Forks in the Road: Old Divisions, Modern Ramifications

Forks in the Road: Old Divisions, Modern Ramifications
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer
We Might Be a Little Late!
Originally published here .

This essay is some one hundred and fifty years late. Events since, some fortunate, most unfortunate, have blurred the differences between the great schools of thought that developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Doubtless, the Satmar Rebbe (R. Yoel Teitelbaum) had this blurring in mind when he is said to have remarked that he himself was the last true Chasid, and that the Brisker Rav (R. Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveischik) had been the last true Misnaged.[1] It is said that the Satmar Rebbe explained the devolution of both Chassidus and Misnagdus with the following parable:[2]

Once there was a woman whose husband would only eat fleishig (meat dishes), which she dusifully prepared for him. Their daughter came to marry a man who would only eat milchig (dairy dishes). Not wanting to deprive her son in law, the mosher in law prepared for him, as well, the food he craved. For several years this practice continued, with father and son in law eating in separate rooms.

Now, it came to pass that the family became impoverished and could afford neisher fleishig nor milchig. The woman was compelled to cook potatoes for both her husband and son in law. Nevertheless, the two continued their custom to eat in separate rooms. After several years elapsed in this manner, the two realized that there was, indeed, no point in their remaining separated and finally came to dine together.

Nevertheless, as we all strive to enhance our individual and collective Avodas Hashem (divine service), it is worthwhile – perhaps essential – to know what we might choose as our goal or aspiration.

The Great Divide

The nature of that goal has been the subject of a debate that has raged since the middle of the eighteenth century, when Eastern European Jewry erupted into the controversy surrounding Chassidus. Henceforth, the Ashkenazic Jewish world divided along the lines of Chassidus vs. Misnagdus. To be sure, there are other, significant trends in Judaism, including the (Hirschian) Torah im Derech Eretz school and, of course, many rich variations of Sephardic Avodas Hashem. The most blatant divide, however, is along the Chassidic/Misnagdic fault line. It is this line that we will attempt here to delineate.

But before we really begin: Caveat emptor! It would be the epitome of presumptuousness to purport that a short (or even long) essay might succinctly and precisely capture the distinctions between these schools of Avodas Hashem. We intend to examine a relatively narrow bandwidth of the differences, focussing more on exemplary thinkers and Ovdei Hashem (paragons of Avodas Hashem) who grappled with these distinctions in their personal struggles to formulate their own pathways in the hope that the reader will use these distinctions as a springboard for contemplation and understanding. In this effort, we follow in the footsteps of R. Dessler, the Michtav Me’Eliyahu, (in a recently published essay[3]) and others who pursued a simplified definition of differences, for reasons R. Dessler eloquently expresses.

We must begin our conversation with a definition of the “newer” Chassidic model of Avodas Hashem. The reason for this is simple: Existing philosophies are often forced to articulate their defining characteristics only when faced by a new challenge. This seems to be the case with Misnagdus. Despite its earlier origin, it was only forced to define itself as a philosophy when it came to battle the revolutionary Chassidic movement. The very term Misnaged can only be understood if one knows the context of Chassidus. Its meaning, “Opponent,” is only intelligible if one realizes toward what the opposition was directed.

“Mainstream” Chassidus and Chabad

Chassidus itself divided into two significant camps, that of “mainstream” Chassidus, and that of Chabad. Each side argued that its respective derech (pathway in Judaism) was the most accurate reflection of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s (R. Yisrael, the founder of Chassidus, also known as the Besht – an acronym for Ba’al Shem Tov) novel approach to Avodas Hashem. What was that approach and what did each side represent as the means of implementing that approach?

These points are discussed at length by the Piascezner Rebbe, R. Klonymus Kalmish Shapiro (author of the Chovat HaTalmidim) in his work, the Mevo HaShe’arim (Chap. 5).[4] The Piascezner writes that the Besht radically changed the world by affording much wider access to dveykus – a strong awareness of connection – with G-d. Prior to the advent of Chassidus, accomplishing dveykus required an individual to access the secret world of the Mekubbalim (Kabbalistic masters). The prerequisites for initiation into those secrets and that society were harsh and demanding. Fasting, self affliction, separation from general society, and other forms of ascetic behavior were required. Only those who had undergone such preliminaries, and had then been accepted as the select students of the Masters of each generation, could access the body of wisdom and practice that allowed one to relate to G-d in a powerful and direct manner.

The Ari (the great 16th century Kabbalist, R. Yitzchak Luria) and the Or HaChaim HaKadosh (the great 17th century commentator, R. Chaim b. Attar) began to ease access to this body of knowledge and practice, a point not lost on the Chassidim, who cherish the works of these individuals. It was the Besht, however, who completed the revolution. From the perspective of the Chassidim, the Besht was the first to introduce the means and tools for even the most common, simple Jew to experience dveykus to G-d. (An integral feature of Chassidus is the Chassidic tale. One of the focal themes of those tales is the capacity of even the most ignorant Jew, who is but sincere and pure hearted, to connect to G-d and stir the Heavens to a greater extent than the most accomplished scholar and saint.)

The salient internal issue in Chassidus became how best to achieve that dveykus. The mainstream of Chassidus stressed fervor and emosion in Avoda and Emuna Peshuta – simple, pure, experiential faith in G-d – as the best tools for this endeavor. It posited that the sanctity of a Jewish neshama (soul) and its potential to connect to G-d is far too great for man’s intellect to grasp or perceive. G-d, rather, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, provided that the toil of simple, yet powerful Avodas Hashem would afford a Jew the possibility of tapping into lofty, uplifting kedusha (sanctity). In a pithy statement that captures the essence of this derech, the Beis Aharon of Karlin wrote that he envied the galloping horses upon which participants travel to a Bris Mila (circumcision ceremony). This approach viewed the study of Kabbala per se as significant only to the extent that it aroused Emuna Peshuta. In short, the mainstream of Chassidus emphasized Avodas Hashem with heart and deed.

Chabad Chassidus, on the other hand, stressed the mind and thought. The Ba’al HaTanya (R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, author of its basic tract, the Tanya) demanded of his followers that they attempt to perceive and grasp G-d’s greatness with their intellects. The Ba’al HaTanya saw this direction inherent in the Besht’s revolution. The Besht had revealed that even the “vessels” – the revealed, “simple” levels of the Torah, possessed the same illumination as the esoteric regions of Hashem’s wisdom. While the previous Kabbalistic perspective had denigrated the revealed Torah as a “sackcloth”, the Besht revealed the sanctity inherent in that sack. In the Ba’al HaTanya’s famous analogy, there is little difference between one who merits to embrace the king while the monarch is dressed in few garments (the study of Kabbala) and one who merits to embrace a king clothed in more layers (the study of the revealed Torah, i.e., Shas and Poskim). Thus, even the study of “The Ox that Gored the Cow” (a well-known Talmudic subject in Bava Kamma) could now serve to enhance one’s dveykus with G-d. (The Chabad acronym, representing Chochma, Bina, Da’as (Knowledge, Understanding, Wisdom) evoked this idea. Da’as (…), the result of the intellectual process (amassed knowledge, subjected to understanding leads to wisdom) also connotes connection, as in: “And the man knew [yada, …] Chava, his wife.”[5] From Chabad’s perspective, since the soul rests in the mind and from there impacts on the heart, love and awe of G-d can only follow from complete intellectual awareness of Him.

