Monday, June 28, 2010

How Chasidism Went Astray

OK – I never met him but he’s probably an Apikores. Let’s get that out of the way first. Rabbi Arthur Green was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and was once the dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Reconstructionists do not believe in God – at least not in the traditional sense. I don’t know what his personal beliefs are but it would seem to be ridiculous for someone to be the dean of a rabbinical school and not believe in its theology.

And yet after reading an op-ed he wrote on the state of Chasidus in the Forward one would never guess his background or religious orientation. One might even think he an Orthodox scholar on the subject. He is obviously very knowledgeable and loves Chasidus. He even spends time ‘poring over the works of the Kedushas Levi (R’ Levi Yitzchak Berditchever) and the Sefas Emes (The Gerrer Rebbe of a few generations ago)’.

I therefore do not believe him to be simply bashing Chasidus. I consider him to instead analyzing it from a perspective of love -showing how modern day Chasidim have strayed from many of Judaism’s core values. In my view he pretty much nails it. I have in fact articulated many of these things myself.

I have personally never been attracted to Chasidism for reasons I have discussed in the past. But I understand those who are attracted to it. They place a high value on it - as Rabbi Green does. Here are some of his observations.

To understand how Hasidism went astray, we need to know its history, including some flaws that were present from the outset.

The goal of the Baal Shem Tov’s followers was a Jewish life refocused on such essentials as the love of God, the joy of living out God’s commandments and the faith that divinity was to be found everywhere. The Jew’s task was to seek sparks of holiness throughout creation and to return them to their root, meanwhile celebrating the privilege of this life of holiness. Divinity was to be found in fields and forests, in the letters of the Torah, and in the Jewish heart.

Left out of the equation was the non-Jewish human community in whose midst the Hasidim lived. It is easy to say that Polish and Ukrainian Christianity, filled with anti-Semitic stereotypes, dehumanized the Jew, and we merely returned the favor.

But the history is more complex. The view that gentiles are less fully human than Jews, even said to be lacking the divine soul, had ancient roots in kabbalistic tradition. Sadly, that bit of racist Jewish folklore is alive among the Hasidim (and a few others!) even today.

Although it should have nothing to do with internal Jewish divisions, since the unity of Jews is also a cardinal principle, we know that the stain of racism is one that tends to spread.

Two other developments that led to the decline and even degeneration of Hasidism can be attributed to decisions made in the course of its history.

The first is dynastic leadership. The idea that a holy man’s charisma could be passed down to sons and grandsons — instead of the obvious, and more inherently Jewish, choice of master-to-disciple — began in a few key families of Hasidic lineage at the turn of the 19th century. The grandsons and great-grandsons of Hasidic tzaddikim quarreled with one another over loyalties, over doctrines, but especially over money.

As the numbers of dynastic claimants swelled, the movement came to be seen as characterized by pettiness and increasingly weak and uninspired leadership. While a few great latter-day figures proved exceptions, the rule was that the quality and originality of those at Hasidism’s helm was already in sharp decline over a hundred years ago.

The second development stems from the Hasidic movement’s response to modernity.

When the brash new Hasidic movement first appeared on the stage of history, the rabbinic leadership of Eastern Europe, famously including the Vilna Gaon, was outraged. For 30 years, beginning in 1772, these mitnagdim — Hasidism’s “opponents” — would excommunicate anyone who had anything to do with the Hasidim. But by 1810, the rabbinic leadership began to feel the pressure of a much more dangerous enemy, that of Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment. The rabbinic leaders then made common cause with the Hasidim to fight modernity.

The Hasidim, anxious to please their one-time persecutors, enthusiastically led the charge. The Baal Shem Tov’s world-embracing legacy was turned into a weapon with which to bludgeon anyone who dared deviate, whether in religious practice, educational views or even in style of dress, from the norms of the 18th century.

This is the Hasidism that got carried forward into succeeding generations. As the struggle became fiercer, especially once it involved governmental pressures, Hasidic anti-modernism turned spiteful, justifying techniques of resistance that are no source of pride.

By the 20th century, the battle was mostly lost, and children of Hasidim by the drove were turning toward various secular Jewish movements, including Zionism. The surviving Hasidic movement then turned toward politics, creating the Agudat Yisrael movement and other bodies that sought to defend the ever-receding turf of Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox domination.

World War I, the terrible pogroms that followed it and Sovietization ravaged Hasidism in Eastern Europe. Hitler did the rest. By 1945 there seemed to be almost nothing left.

Then the most remarkable period of Hasidic history began to unfold. Out of the Holocaust’s ashes, the community began to rebuild itself.

The fiercely anti-Zionist Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, re-created a large chunk of pre-war Hungary in Williamsburg and Jerusalem. The surviving Bobover scion, Solomon Halberstam, who had lost nearly all of his following, reached out to surviving Hasidim who had lost their own rebbes to re-build Galicia, first in Crown Heights, then in Boro Park.

The Lubavitchers had an active underground network that was keeping some sparks of Torah alive in the Soviet Union. The Lubavitchers — eventually followed by the Bratslavers — reached out, often with some success, to the children of modern Jews. The Gerer and Belzer rebbes, both rescued in the midst of the Holocaust, rebuilt their empires around grand fortresses in Jerusalem, then conquered ever-larger swaths of Israel.

All of this happened with the support of other Jews, very prominently including the government of Israel. We were all deeply moved and impressed by the faith-energy displayed by this old-new Jewish community, committed to reconstituting itself in new and uncomfortable surroundings. Impressive natural increase, in contrast to the rest of us remarkably infertile Jews, helped the postwar Hasidim regain significant numerical representation within world Jewry.

Israeli military draft exemption laws worked to create a huge society of largely idle Hasidic males, supposedly full-time Torah students, a phenomenon completely unlike anything in earlier Hasidic history.

With Hasidim accustomed to viewing all outsiders through the lens of Eastern European hostilities, the Hasidism that has emerged is a strange combination of inner-directed love and joy, an inheritance from the movement’s first period; uncompromising and often hysterical degrees of ultra-Orthodox extremism, combined with shrill denunciations of all other Jews, coming from the second era of Hasidic history; and disdain for the non-Jewish world, the legacy of persecutions old and new.