Flames of Faith: A Review of an Introduction to Chassidic Thought for the American Jew
I – Introduction
There is a Hassidic story in which the founder of the Hassidic movement, Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, met the Messiah and asked when he would come. The Messiah responded, “when your wellsprings (the teachings of Hassidut) spread outward [to educate and inspire the rest of the world].” This charge to spread the teachings of Hassidic thought has been accepted by many, especially Lubavitch Hassidim, as a directive to inspire Jews throughout the world. However, a wellspring is merely a source of sustenance. What grows will depend upon what is planted. This analogy holds true for how Hassidic teachings are used and presented to teach others. Aspects that are stressed or resonate in certain ages and locations may not in others.
This is the phenomenon that yielded Rabbi Zev Reichman’s Flames of Faith: An Introduction to Chasidic Thought. Published in 2014 by Kodesh Press, the book is based on a lecture series by Rabbi Moshe Wolfson and serves, in its own words, as “an introduction to the basic terms and ideas of Chasidic texts…for the interested lay reader who may be new…to the world of Chasidus.” At first glance, this is a succinct self-description of the work’s content and purpose, but it does not do justice to the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual dynamics that Flames of Faith derived from and promotes.
II – A Variety of Influences
In a way, the book, author, and lecturer whose classes it is based upon are what some may consider to be chimerical entities, syntheses of varied backgrounds that were once considered inherently distinct and irreconcilable. According to his biography, Rabbi Zev Reichman is the director of the Mechina Program at Yeshiva University, considered by many to be the educational flagship of American Modern Orthodox Judaism, as well as the rabbi of the East Hill synagogue in Englewood, New Jersey. Before being ordained by RIETS (Yeshiva University’s affiliate yeshiva and rabbinical school, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary), he studied in Yeshivas Chevron, an elite Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Israel. While it is not unheard of for the educational background of a rabbi in Yeshiva University to straddle the Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox worlds, Rabbi Reichman also developed a relationship with Rabbi Moshe Wolfson of Boro Park in Brooklyn.
Rabbi Moshe Wolfson himself also has a varied, albeit different, background. Serving as the Mashgiach (spiritual guidance counselor) of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, he is a paradigm of the yeshiva itself. Brought to prominence by the famed Jewish education pioneer Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz in 1921, Torah Vodaath evolved throughout the decades, but was designed to educate the American Jew by creating an environment that was conducive for the contemporary school child to grow in educational and emotional connection to Judaism. As such, Rabbi Mendlowitz sought to combine the Lithuanian Torah study with the warmth of Polish hassidut to create an American Jew.  In that vein, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson was a follower of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson) and therefore received a significant education in Lubavitch Hassidic philosophy. However, his role in the yeshiva morphed into one of a general Hassidic background. As students grew older and continued to seek his guidance and inspiration, a synagogue was founded, known as Emunas Yisrael, at which he became the de-facto rabbi. Teaching hassidut, leading a shul, and offering guidance and support, Rabbi Wolfson evolved into a Hassidic rebbe in his own right (though he modestly insists on only being referred to by his institutional title, mashgiach). Thus, he is a microcosm of Torah Vodaath, the melding of different backgrounds to create a new path, forged from the untainted traditions of old, to practically inspire and guide a new generation of American Jews. As such, much of the Hassidic philosophy that he shares is often sourced in Lubavitch teachings but is supplemented or presented through the lens of general Hassidic thought and homiletics.
III – Structure and Content
The same can be said for Rabbi Reichman’s book. The title, Flames of Faith: An Introduction to Chasidic Thought, connotes a pathos-based work delineating the fundamentals of general Hassidic thought. However, the book as a whole is organized around the opening chapters of the famous Lubavitch work written by the founder of Lubavitch Hassidut, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Sefer Likkutei Amarim, known colloquially as Tanya. Indeed, in his approbation, Rabbi Wolfson notes that explicitly. Yet, much like Rabbi Wolfson himself, the lectures adapted into the book explicitly and implicitly evince both philosophical and content-based influences from other Hassidic and non-Hassidic groups.
