Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Bringing Chasidus To Modern Orthodoxy

Years ago I sat through a speech by a major figure in the Conservative movement on the topic of inspiring followers to more become more enthusiastic about his Judaism.  He bemoaned all the expected things like a lack of ethusiasm in the younger generation, the disconnect between the older folks and the movement's ideal, and so on.  Then he said something I didn't expect.  He explained that he was jealous of the UltraOrthodox, especially the Chasidim.  He loved how Chasidim swayed during prayers, how they davened at the top of their lungs, how everything Jewish they did was invested with seriousness and effort.  What did he want?  He wanted to see Conservative chasidim!  He wanted to see students at the JTS just as enthralled during prayers, just as invested in bringing Judaism into all corners of their lives, and so on.
Naturally that never had a chance of happening.  While it may have started as a reaction to the Reformers, Conservativism has been a ritual-heavy imitator of Reform for a couple of decades now.  You cannot have chasidic levels of enthusiasm in a religion where lack of enthusiasm in traditional Jewish beliefs and behaviours is a dominant feature.  Yes, some in the JTS might get really excited about homosexual marriage, social justice or other politically correct causes under the rubric of tikun olam but ultimately they're into those things because the secular liberal society around them is, not because of a deep yearning Jewish desire to be.
You can see that in the way their younger generation is bleeding out.  Those who don't care or are impatient with those few strictures the so-called Rabbinical Assembly hasn't done away with yet move over to Reform.  Those who are serious about learning and tradition move to Orthodoxy.  That leaves a group stuck with inertia behind.  Not terribly inspiring.
Modern Orthodoxy, to a large extent, is also suffering from that ennui, possibly to an even greater degree.  To  the left, the Reformatives have their conception of tikun olam if nothing else to energize them.  To the right there's the "everyone's against us" attitude of the Chareidim to bind them together and give them purpose.  What does Modern Orthodoxy have?  Is it any wonder that the same pattern is happening amongst Modern Orthodoxy's younger generation?  The perception that "real" learning and practice is the domain of Chareidism or that the only way to be a good person is to leave the rigid ritual-centered world of Orthodoxy behind takes many youth away leaving behind those who simply don't care about changing due to apathy.
Unlike Conservatism, however, Modern Orthodoxy seems to be developing an answer to this: Neo-chasidus.  First featured in a Jewish Action article a while ago, it seems to be continuing on as a movement within the community.  It's a group that has taken on some of the more stereotypical traipses of Chasidus - long peyos, untucked shirts with tzitzis hanging out, loud Carlebach style davening and a strong interest in the classics of the Chasidic movement.  It's described as a search for Jewish authenticity and an attempt to infuse the Modern Orthodox Jew's behaviour with the inner light of Torah.
A recent article in Times of Israel reflected further on this phenomenon and even made specific suggestions on how to improve Modern Orthodox to capitalize on its advantages.  Amongst them, the author mentions story telling, ritual emphasis and mussar.
Unfortunately I don't share the enthusiasm.  There are a few reasons for this that I'd like to share.
1) To paraphrase the old saying, if you're going to do chasidus right then be a chasid.  A lot of what comes out of neo-Chasidus is behavioural but real Chasidus is supposed to be much more than that.  Even if the original elements of the movement, the joy of connecting to the Infinite One, the dvekus and hisboddeus aspects and the mystical appreciation have mostly been replaced by strictures, behaviours, ritual and xenophobia, there is still a global attitude that the Chasid bears.  The sthreiml isn't just about his quest for Jewish authenticity, it is his Jewish authenticity.  He truly believes that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, wore one at Sinai and that by putting on his he is connecting in the only legitimate way to God and Torah.  Neo-chasidus, on the other hand, seems to be obsessed with the superficial trappings and justifies that by invoked the term "Jewish authenticity".  But let's be clear: Chasidus is an innovation.  Yes, it's based on the vision of a great man, the Baal Shem Tov, and it works with materials from some of the most brilliant and pious minds in Jewish history like the Arizal, but it's an innovation.  Before Chasidus came along no one looked like or dressed like a Chasid.  They are no more authentically Jewish than the Litvish or the Yemenites and Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, dressed differently than all of them.  This means neo-Chasidus is looking for authenticity in the wrong place.
2) The material that makes us Chasidus is deep and meaningful.  The problem is that it is representative of only one approach to Torah which, while legitimate and important, is not the only important approach.  If Modern Orthodoxy wants to get its members learning deeply then it has to find inspiring material from all sections of Jewish literature but more importantly, it needs to create its own.  Again, it's great to read the Kedushas Levi but to truly appreciate it on the level it needs to be one must ascend to the level of a Chasid.  You don't dabble in such stuff, you invent yourself in it.  Why can Modern Orthodoxy not produce books that present the movement's vision of a Jew's connection to God in more than a dry, academic way?  Surely there are visionaries in Yeshiva U or various places in Israel that have the chops to produce such material.  Where is it?
3) The role of women would have to be clarified.  I recently read an article on sexual restrictions in some Chasidic groups and the impression I got was summed up in one line: outside of Lubavitch there are chasidim but no chasidos.  The leaders write for and speak to the men.  Control of the community is entirely in the hands of the men.  Women are needed to produce offspring and cholent and can be safely photoshopped out of existence otherwise.  This isn't just a coincidence but an integral feature of Chasidus today.  Is neo-Chasidus going to produce neo-Chasidos as well as neo-Chasidim and if so, is it really Chasidus or just an imitation?
Ultimately it seems to me that neo-Chasidus is about imitating some other movement's approach and appropriating some of its superficial features in order to increase adherents' interest in Judaism.  This brings us back to the Conservative failing - those who take their Chasidus seriously will eventually become bored with halfway measures.  Those who don't will abandon it when the novelty wears off and then we'll be back to the beginning of this discussion again.


JT said...

You're confusing Chassidim and Chassidus. The theological approach of Chassidus doesn't require all the trappings that Chassidim have adopted, neither does it demand the cultural behaviors lately adopted by Charedim of both Litvish and Chassidish camps. It's perfectly legitimate for neo-Chassidus to try and distinguish between between what is necessary to Judaism, what is necessary to Chassidus and what is incidental to either or both of them.

It's also unfair to claim that Chassidim really believe that Mosheh Rabbenu wore a shtreimel, even if the parashah sheets they give their children show it. A little anachronism never killed anyone. (They also show Esav wearing shorts and carrying a gun.)

RAM said...

Judaism can't just be reduced to an emotionless, academic form of rationalism. The other key elements of traditional Yiddishkeit also have to be present in some properly balanced way. There has to be a basic joy to it, including the joy of study, prayer, and practice. The joy of being a Jew. The joy that gives us the strength to prevail with HaShem's help against all enemies, even our yetzer hara.

Neo-chassidism is one way some in our time have tried to correct the balance; I'm sure there will be others. Whoever of us can't relate to it should at least address the balance in a legitimate way that strikes the right chord.

Mr. Cohen said...

Please help SUE the terrorists in court:

Thank you!

PS: * * *

PS 2: Maybe the Modern Orthodox (and others) could get excited about the causes represented by the websites that I just listed.

Another thing the Modern Orthodox could get excited about:

All of them could make mass-aliyah to Eretz Yisrael!