Response: R. Ashlag’s Legacy

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R. Yehudah Leib Ashlag

R. Yehudah Leib Ashlag

The recent appearance in TRADITION of a review of two books by and about Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag, the Baal HaSulam, is a welcome opportunity to bring his writing and teaching to the deserved attention of your readership. The first book, Giving: The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah, is my translation of essays by R. Ashlag, together with selections from R. Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb’s commentary. The second, The Master of the Ladder, is Yedidah Cohen’s translation of R. Gottlieb’s biography of R. Ashlag, together with some brief writings of R. Ashlag himself. I appreciate that these works were featured in TRADITION, and the recommendation that these two books present the “perfect combination… to commence the study of Ashlagian Kabbalah.” Nevertheless, I was disappointed and concerned that certain distortions in the presentation could unfairly taint the legacy of R. Ashlag.

There were two misleading elements in the review. First, contrary to the statements of your reviewer, R. Dr. Zvi Leshem, neither R. Ashlag nor any of those I consider his authentic followers claim that his path is the “only legitimate one” in Jewish mysticism. Secondly, R. Ashlag was extremely well-appreciated by many great rabbinic figures despite a few specific disagreements and misunderstandings, recounted by Leshem, which unfortunately have had an exaggerated influence on the way R. Ashlag is perceived in the eyes of many.

R. Ashlag showed systematically how the Kabbalah teaches the inner meaning of Torah and mitzvot in order to reveal their connection to the refining of our souls. He did this by way of his voluminous writings, which included his translation and commentary on the Zohar, as well as his editing and commentary on the writings of the Arizal. These systematic commentaries explained word by word how the Kabbalah provides a guide to our inner refinement. This was the unique contribution of R. Ashlag.

Hazal state that even if we keep the Torah for personal benefit (lo lishmah), we can eventually come to keep the Torah only from devotion to God (lishmah). However, R. Ashlag taught that this is possible only if we intend to purify our devotion. Pure devotion does not come automatically. Therefore R. Ashlag believed that there was limited value in the study of the Torah (even with great erudition and even the Kabbalah) and the performance of mitzvot (even with exacting carefulness) without the intention of refinement of character. There is great value in all Torah and in all the various schools and their differing approaches to Torah, but only when there is intention that the Torah will prepare us to connect to the Giver of the Torah. R. Ashlag considered any approach to be “illegitimate” if it lacks the intention to refine our self-interested inclination. This is the only claim regarding a legitimate path. He freely admitted that purification of the soul can be attained by other paths within Torah. And even learning the writings of R. Ashlag would be an illegitimate approach if done with selfish intention.

It can be added that R. Ashlag’s followers learn from other Hasidic courts and study all the classic avenues of Torah. The students in R. Ashlag’s original habura were also connected to the leaders of Satmar and Slonim. One of the closest disciples of R. Ashlag, R. Yehudah Tzvi Brandwein, was himself the Admor of Stratin. There is no support for Leshem’s claim that followers of R. Ashlag purport “to have all the answers ready for any question.” R. Ashlag does delineate a detailed philosophical framework, but this is no different from many other Jewish thinkers who detailed such philosophical frameworks. While an understanding of the inner meaning of the Torah does provide answers to many questions that cannot be answered on the basis of the Torah’s plain meaning alone; still, no one would deny the existence of questions that require further thought.

In order to correct the second misleading element, that R. Ashlag lacked acceptance by rabbinic authorities, there are two factors that need to be addressed. The first one is the story of R. Ashlag’s disappointment with the Kabbalists that he encountered at Yeshivat Bet El, which gave rise to his scathing criticism of them. R. Ashlag’s disappointment was due to his above-mentioned belief that there is limited value in unreflective Torah study, and especially the learning of Kabbalah. In his letters,1R. Ashlag explained that R. Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash) of course understood the inner meaning of the Kabbalah, and R. Ashlag quoted from R. Sharabi in several of his writings.2As stated, R. Ashlag had a different impression of these students of Rashash in Yeshivat Bet El at that time. Nonetheless, R. Ashlag was on friendly terms with the head of the yeshiva, R. Massud El-Hadad Hacohen.3Most importantly, we note that this unfortunate encounter took place almost 100 years ago, and has no relevance whatsoever to the relationship between the different schools today.

In general, yeshivot Kabbalah tend to focus on their familiar curricula. Nonetheless, they do acknowledge the greatness of masters of Kabbalah whose works they are not accustomed to study, including R. Ashlag (even, today, in Yeshivat Bet El). Each approach has its idiosyncratic terminology, and that is especially true with regard to R. Ashlag’s writings. However, there is no reason not to learn his approach along with others, if one has the intellectual ability and time to devote to this complex material. Thus, there is no basis for Leshem’s claim: “For R. Ashlag’s disciples, he is not only a master Kabbalist and spiritual teacher, but, in fact, the only one for our generation.” No authentic disciple of Ashlag would think such a thing. The only exclusiveness is the uncompromising demand to be guided by the inner meaning of Torah and mitzvot to acquire the divine-like character of giving without interest in any reward. The Kabbalah is particularly suited to teaching inner meaning, and R. Ashlag developed an approach that reveals that meaning. However, all other approaches to inner meaning of Torah and mitzvot are worthy of study, and the inner meaning cannot be studied in dissociation from the other aspects of Torah.

