Interview Series Episode 1: Mrs. Chana Ginsburg
It was 3 years ago that I met Mrs. Chana Ginsburg for the first time at a shiur she gave for us in honor of 19 Kislev. I was immediately drawn to her unique style of teaching, her deep analysis of the maamar we learned, her incredibly vast knowledge of Chassidus, and her creative applications of esoteric ideas to everyday life. I knew I needed to find out more. A few months later, I sat in her small office to interview her about her journey to Chassidus and her thoughts on women's learning.
Here is an excerpt of our interview: When and how did you start learning Chassidus? I started learning Chassidus after I wrote to the Rebbe asking for a bracha to start a spiritual center in Israel. A few days later, someone introduced me to R’ Reuven Dunin. We met at midnight and we sat until morning. That’s when I realized that Chassidus would be something interesting to study. That was 40-something years ago. I had all kinds of opportunities to learn with very special people, starting with him, then in Tzfas and many people here in Crown Heights. The main thing was my first yechidus with the Rebbe when the Rebbe told me that I should delve deeply into Chassidus and to learn it with a chayus. Since then, the Rebbe always encouraged me to be involved in hafatzos hamaayanos. Even when I developed my work with counseling and therapy, the Rebbe instructed me to combine it with Chassidus. So Chassidus was always an integral part of my spiritual journey and certainly what drew me to Chabad, after searching for the deeper meaning of life. I think you can find everything in Chassidus. Of course, we need to balance our learning. We need to learn all faces of Torah, but Chassidus is the remedy for this generation for sure. Who were your role models or mentors along your journey? I don’t know if I am able to name all the many unique teachers I have had but at different stages of my learning, I met many people who illuminated different facets of Chassidus. The first was R’ Dunin. His Chassidus was very deep but also very integrated with a passionate love for the Rebbe. It was real, personal love. He was a tough person in some ways externally, but when he spoke about the Rebbe, many times his eyes would tear up. That was very good because my foundation was the integration of Chassidus and Rebbe; Rebbe and Chassidus. Sometimes we can separate the two and deal with Chassidus as an intellectual, spiritual wisdom and when we detach it from the Rebbeim, it becomes sterile. It was very important that my first mashpia was a perfect integration of hiskashrus and Chassidus. He was the first and then there were many more, some of whom I formed a close relationship with until today. Some led me to the Chassidus of the Mittiler Rebbe, which I am especially drawn to. The Chassidus of the Mittler Rebbe is the type of Chassidus which we should learn when we prepare ourselves mentally for the state of mind of geula. That was very special, of course. And the Chassidus of the Rebbe I used to learn as the Rebbe was speaking. Every Shobbos, at least, was a farbrengen and women used to get together and learn it and relearn it. We lived with it. Did you have any women who were your mentors or teachers in terms of learning Chassidus? I did have female teachers who taught me halacha and hashkafa but I don’t remember any who guided me in the deep study of Chassidus. It was usually men. Did you feel that you were unique in your journey? Did you have female peers who were on a similar path in terms of learning? Not so much. I mean, I was not in a desert. There was a good friend of mine and we used to study together and create workshops to apply Chassidus to our life. We used to run retreats together. When you generate a certain frequency of interest, you draw to yourself people who have similar interests. So there were always women that shared the same interest. But in terms of teachers, I don’t recall having female teachers who taught me Chassidus itself. Why do you think that was the case? And do you think that’s something that should be shifting in the community? It is shifting. Not enough. Chassidus is still in galus in many ways. I don’t want to sound negative, but in a way, we are all not fully aware of how all-inclusive Chassidus is. In addition to just the information, it formulates the consciousness and frame of mind that we need in order to deal with the tasks of this generation and what is expected of us. I think most of us, at least at times, fail at realizing how much support, direction and personal guidance in many areas of life we can receive from Chassidus. And so much of Chassidus has not been studied or applied yet. But it is shifting, for sure, in the female community. When the Frierdiker Rebbe started the movement for women’s learning, it wasn’t common. Circumstantially, it was very difficult and perhaps it wasn’t shayach. But the Rebbe certainly brought up again and again that the women had a huge role in leading the consciousness of the Jewish people before yetzias mitzrayim and during yetzias mitzrayim to seek another way of existence. And now with the last geula, women also have a tremendous role in taking the lead. We are many times responsible for the state of mind of the home and community, we are very much in a position of influence and as such, to learn Chassidus in our generation - I don’t know how we can do without it. Since women in general, even in the secular world, are