19 Kislev: How the Alter Rebbe Changed the World


Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), was a giant. As an unprecedented master who fused all aspects of the Torah, both the revealed and the esoteric, the Alter Rebbe developed the most eloquent and comprehensive blueprint to date in bridging the schism between the material and the spiritual – offering a dynamic blueprint for life today, one that makes the spiritual journey personally relevant to contemporary times.

This system, called Chabad Chassidus, can be summed up this way: If Kabbalah manifests the Divine in the human then Chabad Chassidism transforms the human into the Divine. This interface between G-d and Man allows us to enter the modern world without compromising timeless values. On the contrary: it begets the opportunity to integrate both freedoms, material and spiritual, by refining and spiritualizing material secularism, turning the world into an intimate home for the Divine. .

To honor the 19th of Kislev (the day Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was released from imprisonment in Czarist Russia — a seminal moment in Chassidic history and scholarship) we offer you an essay that describes some of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s unique and groundbreaking insights into the human psyche. For more material, please view Rabbi Jacobson’s powerful class on this topic.


Modern-day science believes that we humans are evolved beasts, driven by primal, narcissistic needs and feelings. What can we truly expect of creatures obsessed with survival of the fittest? What can we really look forward to for the future of the human race?

In this fascinating essay, we dissect our current view of the human psyche, and offer the Alter Rebbe’s fresh psychological model that will revolutionize the way you think about yourself and the world.

It is commonly accepted that the age of modern psychology began at the end of the 19th century. The way we understand ourselves today is very much defined by the thinking of William James, then Sigmund Freud, who some call the Father of Psychology, followed by Carl Jung, BF Skinner and other great psychologists of the 20th century.

I would like to submit that the Father of Psychology is actually a man who lived a century earlier, and has yet to be recognized as the true pioneer of modern psychology.

That man was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), and he offered the most sophisticated and comprehensive view to date on the nature of the human psyche and its struggles.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s immense contribution can be appreciated by contrasting it with the prevalent view on the psyche.

The big issue facing psychology is of course the human struggle between our conflicting drives. On the lowest end of the spectrum is our selfish need to survive and experience pleasure. On the next rung, our practical need to co-exist, to love and be loved and live productive lives. Then we have our ethical values and our conscience. And finally, our higher, spiritual and transcendental dimensions.

Human anxiety is a result of our conflicting voices. How we treat and mistreat others is determined by which force controls our behavior. Vulnerable and impressionable children, of course, are the first to suffer the consequences and are hurt the deepest by our clashing drives colliding with each other. And we all begin our lives as children. Then, these children grow up and have to pick up the pieces, try to heal from their wounds and rebuild their lives.

The rest is history – your history and mine, the history of every person alive today struggling with the disparate forces that shape our personalities and define our life choices. A vicious cycle indeed.

Plaguing thinkers from the beginning of time is the million-dollar question: Who is the real you? Or more precisely: Which of our drives is the most powerful one? Which is most dominant?

The prevalent theory – which can be coined the Darwinian-Freudian model – argues that the most powerful and most basic human drive is selfish survival.

Humans are fundamentally no different than other creatures, and indeed have evolved from the same ancestors. According to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, variation within species occurs randomly and the survival or extinction of each organism is determined by that organism’s ability to adapt to its environment. Another name Darwin (1809-1882) gave Natural Selection was “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Darwin did not speak in psychological terms. Indeed, he avoided applying his theory to the social and religious arena. It was apparently British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who first used the term “survival of the fittest” as a central tenet of what became known as “Social Darwinism.” He applied (or some say misapplied) Darwin’s idea of natural selection to justify European domination and colonization of much of the rest of the world. Social Darwinism was also widely used to defend the unequal distribution of wealth and power in Europe and North America at the time. Poor and politically powerless people were thought to have been failures in the natural competition for survival. Subsequently, helping them was seen as a waste of time and counter to nature. Rich and powerful people did not need to feel ashamed of their advantages because their success was proof that they were the most fit in this competition.

In the psychological realm, Freud (1856-1939) posited that the most basic of all human instincts is the “Id,” the primal, unconscious source for satisfying all mans’ basic needs and feelings. It has only one rule: The “pleasure principle:” “I want it and I want it all now.” The id wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the reality of the situation or the good of others.

Then there is the “Ego,” the rational part of the mind that relates to the real world and operates via the “reality principle,” recognizing that you can’t always get what you want. The Ego realizes the need for compromise and negotiates between the Id and the Superego, which might be called the moral part of the mind. The Superego is an embodiment of parental and societal values. It stores and enforces rules. The Ego’s job is to get the Id’s pleasures but to be reasonable and bear the long-term consequences in mind. The Ego denies both instant gratification and pious delaying of gratification.

Freud described the human personality as being: “…basically a battlefield. He is a dark-cellar in which a well-bred spinster lady (the superego) and a sex-crazed monkey (the id) are forever engaged in mortal combat, the struggle being refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk (the ego).”

