Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Trouble with Chasidus

I am a direct descendant of the great Chasidic Master, Rav Shimon MiYaroslav. People who are not immersed in Chasidic folklore probably never heard of him. But for those ‘in the know’ I am told that it is quite a prestigious Yichus. I mention this fact as a preface to what I am about to write in order to emphasize how far I have traveled from this philosophy.

This coming Shavuos is apparently the 250th Yahrzeit of the founder of Chasidus, Israel Baal Shem Tov (illustrated above). I am only aware of this fact because of an article written by Dr. Alan Nadler in the Forward. He writes there a glowing tribute to the Baal Shem Tov’s legacy. It is truly a remarkable one. Chasidism is in fact ‘winning’.

They are probably the fastest growing segment in all of Orthodoxy. As Dr. Nadler points out their birth rate is probably the highest among all segments of Jewry and their attrition rate is apparently negligible. Even though there are plenty of Chasidic ‘dropouts’ it doesn’t seem to be in any significant percentage.

This fact is not only remarkable. It is also quite contrary to what one might expect. I simply cannot understand why people would adopt a philosophy which is based so little on the rational and so much on the emotional… with so little biographical knowledge about the founder nor any written legacy at all.

I understand the appeal of Chasidus. Chasidim are perhaps the warmest and most welcoming segment of the entire Jewish people. They do not discriminate when it comes to any fellow Jew as an individual. Their hospitality is legendary. Their acts of kindness are incomparable. Once you become a part of any type of Chasidus you are surrounded by a lifetime cocoon of love and warmth. A warmth that is enhanced by their insular ways.

In rejecting so much of the outside world it increases the internal bonds. Bonds based entirely on their own values. That insularity is enforced psychologically in their manner of dress which contributes to their separation. Although insularity certainly has its problems as I have so often pointed out - there is no doubt in my mind about this positive side of it.

But it completely escapes me as to how the emotional draw can overcome so many of the problems raised by the emphasis on the metaphysical . Here is an example of this from Dr. Nadler’s article. It is a quote from an authenticated hand-written letter of the Baal Shem Tov:

Finally I rose and arrived at the actual Palace of the King Messiah and I actually saw [him] face to face, and great untold mysteries were revealed to me…. and there was in heaven much happiness and rejoicing; so I decided to ask him, ‘When, my Lord, will you be arriving?’ But the answer from his Eminence was, ‘This cannot be revealed, but by this shall you know: When your [the Besht’s] learning becomes publicly known and your teachings shall be spread across the world… then shall evil be broken and it will be the time of favor and salvation. And I worried about this and it greatly pained me on account of the very long time this would take.

The founder of Chasidim actually went to the Palace of the King Messiah? Is there a rational person alive that believes this? There are apparently many more legends about the Baal Shem Tov ascending into the heavenly sphere. As unbelievable as this story is to believe - to the best of my knowledge this is an accepted fact by all Chasidim. How can something like this be believed?

The Mezritcher Magid who was the chief disciple of the Baal ShemTov has spread these stories. He is the one who actually created this movement. He was the one who spread the word about the Baal Shem Tov’s wonderous deeds. It was under him that the concept of the Chasidic Rebbe came into being as the supreme leader of the movement. The orignal Chasidus eventually had many offshoots and many different Rebbes over the generations. The Rebbe was seen as the ultimate human source of God’s blessing and was seen as the best the mediator between man here on earth and God in Heaven. It is a near Deification in some cases – stopping just short of it.

And yet this level of respect is a result of Yichus and not merit. Chasisdic Rebbes are almost always the offspring of the previous Rebbe. Most often it is a son who is groomed by the father to take over upon the death of the father. There is never any thought about someone outside the family becoming the spiritual leader of the movement – even if that individual is empirically wiser and more brilliant. The thinking is that no one can be wiser or closer to God than the Rebbe or his hand chosen successor son.

I certainly can understand the peace of mind a Chasid feels by simply relying on the Rebbe for all major decisions in life. It absolves one of responsibility for errors in choosing a path of action. One can simply say that the Rebbe told him what to do and be satisfied that the Rebbe’s wisdom is greater than his own perhaps even directly emanating from God through the Rebbe! This is the mimetic tradition passed down to each generation.

But how can any rational human being get past these inherent problems? Little direct knowledge about the founder. No written word aside from some perosnal letters. Yichus as the primary requirement for leadership?! But most troubling is the belief in his constant ascension to Heaven while still alive! How can one take emotional comfort in a lifestyle based on this? It is almost as though they attribute prophecy to the Rebbe. Something that we know has not existed since the days of biblical times! And yet this is the fastest growing segment in all of Jewry.

There are additional difficulties with Chasidus such as the importance of Kabbalah - or Nistar. Nistar is Torah which is hidden from human understanding. Studying metaphysical issues that have no basis in the physical universe seems like such an irrational and therefore fruitless exercise in enhancing one’s Emunah. Perhaps that is why - with the exception of Chabad – Kabbalah is no longer so emphasized for study. But I don’t think it has been completely abandoned either.

And then there is the inexplicable break from the Meorah of Teffilah. Adopting the revisions of Rabbi Isaac Luria, The Arizal on the Nusach HaTeffila – a Nuasch that had remain unchanged for centuries to this day. The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples decided that ths Arizal’s revisions were a holier version of Teffilah and adopted it. Nusach Sefard was born. Who gave them permission to change the Mesorah?

I should note that when Chasidus was founded many of the greatest Rabbinic figures of the generation – mostly of Lithuanian persuasion. They were called Misnagdim. The most famous opponent was the greatest rabbinic figure of his day - the Gra. He vehemently opposed Chasidus until the end of his life fearing that the Baal Shem Tov and his followers were just another potential false messianic movement. Shabbsai Tzvi was a false Messiah of the Gra’s immediate past that swept up many great rabbinic figures of his time until he was exposed as a fraud.

Opposition to Chasidus continued after the Gra died. But as Haskalah and its offshoot - the Reform Movement - became more of a threat to Judaism - Misnagdic opposition waned and eventually Chasidim and Misnagdim combined. This relationship was solidified in the creation of Agudath Israel where great Lithuanian Rabbinic leaders and Chasidic leaders joined in common cause opposition to Reform.

As important as unity among Jews is I cannot get past these problems. They are still there. They did not go away. In part this is the reason I have rejected my Chasidic roots so thoroughly.

My ancestor, R’ Shimon embraced it and made a break from his Mesorah. His father, Rav Yisroel Leib Elbaum was an ardent Misnaged. He was very upset at his son. As he lay on his death bed R’ Yisroel Leib commanded his son that if he changes the Nusach of of Kaddish to include the Nusach Sefard addition of V’Yatzmach Purkoneh V’ Korev Meshichei - he should not recite Kaddish for him at all. Nonethless R’ Shimon remained a Chasid and produced generations of Chasidic Rebbes after him. To show that he still revered his father R' Shimon changed his name from Elbaum to Maryles which is a Hebrew acronym for “Mei Reb Yisroel Leib’s” (meaning that all future generations were descendant from his father) - as an eternal tribute to him.

I carry that name which my father changed from Shapiro during the holocaust. His mother was a Maryles and a direct descendant of R’ Shimon. Long story – not for now.

I have reverted to the wishes of R’ Shimon’s father. The question remains, why do these fundamental issues not bother today’s Chasidim?