The Piascezner sums it up: The Ba’al HaTanya’s derech was to bring the intellectual world of Kabbala and its mystical properties down into this world. The mainstream’s derech was to bring this world’s inhabitants into the higher spheres via experiential Avodas Hashem.

Practical Implications

The Piascezner then describes several important distinctions that flow from this dichosomy. Both schools of thought sought to define what it would be like to experience a taste of Gan Eden in this world. Chabad held that it could be experienced in the pleasure of knowing and understanding Hashem’s illumination, while the mainstream of Chassidus defined it as the pleasure of experiencing fervor and emosion in Avodas Hashem.

Chabad, with its emphasis on bringing illumination down to our realms, feels compelled to deal with reality and existence – even if only to clarify its illusory and temporal nature. The mainstream, on the other hand denied any validity to contemplation of reality – after all, its entire goal was to get its adherents to transcend that reality, to break through the barriers between us and our Creator. In this vein, Chabad saw most people (the “beinonim” – “average people”) as grounded in this world (in the Kabbalistic realm of “kelipas noga”[6]), while the mainstream of Chassidus regarded each and every Jew as potentially transcendent and utterly holy.

Chabad, with its emphasis on the intellect, bore some resemblance to the old Kabbalistic schools. The Ba’al HaTanya still saw some value in perishus (abstinence) – fasting and asceticism – the old modalities. The mainstream, with its emphasis on fervent, experiential Avodas Hashem, represented an almost complete break with the past. It saw little or no value in perishut. Abstinence, by its very nature a lack of experiences, contributed practically nothing to the pursuit of experiential proxiMisy to G-d.

(A brief Chassidic tale captures the essential divide between the two schools of thought. R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev’s grandchild married the grandchild of the Ba’al HaTanya. When the grandfathers arrived at the wedding, they found that the doorway through which they were both to enter the hall was too narrow for both to walk through simultaneously. After futilely importuning each other to go first, the Berditchever proposed: “Let’s break through the wall.” The Ba’al HaTanya responded: “No, let us widen the doorway.”)

R. Moshe Dovber Rivkin[7] discusses the centrality of the “Rebbe” in the respective derachim. Since the mainstream attempted to bring this world’s inhabitants into the loftier realms via experiential Avoda, it was essential that someone – a Rebbe – orchestrate and direct those experiences. The Rebbe would provide the inspiration, elevation and kedusha for the Chassidim. The Rebbe’s tools, in this system, consisted of both material means, such as shirayim (literally: “leftovers” – the practice in which the Rebbe partakes of a morsel of food from a dish and then distributes the remainder among those assembled at the “Tisch” – the Rebbe’s table), and spiritual means, such as the Rebbe’s discourses. Precisely because the goal was to inspire the heart and stimulate the deed, the means were often material. (In Hachsharas HaAvreichim 61b, the Piascezner explains the significance of mashke – the partaking of alcoholic beverages – in Chassidus as an additional means of achieving dveykus. Higher states of consciousness – reached for the sake of Avodas Hashem – are helpful in this quest.) Even the nature of a Rebbe’s discourses and writings (the Rebbe’s “Torah”) was affected by its purpose. The Torah was meant to inspire. Often it was an integral part of the overall experience of powerful experiences such as the Tisch. That Torah, therefore, generally took the form of vertlach – snippets of insight, sparks of a divine fire. Rarely does one find the mainstream of Chassidus involved in formulating comprehensive theologies and Weltanschauungen. They were unessential.[8] The Rebbe provided the devek, the glue, of his Chassidim’s dveykus.

In Chabad, however, shirayim were an anathema. They were derided as “nahama d’kesufa” (literally, “bread of shame,” or, colloquially, “something for nothing.”) The Rebbe’s task was not to inspire and provide kedusha but rather to educate, to provide the Chochma and Bina that the Chassidim would learn, internalize and utilize to achieve their own, personal Da’as. In this system, it was imperative to spread the most profound intellectual concepts in a systematic fashion, thus allowing all adherents to achieve the intellectual devek that, by definition, each Chasid had to possess on his own.[9]

We should note that Chabad Chassidim would refer, somewhat derisively, to other Chassidim as adherents of “Chagas Chassidus.” Chagas is an acronym for Chesed, Gevura, Tiferes, the three sefiros (Kabbalistic attributes of G-d) immediately below Chabad in the Kabbalistic system. While the sefiros of Chabad describe the intellect, the sefirot of Chagas describe character – middos – and emosional drives. Chabad Chassidim defined themselves as focused on intellect; Chagas Chassidim as focused on emosion. Furthermore, Chabad Chassidim saw themselves as educated to a certain independence from the Rebbe, rooted in their individual comprehension of the Chabad system. Chagas Chassidim, to their minds, were liMised by a dependency on the Rebbe to be their collective Da’as. The reader is certainly able to deduce how a “Chagas Chasid” might respond to these assertions!

Before we proceed to define Misnagdus, let us repeat the statement with which we began: This essay is late. Cross-pollination has blurred distinctions. The wholesale slaughter of some of the greatest paragons of every school has deprived us of their respective role models in true Avodas Hashem.

In Chabad, in particular, unfortunate new developments have influenced perspectives.[10] It is the two schools that we have discussed and their principles, however, that inform modern Chassidic pathways in Avodas Hashem.

Prioritizing Values in Avodas Hashem

At the core of both Chassidic schools is the supreme value of dveykus. The fissure that developed between Misnagdus and Chassidus concerns this value. In most Misnagdic systems, dveykus is a value, not the supreme value. In some schools of thought, it may not be a value at all. This point was clarified to me in a personal conversation with a distinguished representative of a great Misnagdic perspective. When I queried, were it possible to attain prophecy in our day and age, would it be advantageous to aspire to attain it, he responded in the negative. When I asked him to define kedusha, he replied that it means greater dikduk (meticulousness) in fulfilling Mitzvos. Finally, in answering a question as to what more intensive kavana in davening might consist of, he said that it meant a greater (intellectual) understanding of the words of our prayers.

While these positions may seem extreme in their dismissal of dveykus, they enable us to sharpen our focus.[11] If one were to subscribe to these views, what might be one’s supreme value?

A Misnaged’s supreme value is shleymus – perfection. G-d endowed each and every Jew with a rich reservoir of unique strengths and talents, a vast and great potential to realize. It is the development and accomplishment of as much of that potential as possible that should be the goal, aspiration and supreme value of anyone truly focused on his or her Avodas Hashem.

The mid-nineteenth century saw the development in Misnagdus of two distinct schools of thought. The Lithuanian yeshiva world, the bastion of Misnagdic Avodas Hashem, divided into two camps: Mussar and non- even anti-Mussar. While both camps valued shleymus above all else, the pathway to shleymus, perhaps even the definition thereof, was the subject of their dispute. Everyone agreed that perfection entails accomplishment in intellectual development and Halachic observance. It was also universally accepted that awe and love of G-d are essential to shleymus. Disagreement centered on the priority to be accorded to specific and focused Avodas Hashem in the development of Ahavas (love of) Hashem, Yiras (awe of) Hashem and one’s ethical personality in general.

