a fascinating historical exchange involving claims and counter claims.]


As is well known, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)[1] placed the new movement of Chassidism into cherem (excommunication) and declared them to be heretics with whom no pious Jew should intermarry[2]


The following is an extract from the 1777[3] excommunication document:

As you know, new people have appeared, unimagined by our forefathers...and they associate amongst themselves and their ways are different from other children of Israel in their liturgy...they behave in a crazed manner and say that their thoughts wander in all worlds...And they belittle the study of Torah, and repeatedly claim that one should not study much, nor regret one’s transgressions...Therefore we have come to inform our brethren...and to sound to them the voice of excommunication and banishment...until they repent completely[4]

One of the main reasons for this may have been that the Jewish world was just recovering from the aftermath of tremendous upheaval following the debacle of the false messiah, Shabetai Tzvi (1626-1676) about a century before. The Vilna Gaon was therefore highly suspicious of any new movements. 

He also had a number of philosophical issues with some of the concepts discussed in the Tanya which had become a primary text of many of the new followers of the Chassidic movement (particularly Chabad). Furthermore, the Chassidic movement was rapidly spreading, and its opponents feared they might soon outnumber the mainstream (which indeed they soon did). 

He was further concerned that the Chassidic concept of ‘attachment to a rebbe’ was too close to idolatry and that the movement which at first attracted the simple poorer and uneducated masses, might degenerate and possibly de-intellectualize Judaism.


Around 1796, someone falsely claiming to be the son of the Vilna Gaon, wrote a letter declaring that his ‘father’ had a change of heart, and had duly retracted his earlier ban and antagonistic sentiment against Chassidim.


When this became known to the Vilna Gaon, he responded with a counter letter, which stated that it was not true and that the ban and status quo remained in place.


The authenticity as to whether or not this counter letter was indeed written by the Vilna Gaon was in turn brought into question.


In 1797, the Vilna Gaon wrote another letter in which he detailed some of the specific issues he had with the Chassidic movement. This letter was then published and widely disseminated.

The Gaon wrote; “these are your gods, Israel[5] which is the biblical expression used to describe the idolatrous worshiping of the golden calf – and he applied that directly to the Chassidim. This was a clear charge of heresy levelled against Chassidim which quickly put paid to the notion that he retracted his earlier antagonism. 

The Gaon was referring specifically to the (now almost universally accepted Chassidic) idea brought in the Tanya that even inanimate objects such as rocks and such, have an element of G-d within them.[6] The Vilna Gaon was so opposed to this concept that he said that Chassidim proclaim ‘every tree and rock to be a new (and idolatrous) god of Israel’.[7]

Not only was it a charge of heresy but it was also a charge of panentheism.[8]

(Again, it is not my intention to debate the virtues or otherwise of the popular – and beautiful -Chassidic concept of a bechinat nefesh or spark of G-dly spirituality to be found within all physical phenomena. We are dealing here with the structure of the dispute - not the structure of the philosophy.)

The Vilna Gaon continued unrelentingly; “These evil evildoers (i.e. the Chassidim) have fabricated from their hearts a new law and a new Torah. Their students who followed them have drunk it and the name of Heaven has been profaned by their hand.”[9]


Sometime later the Baal HaTanya (1745-1812)[10] responded with letter (which was first published in 1857) where he put forth his views regarding the dispute with the Vilna Gaon. Interestingly, he understood the Vilna Gaon’s theological objections, and wrote:

This is how HaGaon haChassid (respectfully referring to the Vilna Gaon) understands the (Kabbalistic) concept of G-d ‘filling the universe[11]’ – he understands (that Chassidim take) it literally. And in the honourable one’s view this is absolute apikorsut (a more polite form of heresy?) because one is inferring that G-d is mamesh (truly) found in mundane objects mamesh (truly). And because of the honourable one’s letter (referred to above) the (Chassidic) book was burned.

In his (the Gaon’s) view these sayings (of G-d ‘filling’ the universe) have a hidden (non-literal) meaning referring to hashgacha (mere Providence, i.e. G-d controls the universe but does not literally fill it with His Being.)

If only I could find him and present my case to him...” 

And the Baal haTanya goes on to say how he received these teachings from the Zohar and Ari Zal and therefore they were, in his view, authentic Torah teachings.[12]

So here we have a theological cataclysmic parting of ways between the Baal haTanya and the Vilna Gaon.



In the second section of Tanya, however, it seems as if the gloves had come off.

The Tanya says (referring now to the Tzimtzum concept and not the ‘filling’ of the universe); “...the error of some, who are wise in their own eyes, may G-d forgive them, who erred and were mistaken in their study of the writings of the Ari Zal, and understood the doctrine of Tzimtzum mentioned there literally - that the Holy One (literally) withdrew Himself and His essence from this world (and inferred that) He only supervises from above.” [13] 


Who does the Baal haTanya refer to with his harsh words ‘wise men in their own eyes’? There is no way to know for sure, but he was most probably referring to the Vilna Gaon.

This is borne out by the fact that this very passage was absent (censored?) from every printed edition of Tanya before 1900. The first edition of Tanya was published in Slavita in 1796[14]. This was around the time the letters between both antagonists were beginning to circulate, which means that for just over a century this passage was omitted!

