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The Great Debate
The simple Jew is like a field that has been sown with seed and depends for its nourishment upon the rain which falls from the skies in order to give forth its fruit to man. Whereas a scholar is comparable to a field that. in addition. is artificially watered and may consequently yield a better harvest, this in no way lessens the value of the other field which is left to nature.
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov
In the year 55831 a public disputation was held between the leaders of the misnagdim2 and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Brilliant scholars came from far and wide - Vilna, Shklov, Brisk, and Slutsk, all Lithuanian bastions of Talmudic scholarship - and assembled in Minsk to voice their bitter opposition to the strange new ways of the "Sect," as chassidim were then cautiously regarded. The debate consisted of two segments. Firstly the panel of scholars wished to test the Rebbe's Talmudic erudition. Only afterwards, should he prove to be well-learned, would they agree to question him concerning the controversial legitimacy of Chassidism. The Rebbe acceded to these conditions, provided that he also be given the opportunity to quiz his opponents in learning.
Throughout the entire week, for several hours each day, they sat in the Minsk study-hall and posed their most puzzling queries to the Rebbe. The latter responded to all their questions in an eloquent, succinct manner, exhibiting his phenomenal profundity and encyclopedic knowledge. What amazed them most was his remarkable clarity - though addressing the learned sages, his lucid words were appreciated even by the uneducated novice. Subsequently, when the Rebbe presented his questions, the rabbis were flustered and unable to reply. Even after many hours of deliberation, they still could not resolve the apparent difficulties. When they eventually sought to proceed with the debate, the Rebbe told them: "The first time I arrived in Mezritch, I asked the holy Maggid concerning these issues, and he answered me at once." The Rebbe then elaborated on the fascinating explanation he had heard from his mentor as his listeners sat spellbound.

During the debate the misnagdim expressed their two cardinal objections to the doctrine of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples: "Why do you place so much emphasis on the worthless prayers and Psalms of the simple folk, given that they are utterly unaware of what they are reading? This is shameful and wrong, for it diminishes the honor of the Torah and its scholars. The ignorant will thereby feel pride­ful and fail to accord due respect to the sages."

"Secondly," they contended, "you maintain that every­one must serve his Creator with teshuva, including the learned and righteous. This notion further disgraces the scholars, whom the Talmud lauded as the 'pillars of the world, , and reduces them to mere sinners in need of penance!"
The Rebbe rose from his seat and replied: "My master once relayed a teaching he had heard from the Baal Shem Tov, and I shall now share it with you. The approach of my predecessors is based on the first historic occasion in which G-d revealed Himself to Moses. 'And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a heart of fire3 out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, but the bush was not consumed. And Moses said: I shall turn aside and see this amazing spectacle, why the bush is not burnt!'4 The heart of fire Moses witnessed refers to a Jew's heartfelt sincerity and blazing love of G-d. Herein is where G-d chooses to manifest Himself.

"Man is likened to the tree of the field," the Rebbe continued. "Just as the world of vegetation consists of fruit­bearing trees and barren shrubs, so too there are two analogous types of men: Torah scholars5 and the simple folk. The scholar also possesses an inner fire, yet it is satiated by his scholarly achievements, which are the 'fruit' of his labor. Only the lowly bush, the simple Jew, is host to the unquenchable flame which refuses to be consumed. When they recite their earnest prayers and Psalms amidst feeling and sincerity, though they may not even know the meaning of the words, their fire is nonetheless exhibiting its intense longing for G-d, His Torah and mitzvos.

"Moses beheld this phenomenon - the lofty level of the simple Jew - and expressed his humble desire to draw near. This is the teshuva of a perfect saint. One must never suffice with all that he has achieved until that point, but rather must constantly seek to deepen his bond with his Creator. Through his teshuva, Moses demonstrated his worthiness of being a leader and savior of his people, whose task is to appreciate and reveal the flame which lies within the shrubbery of every Jew, especially the simple ones."
The Rebbe spoke with great fervor, further expounding on this theme. At the end of his oration he emphatically concluded: "Indeed, the greater the scholar, all the more accomplished he must be in his service of G-d. If his piety and sincerity are not commensurate to his wisdom, he is remiss and must truly repent from the depths of his heart. Only then will he succeed in ridding himself of Amalek, the dispiriting indifference that abates his zeal for Divine worship."6

These impassioned words, spoke with genuine fear of Heaven and love of G-d, left a profound impression on all present. Several of the most venerable sages who had previously campaigned against the "Sect" publicly approached the Rebbe to commend him. Scores of listeners, many of whom had come to witness the debate in order to scoff at the chassidic leader, were so inspired by the Rebbe's extraordinary erudition and brilliant defense of Chassidism that they consequently followed him to Liozna. It is said that four-hundred scholars of all ages from Minsk, Vilna, Brisk, Shklov, and Slutzk, joined the chassidic community as a direct result of the disputation.


1. 1823.
2. Opponents of Chassidism. See A Glimpse of Honesty, p. 183.
3. In the Hebrew original, "flame of fire" ("בלבת אש") is read literally "heart (לב) of the fire."
4. Exodus 3:2.
5. Talmud, Taanis 7a.
6. See Frigid Aversions, p. 240.



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