Contrasting a Chasid and a Misnaged

But let us return for a moment to the divide between Chassidus and Misnagdus. The distinction has many ramifications. We will note three. The first concerns the issue of Emuna Peshuta. To a Chasid, analysis of theology is a foreign, even dangerous, concept. Such analysis detracts from the powerful, simple, experiential Emuna and Avodas Hashem that are at the core of Chassidus. Intellectual analysis detracts from emosional dveykus. Even in Chabad, where understanding is key, independent exploration, as opposed to receiving and understanding, is questionable. To a Misnaged, however,[12] the more profound the intellectual perception, the greater the extent to which one has developed one’s potential, the more perfect one’s shleymus.

A more important example is manifest in one of the core disputes between Chassidus and Misnagdus. We ask G-d every morning to grant us the opportunity to learn His Torah “lishma.” What do we mean by that request?

The interpretation of lishma is the subject of a great debate between the Besht and R. Chaim of Volozhin. The Besht[13] held that Torah lishma means the study of Torah with the purpose of achieving dveykus to G-d. The Besht, therefore, advised his followers to interrupt their studies at regular intervals in order to meditate on the dveykus that the studies allowed one to achieve. A radical illustration of this approach is provided by the story that one of the early great Chassidic leaders, the Rebbe R.Zushya of Hanipoli, once spent an entire night staring at the first line of the first mishna in Bava Metzia, so awed was he at the prospect of dveykus to G-d inherent in the Torah.

To the Besht, the study itself was almost a b’di’eved (reluctant obligation): “Although during the time one is studying it is not possible to involved in dveykus to G-d, nevertheless, one must learn, for the Torah polishes one’s soul and is a tree of life to those who grasp it. If one does not learn, therefore, he cannot achieve dveykus. One’s attitude must be that just as when one is asleep he cannot be involved in dveykus [but, nevertheless, one must sleep]… the time allotted for learning is no worse.” The goal was the focus on G-d that study facilitated, not the focus on the study per se.

R.Chaim[14] expends a great deal of effort rejecting this approach. R.Chaim defines Torah lishma as Torah for its own sake, as complete and total immersion in study for no other purpose but the study itself. For R.Chaim, interruption of any sort – even for thoughts of dveykus – was Bittul Torah (a waste of time that might otherwise have been spent in Torah study), pure and simple. Only by studying with the greatest possible concentration, depth and breadth, could one approach shleymus.

It is opportune here to highlight one of the many major departures from our neat categorization. Several Polish branches of Chassidus, spiritual heirs of R.Bunim of Parshischa,[15] produced scholars of epic magnitude. Now, this is not to say that other branches of Chassidus were bereft of scholars and decisors of epic magnitude. But there is a subtle difference between these Polish schools on the one hand and the mainstream and Chabad schools on the other. While the Kotzker said that a Chasid is in awe of G-d, while the Misnaged is in awe of the Shulchan Aruch,[16] he also said that true pshat (simple understanding of a text) is the most profound secret in the Torah, and that while others might expound discourses intended to facilitate ascent to the seventh Heaven, he himself was of the opinion that one must convey discourses in a fashion that will penetrate the innards of the listener.[17] These schools stressed the pursuit of shleymus to a far greater extent than other branches of Chassidus.

This difference is best expressed in the example presently under discussion here, Torah lishma. The Sochatchover Rebbe[18] explores the issue in the introduction to his Eglei Tal. He writes: “The essence of the Miszvah of Torah study is to be happy, rejoice and take pleasure in one’s studies. Then the words of the Torah become absorbed into his blood. Since he derives enjoyment from the words of the Torah he achieves dveykus to the Torah.” He goes on to explain that the simcha in one’s Torah study also enhances Torah’s other purpose, the reinforcement of one’s yeitzer tov (good inclination). Dveykus, yes – but in the Torah itself, and in the pursuit of spiritual perfection, not as a means of facilitating dveykus to G-d.[19]

Perhaps the most apparent distinction may be found in the relative attitudes toward Halachic standards. Chassidus occasionally stresses values that are downplayed in the more general Halachic process. This phenomenon is manifest most famously in the area of zmanei tefilla – the time frames for prayer. Chassidus tolerated minor deviations in the pursuit of greater dveykus. Misnagdus is completely intolerant of such liberties. The pursuit of perfection demands meticulous attention to Halachic parameters.

As with all neat and simple definitions, this is an over-generalization. Many great Rebbes observed zmanei tefilla meticulously. R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev warned not to delay the fulfillment of Miszvot because one feels a lack of fervor (hislahavus), lest the time frame of the Mitzvah pass.[20] Yet other outstanding Rebbes justified their not abiding by the clock. R. Yisroel of Ruzhin said that time frames for Miszvot are a result of the sins of Adam, Chava and the golden calf. Tzaddikim were not involved in those sins, and are therefore not restricted by time.[21]

Other examples include the issue of dancing and clapping on Shabbos and Yom Tov, that seems to be forbidden by the Gemara in Beisza 36b. The Minchas Elazar[22] allows the practice, basing his conclusion, in part, on the rationale that Chazal only forbade these practices for those who do not utilize it for the purpose of hislahavus. In forbidding the same practices, R. Ovadia Yosef[23] notes that almost all non-Chassidic sources take no such distinction into account.[24]

R. Yitzchok Weiss[25] issued several rulings that reflect unique issues stemming from Chassidic values, including a responsum on whether the custom of offering a tikkun (a drink of whiskey) in Shul on a yahrzeit supersedes the potential problem of chametz she’avar alav haPesach (chametz that was owned by a Jew over Pesach). He rules that the value of a tikkun does not override the potential prohibitions – but not until after some discussion on the holiness of the custom to drink l’chayim. A similar thread may be discerned in a responsum[26] concerning whether an individual may leave his Shul in order to spend yom tov with his Rebbe even if as a result no minyan will remain.

Where does Mussar Fit in this Picture?

Mussar’s relationship with Chassidus is more complex. Mussar arose because R. Yisroel Salanter perceived that perfection in observance and scholarship did not suffice to make an individual an Adam HaShalem (a perfected individual).[27] Precisely because Mussar placed value on perfection across a broader spectrum of traits and characteristics, it might have made room for dveykus to its system of Avoda as well. Indeed, the tract that was to become Mussar’s fundamental guidebook, the Mesillas Yesharim, states unequivocally (Chap. 1) that dveykus is shleymus (Chap. 26 identifies the highest level of accomplishment, kedusha with dveykus). Mussar’s unique critique of Chassidus is expressed by a passage in an essay by R. Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan contrasting the Chassidus of the Rebbe Maharash of Lubavitch and R.Yisroel’s Mussar:

Mussar does not disagree with Chassidus. Mussar is often satisfied with the Jewish strength of Chassidus: its capacity not to submit to the environment; its heartfelt openness between man and fellow man that pierces petty superficial European etiquette; its readiness to dedicate itself to a lofty purpose, and so easily sacrifice for that purpose normal conditions of life; its youthful fervor in Mitzvos, which extends well into old age.

Mussar, however, has a significant criticism of Chassidus: It sees Chassidus as too external, too theoretical and abstract. The Chasid deludes himself into thinking that he is getting more out of Chassidus than he actually is. Chassidus deals with profound thoughts and great deeds, but it remains outside the essence of the Chasid. Chassidus penetrates the depths of the greatest Torah problems – both between Man and G-d and between Man and Man – but it penetrates too little the self of a person, so that he might engage in a reckoning as to where he stands in relation to his world and in relation to his obligations in his world… The average Chasid deludes himself into thinking that a nigun [melody] that he sings wells up from his heart, and that the dveykus that he experiences has its source in his soul, even though it is entirely possible that these are transient moods not associated with his true essence.

