Monday, December 04, 2006

Mysterious Chasidic Tales

Did the Chozeh MiLublin commit Suicide? I doubt it. Did the son of Chabad founder, Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyadi convert to Christianity in 1820? Probably. Professor David Assaf has written a fascinating book about great Chasidic figures with stories like these.

Although I am not a Chasid in any way, my attitude about Chasidus is well known. And I have written about it. I am a direct descendant of Rav Shimon Maryles MiYaruslav, an early Chasidic master,(circa: late 18th early 19th century). My paternal grandfather was a Chasid of the Chortkover Rebbe who is of the famous Chasidic dynastic line of Rizhun. Both he and my father as a youngster used to go visit the Rebbe.

My father who was not really a Chasid in any real sense of the word, retained a nominal bond with that Chasidus even after moving to the small and very unchasidic city of Toledo, Ohio the after the holocaust. After retiring to Bnei Brak, Israel, my father returned to that environment “body and soul” joining the Boyaner Chasidim (also of Rizhin) and immersed himself in that culture... participating with them as much as possible. He Davened in their Shteeble, went to their Melave Malkas and banquets, and donated money to their Yeshivos. He loved that culture which harkened back to his boyhood

My great ancestor, Rav Shimon Maryles, was a Talmid Muvhak of the Chozeh MiLublin. In fact he rebelled from his own Mesorah because his father was an avowed Misnagid. The story is brought down in a Halacha Sefer, “Shaarim Mitzyanim BeHalacha” in in the form of a Shaylah.

So why do I bring up all this up now? Because of a very intriguing article in Ha’aretz on the Chozeh, Rizhin, and other historical Chasidic figures contained in that aforementioned book written by Professor Assaf.. The stories there-in are quite negative. The article itself is about this historian who researched these Chasidic figures and then writing mostly about the troubling events in their history. It is rather lengthy, as newspaper articles go but it is well worth one’s time to read it.

To be sure one can question the motives of the author who was raised in an observant DL home and is no longer observant. But no one can really question the incidents themselves. They happened. The only question is how these events are to be interpreted. These is an open question. But I find it both coincidental and remarkable that my both my recent, and relatively distant ancestors (seven generations back) were so intimately involved with two of the Chasidic masters that Professor Assaf focuses on.

Among the more captivating stories is the one told of an apparent heir to the throne of Shpikov. (He was asked to ascend by their Chasidim but turned it down). This son... of Rabbi Yitzhak Nahum Twersky of Shpikov wrote a letter of “confession” in 1910, that “covered 27 notebook pages with hardly any erasures”. He wrote it at about the time he was supposed to marry the daughter of the Belzer Rebbe of that era. It is about his true thoughts and feelings with respect to Chasidus and its customs. And it is nothing short of shocking! Here is an excerpt from the article:

“In his letter, Twersky complains about the custom of shaving the head of a bridegroom and about the sidecurls that are "long and thick, dangling on the face and moving hither and thither, as taken by wind, and upon the white, shaven head they appear as if stuck on with glue." And the bride? Her head is shaven, too, and what a look this is for a young couple - "he with shaven head and she with shaven head.”

And there is so much more about him and about other great Chasidic masters. Stories that are historically viable albeit the author does contribute his own analyses and conclusions. But this particular story stands out because it is based on the written word of the individual himself and not by a historian interpreting some event.

For a more complete history of my own Yichus, I recommend the biographical book written by my nephew, Rabbi Ari Maryles entitled, “Rebuilding the Foundations” published by Targum Press. It was written for the Charedi reading public and reflects their hagiographical approach to history. While it does not mention any of the negative aspects of my ancestors or their mentors, it does give you a picture about their lives and views.