Thursday, November 11, 2021

A House Divided

R' Shaul Alter at a celebration last week (Jerusalem Post)
I am not a Chasid. Although I descend from a Chasidic Rebbe (Rebbe Shimon Yaroslover) going back 7 generations, I do not share their Hashkafos in any way. My Torah education was exclusively in Yeshivos of the Lithuanian variety culminating with 10 years at HTC, a Lithuanian style Yeshiva with a Centrist orientation. My education basically ignored Chasidus. 

I never fully understood Chasidus. The idea of a Charismatic supreme leader who inherits his position from his father seems anathematic to Judaism which is more of a meritocracy. It is what one achieves that is important. Not who he is related to. (Although in recent years many Lithuanian Roshei Yeshiva are being treated almost as if they were Chasidic Rebbes. But I digress.)

My lack of understanding this phenomenon is not shared by many hundreds of thousands of people that call themselves Chasidim. One of the primary features of Chasidim is they tend to have very large families. 10 or more children is not that unusual. 

Based on that, if I had to predict the future I would predict that Chasidim will eventually become the largest segment of observant Jewry in the world. By far. Will that happen? Will the rest of observant Jewry become a distant second? Will modern Orthodox or Centrist Jews lag so far behind that their numbers will be insignificant by comparison?  And is all this necessarily a bad thing?

To answer the last question first, I guest it depends on whether you are a Chasid or not. But I am not inclined to see Judaism as practiced by Chasidim to be the intent God’s Torah  - for reasons beyond the scope of this post.

I also do not see Chasidus becoming the mainstream form of observant Judaism despite their phenomenal internal growth. First because Lithuanian Yeshiva students – most of whom are Charedi are not that far behind in their own internal growth. Large families are pretty common there too. But most of all because of all the internal fights among factions. Fights that have caused major splits in what were once unified individual Chasidic Groups. 

The split in Satmar is well known. But lately (since 2019) there has been a split in Ger. Which some consider to be the largest Chasidic group in the world. From the Jerusalem Post:

(In) 2019, Rabbi Shaul Alter, first cousin of the Gur hassidic dynasty’s Grand Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, split away from the main Gur community following years of tension between the two, with some 300 families in Israel following him at the time.

The split was striking because of Gur’s status as the largest, wealthiest and most influential hassidic community in Israel. As one of the largest hassidic movements in the world, the schism dealt a serious blow to its prestige.

The new community, which calls itself Ger Torah, now numbers some 500 families, with another 300 in the US, while the mainstream Gur community in Israel is thought to number as many as 100,000 people.

While it’s true that compared to the mainstream original group they are relatively small. But 500 families is not chicken feed. They seem to be adding families quickly. The break-away Rebbe, R’ Shaul, seems to have become very popular. During a recent fundraising trip to the US he was warmly welcomed by other Chasidic Rebbes as a legitimate Chasidic Rebbe in his own right - implying that his new faction is legitimate. Because of his successful fundraising, he is about to embark on an ambitious building campaign that will include a central headquarters in Israel, Yeshivos and other religious instittutions.

How popular is this new Rebbe? 

The climax of Alter’s visit was a tisch (joyous Hassidic celebration with the rebbe) after Shabbat ended this past Saturday attended by an estimated 15,000 people in Borough Park, New York, in an enormous marquee setup for the rabbi’s visit.

Thousands of hassidim lined the street for Alter as he left the location after the event.

Shaul Alter also visited a yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, and gave a Torah lesson reportedly attended by hundreds of people.

 The original Gerrer Rebbe, R Yaakov Aryeh Alter, is not taking this lying down: 

Following the 2019 split in Gur, the leadership of the mainstream community began enacting severe sanctions against the breakaway families with children being harassed out of their schools and yeshivas, people fired from their jobs and a variety of other measures taken against those who joined Shaul Alter’s new community.

There have even been physical altercations between Ger Chasidim from the two opposing sides.

It seems to me that there s a trend in Chasidus that is dividing them. I’m not sure why this is happening. But the trend is clear. I do not see growth happening when there is so much violence. And this doesn’t take into account the far more serious problem of ignorance fostered in their schools which lack a core secular curriculum. Preventing so many Chasidim from getting better paying jobs. Which increases poverty for all except the very wealthy and most successful among them - a number far exceeded by their mainstream whose income doesn’t come close to supporting their large families.

This is not a formula for growth.

(Although not the subject of this post, I should add the Lithuanian Yeshiva community is pretty divided themselves. There has for example been some pretty violent clashes between factions in Ponevezh, one of the biggest Yeshivos in the world. Additionally - the split in the Yeshiva world between followers of R’ Chaim Kanievsky of Bnei Brak and the Jerusalem faction founded by R’ Shmuel Auerbach has generated some pretty serious violence.)

This is not to say that I am happy to see this kind of enmity among our people. There is nothing attractive about Jews fighting Jews, no matter which segment they are from. But to the extent that one can predict the future based on what is happening now, my guess is that the increased fundamentalism, the decreasing level of a decent secular education, factionalism, divisiveness, and the increased level of  violence precipitated by much of that means the wave of the future for the vast majority of Orthodox Jews will not consist of fundamentalist Chasidim or Charedim. 

It will instead be in the hands of moderate Charedim that do not look for charismatic rabbis to follow. They will become the majority along with a handful of Centrists that will join them in common lifestyle. Something I have been predicting for a long time and now seems more likely than ever.