Thus an individual’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are the result of the interaction of the id, the superego, and the ego. This creates conflict, which leads to anxiety, which in turn generates all types of defense mechanisms.

Though Freud may not have directly correlated his theories to Darwin’s, it’s irresistible to avoid the parallels, and how each complements the other. If humans are merely “billion year old bacteria” and essentially no different than any other animal fighting for survival, then it would make absolute sense that our most dominant drive is fixation on our own needs and pleasure, even at the expense of others. “Survival of the fittest.”

Obviously, there are many variations of this theory. There are also many opinions that fundamentally disagree with Freud. Still, despite the differences, the prevailing view tends to lean toward the Darwinian-Freudian model.

One of the sad consequences of this viewpoint is the lack of expectation we can have of each other. If our most natural self is the need to survive and the narcissistic pursuit of pleasure, then what can we really expect of people?! Can we really be disappointed if someone ends up hurting others in his/her own driving need for pleasure? Can we even blame the person? After all, we are sophisticated “bacteria” just trying to survive in a hostile environment… Yes, we can expect of humans to create superimposed rules, like “red lights” and “green lights” so that we can coexist and not destroy each other. But that is superimposed, not our natural state.

It’s interesting to note, that the original German for Freud’s Ego is “ich,” yet another manifestation of the “self.” So even as the Ego negotiates between the Id and the Superego, it still is fundamentally self motivated. [Superego, Uber-ich, can be translated as a dimension that is above – that transcends – the ego. But it can also mean a superman, ultra ego].

If you take it to the anarchist extreme, one can even question our entire justice system. Are we really expecting people to be better, or are we just trying to keep the “store” intact so that we don’t self-destruct. In other words, if the “cat were let out of the bag,” anarchy would prevail. So we need subjective, arbitrary rules to maintain order.

No wonder fear is the most commonly used tool in education, and punishment is the most popular deterrent to crime. Since people are essentially animals, with an ominous Id lurking within, never knowing when it will strike, we can’t depend or trust that people will just do the “right thing” and “rise to the occasion.”

That sure sounds harsh, doesn’t it?! And indeed, I amplified certain points in order to crystallize the issues, but I have not distorted any of them, and the description above more or less describes contemporary psychological theory.

No doubt that many of us are surely repulsed by this dark perspective on human nature. You may wonder: What about the soul? What about the beautiful acts of nobility and heroism we witness time and again? What about all those people who paid heavy, selfless prices for their beliefs and for protecting others?

How does all human virtue and dignity fit into the Darwinian-Freudian model?

And what about the inner voice that resonates so deeply in most people that good must prevail? And the disturbing feelings we feel when innocent people are hurt? Is all that yet another evolutionary aberration — a quirk — that is inconsistent with the cardinal law of “survival of the fittest”?! Or is it the other way around: Perhaps the good in humans is the most dominant force, and the current “low-end” model may be flawed.

These are excellent questions. Indeed, these and other vital questions are catalysts that compel us to recognize that there is a serious gaping hole in the Darwinian-Freudian model.

After all, no one has ever seen the human psyche. By definition the unconscious defies conscious human observation. Let alone the soul. So, basically all theories about the psyche are as subjective and arbitrary as the people positing these theories and their own life experiences.

No one is blaming Freud or other psychologists. But all they really could offer us is based on their personal psychological experiences. Perhaps some of them were surrounded predominantly by Id-like experiences, which informed their observations and conclusions? Had they truly experienced the selflessness of the soul, they may have incorporated other theories into their models.

All that is speculation. Let’s get back to history.

Preceding all these thinkers, was Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s psychological model, which is defined by three revolutionary principles:

  1.  Human self-control is inherent, not acquired.
  2. The essence of a human is good and Divine; the Yid, not the Id.
  3. Even mans’ intrinsic self and selfishness (“itness”) is rooted in the Essence of the Divine Self.

Here’s a brief overview of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s model:

A person carries two voices, two souls: The animal soul and the Divine one. In the words of Ecclesiastes, “The human spirit ascends on high; the spirit of the beast descends down into the earth.” They are in constant struggle, with the animal soul seeking instant gratification and pleasure (like the Id), and the Divine soul seeking transcendence and unity. The animal spirit wants to be “more animal,” hence more self-ego. The Divine spirit wants to be “more Divine,” more selfless.

The domain of the animal manifests in the impulsive emotions, while the domain of the Divine spirit rests in the reflective mind, which can control and temper impulsive reactions. A young child for instance, is controlled entirely by emotion, and yells out “I want it and I want it all now.” Similarly the animal within us selfishly barks “give, give.” As our minds develop we gain the ability to reflect, repress, temper or channel our impulses.

The question of course is, as mentioned earlier, which is our most dominant force?

The answer is the Divine soul. The inner good in man is the most dominant force in our lives. Yet, this force is locked in battle with the animal soul. We have the freedom and the ability to overcome any temptation if we so wish through self control (“moach shalit al halev,” the mind’s dominance over the emotions).

