• March 3, 2024
  • 23 5784, Adar I
  • פרשת ויקהל

Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah

Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah
April 22, 2018 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah: Lesson 1
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Hello Everyone,

Yesterday we had our first shiur in the series on Chasidut and emunah.

We began the shiur with an overview of how the mitzvah of emunah was understood by the great medieval Jewish thinkers. The Rambam in his Hebrew writings (the Mishnah Torah) writes as follows:

א מצוה ראשונה ממצוות עשה לידע שיש שם אלוה שנ’ אנכי י”י.

The Rambam says that there is a mitzvah to know that there is a God. However when we go to study the Rambam’s writings in Judeo-Arabic ( the Sefer haMitzvot and his great philosophical work, the Moreh haNevuchim) we encounter a disagreement among his translators.  In his discussions of the subject of awareness of God, the Rambam used the word “.אעתקאד” Rav Kaffach zt”l consistently translated this word as meaning לדעת, to “know.”  The late Prof. Michael Schwarz of Tel Aviv University translated this word as להאמין- to “believe.” The differences in the translation of the word אעתקאד must not lead to any doubt as to what the Rambam expects of us. The Rambam in Moreh haNevuchim says without any ambiguity that it is incumbent upon us to study the meaning of Hashem’s existence, and that that this study should occupy us throughout our lives. The Rambam speaks disparagingly of people who are satisfied with the mindless rote repetition of “principles of belief.” What we must do is to study ever more deeply what it means when we say that “Hashem is One.” This is how we fulfill the mitzvah of belief.[1]

The Rambam was not the first person to say this. He was preceded by Rav Sadiah Gaon in his work הנבחר באמונות ודעות and by Rabbeinu Bachyah ibn Pekudah in his work.חובות הלבבות

These thinkers strove to legitimize the analysis of the Jewish belief. The great opponent to this avenue of study was Rabbi Yehudah haLevi. In his work on Jewish belief, the ספר הכוזרי  he advanced the idea that our belief in Hashem and the Torah is based on received tradition and not on any form of philosophical speculation and inquiry. This is what he wrote on philosophy:

ספר הכוזרי מאמר ב אות כו

…ומי שקבלה קבול שלם מבלי שיתחכם בה בשכלו, הוא מעולה ממי שיתחכם בה וחקר, אך מי שנטה מהמדרגה העליונה ההיא אל המחקר, טוב שיוציא בהם מוצאי החכמה משיעזבם לסברות רעות ולספקות מביאות אל אבדון.

This was the state of affairs until the rise of Chasidut. The systematic analysis of Jewish belief ceased to be an activity which occupied the attention of the great Poskim. Indeed it would seem that this  sort of activity was frowned upon. In the late 18th century the greatest Posek in Europe was Rav Yechezkel Landau, known as the נודע ביהודה. When he asked to advise a בעל תשובה the Noda beYehudah told him to study the Chovot haLevavot but to skip the first chapter which deals with the philosophical analysis of Hashem’s essential Unity;

שו”ת נודע ביהודה מהדורא קמא – אורח חיים סימן לה

והנה אף שאני מיקל בתעניות וסיגופים ותשובת המשקל לזה האיש אבל פטור בלא כלום אי אפשר בפרט לפי רוב התמדת החטא. והנה התמדת התורה הוא עיקר. אמנם ילמוד דברי תורה שיש בהם ממש משניות בעומק העיון עם תוס’ יום טוב ש”ס ופוסקים ותורה נביאים וכתובים וג”כ ספרי מוסר חובת הלבבות מן אחר שער היחוד עד גמירא….

The rise of Chasidut brought about a change in the conception of אמונה. However one translates the word אעתקאד there is no doubt that the Rambam says that to fulfil the first mitzvah in the Torah, one must study. The more that one studies the closer one comes to Hashem. The Ba’al Shem Tov changed all of that. This is how he is quoted by the Slonimer Rebbe zt”l in his work נתיבות שלום  (on the 7th day of Pesach):

אחרי כל מדרוגתי והשגותי הריני מאמין באמונה פשוטה

The Slonimer Rebbe says that this is a most amazing statement. The Ba’al Shem Tov certainly engaged in the most profound meditations and speculations about Hashem. How then could he say that he possessed “simple faith?” There was certainly nothing simple about the Ba’al Shem Tov’s faith.