One should not judge hastily. We cannot say even to the simplest Chasid, when he experiences dveykus, that he does not truly cleave to G-d. But that constant self-critique: “Perhaps I am deluding myself;” the query that should accompany every step in life: “Have I not strayed in this instance from the path?”; and, finally, all that is encompassed in the thought that serves as a necessary precondition for Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid [“I have placed G-d before me always”],[28] namely, the thought, “I have placed my ‘self’ before me always,” – all this is more prevalent in Mussar than in Chassidus…[29]

R. Dessler (in the aforementioned essay) expands considerably on this contrast. He also makes another fascinating and controversial point: The extraordinarily rigorous demands of self critique and unrelenting Emes [Truth] imposed by Mussar on its adherents made it irrelevant for common folk. They were not equipped to engage in ongoing Mussar-type Avodas Hashem. At most they could realize a peripheral sense of Kavod HaTorah [the honor of Torah] upon coming into contact with great individuals.[30] This was not enough to sustain these simpler people when confronted with the temptations of the contempoarary “American, Australian and South African” milieus. Chassidus speaks much more to the common folk. Hislahavus, dancing and drinking do not require intense soul searching. They are therefore better suited for the masses, and helped insulate the masses engaged therein against the onslaught of twentieth century temptations.

Conclusion: What Does All this Mean to Us?

In conclusion, a loose translate R. Dessler:

In our times: The qualities of “Emet” that personified the Ba’alei Mussar [Mussar Masters] are already extinct. We no longer find individuals whose hearts are full with profound truth, with a strong and true sense of Cheshbon HaNefesh [complete and rigorous reckoning of one’s spiritual status and progress]. We have reached the era of Ikvasa d’Mashicha [the final generations before the coming of Moshaich], generations that Chazal described as superficial. If we find an individual who does learn Mussar, we find that he is primarily interested in the intellect of Mussar, the profound philosophy and psychology that are linked to Mussar. Even if he learns Mussar b’hispa’alus [with the emotional impact of nigun – melody – and shinun – repetition – that R.Yisroel prescribed], rarely does this activity lead to Cheshbon HaNefesh.

Contemporary Chassidus lacks the component that was once at its core: Avodas Hashem with dveykus. All that remains is the external form of Chassidus, something that appears like hislahavus. There is nigun, but the soul of nigun is no longer. Hitlahavus in davening is almost a thing of the past.

For today’s era, there remain only one alternative: To take up everything and anything that can be of aid to Yahadus; the wisdom of both Mussar and Chassidus together. Perhaps together they can inspire us to great understandings and illuminations. Perhaps together they might open within us reverence and appreciation of our holy Torah. Perhaps the arousal of Mussar can bring us to a little Chassidic hislahavus. And perhaps the hislahavus will somewhat fortify one for a Cheshbon HaNefesh. Perhaps through all these means together we may merit to ascend in spirituality and strengthen our position as Bnei Torah [adherents of a Torah centered lifestyle] with an intensified Judaism. May G-d assist us to attain all this!

As we have mentioned, cross-pollination has brought all of these pathways into contact with each other – and with us. Many great thinkers of the last century combined elements of all these schools in forging their own unique and extraordinary pathways.[31] We must understand them – and, of course, others – in our quest to understand where we have come from and where we should be going.

1 For the sake of technical accuracy we should note that Chabad Chassidim reserved the term “Misnaged” for their most virulent opponents. “Run of the mill” non-Chassidim were called “Olamshe”.

2 Personal communication with R. Shaul Weinreb.

3 Vol. 5 pp. 35-39.

4 Instead of footnoting every assertion in the next few paragraphs, it suffices to say that they are all taken from the Piascezner’s discussion there.

5 Bereishit 4:1.

6 While a full definition of this term is beyond the scope of our essay, a brief definition is given in R. Nissan Mindel’s Glossary, in the English edition of the Tanya, p. 777:

Kelipah, “bark,” or “shell,” the symbol frequently used in Kabbalah to denote “evil” and the source of sensual desires in human nature…
Kelipas nogah, “translucent shell,” contains some good, and distinguished from the three completely “dark” kelipos containing no good at all. The term is based on an interpretation of the “brightness” (nogah) in Ezekiel’s vision (1:4). The animal soul (nefesh ha-bahaMis) in the Jew is derived from kelipas nogah, by contrast to his “divine soul” (nefesh elokis) which is “part” of G-dliness…

7 At the beginning of R. Rivkin’s (a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva Torah VoDa’ath) Ashkavta d’Rebbi. It should be noted that the Piascezner was a representative of the Chassidic mainstream. In contrast, R. Rivkin was a Chasid Chabad. Our previous comment as to detailed references applies here as well.

8 Somewhat ironically, the Piascezner stands out as an exception in this regard. His works were systematic and comprehensive. Their focus, however, was not on theology, but on the understanding and codification of the derech of Avoda with heart and in deed.

9 A remarkable passage in the Tanya (Iggeres HaKodesh Chap. 23) warns the Chassidim against seeking counsel from Rebbes, such as himself, in material matters. He regarded himself as an educator, not an oracle.

10 Lest one make the mistake of assuming that Chabad has always stirred the kind of controversies that surround it today, one has only to recall universally accepted giants of the Jewish world such as the Rogatchover Gaon and R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin who were firmly rooted in Chabad.

11 In attempting to define a classic Misnagdic philosophy, R. Yosef B. Soloveichik in his Ish HaHalacha posits that if G-d created the universe via the process of tzimtzum – hiding His presence and barring us from its comprehension – it follows that He does not expect us to make it a goal to reverse that process. We must note, however, that experts on R. Soloveischik’s personal perspective state that the less extreme position he takes in U’vikkashtem Mesham is truer to his own outlook.

I would venture that a more “mainstream” Misnagdic approach would find value, were it possible, in striving for prophecy, or any lesser form of communication with G-d. A more mainstream approach might define kedusha as R. Shimon Shkop does in the introduction to Sha’arei Yosher: “G-d created everything to fulfill His desire to benefit his creatures. G-d’s will is that we follow in His path, as it is written: ‘vehalachta bidirachav.’ Each of us, His chosen people should, therefore, constantly strive to devote all our physical and spiritual strengths to the greater good of society… This is the definition of the Miszvah of Kedoshim Teeheyu…. that we constantly direct all our toil and effort toward the benefit of the Klal. We should not use any deed, movement, pleasure or enjoyment for any purpose that does not ultimately benefit another. We then resemble Hekdesh, something uniquely designated for some lofty purpose.” It would seem that even staunch Misnagdim would regard prayer as Avoda b’Lev (service with the heart) and value emosional engagement in its dialogue with G-d.
Chassidus, on the other hand, certainly values aspiration to prophecy. Much of the Chovat HaTalmidim discusses the essential relevancy of that aspiration to our times. Chassidus would probably identify kedusha with dveykus. Kavana in tefilla would be measured by the dveykus achieved as well.

12 Within the limitations of the admonition in Chagiga 11b that we refrain from exploring that which is beyond our capacity to comprehend.