For example, the first chapter is titled “The Commitment at Birth” and examines the Talmudic passage that the Tanya opens with. The Talmud states that when a soul is about to leave its mother’s womb, the angel which taught the soul Torah makes it swear an oath: “I will be a tzaddik (righteous man). I will never take pride for virtue even if the whole world calls me a saint. In my eyes I will remain like a wicked man.” In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe asks that this passage appears to contradict other Talmudic statements and dictums. Rabbi Reichman, however, proceeds to first analyze the concept of a vow and its applicability and efficacy vis-a-vi an unborn, pure soul. He explains that an oath is both compulsion and empowerment, imbuing the oath-taker with the capability and fortitude to fulfill the oath. While this is an idea that is explained by the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Reichman instead quotes the book Ohr Gedaliahu, the seminal work of Torah Vodaath Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr, and the Sefat Emet.
Although in this instance there is little discrepancy between the purely Lubavitch commentary and others, Rabbi Reichman then digresses to Chapter 2 which discusses the sanctity of Shabbat. The connection between the two chapters is the number seven, symbolizing the totality of creation. Shabbat is the seventh day of the week. Similarly, the Hebrew word for “week,” shavuah, and by extension, the Hebrew word for “seven,” sheva, are related to the word shevuah, oath. Both entail the utilization of the totality of their respective natural existences. While the topic of Shabbos is certainly significant in Hassidic thought, its connection to the opening chapters of Tanya is tenuous at best. It is however, extremely important in the thought of Rabbi Moshe Wolfson. Such digressions recur in varying size and magnitude throughout the book.
There are also other content related differences. For example, the variety of Hassidic tales that span the gamut of time and sect. Another difference is the usage of gematriot (teaching based on the numerical value of the letters of words in Biblical texts) and word plays. Both of these facets are less used in Chabad thought. Additionally, Rabbi Reichman will sometimes incorporate teachings of the Vilna Gaon, an early opponent of the Hassidic movement, to buttress points.
IV – Summary
It is these very stylistic differences, however, that make the work an introduction to general Hassidic thought. Divided into small, conquerable chapters, Rabbi Reichman distills Rabbi Wolfson’s lectures on Hassidut into English prose that transmit both the content and heart of Hassidic teachings. Using the opening chapters of Tanya as a scaffold, the book elaborates on various themes of Hassidut by explaining and applying kabalistic thought about the nature of God, the soul, creation, and evil to aspects of divine service such as prayer, Torah study, and fulfilling commandments.
The first half of the book (Chapters 1-13) discusses the nature of the soul and its relationship with the physical body, during which he uses these concepts as a springboard to explain the nature and role of the tzaddik, the significance of Shabbat, creation and the ‘cosmic pipeline’ through which God interfaces with creation (tzimtzum), and the love of fellow Jews. More significantly, Rabbi Reichman explains how this knowledge of the soul can be applied to serving God. Because Jews have a nefesh elokit, a soul that is a ‘piece of God,’ as it were, they are instilled with an inherent latent love of God that, when harnessed, can inspire them to overcome any challenge or trial they may face. Thus, to achieve a degree of what Rabbi Reichman calls “tzaddikhood,” transforming the physical into the spiritual (see next paragraph), one must stoke the flames of that hidden love for God to manifest itself in one’s daily life, actions, and performance of mitzvot.
The next chapters explain the nature of evil. Based on verses from the Bible and teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, Rabbi Reichman presents that evil is not an existence onto itself for there is nothing but God. Rather, evil is the concealment of Godliness and connection to God. Thus, it is termed klippah, husk, which conceals the inherent good and Godliness in everything. He continues that there are two general categories of klippot: One type is comprised of klippot that are so strong that the Godliness inside cannot be extracted in the current reality in which the world as a whole does yet recognize God as the true and only ruler. Such klippot manifest themselves as sins that Jews are charged to avoid. The second group, called klippat nogah, is translated as a translucent husk which can allow light to penetrate. This group manifests itself as items and actions that are not inherently prohibited which can be elevated by allowing the Godliness to shine through. This is accomplished by utilizing these klippot for holy purposes (such as actual commandments or for the sake of heaven). The task that Jews are charged with is to elevate the physical world (including themselves) by uncovering and expressing its Godliness thereby making it a dwelling place, as it were for God, by the performance of commandments and doing things for the sake of heaven.