The Slonimer Rebbe explained that simple faith does not mean that faith is simple. That is far from the case. Rather, the idea of “simple faith” is meant to tell us that try as we may we cannot hope to understand Hashem. Hashem is Infinite, we cannot ever get close to understanding Him. The more that a person studies the more that he or she becomes aware of the gulf that separates us from our Creator. Simple faith is the faith that realizes that when all is said and done we are back where we started, all we have is faith.[2]

In future shiurim I hope to study with you more Chasidic writings on faith. Thanks to everyone who participated in the shiur. Please feel free to write to me with ideas and criticisms. My e-mail address is <fish9999@gmailcom>

Stuart Fischman

[1] Or “knowledge.”

[2] The Rambam also emphasizes the essential unknowability of Hashem. However I do not know if the Rambam would agree with the Ba’al Shem Tov’s saying concerning “simple faith.” The Rambam emphasizes  the necessity of study. The one who studies is superior to the one who does not study.

There is a hint of the egalitarian nature of Chasidut in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s use of the phrase “simple faith” which I do not think the Rambam would have used.

April 29, 2018 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah: Lesson 2
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April 29, 2018 1:00PM – 2:00PM

Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we explore in greater detail the approaches of the Rambam and the Baal Shem Tov to the subject of approaching Hashem.  Both the Rambam and the Baal Shem Tov made use of a parable about a king in a palace to describe Hashem’s presence, but their parables were very different.

Here is the parable of the Rambam:

ספר מורה הנבוכים חלק ג פרק נא

זה הפרק אשר נזכרהו עתה, אינו כולל תוספת ענין על מה שכללו אותו פרקי זה המאמר, ואינו רק כדמות חתימה, עם באור עבודת משיג האמתיות המיוחדות בשם יתעלה אחר השגתו, אי זה דבר הוא, והיישירו להגיע אל העבודה ההיא אשר היא התכלית אשר יגיע אליה האדם והודיעו איך תהיה ההשגחה בו בעולם הזה עד שיעתק אל צרור החיים,

ואני פותח הדברים בזה הפרק במשל שאשאהו לך, ואומר, כי המלך הוא בהיכלו ואנשיו כולם, קצתם אנשי המדינה וקצתם חוץ למדינה, ואלו אשר במדינה, מהם מי שאחוריו אל בית המלך ומגמת פניו בדרך אחרת, ומהם מי שרוצה ללכת אל בית המלך ומגמתו אליו, ומבקש לבקר בהיכלו ולעמוד לפניו, אלא שעד היום לא ראה פני חומת הבית כלל. מן הרוצים לבא אל הבית, מהם שהגיע אליו והוא מתהלך סביבו מבקש למצא השער, ומהם מי שנכנס בשער והוא הולך בפרוזדור, ומהם מי שהגיע עד שנכנס אל תוך הבית והוא עם המלך במקום אחד שהוא בית המלך, ולא בהגיעו אל תוך הבית יראה המלך או ידבר עמו, אבל אחר הגיעו אל תוך הבית א”א לו מבלתי שישתדל השתדלות אחרת, ואז יעמוד לפני המלך ויראהו מרחוק או מקרוב, או ישמע דבר המלך או ידבר עמו.

