Have you ever met an anti-Semite in Chasidic garb? I have, many times. They come in all stripes, colors and hats. No, I’m not talking about the ultra-orthodox ascetic in Meah Shearim who might make the American Hillel student tourist feel inferior because her skirt doesn’t reach the floor… I’m referring to the outreach worker, or the friendly Orthodox accountant who invites his coworker over for their first Shabbos meal, religious people, who are all supposedly on a mission of love. Or are they?
Often, while socializing with peers at the synagogue or other social events, we become the unfortunate bystander observing a member of Chabad argue with a Breslover or an Aish HaTorah devotee arguing with a Sephardic Jew about whose path and whose Tzadikim were higher or more holy. This seems to be a trend which is more and more common but very misleading. Actually, it stumps a person’s ability to spiritually grow. Without a doubt there is a sect and spiritual path for everybody.
But the question which needs to be asked is; why is it that you might feel the need to convince someone that your way of Judaism is the proper path? Is it because you want them to get into heaven and you feel this is the only way? Or because you yourself want validation? Since their decision to follow the same path as you proves you yourself have chosen the right path. If the Wandering Jew chooses a different path does this mean they have personally rejected you? Perhaps it’s just a question of money, since, after all, each member of the synagogue is an asset and without them the shop would be closed, so Rabbis try to convince for their own financial comfort. But how does all of this add up to proper Soul searching?
Let us not kid ourselves we are not talking about whether to keep the Torah or not. This is not about the Shulchan Aruch, which is binding on all Jews. We are dealing with people who assert themselves over the path which our souls may need to take. Many times a Jew will wander into a Chabad, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi Synagogue to learn about G-d the infinite and Almighty. But then the wandering Jew will be coerced into thinking that there is only one way to G-d through this Rebbe or that Tzadik, this Mekubal or that Gaon. That is the problem.
Obviously, I am not knocking the great outreach programs that are done for the sake of heaven. The concern is when a Rabbi in Kiruv outreach or even non outreach will impose his own personal path upon those who come to him. The wandering Jew is a Pikadon, a borrowed object in the hands of a Rabbi merely to learn about the many ways of the Ribbono shel olam, the Master of the Universe, not to become a pedestal for keeping the Shul open or a commodity to boast with.
Many in outreach will refer to their attendees as “My Baal Habatim”. But are they really yours? Although you may be a nice guy, they came to learn about G-d. Jews who have had self-sacrifice to become better should be allowed to eat all the fruits in the garden of Judaism to find their soul’s way. It would be unfortunate not to. This should bother the serious Rabbi. The Baal Shem Tov taught:
The Holy One, blessed be He, sends a soul down to this world for a lifetime of 70 or 80 years, and the ultimate purpose of its mission here is to do a favor to a fellow Jew in some material matter, and how much more so in a spiritual matter.
Chassidus and Kabbalah, once the knowledge of the few, are now taught in classes all around the world, especially by and with those who wish to live a deeper life. Many times this is used by certain sects and vain individuals to assert superiority over other people from different sects who don’t learn those mysteries. We often hear negative remarks such as; “this one doesn’t learn Chassidus or that one is against kabbalah, this one only learns Mussar and Judaic Law. Or the opposite; “that guy learns Kabbalah and Chassidus and its fake stories”.
But the truth of the matter is; it’s all great. According to the famous work Shevet Mussar by Rabbi Elijah Hacohen of Izmir (1650-1729), when a person holds back from their souls delight in a specific area of Torah study it could cause them to fail in their mission here on earth. The personal path of a person should always be removed from the decision of others. The only cue to look at before becoming a follower or an adherent or a certain sect is the feeling that your own soul is aroused by certain teaching styles or Tzadik which you want to follow. That is healthy Judaism.
