Will The Real Neo-Chassids Please Stand Up?

  • 0

The Jewish Action published a nice report on a phenomenon that is gaining steam in the Modern Orthodox world. The article identifies the movement as Neo-Chassidus and describes it as a path toward connection with God. It stands in contradistinction to other strains of Judaism that are described as dry, cold, and lacking in the deeper joy that Chasiddus has to offer.

To be clear, the Neo-Chassids are embracing the 18th and 19th century versions of Chasidic philosophy and a smidge of practice. They are not converting to contemporary Chassidic sects like Ger, Satmar, Bobov, and Vizhnitz.

This is a great development. Typical Orthodox Judaism artificially constrains people to the customs and philosophy of the sect to which they are born. If you are born a Yekke, you will be a Yekke. If you are born a Hasid, you will be a Hasid.V12p066a01 If you are born a Litvak, you will be a Litvak. But some people who are born Yekkes would thrive as a Hasid but fail as a Yekke. Some people who are born Litvaks would thrive in a Sephardic environment. It’s prudent to allow cross-pollination between different versions of Orthodox Judaism. It gives more people a chance to succeed and feel connected to their Judaism. We should definitely encourage people to explore more versions of Orthodox Judaism and allow people the space the find their place along the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism. We should invite people to find the Judaism that speaks most directly to them and allow people to mix and match their Judaism so they can craft a personal experience that feels good and serves their religious needs.

I think it’s super awesome that Modern Orthodox kids who are seeking a more spiritual version of Judaism turn to Neo-Chassidus. If that works for them, great. It would be foolish to impose Neo-Chassidus on everyone, but for those who seek it out and find it to be rewarding, the option should be on the table.

While I support the Neo-Chasids, the whole process seems a bit off to me. Chassidus was started as a response to significant social issues within Orthodox Judaism. There was a spiritual malaise across the land. Our laws and rituals had become institutionalized to the point that they had lost their spirit and soul. Judaism became inaccessible to the average person. Something needed to bring passion and purpose to Judaism for everyone. Chassidus answered the call. It spawned enormous contributions to Orthodox Judaism, Torah, and philosophy. These interpretations and innovations addressed the needs of Jews living in Eastern Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, at some point, these Chasidic expressions of Jewish ecstasy and exultation also became institutionalized. Ironically, organized Chassidic sects are now very similar to the things they were invented to address.

The point is that Chassidus is an answer to a question that was relevant more than a couple hundred years ago. It is not a new answer to new questions and challenges. Some people are inspired by the ideas Chassidus teaches and that’s perfectly fine. But it seems like a roundabout way of addressing the modern challenges of the Neo-Chassids. Why answer a 2014 question with a 1714 answer? The first Chassids were not satisfied to answer 1714 questions with 1414 answers. That’s why they created 1714 Chassidus!

So my suggestion is to be more like those first Chassids and less like the 2014 Chassids. Real Neo-Chassidus, in my opinion, is not pantomiming contemporary Chassidus. To me, real Neo-Chassidus proudly adopts a methodology that gifted us with an avant-garde solution to a real problem in 1714. The methodology is the thing we need, not the solutions we crafted using that methodology a few centuries ago.

First, we must identify the issues that challenge 2014 Orthodox Judaism. We have been doing that here and on Facebook while others do the same in a variety of other forums and formats. Then we collaboratively create Jewish experiences that address those challenges. It’s possible that the answers we come up with will direct us towards institutionalized Chassidus or, perhaps more likely, a deinstitutionalized contemporary Chassidus. But it’s very possible that our 2014 answers will look and feel and taste different than 1714 answers. Our new answers will look more modern and feel more cosmopolitan and taste more fresh.

Rabbi Norman Lamm writes in Torah Umadda that Modern Orthodox Judaism in America is actually a form of Neo-Chassidus. Using the same methodologies that triggered Chassidus, Modern Orthodoxy was crafted to address the challenges of mid-20th century Judaism. I think he’s right. I also think it’s time to do it again and adjust accordingly.

