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The Struggle for the Jewish Soul

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

Last week, I wrote about the vast divide between communities of Jews totally at odds religiously and politically. But there is another divide much closer to the home — an ideological divide, rather than a political one, within the Haredi world.

There is a magazine called Mishpacha, which deals with Orthodox and Haredi issues. Recently an article appeared claiming that Hasidism is responsible for the revival of Jewish religious life around the world — because it is warm, lively, and inspirational, whereas the other strains of Judaism are just preoccupied with study and obedience. While there is some merit in that claim, it is simplistic and disguises a lot of what’s wrong with Hasidism.

The article met with a fierce rebuttal from non-Hasidic Haredi rabbis who claimed as much credit for the increase and point to their own exponentially growing communities. The trouble is that each variation of the Orthodox world believes that it is the authentic voice of Judaism — and that any other is not. This is, of course, typical of all intense communities. The smaller the differences, the more they fight.

A very brief recap:

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In the 18th century, mainstream European Ashkenazi communities looked alike in terms of practice, religious system, and rabbinic authority. Yet not all Jews were observant, and there were signs of assimilation. The Enlightenment was beginning to have an impact, particularly in Western Europe.

In the East, suffering from rabid and violent antisemitism, a group of remarkable men began to reach out to the poor and uneducated Jews who felt rejected by the autocratic rabbinic leadership. They emphasized mystical experience, song, dance, and a sense of belonging to a community that valued and cherished them. The Safed mystics were their inspiration and models. They were called the Hasidim (the Pious). Hasidism flourished as it catered to the oppressed Jews of the ghettos and the Pale of Settlement.

Slowly, this movement grew, and as it did, the established leadership opposed it. Calling themselves the Mitnagdim (the Opposition), their leader was the famous Gaon of Vilna. This turned into a mighty battle, with ex-communications and turf warfare. Over the next century, Hasidism evolved. It became a more formal movement. It attracted a much wider audience.

As it spread, it divided up into local dynasties with different charismatic leaders setting up their own courts. There was often bitter rivalry between the masters and their variations on mystical themes. The more successful rebbes gathered thousands of followers, and often great wealth. Some dynasties focused more on study, others on piety. Some adulated their rebbes. Others simply admired them. Some turned inwards. Others looked out and proselytized. But there was always fierce rivalry between the sects. Yet the one thing that they all had in common was to separate themselves both from the rest of the Jewish world — and from the non-Jewish world — in dress, behavior, and custom.

The Mitnaged movement responded to the challenge of the Enlightenment by emphasizing deep intensive study of traditional texts in newly established large yeshivot, academies that replaced the more informal tutorial groups and heders as a way of passing on Jewish knowledge. The yeshivot also responded to the need to add a spiritual dimension to study by introducing the study of Mussar as a spiritual alternative to the study of Hasidus. It too emphasized a personal experience of God, in addition to living a life committed to religious practice. Hasidism added extra layers of customs, uniforms, and celebrations; emphasized mystical texts as much as Talmudic; and had a preference for amulets, blessings, charms, ancient prophylactic, not to say weird, minority kabbalistic customs.

As with all movements, over time Hasidism lost much of its initial creativity and became more fossilized and conformist. As political and social forces began to pull European Orthodoxy apart — and mass migration detached many Jews from their roots — religious life in general began to wither. The currents of Orthodoxy in Europe continued to flow, but the prognosis did not look good. Increasingly, Hasidism was regarded as primitive and irrelevant. Rationalism tended to relegate mysticism to the fringes. And given the massive loss of Hasidic Jews in the Holocaust, no one in the 1940s and 50s could have predicted that Hasidism would revive so spectacularly in America, Europe, and Israel.

This growth was not so much one of ideology as massive birth rates, which were encouraged specifically as a response to Hitler and destruction of Eastern Europe. The more children, the more the dead were avenged. And the rise in social welfare and health insurance made sustaining such numbers feasible as never before. Whereas in 1948 the number of full-time yeshivah students in Israel numbered a few hundred, now there are hundreds of thousands — and there are similar numbers of the pious in the US.

During this time, Haredi Ashkenazis have tended to ignore that simultaneously there was a massive revival in Sephardi Judaism, both of the mystical and the rational. It really flourished in Israel, were most of them moved when driven out of Arab lands after 1948. In fact, both in the Sephardi and Ashkenazi world we have seen a massive resurgence in non-rational, even superstitious Judaism, and a certain triumphalism that denigrates rationalism and any hint of modernity.

I am the poster-child of the fluidity of modern Jewish life. My paternal grandparents were Hasidic. My maternal were more Mitnaged. My father was brought up in a Yeshivish Mitnaged world. He studied in Mir in Lithuania, the center of the Mitnaged world. And he was a devotee of Mussar. He gave me the Hebrew name of the great Mussar preacher of Mir, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz. When I was a teenager, he sent me to a very Mitnaged Mussar yeshiva in Israel, which had a profound effect on me.

Yet towards the end of his life, he became a devotee of Chabad Hasidism. I remember him telling me that Mussar prioritized, “Turn from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:15), but that it spent too much time turning from evil and not enough doing good. Hasidism, on the other hand, prioritized, “Do good and turn from evil.” It emphasized doing good, rather than a preoccupation with harsh self-discipline. Now of course with all respect to my father, whom I worshipped and still do, this was not actually always the case. Having lived and studied in both, I have chosen to try to take the best of each without committing myself totally to any side. As in any community, there is good and not-so-good.

That is why this current spat over who is to take credit for the rise of Haredi Judaism is so juvenile. Both groups might have a lot to commend in terms of kindness, charity, and mystic devotion. But they are also claustrophobic, narrow-minded, aggressive, often corrupt, and can resort to violence to reign in any disagreement. They also put a lot of emphasis on materialism and consumerism (without giving their children any secular education to help those who are not businessmen earn a decent living).

For anyone with a spark of individuality, these conformist communities create massive problems for a small, though increasing, number of dropouts.

The fact is that our whole is the sum of our parts. It is heartwarming that while Jews are increasingly coming under pressure around the world and antisemitism continues to metastasize, our religious life has never been stronger in 2,000 years. Each one of its components has plusses and minuses, and none has a monopoly on truth.

In a free and open society, each sect of Judaism can and should enter the open market, present their goods, and let the fittest survive. It is up to us to make the effort to discover what Judaism has to offer — and then to choose from all the variations and degrees. I regret the loss of those who cannot see Judaism’s beauty. But I also I regret the arrogant, intolerant, fundamentalist attempt to denigrate others.

As the Talmud says (Kiddushin 70b), “Whoever finds fault in others, it is because something is at fault in them.”

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