והנני מפרש לך זה המשל אשר חדשתי לך, ואומר, אמנם אשר הם חוץ למדינה, הם כל איש מבני אדם שאין לו אמונת דת, לא מדרך עיון ולא מדרך קבלה, כקצות התור”ך המשוטטים בצפון, והכושיים והמשוטטים בדרום, והדומים להם מאשר אתנו באקלימים האלה, ודין אלו כדין בעלי חיים שאינם מדברים ואינם אצלי במדרגת בני אדם, ומדרגתם בנמצאות למטה ממדרגת האדם ולמעלה ממדרגת הקוף, אחר שהגיע להם תמונת האדם ותארו והכרה יותר מהכרת הקוף, ואשר הם במדינה אלא שאחוריהם אל בית המלך, הם בעלי אמונה ועיון, אלא שעלו בידם דעות בלתי אמתיות, אם מטעות גדולה שנפל בידם בעת עיונם, או שקבלו ממי שהטעם, והם לעולם מפני הדעות ההם כל אשר ילכו יוסיפו רוחק מבית המלך, ואלו יותר רעים מן הראשונים הרבה, ואלו הם אשר יביא הצרך בקצת העתים להרגם ולמחות זכר דעותם שלא יתעו זולתם, והרוצים לבא אל בית המלך ולהכנס אצלו אלא שלא ראו בית המלך הכלל, הם המון אנשי התורה רצה לומר עמי הארץ העוסקים במצות, והמגיעים אל הבית ההולכים סביבו, הם התלמודיים אשר הם מאמינים דעות אמתיות מדרך קבלה, ולומדים מעשה העבודות, ולא הרגילו בעיון שרשי התורה ולא חקרו כלל לאמת אמונה, ואשר הכניסו עצמם לעיין בעקרי הדת כבר נכנסו לפרוזדור, ובני האדם שם חלוקי המדרגות בלא ספק, אבל מי שהגיע לדעת מופת כל מה שנמצא עליו מופת, וידע מן העניינים האלהיים אמתת כל מה שאפשר שתודע אמתתו, ויקרב לאמתת מה שא”א בו רק להתקרב אל אמתתו, כבר הגיע עם המלך בתוך הבית…

According to the Rambam, Hashem can be approached. But before a person can approach Him the person must find her or his way towards Hashem by overcoming ignorance which are the walls of the parable within which Hashem the King encloses Himself. As a person studies she or he first discovers the palace and then finds the way into the palace and through the maze of corridors until she or he gains entrance to the King’s chamber.

The Baal Shem Tov’s parable is this:

בן פורת יוסף בראשית פרשת מקץ

ונ”ל דכתבתי במ”א דשמעתי ממורי זלה”ה משל שאמר קודם תקיעת שופר[1], שהיה מלך אחד חכם גדול, ועשה באחיזת עינים חומות ומגדלים ושערים, וצוה שילכו אצלו דרך השערים והמגדלים, וצוה לפזר בכל שער ושער אוצרות המלך. ויש שהלך עד שער א’ וחזר, ויש וכו’, עד שבנו ידידו התאמץ מאד שילך אל אביו המלך, אז ראה שאין שום מחיצה מפסיק בינו לבין אביו כי הכל הי’ אחיזת עינים. והנמשל מובן, ודפח”ח.

וכן כתבתי במ”א מה ששמעתי ממורי זלה”ה כי בידיעת האדם שהשי”ת מלא כל הארץ כבודו וכל תנועה ומחשבה הכל ממנו ית’, אז בידיעה זו יתפרדו כל פועלי און וכו’. א”כ כל המלאכים וכל ההיכלות הכל נברא ונעשה כביכול מעצמותיו ית’ כהדין קמצא דלבושי’ מיניה וביה, ובידיעה זאת יתפרדו כל פועלי און, שאין שום מחיצה ומסך מבדיל בין האדם ובינו ית’ בידיעה זאת.

Whereas the Rambam saw ignorance as a real barrier which blocks our access to Hashem, the Baal ShemTov said that the barrier which separates us from Hashem is our desire for pleasure. Hashem, the King in the parable scattered treasures at the entrances to the illusory catle which He built. Most people approach this illusory castle and when they see the treasures they take them and leave; so they forget about the King. It is only the King’s beloved son who with great effort went towards his Father the King and discovered that there really are no walls at all separating him from his Father.