In light of all this, I propose that the Neo-Chassidus featured in the Jewish Action should be called Retro-Chassidus or Hipster Chassidus. Neo-Chassidus should live up to its name and actually be “neo.” Those who are adopting teachings and practices of the 2014 Chassids are not Neo-Chassids. They are Retro or Hipster-Chassids. The group of people who use the methodologies of the first Chassids are the Neo-Chassids. We should be those people. We should engage in this process. We should be the Neo-Chassids. Only then can we be confident that we are properly addressing the needs of the modern American Jew. Only then can we imagine that we might find what the Judaism that we seek. Right now, nothing is more important.

  • bruce44

    First of all, woth all due respect, any solution that comes out of a process directed by a successful Rabbi of a big shul will,not neet the need. However much you raise contrarian and occasionally radical thoughts, you’re by definition the establishment.

    Second, today’s neo-chassids are certainly not doing exactly the same as was done at the start of chassidus. They’re making their own incarnation of a timeless set of principles. Arguing whether they atr neo or retro missed the point that a huge number of people are finding meaning in this new variant.

    Lastly, today’s mainstream, including todays institutional chassidus, is closer to the mainstream that the original chassidus reacted to than many want to admit. Why is it a surprise that a meaningful reaction would be similar?

    • I’m the establishment?! Hahaha.

      • Yaakov

        I think Bruce was referring to R’ Moshe Weinberger, ( with all due respect ).

      • daized79

        I don’t know that there is an establishment, but sure, you’re part of it to the extent it exists. That’s not a bad thing. It means you’re taking responsibility and teaching. You are not a blade of grass that can be part of a grassroots movement.

  • This is wonderful. If it helps people find their home within orthodoxy, then kol tuv!!

  • Gershon Pickles

    The Jewish Action article is absurd. There is zero – nil – evidence of any “growing” (every fad is always supposedly “growing”) movement within modern orthodoxy towards chassidus. What you do find, aplenty, are kids from MO homes becoming more right wing after their return from Israel. There’s nothing remarkable in that, the same way there’s nothing remarkable about yeshivah kids leaving observance, and non-Jewish college kids experimenting the same way. That’s what happens after high school – young men begin to strike out on their own. So, what, a few of these MO kids play around with Tanya and Noam Eleimelech rather than Messilas Yesharim? Ho hum.

    • … and have long banana-curl payos. And go to Carlebach Minyanim, have onegei Shabbos that resemble a tisch or fabrengin, seek a mashpia like R’ Moshe Weinberger (a new role for YU)… And as far as I can tell, this isn’t just upon return from Israel; many of these adults continue their attachment to Chassidus while still raising young children. Whether it continues into middle age has yet to be seen. Certainly in Aish Kodesh it has.

      I prefer seeking Derekh Hashem as emulating the “path” He walks rather than the Chassid’s search for the path to Him. But I’m thrilled with any movement toward framing some kind of understanding of the forest rather than only focusing on the trees, or perhaps at this point we’re up to looking at branches or even twigs. (An entire sefer about what a kezayis is? Really?) Actually, even that metaphor doesn’t cut it… Each law in the Shulchan Arukh isn’t so much a tiny piece of the full picture, but a means to making the picture manifest. Our exclusive attention on black-letter halakhah is more like learning halikhah, the art of walking, without even thinking about where to go.

  • G*3

    > Typical Orthodox Judaism artificially constrains people to the customs and philosophy of the sect to which they are born. If you are born a Yekke, you will be a Yekke. If you are born a Hasid, you will be a Hasid. If you are born a Litvak, you will be a Litvak.

    These days, if you’re born a chasid, you’re a chasid. If you’re born a Litvak, you’re a Litvak. If you’te born a Yekke, too bad, there is no such thing, you’re a Litvak. If you’re born a Mizrachi, sorry, there is no such thing, you’re a Sefardi.

