Appreciation and Ironing Things Out – Reply to Rabbi Yaakov Klein

Dear Rabbi Klein,

Thank you for your extremely warm and illuminating clarification and explanation. It was great to read your most kind elaboration and to feel the warmth and care that you exude.

We all share the same values and focus of having a relationship with Hashem and bringing His Presence into our lives and into the world around us. There are many means to achieving this, and everyone has a unique role in working on this lifelong journey.

So many of the messages in Sifrei Chassidus and non-Chassidic works are in fact on an identical track, as you explained. Rav Soloveitchik used to note that Nefesh Ha-Chaim and the Tanya are really saying the same thing, albeit in different ways.

I just read about you and your work, and it is all very inspiring. You have obviously methodically dedicated yourself and invested immense effort and concentration toward a very important project (many projects, actually), which, with Hashem’s help, will enlighten our brothers and sisters and instill in everyone a sense of renewed commitment on all levels. This is especially needed both to combat assimilation, as well as to stir and awaken people whose mitzvah obervance, Torah study and prayer are performed without enthusiasm and spirit.

I employed the term “Neo-Chassidus”, as that is the phrase used when the larger Orthodox world became introduced to this (renewed) phenomenon by way of a seminal Jewish Action article a few years back. (And Wikipedia’s entry is under “Neo-Hasidism”.) I did not intend in any way to imply that the Chassidus you teach and live is not authentic or is disconnected from the great Chassidic masters of old.

As much good as Neo-Chassidus has brought forth, some are concerned that there are those who are jumping on board as a fun detour to the demands of serious commitment to Orthodox Judaism, and that these people are using Chassidus as a substitute for some of the basics of Torah study and observance. You clearly affirmed that this is the opposite of your goals and all that you represent, and I believe you 100%. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger and others quoted in the Jewish Action article have said the same thing, and I believe them fully as well. But for some, who have far less knowledge and experience, plunging into Chassidus without two feet on the basic Torah/Orthodox landscape may be a reality.

I was recently learning in a beis medrash, where a few of the talmidim were reviewing an apparently deep shiur on Chumash that had just been given by a great rosh yeshiva, when one of the talmidim interrupted his fellows and said that the true explanation of the matter that was taught in the shiur is, instead, based on a Kabbalistic understanding, as presented in a certain Chassidic sefer. As soon as this young man started to explain this Kabbalistic/Chassidic approach, the other talmidim asked him some questions about the esoteric axiom which he had put forth. It immediately became clear that the talmid who was proffering the Chassidic/Kabbalistic approach did not really understand it, leading the other talmidim to end the discussion.

There is fear that people are jumping into waters that they cannot navigate, and that they are engaging in matters that are overly deep (for them) – both metaphysically and in practice – without first having the basics. When someone flies to the clouds but lacks a pilot’s license, an aircraft or landing gear, his position is extremely precarious.

I realize that your modus operandi in teaching and enlightening people is to explain that you are offering something additional, once basic commitment and Torah knowledge are present (and that you present everything with great clarity, engendering a crisp as possible understanding). But there are those who take the teachings of Chassidus, and even more, the practices, and create from them a new entity that people such as Rabbi Weinberger and you did not encourage and that radically departs from your mission. It is as if some individuals are drawn to the spirituality and some of the unusual (I use this term in a relative, non-critical sense) practices of Chassidus, without a commitment to the core Torah learning and fundamentals of observance that you expect and require. We have all seen people “jump to extremes” when they are not grounded in the basics, taking shortcuts which in the end lead to derailment, as it becomes evident that the foundation was never established from the start.

This is decidedly NOT what you are preaching or doing, and I know that it is against all that you stand for. But it happens, and that is why some people are concerned.

In your first article, you wrote that, “This new kind of Hasid doesn’t necessarily change his mode of dress, his minhagim (practices), or his nusach of tefillah (liturgy). No outward transformation need be exhibited.” Although I know that this is your credo and that you stated it with full sincerity, many people who have adopted Neo-Chassidus do change their dress, nusach and minhagim. While this at times involves halachic considerations (which are above my pay grade, so I will not comment on them), some of those who make these changes do not really appreciate or understand them, and perhaps more importantly, they lack the basic knowledge to properly make a determination about making these changes in the first place. I know that this is NOT what you encourage or advise, but there are people who observe these developments with some concern.

I truly appreciate your reaching out and asserting that Chassidus is not superior to other approaches within Torah and that it is not intended to supplant anything, but only to add insight and draw forth wellsprings of renewed inspiration. Although your sentiments are shared by the many great disseminators of Chassidus, not all of the “field soldiers” are on board. (We have all seen Misnagdim/non-Chassidic Jews be derisively referred to as “Snags”, etc. Those who speak this way typically exhibit ignorance and laxity in Torah and do not follow your noble example.)

I write this all not b’sinah (with animus), but b’ahavah (with love). I feel an obligation to share the concerns of many who have privately expressed them but for some reason have been publicly silent. The hope is that by bringing these issues to the fore, they can be addressed and overcome, so that we can all be better ovdei Hashem (servants of God) and yedidim (dear friends).

This will be my final article/statement on the subject, and I thank you for extending yourself and engaging me and others with your heartfelt sincerity. May Hashem bless you and yours with all good, in every possible way!

B’ahavah v’yedidus,

Avrohom Gordimer

About the Author
Rabbi Gordimer is a kashruth professional, a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at Coalition for Jewish Values, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.