Question: [Wednesday, 10th Shevat, 5782]
One of the questions I’ve always had on Chasidim [and I guess today also against some in the Litvish world who have today adapted to this position regarding their own rabbis and leaders], is what seems to be obsessive feelings and emotions that they have for their Rebbe and leader. One’s Rebbe is meant to be one’s spiritual leader who gives one guidance in study of Torah, Hashkafah, Jewish law, and service of G-d. One is certainly required according to Torah to honor and respect his Rebbe, however, what sources are there in Torah for one to be obsessed over his Rebbe, and have greater devotion and love for him then what many even have for their own parents? I’m not aware of any mitzvah to love one’s Rebbe, but simply to fear him and honor him and learn from him.
Indeed, although many may be unaware, there are clear sources in the Talmud and Rishonim which speak of the absolute obligation for one to love Torah scholars [see explanation and sources below], and simply honoring them and fearing them and hearing what they have to say, does not suffice. The Hasidic teachings, starting with the Torah’s of the Baal Shem Tov, took this Torah obligation [that somehow became forgotten over the generations], and revived it amongst their students. Baruch Hashem, we see how this Torah based Chassidic philosophy has now become the inheritance of all the Jewish people, each with their spiritual leaders.
Aside for the arousing of love for one’s Rebbe fulfilling a Biblical command in the Torah, as explained below, it also creates a connection between the student and teacher that is above and beyond the realm of intellect and his teachings, and draws from the holiness of the soul of the teacher to the soul of the student, as explained in Tanya and other sources.
To quote from the letter of the Rebbe Rayatz, “True Hiskashrus/connection is accomplished through learning the Mamarim and Kuntreisim, participating in Chassidic gatherings, and arousing love [for the Rebbe]. It is the custom of Chassidim that are connected [to the Rebbe], in each generation, to set designated times to arouse feelings of love for their master and teacher. Some would set a designated time of one hour per day, others one time a week or every two weeks, or once a month. They would arouse a real and true love in their heart similar to the physical love one has for his wife and children.”
Explanation: Indeed, this was one of the famous and original questions that the opponents had against the Chassidim and the Chassidic movement, claiming that the strong emotions that they share for their Rebbe seems to be misplaced. It is very interesting to note, as you write, that in today’s times most sects have adapted to this position regarding their own leaders, such as Sephardim regarding their late leader Rav Ovadia Yosef Zatzal, and Litvish Jewry regarding their leader Rav Chaim Kanievsky Shlita, and the like, each group with their leader. This is certainly true today of Chassidim regarding their Rebbe, as was true in previous generations of the relationship between Rebbe and Chassid.
The answer to the question of whether there is a source in Torah for such behavior is yes, as we do find sources in Torah which not only promote but actually obligate the developing of emotions of love towards one’s Rebbe. So is written in the Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 434, “We are commanded to attach and cleave to the scholars of Torah in order so we learn with them the commands of G-d, and they show us the proper perspectives that one should have. On this the verse commands us, “Ubo Sidbak,” and this command is repeated elsewhere where it states “Ulidavka Bo.” Now, our sages have stated that being that is not truly possible for one to attach to the divine presence being that it is a consuming fire, therefore the true intent of the verse and command is for one to attach to the Torah scholars and their students, and that when one does so it is considered as if he’s attached to Hashem Himself… One is considered to transgress this command if he does not attach to the Torah scholars and does not set in his heart love for them, and does not place effort in times that one is able to.”
The source of the statement of the Sefer Hachinuch is seemingly from the Gemara in Kesubos which states that one fulfills the command of “And to Him you shall attach” by trying to marry the daughter of a Talmid Chacham, and to marry off his daughter to a Talmid Chacham, and to eat and drink with Talmidei Chachamim and to do business with Talmidei Chachamim, which are all actions of expression of love. Likewise, the Tana Divei Eliyahu Raba 28, states, “just as G-d loves the Jewish people and loves even more the Torah scholars so too every person shall love the Jewish people and love the Torah scholars even more.”
So can also be implied from the Gemara in Pesachim 22b which states that Rebbe Akiva stated that the extra word Es in the verse regarding fearing G-d comes to include Torah scholars, and the Maharshal ibid and Maharil 1 explains that the same applies regarding the command of loving G-d that the extra word Es [i.e. Veahavat Es Hashem Elokecha] comes to include Torah scholars that one is obligated likewise to love them. So likewise writes the Semak in Mitzvah 4 that the mitzvah to love and fear G-d also includes Torah scholars. According to this, there is an actual biblical obligation to love Torah scholars as there is an obligation to love G-d! There are many more sources in Nigleh that also point to this idea of loving one’s Rebbe, but the above will suffice for now.
As for the purpose and function of this love, the Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya that the relationship between a teacher and his student is far beyond the intellectual teachings and directives that the Rebbe shares with his students, as there exists a subconscious soul connection between them, in which the Rebbe provides the soul of the student with holy thoughts and feelings of divine spiritual service such as love and fear of G-d, and repentance. The Alter Rebbe states that this subconscious soul connection between teacher and student is not automatic but is dependent on the connection that each student has with his Rebbe and the closeness that he shares with him both while he was alive and after his death, “with great love, as the drawing down of all spiritual matters is only through great love as stated in the Zohar.” Thus, we see that it is the emotions of love that is developed between student and teacher that is responsible for the subconscious soul connection between them. This idea of a subconscious spiritual connection between Rebbe and student which is beyond intellect, is actually already recorded in Rishonim and Poskim.
Thus, to summarize, the practice of Chassidim to establish a real and true love for their Rebbe is Torah based, fulfills a positive command in the Torah of Ubo Sidbak, and is necessary for them to receive the true influence from their Rebbe in spiritual matters, and simply learning the Rebbe’s words and Torah’s, and honoring and respecting him, does not suffice.
Together with the above, I must state that although we are commanded to love the Torah scholar, the love should not be blind and unhealthy in a way that even if we see our teacher transgressing Torah law we remain complacent and let it pass, and at times even do it ourselves. The Talmud and Poskim discuss the scenario in which one’s Rabbi is witnessed to have transgressed a Torah law and directs us as to how one is to behave, and as to how one is to question and reprove his Rabbi. Unfortunately, the misplaced blind faith that some have towards their teacher and spiritual leader has led to followers being complacent to clear transgressions of their teacher, especially in the field of modesty with women. Now, while in the vast majority of cases renowned spiritual leaders are indeed righteous and would never transgress any law, and have never been witnessed to do so, and the absolute faith their followers have in them is justified, there have been a minority of cases in which the leader uses the blind faith of his followers to take advantage of them and commit both criminal and Halachic transgressions. The guideline for the followers to know whether a certain questionable matter of their teacher is legit is to see if it follows the Shulchan Aruch, as not only does a spiritual teacher need to follow Shulchan Aruch, but that is what merits him his stature, and no one, even him may break its rules without true Halachic and Torah justification.
Sources: See Igros Kodesh Admur Rayatz letter 1805 p. 353; Tanya Igeres Hakodesh 27; Hayom Yom 26th Shevat; Shevet Hamussar chapter 39; Drashos Haran Derush Shemini; Shut Radbaz 1 3:472; Noda Beyehuda Tinyana 94; See regarding the sources in Nigleh for the obligation of loving Torah scholars and one’s Rebbe: Kesubos 111b; Pesachim 22b; Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 434; Tana Divei Eliyahu Raba 28; Maharshal Pesachim ibid; Maharil 1; Semak Mitzvah 4