The Rambam is the great Halachic authority. His reputation for dazzling intellectual achievement may be unequalled. The Baal Shem Tov’s reputation rests on his founding a popular religious movement within Judaism. I think that their respective parables about a King in a palace are incredibly instructive.

The Rambam hammers home the idea that anyone who wishes to achieve spiritual growth must work. The walls of ignorance which separate us from Hashem are real and require great effort to surmount.

The Baal Shem Tov does not see ignorance per se as being a hindrance to entering into a relationship with Hashem. But the Baal Shem Tov does not say that it is easy to find Hashem. In his parable he specifically says that the King’s son “struggled mightily”(התאמץ מאד)  to reach the King. It was only after he struggled that he discovered that the entire complex of walls and towers and towers were an illusion. Against what then did the King’s son need to fight if the walls were not real? It seems that he needed to fight the temptation of the treasures that the King scattered around the entrances to the imaginary castle. The Baal Shem Tov says that we all must decide what do we want from life? We can choose to pursue pleasure, the treasures that Hashem created in this earth or we can choose to cling to Him. We cannot have both. The King’s son had to struggle to find his way to the King.

I would say that even though the Rambam and Vaal Shem Tov disagree over what is needed to approach Hashem they both agree that the path to Hashem is not a simple one.

This is a summary of yesterday’s shiur. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Stuart Fischman


[1] I think that it is interesting that the Baal Shem Tov told this story about approaching Hashem specifically on Rosh Hashanah prior to the blowing  of the shofar.




May 6, 2018 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah: Lesson 3
Class description


May 6, 2018 1:00PM – 2:00PM

Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur of the subject אמונה  in Chasidut we saw a surprising (in my opinion) view attributed to  the earliest circle of Chasidim. The book ליקוטים יקרים contains teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciple the Maggid of Mezeritch.

The teaching which we saw discusses the formula which forms the opening of many of prayers, “. א-להינו וא-להי אבותינו” Why do we refer to Hashem as our God and the God of our ancestors? The author of the teaching explains that there are two sorts of faith. There is the faith which one possesses based on what she or he had received from their parents. Then there is the faith which someone acquires by study. Each type of faith has its strength and deficiency.

The faith which is based on received tradition is to be embraced because it cannot be shaken by arguments against it. The believer knows that her parents would not have deceived her. However, this sort of faith is born from habit, it lacks the power of something which the person discovered for himself.

The second type of faith  has the advantage of having been discovered. It has a freshness and immediacy that received faith lacks. However this sort of faith can conceivably be abandoned if the believer is challenged by a more persuasive argument.

Therefore the author of this teaching says that ideally a person would possess both types of faith. A person should have his own faith and the faith of his parents also.

This is the idea behind the words א-להינו וא-להי אבותינו, we believe in “our own God” who is also “the God of our ancestors.”

The great grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov was the renowned Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Rabbi Nachman was a prolific writer and teacher. In my lifetime I have seen the teachings of  Rabbi Nachman attract thousands of students and adherents. Rabbi Nachman disagreed vehemently with the idea taught in the ליוטים יקרים. Rabbi Nachman says that there is no place at all for speculation and study in the context of belief. He says that the foundation of belief is what we received from our ancestors. There is no need at all for speculation and study which damages faith.

When Chasidut is attacked as being “anti-intellectual” and of fostering ignorance it may be that these attacks are based on statements by leaders like Rabbi Nachman who wrote this:

גם מחכמות שיש בעבודת ה’ בעצמו, צריך להרחיק מאד. כי כל אלו החכמות של העולם, שיש להנכנסין ומתחילין קצת בעבודת ה’, אינם חכמות כלל, והם רק דמיונות ושטותים ובלבולים גדולים.