13 Tzava’as HaRivash simanim 29-30 and the nuscha’os acheirim there. Rivash = R. Yisroel Ba’al Shem.

14 Nefesh HaChaim Sha’ar 4:1-2.

15 Kotzk, Izhbitz, Gur, Lublin, Radzhin, Sochatchov, and others as well.

16 Pitgamei Chassidim p. 99.

17 Ibid., pp. 183, 184.

18 The Kotzker’s son in law, R. Avraham Borenstein, the Avnei Nezer.

19 We must note that these brief paragraphs cannot do justice to the rich breadth and depth of Polish Chassidus. The similarities and differences between Polish and other forms of Chassidus are many, complex and profound. One cannot hope to capture and define every principle (even most principles) in one essay. In passing, however, we should note that R.Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, arguably the greatest mind in the annals of Chassidus, does define lishma as dveykus (Tzidkat HaTzaddik, 167).

See also R. Avraham Y. Kook’s discussion of the change in course that Polish Chassidus reflects, in Ma’amarei HaRe”iyah.

20 Ta’amei HaMinhagim U’Mekorei haDinim p. 518.

21 Ibid., p. 519 (see also p. 27 there). R. Leibele Eiger of Lublin asked R. Tzadok HaKohen if he was justified in forsaking the hiddur Mitzvah of zrizin makdimin l’Mitzvos (those who are meticulous perform a Mitzvah as soon as possible) in order to muster greater kavana and tahara. R.Tzadok (end of Levushei Tzedaka and the Yad Eliyahu Kitov ed. of Tzidkat HaTzaddik p. 16) was firm in stating that this is indeed the case. Many Misnagdic sources agree, although others disagree. See Encyclopedia Talmudit vol.12 pp. 416-421.

22 (Munkatch) 1:29.

23 Yechaveh Da’at 2:58.

24 Although beyond the scope of our discussion, it should be noted that R. Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe 2:100) allows clapping and dancing for other, fascinating, reasons.

25 Minchat Yitzchak 6:136.

26 Ibid., 9:12.

27 I heard from one of my Rabbeim, that one impetus for R.Yisroel to found the Mussar movement was a “test” he ran once on one of the Yomim Nora’im in Vilna. He stood during the Shemone Esrei next to an illustrious scholar, pretended that he had forgotten to bring a Machzor, and mosioned a request to be allowed to look into his neighbor’s Machzor. The scholar’s “response” was a shove. R.Yisroel learned from this incident that great scholarship does not necessarily refine an individual’s character. The movement he started posited that character, ethics and personality all required distinct, systematic study and treatment. (An eloquent case for in depth, profound treatment of middos and one’s relationship with G-d is made by the Mesillas Yesharim in his introduction as well.) Those who opposed him held, in broad terms, that meticulous and exacting study of Halacha in and of itself was the best method by which to bring oneself to higher levels of refinement (a case made by the Chazon Ish in his Emuna u’Bitachon, 4).

28 Psalms 16:8.

29 B’Ikvot HaYirah p. 22. R.Avrohom Elya noted that the founders of Chassidus did know and impart the need for Mussar-like introspection to their followers, but sufficient stress was not placed on this component, and over time it was forsaken (ibid., p. 136). The Netziv, R. Naftlai Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the last Rosh Yeshiva of the great 19th century Yeshiva in Volozhin founded by R. Chaim of Volozhin, (Harcheiv Davar Shemos 5:3) does view dveykus as the supreme expression of shleymus, but seems to be skeptical as to whether the Chassidic model actually leads to its attainment. (I am indebted to Mr. Louis Bernson for the source in the Netziv.)

30 A la the contemporary genre of “Gedolim Stories,” that seem all too often to comprise a vicarious alternative to personal Avodas Hashem. 31 R. Yosef Leib Bloch of Telshe made significant use of the Tanya in his system of thought. My grandfather, R. Dov Yehuda Schochet, was a close student of R.Yosef Leib and Telshe Yeshiva who later became a Chassid Chabad. In a 1941 letter to R. Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson of Lubavitch, my grandfather proposed an objective perspective from which our generation might consider the disputes between the disciples of the Gr”a and the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov. This approach is based on an insight my grandfather had heard from R.Yosef Leib that to the best of my knowledge is not to be found elsewhere.

The Gemara in Berachos 28b recounts that R. Gamliel was removed from the leadership of the Yeshiva in Yavne and R. Elazar ben Azarya took his place. R. Gamliel had placed a guard at the gate of the Beis Medrash in order to bar students who were not already of the highest ethical caliber from the Yeshiva. After R. Gamliel was deposed, the guard was removed, and it became necessary to add four hundred benches to the Beis Medrash. Seeing this, R. Gamliel worried lest he be held accountable for having prevented so many from Torah. He was then shown a bucket full of ashes in a dream (a sign that the new students were essentially worthless). The Gemara concludes, however, that this was not really the case, but the Heavens showed him this to appease him. R.Yosef Leib asked: How can it be permissible to utilize untruth just to appease R. Gamliel? Furthermore, why didn’t R. Gamliel himself realize that the consolation was false?

R.Yosef Leib offered a wonderfully profound explanation: There is a question as to which is the proper pathway through which to attain both ultimate shleymus as the nation of Hashem and ultimate success in bringing the world closer to Malchus Shomayim (the reign of Heaven on Earth). Are these to be achieved by devoting one’s influence toward the broadest possible cross-section of the nation in order to uplift it to a loftier plane – even if as a result some outstanding unique individuals will be impeded from achieving their respective capacities? Or are these best achieved by devotion with all might and strength to the nurturing of those of the highest caliber until they become the luminaries of the Jewish people?

It is impossible for any person to resolve this issue. To do so entails taking into account ultimate ramifications for eternity, until the end of days. G-d deliberately placed the issue beyond resolution. Each great Torah sage has no choice, therefore, but to follow his particular inclination and perception that in this or that specific manner he will fulfill his obligation to improve the world.

R. Gamliel, according to his characteristics, perceived his responsibility as one of educating the giants of the nation, its leaders and trailblazers. That is why he barred those who were, in his opinion, not candidates for greatness, from the Beis Medrash. When R. Gamliel later beheld the splendid sight of a multitude studying Torah, doubt entered his heart. The dream was meant to assuage his worries. The Gemara’s subsequent conclusion is not that the dream was untruthful, rather, that we should not draw from here a conclusion as to how all generations should conduct themselves. R. Gamliel had to conduct himself according to his understanding – and so do we. There can be no one decisive, conclusive Halachic ruling in such areas. My grandfather theorized that the debate between Chassidus and Misnagdus must be viewed – by us – in a similar vein.

Converted by Andrew Scriven

29 comments on “Forks in the Road: Old Divisions, Modern Ramifications

  1. The Sefer Mesilas Yesharim, which is considered a classic across the board, is based on Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir’s ladder starting from Torah, Zehirus (cautiousness), Zrizus (alertness), and ending with Chassidus (piety), Ruach Hakodesh (G-dliness) and Techias Hameisim. The highest attainable level, says Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir, is Chasidus.

    Here we see that although we must always learn Torah, there are levels of Avoda to achieve. You will see this same concept in any Sefer from Rishonim and Acharonim. Chassidus didn’t invent any new Hashkafa. Many references to ideas now considered Chassidic are to be found in Sefarim from all through the ages; most notably are Simcha and the love of Mitzvos.

    Some concepts taught by Chassidus were previously mentioned only in books of Kabbalah. The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples brought these things down to a level that can be grasped by anyone, if taught in the right way. It was mainly this phenomenon that roused the suspicion and ire of the Misnagdim. To them the whole thing seemed dangerous at worst and irresponsible at best. If there was any real point of disagreement, it was about whether such things ought to be taught to the general public.

