When the first english volume of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s commentary on the Tanya was published (Opening the Tanya) he was asked:
“You quote the statement that the author of the Tanya was able to “put such a big God into such a small book. What do we learn about God from the Tanya that we didn’t know before?”
Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:
“We learn lots of things because usually when people speak about God, they speak from their perception of God at a very basic level.
Think about it. When people say they have lost their faith it’s because their faith at the beginning was too weak to withstand any challenges.
When your perception of God does not extend beyond a basic level, you can’t deal with them very effectively when you grow up.
We basically found that people who went as believers to the concentration camps remained believers and vice versa.
The second part of the Tanya, Shaar Hayichud, deals with understanding God.
Not that you will get to know God, but at least you have an order of magnitude.
It’s a mathematical term.
If you’re talking about something expensive, what order of magnitude is it, hundreds or millions?
A person who learns the Tanya gets to a different order in his perception of God.”
Rabbi Steinsaltz was then asked:
“What do we find in the Tanya that changes or enhances our view of human beings and how they relate to God in general?
Rabbi Steinsaltz answered:
“You learn a great deal about human beings because the Tanya deals with people who are being formed, constantly changing, not already made.
The Tanya asks the difficult questions.
What are the basic qualities within people?
How do I change?
How do I deal with other people’s failings?
Ironically, the Tanya deals with human concepts rather than ritual ones, how you understand yourself and others.
Ultimately, you have a better notion of what God expects from you.
It’s not the image of the old man with or without a beard, sitting in heaven and dispensing candy to the good boys and beating the bad ones.
You get a grown up version.”
InsideOut Magazine and L’Chaim Weekly, July 2004