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. 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.
Will The Real Neo-Chassids Please Stand Up? http://t.co/iqKfXbZ6cl
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) December 10, 2014