    In hindsight we see a full established community that has not turned away from Yiddishkeit, and there is no more need for suspicion. Perhaps we can still disagree on whether or not to teach concepts formerly known only to kabbalists. But these arguments, not to get close to Hashem and purposely not to learn for the sake of Hashem’s command, are new.

    In footnote 11 the author quotes a puzzling statement from R. Yosef B. Soloveichik, saying in essence that if Hashem has hidden his presence it follows that we shouldn’t seek to reverse it. This seems to resonate with what the Roman governor Turnos-Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: If Hashem made a man poor, what right do you have to go against Him and help the poor man? I would suggest that R. Soloveichik’s goal at the outset was to counter the Chassidic position (as R. Bechhoffer’s words suggest: attempting to define a classic Misnagdic philosophy), and that otherwise he would not have said this.

    Following the initial strong reaction, what took place followed a natural path. The new movement had been rejected outright, without arguments of “they hold like this, but we hold like that”; only later did the reasons begin to be defined. Is there a reason to say that these views existed before? Furthermore, as I stated above, we see that the arguments actually are new.

    Just to be clear, Chassidus was an innovation. It did not exist before the Baal Shem Tov; however, there was nothing contrary to it either. There were many individual Gedolim who behaved in similar fashion to what became known later as Chassidic behavior. The view that these ideas are wrong is what did not exist before.

  2. I would like to see any evidence that supports an implication of HaLeiVi’s thesis above, namely, that misnagdic theoreticians took on altogether new positions as part of their negative reaction to chassidism.

    It might be fairer to state that misnagdim were prompted to research the true basis for their own historical approach, that is, traditional Ashkenazic Judaism.

  3. This essay makes it sound as if there was an argument about what to do, and the two sides sat down to discuss their viewpoints. However, it did not play out that way. After the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings began to spread, many reacted with alarm, not dialog.

    We also know that all early Hisnagdus was primarily about the fact that this new group was bringing something new to yiddishkeit, which is always something to be afraid of. There was no dialog, as much as some had begged for it. Who’s to say that the Gra and others would have rejected the concepts had they been exposed to them in their true form and environment?

    There is always the need to define your stand, but what if your stand is only that the other’s stand is wrong? Then you read up on what his view is, and stand against it. If you look at the original post, the first paragraph under ‘Prioritizing Values in Avodas Hashem,’ you will see exactly what I mean.

    You can see this happening very often in an argument, where one side causes the other side to argue a point that he never believed in until now. The first one associates a new point with the original argument, and the other reflexively argues against the new point. Someone who isn’t paying close attention will fall into the trap and continue the argument, as the divider between them slips and slides.

    The overwhelming majority of the early Misnagdim had not gone to visit the Chasidic courts themselves. Hence they justifiably reacted with alarm to something that sounded truly alarming. It was only years later, when the original furor had died down and they realized that the Chasidim were not a new Shabsai Tzvi sect, that the Misnagdim began to see Chasidus as a legitimate approach in Avodas Hashem. However, the pattern was already set and Chasidus had been conclusively rejected. At that point, the Misnagdim began to articulate specifically why.

    Had Chasidus not been rejected so strongly by the Misnagdim, perhaps not everyone would have become disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, but people would have taken on different aspects according to what they were holding by, and anyone could be found with Chasidishe Seforim. An example of this is the Hungarian Yidden, and to a lesser extent, the Sefardim. Just like the Arizal’s Torah is universally accepted as holy, but not equally universally learned and followed, such would have have been the case with Chassidus. There doesn’t have to be a counter-point, unless your Mesora is to reject it.

    With this in mind, I don’t find it important to bring up the differences in Shitta, since that’s not the real reason for the Hisnagdus. It is true that many concepts that were originally Chasidic, have made their way out and are embraced by the general population. Does that really have to be stopped?

    As a side note, Chasidus came to add, never to take away. As central as Torah was beforehand, it remained. The Chasidishe Bachurim went to learn in the established Yeshivos. It never dawned on the Chasidim to have to make their own Yeshivos, until close to the war.

  4. In my humble opinion, the Aibershter sent the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidut to the Jewish people to heal our crushed spirits following the terrible Chmielnizki massacres of Tach veTat, 1648-1649, when nearly half a million Jews were killed and whole towns were destroyed. We are in a similar time now, a broken-hearted generation following the destruction of the Shoah.

    There was an article about the recent passing of the Satmar-Sigeter Rebbetzin, a”h, widow of the Satmar-Sigeter Rav zatzal. In the article, there was a beautiful peirush on one sentence of the Ayshes Chayil: “a woman’s children praise her by becoming great in Torah.” The article discussed how she always encouraged Yeshiva learning.

  5. The Chassidic approach to Gemara learning, as I understand it, may be “objectively” less analytically rigorous than the Lithuanian approach. On the one hand, no one would question whether there were truly great scholars and poskim among even recent generations of Chasidic rabbonim. On the other hand, there are far more Lakewood-trained roshei yeshiva teaching in Chassidic yeshivos than the other way around, to put it mildly.

    But the reason I think, Bob, you are missing the mark in your last comment is that a commitment to high achievement in Gemara learning was, and is, far less prevalent among Chassidim than among “Litvaks.”

    In many respects, as I have argued (no, don’t worry, not linking to it again), the Chassidim cannot be touched by anyone for the their level of commitment to Yahadus — they exhibit a very profound level of non-“laziness” in this respect. Yet on the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the relative lack of widespread cultural commitment among most Chassidic groups, and Chassidim (until fairly recently) to talmudic erudition and skill.

    There is probably some connection between this and the fact that in many, though not all, Chassidic courts, someone can become an “ADMOR” without any bona fides in learning, and especially Gemara learning, and this person will be “revered” as a “tzaddik” by hundreds or thousands of people. Of course, the origins of Chassidus are very much premised on a rejection of the “elitist” concept that if a man is not a lamdan [accomplished talmudic scholar], he can never achieve d’veikus. Indeed this formulation, if accurate (and I think, really, it is), of the Lithuanian hashkofah [outlook] is pretty hard to swallow, seeing as how even under the best of circumstances half the population (i.e., the better half) can never achieve the status of being a lamdan categorically, and realistically speaking a very significant percentage of plain old guys will, despite the best of intentions, still be plain old guys.

    So of course the BeSH’T had something to offer all of us (not that he needs me to say it), and even modern-day Chassidus surely does, too. But as Mark says, “Chassidus” — or, rather, “being Chasidish” — doesn’t quality as much of an excuse for adequate hishtadlus in learning.

    Not that I have come up with a better excuse, myself…

  6. Bob, If you are arguing that there is no significant difference between Chassidus and Misnagdim regarding the primacy of learning Gemora in both approaches then you are disagreeing with Rabbi Bechoffer and the sources he quotes.

    If you are saying that there are Chassidic Yeshivos who learn Gemara in-depth, then of course I agree with you.

    The Rabbis I have spoken to think that laziness is a big part of why Baalei Batim don’t apply their more than adequate intelligence to learn Gemora.

    The Mesillas Yesharim lists laziness as one of the primary causes why people don’t perform positive mitzvos properly.

    Chassidus provides a reason for a person to opt-out of difficult in-depth learning as it is not stressed as much for the Baalei Batim as it is in the Misnagdish Yeshivish approaches.

    If I understand Rabbi Dessler and Rav Bechoffer properly they are advocating in-depth learning plus Chassidus. As I said above, many in the Yeshivish world are still wary about Chassidus for the reasons Rav Bechoffer stated in his article.

