One of the questions Chabad educators and chasidic mentors grapple with is whether, and to what extent, we should be teaching young students the Chabad practice of extended, introspective prayer, while reflecting on the teachings of Chasidut. Prayer in this manner is understood to be a critical part of a person’s “inner service” – for developing a love and awe of G-d, for internalizing concepts like divine unity, and for refining one’s character.
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There are those who claim that today’s students should be receiving precisely the same education as they did in the days of the Rebbe Rashab. After founding the Tomchei Temimim yeshivah network in 1897 as the fifth Chabad Rebbe, he trained the students there to devote themselves to the discipline of prayer, and even wrote a pair of treatises with detailed guidance on the matter. Others contend that declining spiritual standards mean that our generation is no longer suited to this kind of prayer. Furthermore, the Rebbe was not commonly known to focus on the subject and so they surmise that there is no need for chasidic educators to emphasize the art of prayer.
When I traveled to the Rebbe shortly before the High Holidays of 1966, this debate was raging. So I decided to put the question to the Rebbe.
That year, I had taught a group of gifted, teenaged students who excelled in nigleh, that is in their Talmudic and Halachic studies. Occasionally, I would also speak with them about prayer, and many of them indeed began to engage more deeply in the “service of the heart,” as it is called. In the note I wrote for the Rebbe before my audience, I explained my ambivalence: Some of the students who became more involved in this form of prayer were not sufficiently serious about it, and over time, their newfound interest waned. Meanwhile, they had also become somewhat distracted from their regular Talmudic studies, which meant that they were left without being fully invested in either discipline. And so I asked, “Maybe at their age, we shouldn’t be speaking with them about prayer?”
The Rebbe’s answer was decisive: “A Tomchei Temimim yeshivah without inner service – this cannot be!” He referred me to the Rebbe Rashab’s treatises on prayer, and then added: “Now, even though their regular studies can detract from this, one must see to it that they do not contradict each other.” He went to list all the days on which the yeshivah schedule allowed students to devote more time to their prayers, like when they are on vacation, or Fridays, Shabbat, and holidays. “Also Mondays and Thursdays,” he added, referring to the two weekdays on which the Torah is read during the morning service, making prayers slightly longer – and then, with a little smile, “In general, whenever one feels the need for prayer, he can spend some more time on it.”
From his impassioned tone, it was clear that the Rebbe strongly wanted the students to pray earnestly and for their educators to prepare them accordingly.
In a later audience in the early seventies, the Rebbe spoke quite sharply about the state of affairs in our yeshivah, demanding why the students didn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm and passion for learning Torah as they have in certain other yeshivot.
I tried to suggest that other places support learning Torah even for ulterior motives – such as becoming a respected scholar, or the head of a yeshivah – which can account for that kind of excitement. For those who have had a chasidic education, however, one is expected to learn in order to connect with G-d, and not for any personal gain.
“Let your boys learn for ulterior motives, as well!” answered the Rebbe, before explaining: “I don’t mean like in other circles. A ‘chasidic ulterior motive’ means that in the summer, when a student travels to a distant community to promote Judaism, the first thing he does on arriving there is to meet with the local rabbi. If he has been learning properly all year, he’ll be able to discuss his studies with the rabbi and make an impression on him. Once the rabbi is suitably impressed, he’ll help the student achieve his goal of reaching the Jews in the city!”
“Our students have to be able to discuss the Shaagas Aryeh,” he said, referring to a famous scholarly tome, and then he listed a few such others. “If not, then not only will it get in the way of spreading the wellsprings of the Torah, but they will also be desecrating G-d’s name, and defaming every Rebbe beginning with the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezritch, and the Alter Rebbe and until my father-in-law, the [Previous] Rebbe!”
Finally, he added, students keen on the intellectual aspects of chasidic teachings, must understand that “if they don’t learn nigleh properly, they will be incapable of truly grasping the intellectualism of chasidut. If this is instilled in the students, they will be excited to study nigleh.”
In those years, visitors who came to spend the month of Tishrei with the Rebbe would be able to meet with him twice: once around Rosh Hashanah, and then again before traveling home after the holidays. In my second audience, I asked a follow-up question: Since my students were very attached to the Rebbe, I wondered whether I could tell them that this bond was dependent on them fulfilling the things the Rebbe had told me regarding Torah study.
“What is hitkashrut – connection?” he asked, and then, answering his own question, he explained: “Part of maintaining a connection with someone means respecting their wishes. So, you can tell them that this is what I truly want; it is a powerful, essential, innermost wish.”
Rabbi Meir Tzvi Gruzman was one of the first lecturers in the Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Lod, Israel, and went on to serve as one of the heads of Tomchei Temimim in Kfar Chabad for nearly fifty years. He was interviewed in his home in November 2011.