very empowered, we need to make sure that this power is handled well. And that can be guaranteed if we learn Chassidus. Were there challenges you faced along your journey? Not a lot of challenges. I find that when you seek with sincerity, you find the people that will guide you. I think one of the challenges was that I didn’t know how to learn. There was no curriculum and I had to milk it out of teachers and ask what I should learn first and second. So the structure was missing. To know that if I followed this structure, my knowledge of Chassidus would be accumulated in a coherent and complete way. I was picking things up piece by piece. Also, in the later years, I think it was sometimes difficult for our society to move ahead at the pace that the Rebbe was directing and the rate that things were speeding up in the 80’s and 90’s. I think some of us stayed behind and there were times that I heard comments that it’s not the right thing for women to learn deep Chassidus. So that was there a little bit. But to say that it was a big obstacle - it wasn’t. I didn’t care much if it looked unusual. People who are authentically pursuing spirituality are people who appreciate truth so they have more strength to deal with the norms and with accepted attitudes in society and, at times, when they need to go out of the box a little bit, they can handle it. So there were some unusual times, but to say that it was a challenge that stopped me - no, thank G-d. And the bracha of the Rebbe was helping all along. What do you think is the most important change that needs to happen in women’s education today? I would like to see that the same way women tend to be at the cutting edge of many industries - it should be cool to be at the cutting edge of Chassidus in a contemporary framework. I would like to see women not being afraid to dive into the depth of Chassidus and not just remain on the surface. There are so many ways to learn Chassidus and so many dimensions. The custom is to have someone give over a sicha that’s already chewed for you. I would like to see women more empowered, trusting themselves and being trained and guided to become more independent in their ability to deal with text. And they should use their creativity to make it contemporary and applicable. One of the messages of the Rebbe Rashab in Hemshech Samech Vov, is that Hashem will reveal the level of “Eden” to people who don’t rush through their learning, but really stay with the text and dive into the depth of what they are learning. There are special worlds that open up to people who pursue the depths of Chassidus. I wish to see in the women’s community women being trained to trust their intellectual capacity to deal with text and to become more comfortable with the termonology; that they should not be afraid to independently pick up the text of maamarim and by themselves or with friends, dive into the depths. And don’t be afraid of the maamarim that are considered harder; they are still meant for everyone. They are meant to be studied. I would like to see girls trained from early on, starting from elementary school, to learn how to deal with text, so by the end of high school, they are able to independently handle deep Chassidus. What would you respond to someone who asks “Why do I need to get into all the deep, complicated texts? Why not just keep it basic?” It’s like any area of life that you care about. In medicine, why do I need to specialize in a specific area of medicine - I can just generally learn the principles of healing and that’s it, that’s enough. Or in relationships - why do I have to deal with every detail of what my husband likes or doesn’t like? Or with my children - why do I have to get into the nitty gritty details of their personalities and my communication with each one? Let me just stay general and provide them with their basic needs and not bother. It’s like anything you want to do well, when you want to connect with the soul of something, and especially when it comes to Chassidus which deals with the intricate details of existence; of our soul, of creation, of our relationship with Hashem. Anything which is important deserves to be known thoroughly, not just superficially. When some women get into the world of sheitels, they know that there are many companies, and they have passionate discussions about this company and that company and the quality of this hair and if it comes from Europe or the Far East and does it curl or doesn’t it curl. Just put something on your head - why are you so fussy about it! And this is about sheitels! We are fussy because if it matters, we want to know the details of it. How much more so when it comes to knowledge that is not just about accumulating intellectual information - which wouldn’t be relevant to everyone.
If we view Chassidus just as knowledge, then you’re right. It applies to people who are connoisseurs of knowledge. But if Chassidus is our oxygen, our lifeforce, the type of energy that we need to deal with the tasks and challenges of this generation and it’s relevant to every facet of our existence, then it belongs to everyone to stick their teeth into it, so we can receive everything we need in order to lead the generation. There are a lot of tough things happening in the world, there’s a lot of confusion, there are a lot of contemporary attitudes that are seeping into our communities as well. Where do we get the life and the strength to deal with all this if not from Chassidus?