Much has been written in recent times on Jewish mysticism – particularly on Chassidism, and even more particularly on Chabad (Lubavitch) chassidus. Classic Chabad texts have been translated and various books about the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and Chabad ideology have been published. However, a new book by Rabbi Chaim Dalphin, a distinguished Chabad scholar, breaks new ground in explaining Chabad to outsiders, and perhaps even to some Lubavitchers too.
The book, LubavitchSpeak: A Dictionary of Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidism: Words, Sayings and Colloquialisms, introduces the reader to the particular terminology and lexicon of Chabad chassidus. In essence, what Rabbi Dalfin does is introduce the reader to the “Torah she’baal peh” of Chabad – traditions reflecting 150 years of Chabad history in White Russia and Northern Ukraine. At first glance, LubavitchSpeak seems to be an unnecessary work since one can presumably just open a Hebrew or Yiddish dictionary to understand most of the entries in this book.
However, Rabbi Dalfin does more than translate. He places these words and expressions in their Lubavitch context and explains how Chabad uses them and why. In the process we learn much about Chabad philosophy and history. For example, in the contemporary Orthodox world “maskil” ordinarily refers to a “free thinker.”
Yet, in Chabad circles, it refers to a chasid who places emphasis on the study of Chabad texts rather than prayer and devotional activities. No other chassidic movement uses this word in that manner. In the course of LubavitchSpeak, one encounters many legendary 20th Century Chabad chassidim such as Reb Mendel Futterfass, Rabbi Yuda Eber, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin and other lesser-knowns, like my cousin Reb Dovid Skolnik.
The common denominator between them is their role as oral carriers of Chabad teachings. Aside from the information one gains from this book, LubavitchSpeak is a particularly important work because it acts as a corrective to the many recently published works that describe Lubavitch and Chabad in New Age terminology. In these books, Chabad comes across as a movement devoted to Eastern type meditation, liberal spiritual values, and an ideology of “anything goes” with a stress on love and unity.
Alternatively, it is portrayed as a philosophy obsessed with dibbukim, reincarnation, and practical Kabbalah. Both these depictions are gross distortions. Chabad does indeed possess its own unique take on spirituality. But the fi rst Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was not interested in teaching Zohar or practical Kabbalah to his followers. Rather, he formulated a unique system of rational Jewish mysticism.
Furthermore, Chabad demands serious effort and maintains core values and beliefs. Love and unity are only starting points for Chabad, which demands study of Jewish texts, serious prayer, and devotion to the Rebbe. Miracles were not, and are not, what Chabad is all about. Chabad did not develop in India or Berkley but in Russia, in places like Nevel (which is an entry in the book), Kremenchug, and Lubavitch.
Lubavitch has no relationship with yoga, Eastern religions, and feel-good, instant-gratifi cation spiritual movements. Chabad is based on Torah and mitzvos and knowledge of the Creator. Even song and dance in Chabad are not designed to make devotees “feel good,” but to raise their spiritual consciousness.
In LubavitchSpeak, as opposed to so many other works, one learns about the real Chabad. Written by a scholarly insider with an attention to detail, this book is one I would strongly recommend to anyone with an interest in Chabad’s unique heritage. Zalman Alpert is a reference librarian at Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library of Judaica.