Perhaps one may even say that the early sages naturally switched among different customs, guided by their intellectual knowledge and not because of name or place. An example of this is found in the customs of the Arizal who, although he was Ashkenazi, prayed in a Sephardic prayer book but when High Holidays came he went back to the Ashkenazi since “the early Ashkenazim founded their songs and Piutim according to the secrets of the Torah” (Shaar hakavanot).
Because of this, one can admire the outlook of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach of blessed memory on this issue. He was one of the most successful masters at bringing Jews back to Judaism, touched the souls of countless individuals and still does today through his recorded spiritual tunes and deep stories. Often, the soul searching Jew would ask him which sect they should seek and he would answer to each individual another answer. To some he would say “Brother you should look at Breslov” and to some others “Brother let me know what you think of Chabad.” Sometimes he would point them to the nearest Lithuanian/Ashkenazi Yeshiva. There was no personal agenda involved. Perhaps he understood this since he himself had migrated to experience other paths. So how could he not afford others the same rich experience? There can be nothing more modest and truthful than helping people to choose for themselves. The highest form of Kiruv and outreach Tzedaka is to help others help themselves.
A Chabad relative of mine went to eat at a restaurant in Manhattan and, out of nowhere, a Breslov Chasid came over to him, offered some Torah thoughts and gave him a pamphlet of Breslov teachings. Before the Breslov Chosid turned away to leave, the Chabad rabbi asked him sarcastically “why do you do all this stuff?” The Breslover looked at the Chabad Rabbi and said “why do you!” meaning; doesn’t Chabad do the same all over the world? And with that he smiled and quickly walked away. Are we really about teaching Judaism or is it about boasting synagogue attendance or self-pride? Will the Chabad Rabbi be happy if his mekurav, decides to become a Breslov. Will the Aish HaTorah Rabbi be happy if the person who he helped teach decides to become Chabad? Will the Litvish or Chabad Rabbi be happy if his congregant, after being trained in Torah, decides to open up the Sephardi Synagogue to pray in the style and tongue of their fathers? Or will they be branded as troublemakers or people who do their own thing as opposed to your thing?
We can really learn from our father and leaders. How did so many European Jews and Chassidim begin to pray in a Sephardic prayer book if they hadn’t followed their hearts to follow different paths. If we were all commanded to remain stagnant in our ways there wouldn’t have been a Baal Shem Tov or a Magid from Mezrich who left his home to follow the Besht, or the Baal HaTanya who left his home to follow the Magid. The Ashkenazim and Lithuanian Jews were the ones who were turning into Chassidim! The same is true for all the other students of the Baal Shem Tov or Magid of Mezrich who all formed sub Chassidic sects of their own. By no means were they stagnant or restrained. They were alive and embraced what they felt was holy and took the path which sparked their soul. The bottom line is; don’t be biased, share what you have and let others decide.
Once again, let’s be clear here. The Shulchan Aruch is binding on all Jews. We are only talking about the nuances that do not go against the Shulchan Aruch which finds expression in different sects. So, if a person was brought up with certain customs, then by all means follow your Minhag. If you would like to do something deeper or desire to veer into another way, do it. Judaism affords many examples of those who had done the same. But if you weren’t brought up with any customs then choose your own though diligent Torah research. It’s not easy finding and following your soul’s path. It can be a shaky road, since its main prospective is those who are looking into themselves and what their souls mission is, not what other people are doing. You need to be smart, have perseverance and resilience. Many will try to divert you to simply follow a mission which is not yours. You can sit back and go with the flow, but know in advance Judaism doesn’t look favorably on spiritual cowardice.
“Rabbi Yehuda said; be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, run like a deer and be strong like a lion to do the will of your father in Heaven” (Avot,5).
The critics of the recent Pew report claimed that many Jews are no longer identified with the old name tags given to the current sectors of Judaism. Maybe they are right. Judaism may one day revert back to pre-17th century Judaism, when people were still simply Jewish and all the manifold customs and Tzadikim didn’t become the cause for new sects. They were simply Jewish. It would be nice for people to simply be Jewish again and taste all that it has to offer our souls.