A ‘war’ goes on

In my neighborhood there is a fine young man, new to Orthodox teaching and practices, who attends synagogue services twice each day, walking some distance on Shabbat mornings when, if there is a wind, his tzitzit down to his knees fly to the melody of the birds in the breeze on the trees.

His is both an interesting and confused religious life. Born to an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, he gained the best cultures of both worlds. His parents maintain a kosher home but until recently they often ate in non-kosher restaurants and cafes.

On Shabbat he would go with his mother and siblings to museums and cinemas, purchasing tickets at the entry. Until he was 15, he was not observant of Shabbat.

His parents deprived him of a Jewish education believing that piano lessons, cello lessons, krav maga , French, judo lessons, and  all sport activities, should take priority in giving him a well-rounded education.

Thus he lived his “well-rounded” years until he found himself in a university and under the influence of a Chabad rabbi. Before the young man began his university studies he could barely read the Hebrew prayers in the siddur. When the Torah was being read, he sat with an open chumash without reading the weekly portion.

All that changed in an instant. It was as if “jook nichnass lo ba rosh”… a bug entered his head. He decided to learn all that he could about Judaism…but only Orthodox Judaism. The other trends in the Jewish religion are “fake news” to him. And now he prays very well and often leads a morning service in his synagogue in the university chapel..

At almost 20 years of age he speaks about a future marriage, but only with an Orthodox virgin who will agree to cover her head. As I listen to the “dreams” he shares with me on the occasions when we meet and greet, I gently attempt to burst the bubble. I tell him that because he has no “yichuss”… no traditionally Jewish family heritage, no validation of parental Jewish Orthodox observances. I hardly think that a traditional Orthodox family would happily give their daughter’s hand to him in marriage.

But at almost 20, he is entitled to his dreams. He now refers to himself, correctly so, as a baal teshuva…one who has returned to Jewish religious life observances and practices.

In his conversations he talks of the origins of the Jewish people and their Bible. I am both interested and amused. For 60 years I had been a professor of  Hebrew biblical literature and I knew quite well the origins, borrowed from Egyptian and Babylonian sources and confirmed by 19th century biblical archaeology..

The young man had never heard of Enuma Elish or the Gilgamesh epic, stories of creations and deluge which were written in cuneiform on clay tablets many hundreds of years before our patriarch, Abraham, facing the fiery flames of Nimrod’s furnace, had “discovered”  a monotheism which had, in fact, been “discovered” centuries earlier when Ahkenaten, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV of Egypt , made the sun-god the one and only “true” deity of Egypt.  “Thou shalt have  no other gods besides Aten”.

The young man takes on face fact only the evidence written in the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first (and only) five books of Moses.  He cannot conceive that the earlier law code of the Babylonian Hammurabi were an influence upon Moses.

If Hansel und Gretel,  Schneeweiss,  and Heidi die Alpen Madchen, favorites of children all over the world and written in German, had been written by Orthodox Jews he would no doubt take them as sacred,but not Sinaiatic.

His much-less observant parents are tolerant of his newly found Orthodoxy. They take deserved pride in his scholarly achievements and accomplishments but they are unable to join in the long-standing “war” between the followers of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov.

The first named was the greatest and most revered Jewish scholar of the 18th century who emphasized constant prayer and study in the synagogues. The latter found God through pantheism on mountains, beside still and unstill waters, and through the joys of song and dance. For him, the God of Israel could be worshipped in nature,  God’s very own creations.

Eastern European Jews of the 18th century who were not skilled in synagogue rituals and study embraced whole-heartedly the warm and loving teachings of the sainted Baal Shem Tov (the Master of a Good Name), the founder of the Chassidic movement. To this day it attracts millions of pious Jews..

The Vilna Gaon and his followers, however, condemned the practices of the Chassidic movement of the Baal Shem Tov and issued instructions to have no contacts with what was considered Chassidic heresy to them.  In brief, the Vilna Gaon declared “war on the chassidim.

The “war” between both scholars and their disciples versus the Chassidim continued for more than 100 years. The Litvaks continued to pray and devote their lives to Torah study and the Chassidim continued to sing and dance in demonstration of their great love for God..

In the end, after more than a long and often bitter century of intolerance, a compromise of sorts was arranged. Followers of the Vilna Gaon began to sing prayers in joy, and followers of the Baal Shem Tov became devoted Talmudic scholars.

The new young baal teshuva is trying sincerely to meld the two philosophies into one that he can practice his religion  “religiously”.

The days of his non-observant youth have been washed away and with his tzitzit swaying in the breezes he has found the right path which he intends to follow.

A black kippah on his head, tefillin on his arm and between his eyes…definitely. A black fedora hat… undecided.

The 18th century “war” is  not completely over. There are still strong differences between the two groups, in particular,  claims by the Chabad branch of the Chassidic movement that the Messiah was their late beloved Rebbe of Lubavitch,  Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”tz”l.

It is a “war” of disasociation, of liking and respecting, but not loving one another as equals or brothers.

But for the time being the enthusiastic young man is caught between one and the other.

Yet those who know him and understand his newly found devotion are assured that in the battle for mind and soul, he will be a winner.

It’s either shalosh seudot or a farbrengen. Whichever serves the best herring.

I have heard his father say so. And fathers know best.

(Or is it mothers?)

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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