Self Control

An argument can be made that self-control is an acquired skill that comes later in life, and is superimposed over the inherent impulses of the heart. And as a rule, an acquired skill will never be as powerful as an inherent one. It can dominate for a while, but when “push comes to shove,” and survival is at stake, we will gravitate to the inherent.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman categorically rejects that argument, and unequivocally states that the power of self-control is natural and inherent to the human being. We are born with that quality. But like other talents, kit takes time for it to emerge in our lives. As our mind develops, it brings out our inherent self-control.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman actually supports this with a verse in Ecclesiastes, which equates the dominance of the mind over folly [of the impulsive heart] to the natural dominance of light over darkness. Unlike fire and water, two equal adversaries, which have the power to extinguish each other, light naturally dispels darkness.

— Incidentally, this is the essential theme of Chanukah, when we light the flames at sundown and facing the street, to demonstrate the victory of spirit over matter, quality over quantity, and the few over the many.

The Essence is Good

True, we have an impulsive animal spirit. But even more powerful than the animal is the Divine Image in which each human being was created.

Yes, we have an inherent primal, unconscious force that shapes all our behavior. But the deepest force within us is not the Id, but the Yid, the “pintele yud,” the Divine spark (like the Hebrew letter Yud, which looks like a dot).

Fueled by our (inherent) self-control, behavioral discipline helps us access our inner good and bring it to the surface.

So, in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s model, behavioral change goes hand in hand with internal work.

The Human Self Below is Rooted in the Divine Self Above

One can argue that all vice (greed, selfishness, corruption etc.) is rooted in the inherent “itness” of our ego, the sense of self-containment that feels as if it has no source and is utterly independent of anything except itself. The self is driven to survive and distinguishes us from others. If we felt, for instance, that we were integrally connected to a higher unity and to other people, like limbs of one body, we would never hurt each other, just as one limb doesn’t hurt another in a healthy body.

This would lead us to conclude, that ethical and spiritual goals must include some form of “self” sacrifice. As long as the self-contained self is intact, the basic drives of self-survival will continue to impede spiritual growth.

According to this way of thinking, the ego is the root of all evil, and the independent “self” is an illusion and a distortion that must be eliminated.

Hence, all spiritual disciplines include measure to tame and even nullify the ego.

Enters Rabbi Schneur Zalman with a radically different approach — which may be his greatest contribution of all. He explains, in perhaps one of the most powerful philosophical declarations ever made, that our sense of “self,” the feeling that we are “self-created,” with no source preceding us, is rooted in the Divine “Self” whose existence is Self-generated, with no other source preceding Him.

True, we must do everything to sublimate our egos, but the ultimate goal is not nullification of the ego but transforming it into recognizing that it is a manifestation of the Divine Self. The “yesh hanivra” becomes united with the “Yesh haAmiti,” the human ego unites with the Divine Ego; the created “it” (self) below is rooted in the true “It” (self) Above.

So in addition to our inherent self-control and goodness, even our Id (“it” in English, “es” in German) is ultimately rooted in the true “It.”

All of the basic ideas in contemporary psychology about the struggle and battle between different forces within us are included in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s model. Yet, with a critical additional dimension of the inherent Divine spirit, that accounts for mans’ sublime nature, and thus radically alters the way we look at a human being and his/her potential.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman also recognizes human inherent selfishness (the Id). Yet he doesn’t stop there, and sees deeper dimensions even beyond that. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s picture is simply a bigger and more encompassing one.

Perhaps Divine choreography arranged that Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s model be introduced at the end of the 18th century (1796 to be exact), as a type of “cure preceding the illness” phenomenon. His model served as a pre-emptive prelude to the psychological and scientific revolution that would rock the world and our notion of human nature.

All systems of knowledge, if I may, evolve. As new discoveries are made, arguments and counterarguments serve the role of crystallizing ideas. Through trial and error, and the sincere search for truth, every theory undergoes refinement, “reality checks” and “market corrections.” Certain details may be discarded in the process, as the idea matures into fruition.

Freud and the other thinkers of the 19th-20th century opened may new doors of inquiry and deserve the credit for recognizing deeper truths about the human condition. Rejecting any of their conclusions in no way rejects their contributions.

It’s ironic that the Enlightenment and the psychological – and all other scientific – advances in the last few centuries were followed by the most blood-shedding century in history: The Two World Wars.

The turmoil of the last hundred years — and the upheaval today, both personally and globally — provides us with a unique opportunity to revisit our psychological models. With all our so-called psychological insights, and with a thriving therapeutic industry — as well as unprecedented dysfunctionality in family life and in religious life — we can learn much about how to define, or not to define, the very nature of what it means to be human.

Over two centuries ago Rabbi Schneur Zalman presented us with an invaluable model of life that can be appreciated now more than ever.

It would be wise to explore his teachings, which provide us with a most comprehensive blueprint for modern life, uniting faith and reason, spirit and matter in our struggle with physical life.

Freud and his colleagues may be the fathers of psychology today. But the Alter Rebbe is the true father of the psychology of tomorrow.


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