Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 14 December 2014


There's no question that Modern Orthodoxy is looking for an over-arching theme to describe its raison d'etre.  The Yeshivish community has Torah Uber Alles, Chasidus has its singing, dancing and rioting mixed with Tzadik worship and the Dati Leumi have Zionism and its religious implications but Modern Orthodoxy?  It's just sort of there, isn't it.
It's not a small thing either.  Consider the Off the Derech phenomenon.  Within Ultraorthodoxy it's usually due to a strong rejection of the comprehensive worldview presented to the person.  In Modern Orthodoxy, however, people seem to leave through attrition.  They just lose interest in their practice and drop it quietly.
Then there's movement the other way.  One rarely hears of someone Ultraorthodox embracing Modern Orthodoxy with gusto but there are lots of baalei teshuvah within the UO community that come from the MO world, people who were looking for something more, something missing in their own background.
Jewish Action has a piece that is now widely circulating through the Jewish blogsphere on a trend that might be trying to change all that.  Called Neo-Chassidus, it's an embrace by MO's of some Chasidic behaviours and rituals like growing a more Jewish haircut (read: longer peyos), more active Torah learning and, most importantly, more intense prayer ritual behaviour.
On one hand this is very encouraging.  Modern Orthodoxy, for many, is a system of religious behaviours devoid of any larger, deeper meaning.  The idea of dveikus is limited, prayers are done by rote and outside of actively Jewish environments like a shul there is little that an MO does that is actively Jewish.  After all, they dress like everyone else, hold down jobs like everyone else, often take in popular entertainment (albeit limited (hopefully) to appropriate venues) like everyone else.  A trend towards increasing specifically Jewish behaviour in all facets of life is something that might develop a positive sense of Jewish identity and improve one's connection to the Ribono shel Olam.
On the other hand, there's something missing in the entire activity.  I can speak from personal experience, living in a small community where, amongst other things, the local Rav has decreed that all Kabbalas Shabbos services will be done in the Carlebach style complete with the extra singing and dancing.  What have I  noticed?  That there are lots of folks who otherwise don't come to shul who will go to those services and have a grand ol' time.  But then they get in their cars and drive off home so what impact did the "davening" really have?
As a kiruv professional I once heard speak said, it's not about the fun stuff, the programs and the signing, it's about getting the person to show up on a cold dark weekday morning for Shacharis that marks real acceptance of Judaism in one's life.  If everything is done just for fun then once the fun is over you lose the person but really, you never had them.
Having read the article, that's what this Neo-Chassidus strikes me as.  Real Chassidus, after all, isn't just about the singing and dancing but about an entire system of religious and spiritual belief that expresses itself constantly through one's dress, speaking and activities.  It isn't something you turn on when you go to daven and turn off afterwards when you return to the real world.  It's also something you persist with even when times are tough. 
But Neo-Chassidus seems to be cherry-picking from the best of what Chassidus has to offer without taking on the hard stuff.  Lots of fun at shul but no shreimls or long, dark outfits in the July heat, for example.  Not much Yiddish either, it seems.
Why is this?  I would suggest it's because in North America there is a strong cultural trend towards selfishness that has extended itself into religion.  We don't ask what we can do for God, we rather want to know what He's offering us now to keep us interested in Him.  This trend has certainly infected Judaism.  The Reformatives and Open Orthodox are more blatant in their expression of this selfishness but it permeates all to way to the far ends of UltraOrthodoxy and certainly through Modern Orthodoxy.  We see it in the UO community in those fanatics who listen to the "Gedolim" when they want to but ignore them when they don't.  We now are seeing it in MO with Neo-Chassidus. 
I'm looking for a better davening expreience.  I want something more interesting to learn.  I need more spirituality.  All these are laudible desires but when the "I" determines what a person does, not his sense of obligation to the community, not the call of duty from Sinai onwards but a desire for novelty and "authenticity" (hint to those who call Chassidus "authentic Judaism": Rambam and Ramban were't Chasidim) then there is something very wrong.
In the end I doubt Neo-Chassidus will spark a mass movement in MO the way real Chassidus did amongst the masses of the alte heim.  In fact, once it loses its novelty it'll become a fringe group in MO we read about in Mishpacha Magazine instead of Jewish Action.


Anonymous said...

I’m not orthodox, but I honestly feel that OO is intellectually fearless. That’s the appeal. And they do all the ritual. But they have no fear on topics or subject matter or anything. It’s probably the best orthodoxy out there in terms of open expression.

Second, what you are describing as the most meritorious form of commitment reminds me of the Marine Corps. I think it brings up a possible reason for the lack of inspiration/enthusiasm/commitment in MO. The MO don’t know what they are going all in for.

The Marine Corps seems to turn out guys who are ready to go all the way. And what are they going all the way for? For this country and its ideals. People will fight and die for freedom. What will the MO fight and die for, and is it reflected in their avodah?

Chana said...

Eh. In order to stay inspired, people need to do something new sometimes, and for everyone that will be something else. That's just human nature.

I agree that a quick fix generally means little in the long run, and that true inner devotion is expressed in those things for which we will sacrifice even when the effort is great and the rewards are not evident, but really, searching out the tough but "unscenic route" is no way to make the journey worthwhile.

And by the way, דתי לאומי young people are much more likely to see "Zionism" as a willingness to do the tough slogging than as a romantic sense of inspiration. That's much more for the chutznikim.

Princess Lea said...

We also forget what the source of the word "chassid" was. It means someone who goes above and beyond, someone who does every single thing that is required, and then takes on more. When the Besht created the movement that became known as "chassidus," it was because Judaism was in crisis, then the unlearned and oppressed Jews were losing their joy at being Jewish, believing their lack of knowledge affected their service to the Eibishter.

But today, b'H, every Jew, if they desire, can get a proper education in Jewish practice and thought. And chassidus now means wearing a fur hat in summer and going to Shacharis at 10. The movement is over, because that specific need for it is over.

If today's generation is losing a connection to Judaism, I think it is because they have lost their discipline. Like you said, real life is going to shul early on a frigid day, not singing and dancing every once in a while. For meaning that sticks, you have to see the religion in the everyday, boring, facets of life, when you choose to do the difficult things. There, I think, is where the meaning is.

Hannah out loud said...

Hi garnel

A good post. I think this is about passion for God and Torah which can perhaps be best summed up in asking ourselves about our kavanah e.g. (from non Jewish source):

"I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

Why do I write this? Because I think a lot of this comes about because Jewish life can become routine and seem boring , therefore a chore to Jews who go through the routine without a sense of the divine because it's become habitual and not spiritual.

I contrast this with (out of 6) 2 non Jewish housemates.They didn't know much about Judaism BEFORE they came to live with us, but now they want to celebrate Shabbat and our festivals [well sort of: but gentiles are under no obligations to follow our Halakhah to the letter], because to them it's something wonderous and new, especially something like candle lighting for Shabbat or Hanukkah.

Perhaps if we as Jews can see this stuff not as a chore but something to enjoy, it'll be a start?

Snag said...

Seeing that "real" chassidus involves fealty to books and practices that are - at best - of dubious Jewish value, perhaps the cherry-picking of the song-and-dance elements is in fact taking the best of chassidus.