Many believe that by the beginning of the 1900’s, sufficient time had passed since the great feud had erupted and that the storm had, by then, run out of range.


Generally it is understood that the Vilna Gaon refused to meet with the Baal haTanya. But there is another take. According to the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe;

At that time he (the Baal haTanya, also known as the Alter Rebbe) secretly visited Shklov, Minsk and Vilna. The Alter Rebbe spent six weeks in Vilna during that secret mission. He would wander from one beis hamedrash to another disguised as a visiting traveller...

But he refrained from engaging the Gaon in discussion, for fear he would be recognized. He did, however, submit several questions to him through two of his adherents. ‘I soon learned whom I was dealing with and just how great his knowledge of the Torah was’, said the Alter Rebbe to his brother.”

So, certainly at some stage, it was the Baal haTanya who avoided the Vilna Gaon and not the other way around - although we also know that the Vilna Gaon refused to meet with the Baal haTanya as well.[15]


Thankfully today, for the most part, the feud does not play out as acutely as it did in earlier times. 

Although there are still stark theological differences, all parties seem quite able to remain accommodating and civil towards each other.

In hindsight it seems as if Chassidism infused a sense of energy and spirituality into the mainstream - and on the other hand the strenuous opposition particularly by the Gaon, helped keep the movement within the relative confines of the mainstream (which may have unwittingly contributed to its endurance).

Sometimes even the wine of theology requires the fullness of time for its fruits to ferment.

[1] Also known as Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, and as the Gra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu).
[2] This was a second excommunication which emanated from Vilna. The first was in 1777, which was taken so seriously that in Brody, for example, the excommunication was announced at a public trade fair. The excommunication was quite an unusual step taken by the Vilna Gaon, who rarely took part in public affairs and generally shied away from public office.
[3] Some say 1772.
[4] See also; The Jew in the Modern World by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Yehudah Reinhartz, p. 309.
[5] Chassidin uMitnagdim vol. 1, p. 187
[6] See Tanya, Shaar haYichud ve’haEmunah 1.
[7] Ibid. ‘eileh elohecha yisrael – kol eitz vekol even.’
[8] Not to be confused with pantheism. Pantheism is belief that G-d and the universe are identical. Panentheism is the belief that G-d is present in everything, even inanimate objects.
[9] Chassidim uMitnagdim, vol. 1 p 188-189.
[10] Also known as the Alter Rebbe, the Rav and as Rabbi Shneur Zalman Borochovitch of Liadi.
[11] Memaleh kol Almim
[12] The Vilna Gaon was also a kabbalist, and also accepted the writing of much of the Ari Zal - except that he believed the Ari Zal may have been somewhat fallible and therefore did not accept everything in its entirety as received from him. The Gaon (according to the Baal haTanya) did not believe that everything the Ari Zal wrote had been passed on to him by Eliyahu the prophet, and that some of his views may have emanated from his own mind.
[13] Tanya II, 7 (83a) According to Chassidus, the withdrawal of G-d (to ‘make space’ for physicality) as part of the Tzimtzum or Contraction process is not literal as nothing could exist were G-dliness to be literally withdrawn.  However, according to the Vilna Gaon it is taken literally! 
[The Rebbe of Kopyst (1830-1900), author of Magen Avot, wrote in a letter to Rabbi Don Tumarkin; “This...subject of Tzimtzum...the Chassidim did not take it literally, as opposed to ...the Gaon of Vilna.”]
Regarding ‘filling’ of the universe concept, Chassidim take it somewhat metaphorically (bechinat nefesh – an aspect of a G-dly soul), whereas the Gaon understood that they took it completely literally - hence his charge of idolatry because accordingly, G-d is now found ‘in every rock and tree’. (Perhaps the Gaon felt this was too similar to the model of classical idolatry where every rock and tree had its own god.)
[14] See list of Tanya editions, Tanya p. 712

[15] According to Chabad tradition, the Baal haTanya together with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Horodoker (also known as Vitebsk) were sent by the Mezticher Maggid to meet with the Vilna Gaon, but he refused to see them. According to Brisk tradition the Baal haTanya was accompanied by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
Different observers give different reasons for the Gaon’s refusal to meet: Some say he was afraid he might be influenced by the holiness of the Baal haTanya. Others say he felt it a waste of time because of their irreconcilable theological differences. And some say it was simply because he considered then to be heretical.
(There is even a letter from the Baal haTanya to his Chassidim in Vilna instructing them not to waste their time debating with the followers of the Gaon, also because their differences were irreconcilable.) Whatever the truth is, they did not meet. One cannot but wonder how (or if) history may have changed had the two been able to have a face to face exchange.


  1. Much of the information out there concerning this matter is from the Hasidic side, which tends to be more aggressive in spreading its version of things. For more balance, to get a better understanding of the Misnagdic side, there are works like Hagaon (Hebrew, 3v.), by Rav Dov Eliach, which has two chapters on the matter.

    In English, a book called The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna, by Elijah J. Schochet, gives a good understanding of the Misnagdic point of view as well.

  2. The Baal Ha'tanya wrote that he attended to see the Gra at his house on two occasions and twice the Gra closed the door in his face. The Gra then left Vilna and only returned after the Baal Hatanya and his associate had left the city

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Apologies to mitnad but the last comment was deleted because I erroneously published your same comment twice.