Instead of seeking Hashem via study we need to serve Hashem with simplicity. The idea of serving Hashem by studying His existence is absurd since Hashem is beyond our comprehension:

ובאמת, אחר כל החכמות, אפי’ מי שיודע חכמות באמת, אחר כל החכמות, צריך להשליך כל החכמות, ולעבוד את ה’ בתמימות בפשיטות גמור בלי שום חכמות. וזה היא החכמה הגדולה שבכל החכמות, לבלי להיות חכם כלל. כי באמת אין חכם בעולם כלל, ואין חכמה ואין תבונה נגדו ית’, והעיקר הוא, כי רחמנא לבא בעי (סנהדרין קו ע”ב, זוהר תצא רפא ע”ב):

We also what Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen wrote about אמונה.  On the first day of the shiurim we saw that the mitzvah of Emunah is learned from the opening verse of theTen Commandments, “אנכי ה’ א-להיך…” Rabbi Tzadok  (following the medieval commentators who explored this issue) writes that the mitzvah of Emunah was not written as an explicit command because Hashem cannot command us to believe but he introduces a fascinating insight. Hashem cannot command us to do what we cannot achieve. As Rabbi Tzadok explains, the mitzvah of Emunah is a mitzvah never to forget, but forgetfulness is a human trait. So Hashem gave us the mitzvah of Emunah by telling us of His existence.  Rabbi Tzadok adds that to help us to fulfil the mitzvah Hashem is constantly sending us reminders of His existence. All that we need to do is to remain alert to His signals. As an example of this alertness he mentions a story of the renowned tzadik, Rabbi Zusha of Annipoli. Rabbi Zusha was once walking down a road and he saw a peasant standing by an overturned cart full of hay. The peasant asked Rabbi Zusha to help him to lift the cart and Rabbi Zusha who was very frail replied that he can’t. The peasant replied, “You can but you don’t want to.” Rabbi Zusha who lived with a constant awareness of Hashem understood that this encounter with the peasant was not random, it was meant to teach him a lesson. Rabbi Zusha said that he learned that it truly is within his power to lift up the Name of Hashem in this world but he really does not wish to take on the job.

This is a summary of yesterday’s class. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Stuart Fischman



May 13, 2018 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah: Lesson 4
Class description

Hello Everyone,

In yesterday’s shiur we discussed one of the most fascinating ideas that were taught by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov zt”l.[1] The idea is the “חלל הפנוי”  – the “empty space.”

What is the “empty space” and what does it have to do with our subject which is “faith”?

In order to understand the “empty space” we need to understand Rabbi Nachman’s view of the process of creation.

The Kabbalists ( and Rabbi Nachman was a Kabbalist) strove to construct a theory which could explain to the extent that is humanly possible how Hashem who is Infinite and absolutely not-corporeal created a material world. They wanted to explain how our world could exist alongside a God who is Infinite. Why isn’t our world consumed or swept away by Hashem’s Infinitude? The Kabbalists arrived at the conclusion כביכול left a space in the cosmos empty כביכול of His Presence. It is in this “empty space” that He created the world.

Faith, אמונה, according to Rabbi Nachman must be “simple.” We learned last week that Rabbi Nachman derided all philosophical speculation as unnecessary at best and as dangerous at worst. Speculation about Hashem and the nature of the world leads to heresy, אפיקורסות. There is a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot which discusses heresy and Rabbi Nachman quotes it in this discussion of the “empty space”:

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ב

משנה יד

רבי אלעזר אומר הוי שקוד ללמוד תורה ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס


From this Mishnah it seems that people who been influenced by “alien studies”[2] can be brought back to the Torah. The reason that this is possible is that even within “alien  studies” holiness can be found. The reason for this is again to be found in the Kabbalistic theory of the creation. When Hashem created the world ( which exists in the “empty space”) “sparks of light” were scattered about. These “sparks of light” attached themselves to various objects and even ideas. When a person engages in “alien studies” he will in all likelihood be led away from the Torah. However should this person wish to return to Hashem he can find Hashem since even within those alien studies there are sparks of light left over from the creation.