The final chapters elaborate upon a person’s personal development in the struggle to reveal that light within themselves. To achieve a degree of “tzaddikhood.” To that end, he explains how man, created in the image of God, possesses intellectual (mochin) and emotional (middot) faculties that are analogs to the process in which God interfaces with creation and how they can be implemented in one’s daily life. By fulfilling the commandment of following in the path of God by following His traits, Jews are able to fulfill commandment and overcome the struggles in life to grow.
V – Conclusion
While many of the broader themes and particular teachings of Rabbi Reichman’s work are certainly timeless, the synthesis of different sources, as well as the tone and focus of applying the teachings, highlights how Flames of Faith represents a unique genre, speaking to a new and distinct audience. Indeed, this can be observed from Rabbi Reichman’s own description of the book on its back cover:
“The secrets from the inner meaning of Torah form the soul of the Chassidic movement’s thought. They inspire revive and inflame Jewish souls with a passion to constantly increase observance and devotion. For more than two centuries it has inoculated millions against the ravages of secularism and preserved the spiritual life of the Jewish nation. Chassidus emerged as a protection from the storm winds of modernity. Today’s Jewish community might benefit from a new look at the Chasidic movement’s beginnings and reflections. Even those Jews who fulfill their religious obligations frequently perform rituals in a lifeless and superficial way. Were we to discover the depth and soulful vitality that fill Chasidic literature, a renewed passion might flame our faltering Jewish experience with the warmth of Torah.”
This excerpt has the tone of an outsider hoping to glean wisdom to bring back to one’s distinctly different home. As an outsider searching for meaning and inspiration, one has the luxury of drawing from different sources, as well as focusing on particular elements that suit one’s particular needs and interests. In other words, Flames of Faith is a marvelous adaptation and application of the teachings of Hassidut to a distinctly Americanized audience, which the author believes is suffering, like its European ancestors, from a spiritual vacuum wrought by the tumultuous and deleterious waves of modernity. In such a dire state, one must draw from and present whatever that demographic group needs as a panacea for spiritual apathy. Thus, it is the voice of Rabbi Moshe Wolfson echoing from the halls of Emunas Yisroel and Torah Vodaath, syntheses themselves of a variety of influences and sources to instill a passion and commitment to Judaism in the hearts and minds of a different distinctly American-Jewish audience.
Rabbi Reichman’s book is not merely an “Introduction to Chasidic Thought.” It is an introduction to Hassidic thought for the modern American Jew. It is the product of multiple generations of American-bred leaders and thinkers synthesizing and applying the teachings of Hassidic and kabalistic thought to breathe new life into a Jewish community searching for spiritual meaning.
Tzvi Aryeh Benoff is a second-year Rabbinical Student at RIETS.
 Any critical analysis runs the risk of misinterpreting, misrepresenting, and slighting the original work and its authors. Therefore, I ask forgiveness in advance for any errors or slights that this review might show to the book, Rabbi Reichman, Rabbi Wolfson, and Hassidut (and Habad Hassidut in particular).
 Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, Keter Shem Tov 3rd Edition, ed. Jacob Emanuel Shochet (NY: Kehot Publication Society, 2004), 446.
 Zev Reichman, Flames of Faith: An Introduction to Chasidic Thought (New York: Kodesh Press, 2014), back cover.
 William B. Helmreich, The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry (Augmented Edition), Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House Inc., 2000) 26-30.
 Reichman, Approbation.
 Niddah 30b.
 See Likkutei Amaraim, 5a.
 Reichman, 33 note 32.
 36-47, 240.
 Back Cover.