    > Chassidus was started as a response to significant social issues within Orthodox Judaism. There was a spiritual malaise across the land. Our laws and rituals had become institutionalized to the point that they had lost their spirit and soul. Judaism became inaccessible to the average person.

    Chassidus was the Jewish version of Pietism. The story about the cold intellectualism of “traditional” Judasim and the warmth of Chassidus is true, up to a point, but it has to be recognized that there was a wider context. What Pietism was reacting to wasn’t talmudic intellectualism, but the rationalization of religion as part of the Scientific Revolution. And it wasn’t about warmth, or spirit, or accessibility, per se, but about making religion mystical and inspiring and what a friend of mine calls, “the feels.” Which, it seems, is what Neo-Chassidus is about. Feel-good religion with no theological rigor. Just fuzzy feel-good stuff like singing and feeling at one with the universe.

    The problems of the early 1700s was that people didn’t get the same feelings out of a religion that was rationalized and explained as they got out of one that was mysterious and full of unknowns, so they re-invented religion along mystical lines. What are the problems of the early 21st century? It’s no longer what approaching religion scientifically does to the experience – that was solved by the Pietists.

    I think the problems, for the average person, are the more blatant contradictions between Torah and science, and, even more importantly, the conflicts between contemporary inclusive morality, and the xenophobic morality of halacha. But I don’t think Neo-Chassidus is trying to solve those problems. The problem they’re trying to solve is that sitting in shul is boring, and they solve it with singing. Which is fine, but not very profound.

    • Profound, but not intellectually so.

      As for science and religion… I really don’t think the average person cares enough about such abstract things to be bothered by it. You, or for that matter anyone who would regularly comment on blog posts, is not going to be “the average person” in this regard. By being here, you joined a self-selected group of the more academically inclined (as a temperament, not career choice).

      I also think that whether someone is bothered by the conflicts or simply assumes there is an answer out there that they don’t yet know depends more on the non-intellectual side of ourselves. In other words, someone for whom observance addresses their spiritual needs, the assumption that the Torah addresses these questions in some as-yet-unknown way is the more natural assumption. Someone who is having a harder time on the experiential level is more likely to consider the intellectual questions as problems and further sources of doubt. Objectivity simply isn’t possible on topics we are as invested in as our own religion. (Which ties back to our discussion on a different post about the so-called Kuzari Proof and the value of proofs as a category of justification.)

    • Kenneth Perkins

      “If you’re born a Mizrachi, sorry, there is no such thing, you’re a Sefardi.”

      This is interesting, in that, under the influence of the qabbala, which was more influential in Eastern communities than among Sephardim proper, many of the classic Sephardi practices have fallen by the wayside. So while they might be calling themselves Sephardi, it’s the Mizrachi/Edot haMizrach traditions that are winning out.

      • Totally tangential but a chance to share something Torah-ish: Perhaps Rav Ovadia Yosef’s greatest theme as a poseiq was to unwind the Chida’s (Y-m, but Moroccan roots) and Ben Ish Chai’s (Baghdad) influence on Sepharadi pisqa, and brings things back to R’ Yosef Caro’s Beis Yoseif – Shulchan Arukh (written in Tzafas, but RYC was from Toledo, Spain) baseline.

        • Kenneth Perkins

          In many ways yes, in others, not so much: http://shaashuim.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/halacha-and-kabbala-halachic-methodology-8/

          The specific example given at the bottom of the recitation of “hanoten laya`ef koach” is particularly interesting in that there’s still a tradition of not reciting it (or at least omitting shem umalkhut) among S&P Jews and some Moroccans (following R’ Shalom Messas).