But there is another sort of heresy. There is a heresy which has absolutely no innate holiness. This is the heresy which is produced in the “empty space.”  “Alien studies,” as misleading as they may be have some holiness from the “sparks” and some worth. However the “alien studies” of the “empty space” are what we would label “empty sophistry.” They arise in the “empty space” which is empty of the “holy sparks.” These  ideas have the appearance of knowledge since they raise questions which confound most people, but really the questions that they raise are nonsensical. People who allow themselves to be influenced by the “alien studies” of the “empty space” will never return to Judaism. The reason for this is that since their questions are actually nonsensical there are no cogent, rational arguments that can refute them.These questions have no answers is because their source lies in the “empty space” which is empty כביכול of Hashem’s presence.

The threat of falling under the influence of this sort of thought is what drives Rabbi Nachman to extol the virtues of simple faith. The people who embrace unsophisticated and unquestioning faith will never be tempted to indulge in theological speculation. Those who have simple faith know that Hashem is both Transcendant and Immanent. Therefore the “empty space” is surrounded on both sides by Hashem’s presence. This faith is enough to protect the believers from being tempted to ask the questions of “empty space” philosophers.

The only hope for those have fallen into the trap of the heresies of the “empty space” is that they will be elevated by a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe Rabbeinu was not a speaker by nature, he protested to Hashem that he was כבד פה. The Kabbalists see great significance in Moses’s lack of speech. Hashem created the world by “speaking.”[3] Our world is a world of “speech.” But there is a higher realm and that is the realm of silence. The Gemarah says that when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai he was shown Rabbi Akiva. Moshe was shown Rabbi Akiva teaching and he was also shown Rabbi Akiva being killed as martyr by the Romans. When Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem if this truly the reward of those who dedicate themselves to the Torah, Hashem repled,  “Silence- so it has arisen in My thoughts.” We see then that there is a realm where there are questions that are only answered by silence. Moshe Rabbeinu who lacked the ability of easy speech could grasp the idea that silence is an entire realm which is beyond speech.

It follows from this that all the self-styled wisdom of the “empty space” cannot be rebutted by speech. All that can be done to remedy its harm is to have tzadikim who understand the worth of silence to contemplate its issues silently. The silent contemplation of the tzadikim can redeem those who fell victim to its ideas.[4]

This is a summary of yesterday’s shiur. I do not claim to understand Rabbi Nachman’s teachings in any depth but I am happy to share this text with you.

Next week is Shavuot and maybe we can study this text in our communities.

All the best

Stuart Fischman


[1] I mentioned that there has been an absolutely amazing transformation in the broader Jewish community’s attitude to Rabbi Nachman and Breslover Chasidut.. In my youth Breslover Chasidim were viewed with a mixture of amusement and derision. They were called “Toiter Chasidim”- “Dead Chasidim” because their Rebbe died and no new Rebbe was appointed. Breslover Chasidim would hand out free booklets in kosher restaurants in New York but I don’t remember anyone actually reading them. Now of course thousands of people study the writings of Rabbi Nachman which  contain remarkably novel and exciting ideas.

[2] =חכמות חיצוניות

[3] The Torah details the creation as a series of utterances of Hashem.

[4] I would like to add a note here. It has been my experience that many people who write against Judaism quote ‘authorities” and as Rabbi Nachman knew from his own encounters with non-believers debates do not change their positions. However many of these people do return to Judaism when they allow themselves to experience Judaism, not in a debate but as something joyful.

Moshe Rabbeinu was the most humble of people. Perhaps Rabbi Nachman is teaching us that we should not be so arrogant as to think that we have all the answers.

The idea that there is a space in creation where speech fails may also help us to deal with absolute evil such as the Holocaust.

May 27, 2018 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Chasidic Masters Series: Emunah: Lesson 5
Class description

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman graduated from Yeshiva University in 1980 and the dental school of Columbia University in 1985. In 1989 he began studying and teaching at Yeshivat Hamivtar and now studies and teaches at Yeshivat Machanaim in Efrat. He has rabbinic ordination from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.