  7. Major Chassidic groups have been known for in-depth Gemara learning and some even set up networks of yeshivos in pre-WW2 Europe. Chachmei Lublin was one large chassidic-oriented advanced yeshiva. The idea that the chassidic approach equates to an easy, lazy option is a distortion.

  8. Charlie, I agree that gemara-centered-learning has not been universal but I think it has been the *primary* means for higher levels of service for a very long time.

    What has changed is how many people have the opportunity to reach higher levels.

    Before mandatory schooling in the western world, only the more gifted had the opportunity for advanced gemara learning.

    And it seems that the Baal Shem Tov wanted to make higher levels of Deveikus-centered avodah available to a greater number of people.

    I think that is one of the major struggles we face today. Higher levels of learning and avodah are available, but with a bigger population with access, we perhaps need different tools and techniques to help people reach their potentials.

    In talking to community Rabbis here in KGH and other communities they bemoan the fact that many Baalei Baatim are capable of more advanced learning and don’t make the necessary effort to reach those levels.

    I see it here on this blog, where there are many very intelligent people who don’t seem to be applying that intelligence to tackle difficult a Tosfos.

    Perhaps they feel that Chassidus or an easier learning regiment is a viable alternative to in-depth Gemora learning. I think that is why this conversation is so important.

  9. We can find traces of both approaches in earlier historical periods.

    Much Midrash and agaddda is basically recorded “vertlach” – synagogue or “tisch” preaching by the Tanaim and Amoraim, whom we forget were also lay leaders and “Rebbes”.

    The one major innovation – which caused much of the heat between Chasidim and misnagdim – was the dissemination of kabbalistic teaching to simple folk. Unfortunately that is not touched on in this essay, which leans heavily in favor of Chassidus.

  10. Mark,

    I’m not sure the gemara centered learning approach has always been universal. I recall hearing that Abarbenal was stunned to find that Ashkenazic Jews in Italy spent most of their time on gemara; in Spain, Jews had spent most of their time on Tanakh.

  11. Sholom aleichem, Rabbi Bechoffer.

    Rabbi Dessler… well, what can one say? He was a towering figure and had the special power of being one of the great modern integrators, indeed, of Mussar and Chassidus, as is well known.

    But, but, but. I can only think this: What you quoted cannot have been written by him any later than 1953, when R’ Dessler passed away, and in all likelihood was written years earlier. And now think of those passages he wrote, and now consider who walked the earth in those days: The Chazon Ish. The Satmar Rov. The Brisker Rov. R’ Yaakov Kanievsky. R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz. R’ Chatzkel Levenstein. R’ Aharon Kotler. R’ Moshe Feinstein. R’ Isser Zalman Meltzer. The “young” R’ Schach. This is just a tiny sampling — “greatest hits.”

    Now, again, consider those words:

    We no longer find individuals whose hearts are full with profound truth, with a strong and true sense of Cheshbon HaNefesh.

    The simple conclusion, to me, of the juxtaposition of those words and those names is that we have no concept whatsoever of what R’ Dessler is talking about. It’s what they call in yeshivishe sprach “no chush.” None. R’ Dessler’s words are incapable of comprehension by us, because what he considers a generation of emptiness and falsehood was populated by innumerable people whose spiritual greatness is so well established to us that, we are told, if even one person of the stature of those on that list still lived, everything would be different for us today.

    Know what I’m saying?

    And my point is, therefore, that you only make my objection stronger, I think. I have “no chush” of what R’ Dessler means, could have meant. And while there is an appealing argument that says, well, if it was true 60 years ago, al achas kama v’kama [all the more so] now… very nice, a tight proof. The only problem is, again, I still have no idea what he meant, and no idea what it could mean now.

  12. The “Bilvavi” approach is really a great example of printed example of cross-pollination.

    The emphasis on Deveikus to the larger “litvish” population is simply a modern-day version of what R Yisrael Salanter was doing, highlighting something that seemed to be lost on a generation.

  13. Due to the re-formatting, it is not sufficiently obvious, but the passages that Reb Ron Coleman found troublesome are directly quoted from Rav Dessler. It would have indeed been presumptuous in the extreme for me to have formulated this conclusion on my own!

  14. The modern Mussar movement is not the same as learning Mussar or a Torah-learning-centered approach.

    The Mesillas Yesharim predates the modern Mussar movement and it has survived the decline of the movement.

    What I am fascinated by is Bilavi’s use of Mesillas Yesharim to highlight the importance of Deveikus.

  15. The modern Mussar movement is a chiddush in the same sense, a rebalancing of tendencies active or latent in Torah Judaism, in response to a deteriorating situation.

  16. To Ron, post # 5 ( I hope you all will forgive an FFB like myself posting. Ach what can I do if I wasn’t zoche to be a BT…or more precisely…I deeply suspect in my heart of hearts that had I been born Frei, there is no way I would have the strength of charachter to do Teshuvah. So G-d knew what he was doing when he put me where he did.)

    I come from a Hassidish family and I had quite a bit to do with Hassidim of all stripes and convictions. Thinking back to the seventies when I was a lad (well actually a teen,) an old Hassid in summer camp caught me reading Kedushas Levi one erev Shabbos and began to yell at me. Our conversation went something like this:
    He yelled: “You disgrace the words by looking at them!” I reluctantly decided to hold my ground and say “Why shouldn’t I learn this?”
    The Hassid replied “You can’t possibly understand it. If you think you understand it you are a fool and an arrogant fool to boot.”
    I asked “Can you understand it?”
    He replied “No-one understands it. Once there were reall rebbes and real hassidim today we have only the ‘begoodim'” That means (for those unfamiliar with the lingo) “The clothes”
    I thought it was terribly sad. As soon as he was gone, I went back to the Kedushas Levi. Truth is it took me many years to discover that I really did understand it back then.

    Ok I am rambling. My point is that in the Yiddishkeit that I experienced growing up there was a great deal of rigidity and externiaility and the unspoken conviction that there was no such thing as spiritual experience anymore. Things had become reduced to the bare shells of observance clung to with a fanatical energy that valued these shells precisely because they could be controlled and and siezed in ways that inner experience could not. I believe that this was a skill needed to survive the turmoils of modernity displacement and holocaust. Incedently, later on I did hear from some important Satmar Hassidim that the Old Rebbe, ZTL had indeed said that there is no more “Path of the Baal Shem Tov…all we have is the behaviours of our ancestors to cling to.”

    I went to litvish yeshivas also, and I must confess that the atmosphere was pretty much the same over there. We were taught Mesilas Yesharim with a sigh and a nod as if even the lowest rungs of Zehirus where a pipe dream unatainable. We could howvere become benei torah, which meant learning certain texts, staying away from other (mostly hassidish)texts, avoiding dangerous thoughts, by knowing to to shun and who to admire and who to pity, perporting ourselves in certain ways and of course DRESSING LIKE A BEN TORAH.

    Well the fascination with external mesures of who is us and who is not us, the fixation on hats as a way of self definition, and many other trappings of Frumkeit are still very much with us. Like the parable Rabbi Bechoffer said over (also from the Old Satmar Rebbe)about the two guys at last eating potatoes in the same room. In the end it all comes down to externals. There is a very dark melancholy to it all, and I imagine that The Rebbes belief in the imminant coming of Moshiach got him through.