There is an important second source for the mistaken belief that there is rabbinic criticism of R. Ashlag. It may be related to Leshem’s statement that the “Ashlagian story really begins after his death.” Following his passing in 1954, some of R. Ashlag’s students used his teachings in a way that was completely contrary to his intention. The inner meaning of Torah and mitzvot connects us to the Giver of the Torah. This is what enables a gradual transformation of our character from being self-interested to being selflessly altruistic. R. Ashlag saw Kabbalah as one inseparable aspect of the multifaceted Torah, not a separate source of wisdom that can be studied while divorced from Torah as a whole. In short, there is no way to follow the authentic path of R. Ashlag without a commitment to mitzva observance.

Yet, centers of Kabbalah have used R. Ashlag’s writings in an inauthentic way that would surely give much grief to R. Ashlag. They have created a vast enterprise with many followers throughout the world. This of course has besmirched the name of R. Ashlag in the Jewish world. How unfortunate that this has prevented some people from giving a fair evaluation of the authentic teachings of R. Ashlag! (I should note, contrary to what Leshem reports in the name of R. Shlomo Twersky, R. Yoel of Satmar did study R. Ashlag’s commentary on the Zohar, and was well-versed in R. Ashlag’s approach to the service of God.4)

There is a long list of leading rabbinic figures who have expressed extraordinary admiration for R. Ashlag. The praise given by four of them is recorded in chapter 11 of The Master of the Ladder: R. Yisrael Alter of Gur, Hazon Ish, Rav Kook, and R. Aharon Levy Friedman (R. Leib Tzaddik). This is in addition to many other gedolim who expressed the highest esteem for R. Ashlag and his tecahings. Among them, R. Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld R. Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky, R. Eliyahu Lopian, and others. R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson wrote that R. Ashlag’s instructive commentaries on the Arizal and the Zohar constitute matter for deep thought which opens the learner’s eye to the inner meaning of Torah.5Finally, special mention should be given to R. Eliyahu Dessler, who regularly studied the commentary of R. Ashlag to the Zohar. R. Dessler’s Kunteres HaHessed (published in his Mikhtav me-Eliyahu) is primarily a restatement of R. Ashlag’s philosophy regarding the necessity to give and not to take.

The main purpose of both The Master of the Ladder and Giving: The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah is to inspire us to undertake a journey on the path to devekut by means of learning the inner meaning of the Kabbalah of the Arizal and the Zohar. This is the essence of R. Ashlag’s approach to Kabbalah. It is a unique approach that should be recognized for its potent ability to connect us with the Creator.

The Master of the Ladder provides a wealth of authentic anecdotes and writings of R. Ashlag, providing a rare glimpse into the inner world of a holy master of the ladder to higher worlds. In Giving: The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah, R. Ashlag gives an original explanation of the centrality of the mitzva of loving others as we love ourselves, and how this forms the foundation of an ideal society. A cardinal feature of Giving is the commentary of R. Gottlieb – the Admor of the Ashlag community centered in Telzstone – which provides a definitive guide for the practical application of R. Ashlag’s general directives. We gratefully concur with Zvi Leshem’s recommendation to read these two books together, and we encourage readers to view them as an inspiring introduction to the path paved for us by R. Ashlag.

Aryeh Siegel, Ph.D., is an independent lecturer, writer, and translator on philosophy, Kabbalah, and logotherapy.

[Published on November 18, 2020]

  1. Igrot HaSulam, #47.
  2. For example, R. Ashlag quotes Rashash in Talmud Eser HaSefirot, section 7:27.
  3. Igrot HaSulam, #46.
  4. R. Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb, email correspondence with Aryeh Siegel (October 18, 2020). R. Gottlieb related the testimony of his rebbe, R. Baruch Shalom Ashlag, who discussed at length the teachings of his father in his meeting with R. Yoel.
  5. Quoted in R. Yitzhak ben Zikhri, Siah Yitzhak, p. 183.

2 Comments

  1. Yedidah Cohen says:

    Thank you for this elucidating critique of Rabbi Dr. Zvi LeShem’s review of Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Gottleib’s works on the life and teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag z”tzl. by Aryeh Siegel. I also found myself disturbed by the distortions in Leshem’s review that Siegel has dealt with so aptly. I find it unfortunate that while Leshem focused on opposition and contention, he failed to describe the great contribution that Rabbi Ashlag made in elucidating the reasons why we keep Torah and mitzvot, the importance of our relationships between ourselves and others as bringing us to dvekut, and the great contribution that Rabbi Ashlag made in illuminating for us the Torah of the Ari, and the Zohar as described in Giving and The Master of the Ladder. Rabbi Ashlag’s works were welcomed by the great Torah sages of his own generation as mentioned above. It would have been preferable, in my opinion, for Leshem to have emphasized the true legacy of Rabbi Ashlag, rather than focus attention on centers that do not see Kabbalah in its true context; that is as an integral part of the Torah shel baal peh.

  2. Yisrael Herczeg says:

    Yasher koach, Dr. Siegel, for an excellent translation of a book that should become a classic.

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