          There are a few other things that have fallen by the wayside as well, but have been retained in some combination by North African/S&P/Turkish Jews:

          * “Deah binah vehaskel”
          * Actually leaning during nefilat appayim
          * the original versions of baruch she’amar with more than 87 words
          * “LeMoshe tsivita” instead of “tikkanta Shabbat” (this one is interesting because arguably the non-Spanish “pan-Sephardic” communities might never
          * Berakha on hallel bedillug
          * Omitting the pasuq “Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat” and starting with “Tov lehodot…” when Yom Tov does not coincide with Shabbat
          * Pesuqim of Shabbat during qorbanot
          * Standing while making the berakha on the tefillin shel yad

          Some of these examples are interesting because while there might have been a mahloqet involving Spanish poseqim (e.g., Rambam’s position on the berakha of hallel bedillug), the practices of the communities of the Megurashim largely aligned in one way against the prevalent current practices (in this case, mostly following the Rif instead of the Rambam). Others are interesting because the alternative minhag may have never been widespread in the Pan-Sephardic world but were the dominant in Spain (e.g., the girsa of mussaf Shabbat). In some these cases, the non-Spanish practices may have even become examples of the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi practice, even though the original practice was different and still followed in at least some communities that are meyuhas to Spain (e.g., “deah binah vehaskel” in “honen hada`at” and leaning during nefilat appayim).

          • Sorry, as I said my comment was tangential. Even though I identified Maran Bet Yosef as Spanish-born, and the Chidah and BIH as from Edot haMizrach, that was only to launch off on my tangent. I think Rav Ovadia was simply trying to restore halachic process as he saw it, which would have far less Qabbalah (or aggadita in general) influencing it than the acceptance of the Chidah or Ben Ish Chai’s divergence from prior minhag reflect.

            • Kenneth Perkins

              R’ Mordechai Lebhar has argued* that Hakham Ovadia viewed Maran Bet Yosef as a sort of Mara d’Atra of E”Y (with caveats, like the “hanoten laya`ef koach” berakha), and that other Sephardic poseqim (R’ Lebhar is mentions R’ Abba Shaul and, being Moroccan himself, Maghrebim poseqim**) disagree on this point. If this thesis is correct, it might actually be the case that qabbala or not isn’t the issue per se.

              * E.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7X50Lpi_7cw&list=UUK-cMp9FyyvzLCEOooNy99w and https://www.youtube.com/watch?=DCJK6uPiNQk&list=UUK-cMp9FyyvzLCEOooNy99w

              ** There’s even been a bit of a renaissance of these Maghrebi rabbanim encouraging persistence in their customs even in E”Y, based on the notion that moving to E”Y did not require abandoning these customs. R’ Messas apparently held that they should continue saying “yir’u `einenu” even in E”Y, even though even Ashkenazim have dropped it.

        • daized79

          My understanding of R’ Yosef was that he was tryign to impose uniformity on the edot hamizrakh and stifling individual p’sak and minhagim from the individual communities. There were some Moroccan, Tunisian, etc. rabbis who definitely respectfully disagreed.

  • E the P

    True dat. “Retro Chassidus”.

    The reason why they are looking to answer 2014 challenges with 1714 answers is because their whole philosophy is that the path of the Baal Shem Tov is the answer. It’s the same as any sect of religion. The answer is always the Torah/Bible/Koran. It’s just the interpretation, the lens by which it is viewed, that changes.

    • RAM500

      What changes over time, as a Hirschian might say, is the set of circumstances (derech eretz) Jews live in. Each set of circumstances should call forth its appropriate application of Torah. Strands of Torah thought from 1714 or whenever could prove to be just what we need.

  • daized79

    M.O. can’t be called the Chassidus of America because it did not answer the issue of warmth and feeling in Judaism–instead it adapted traditional Judaism (what we call mitnagdut, I guess) to this country in this age. These people aren’t looking to figure out how we can embrace non-Jewish standards of sexual egalitarianism and sexuality, but how to bring emotion to their devotion. Idea in Chassidus work well for that. Why fix what ain’t broke?

  • RAM500

    It’s way too premature to make grand general pronouncements about such a heterogeneous “movement”.