    So I say all of this in support of Rabbi Bechoffers analysis. But now the good news. Things that were once dead are coming back. There are talmidei Chachamim alive today who are doing the Avodah of the Baal Shem Tov and Learning the Gra on Zohar. You can’t imagine the happiness I feel when I walk into a Hassidish Beis Medrash and see 16 year olds grappeling with Kedushas Levi. Or to see Yeshivish Bochurim really trying to understand how to do the rungs of Mesilas Yesharim. There is a proliferation of real spiritual experiental stuff flowering. The destinction, incidently, between the Hassidic emphasis on Devekus and the the Litvish emphasis on Charachter Perfection stands, and it is actually quite self evident in many ways. But in the renaissance (which I find quite amazing) things are getting mixed and matched in new ways which I probably am too small to understand. Oh yes, it is an exciting challenging time to be frum. Look, we are not out of the woods yet. But a time will come when I will be able to wear my straw hat and plaid jacket in the bais hamedrash. The light of inwardness will prevail.

    Blessings to all

  17. Modern day chassidus is a chiddush (novel idea) instituted by the Baal Shem Tov as discussed in the article. Before chassidus, the Gemora-learning-centered approach was primary and it still is among the majority of Gedollim today.

    Since many FFBs and BTs have not adopted a Gemora-learning-centered approach, other focuses are helpful.

    Obviously every individual must consider their mesorah and determine what is right for them, while making sure they are not taking an easy way out.

  18. Thank you for this essay! I will read it again carefully before offering any comments as there is a lot here to absorb.

  19. “Saying there are different approaches for different Jews does not mean that all approaches are equal”

    OK, but who is the unbiased authority who can propose a valid pecking order?

  20. 1. People also complain that we have “no” true leaders anymore. I question anyone’s ability to know that this is so, or to know there are no true Chassidim or Misnagdim or Hirschians… these days. There are many things below our radar, our voracious reading notwithstanding.

    2. Adopting an approach as shtick is silly, but there is no reason to diss a seriously integrated eclectic approach or to believe that one is impossible.

  21. Mark, as usual you demonstrate your talent for focus. But I think my point is relevant because if there are such people today, and I believe there are, it would affect Rabbi Bechoffer’s thesis, which is, I think, as follows: Because the old, focused ways don’t work,

    For today’s era, there remains only one alternative: To take up everything and anything that can be of aid to Yahadus; the wisdom of both Mussar and Chassidus together.

    I don’t even see the logic of that argument. It isn’t really an argument to say that if two things don’t work, use them both, or mix and match from them. If they don’t work, how do we know what to mix and match? Maybe we’re using exactly the part that is the problem? Indeed, isn’t he arguing that this is exactly what IS happening — that we have the forms of earlier traditions but they are just external idioms? If we could take the good parts… then we’d have the good parts, wouldn’t we?

    Indeed the argument of classical Mussar and real, principled Misnagdus is to the contrary: Each and every little bit of “shtick” that we take from what looks like Chassidus deceives us into thinking we have made some increment of progress in our Avodas Hashem, when all we have done is added shtick. How do we honor Mussar by abandoning one of its key precepts?

    The fact is, of course, and as Rabbi Bechoffer argues, well, we really do, don’t we? We all say Kabbolas Shabbos, sing Askinu Seudosah at Shalosh Seudos… everyone in Monsey and other parts of Eretz Yisroel refrains from cutting their boys’ hair until age three… there are many more examples.

    Do these things, though, really “aid Yahadus”? I just don’t know. When I wrote my first post here (which, sorry, I have a recent habit of linking to in comments because it was just reishis oni [first fruits] and I suppose it reflected years of thought), and I guess when I wrote this one, too, I acknowledged that for me, “taking on” things as “off the rack” as “more Jewish” dress, or even “hasidic” levush [costume], could be a useful device for spiritual growth. But “dressing up” is, at the end of the day, much easier than growing up.

    I don’t know.

  22. Ron, for the sake of discussion, what if we assumed the points you questioned were true, would you then agree with Rabbi Bechoffer’s conclusions?

  23. This is a great resource, though a bit much to digest as a blog post perhaps. Yet for all the detail, and there’s plenty, I am inclined to agree with Bob that there is some troubling generalization here:

    Contemporary Chassidus lacks the component that was once at its core: Avodas Hashem with dveykus. All that remains is the external form of Chassidus, something that appears like hislahavus. There is nigun, but the soul of nigun is no longer. Hislahavus in davening is almost a thing of the past.

    With all due respect, that’s really presumptuous. I don’t know that it’s wrong, but I don’t know how this author could make such broad statements about “Chassidus” and, by implication, the quality of prayer of hundreds of thousands of chasidim?


    We no longer find individuals whose hearts are full with profound truth, with a strong and true sense of Cheshbon HaNefesh.

    We no longer find “individuals”? Really? What are we using, Google?

    Rabbi Bechhofer is a very serious, learned and insightful person. But with all due respect, it’s one thing for the Satmar Rov to make pronouncements about “everyone” of this magnitude. While I have no trouble agreeing with the overall decline in intensity in Avodas Hashem compared to previous generations — because, like Rabbi Bechhofer, others who were there have written and spoke to us about it (we don’t really know, do we?) — I don’t think we “find individuals” today who can speak so broadly, and in such condemning fashion, about all those individuals out there who may, in fact, include not more than a few highly accomplished ovdei Hashem [servants of Hashem] even by the recknoning of classic misnagdus or chassidus.

  24. Bob, it’s not that simple. Saying there are different approaches for different Jews does not mean that all approaches are equal. The Gemora-learning oriented Yeshivish world is pretty adamant that Torah learning and shleimus in mitzvos performance is ideal and for those whom that path is appropriate, should follow it.

    The Bilvavi seforim made the counterpoint that Torah learning needs to be supplemented with Deveikus, but the Yeshivish people I have spoken to have not embraced that approach.

    Obviously Yeshivish oriented people have benefited from Chassidus thought and visa versa but it’s a long jump to say that makes the approaches equivalent.

    My personal experience is that for Baalei Teshuva, adding Chassidus and Bilvavi to your Torah diet is beneficial.
    However, I also think that more Baalei Teshuva should make efforts at learning Gemora, usually with the assistance of Art Scroll.

  25. Avoid trying to characterize one of these approaches as higher or as better-fitted to elite thinkers. All can provide plenty of appropriate food for thought/dveikus/action to Jews at all levels.

  26. I liked this article very much and I’ve discussed this issue many times with my Rebbeim.

    The intellectual shleimus-oriented Yeshivish approach is often difficult for people especially BTs with weak backgrounds and in those cases some Chassidus might be beneficial.

    For those actively involved in Gemora learning, Mesillis Yesharim and improvement in performance of mitzvos the addition of Chassidus might *not* be beneficial.

    I’ve been working on reconciling the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim where the Ramchal discusses the importance of Dveikus and the fact that Dveikus is not explored in depth until the later chapters of the sefer, which is described as a step by step guide.

    My current thoughts are that acts of Dveikus are important and the Misnagdik approach to them is through Kavanna and careful practice of Mitzvos.

    To become a person who is a Devaik (someone often attached to Hashem) is a lifelong process and it is dangerous to your spiritual progression to consider yourself more attached than you really are.

    I think Rabbi Bechhoffer said this in the article but I was a little surprised to the seeming equality he gave to both the Chasidus and Misnagdic approaches.

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