This past Shabbat, I delivered a shiur on chassidut and neo-chassidut in our communities. I tried to demonstrate that many of the initial core values of chassidut that were appealing to the simple Jews of the 18th century are the same core values that appeal to the “neo-chassidic” community of the 21st century. In my view, the core values of 18th century chassidut are:
(1) Immanence: God is everywhere, that no situation is too mundane for His presence and that no request is too mundane to ask for His help.
(2) Tzaddik: The tzaddik is the conduit of holiness and has superhuman powers that can help the average Jew with his or her problems.
(3) Evil is not bad: All evil has some good in it. There is no action that does not come from or engender something good.
(4) Prayer is central: Prayer was the center of the day of the Chassid and this allowed every Jew, even an unlearned Jew, to feel part of something that was not formerly stressed as being so important.
(5) Joy is central: We should minimize feelings of sadness and should be happy all the time.
(6) Study of kabbalah: Kabbalah study should not be limited to a few people, but the masses should study it and be inspired by it.
When we fast-forward to the 21st century, we find that many of these core values are part of what makes the neo-chassidic movement so appealing, which is the revival of chassidic teachings within a modern context. Neo-chassidut helps modern Jews deal with the struggles of everyday life and it helps modern Jews feel connected with themselves and with God through the mystical teachings of the Torah, through connecting with Rebbes and tzaddikim, through heartfelt and soulful tefilla, and through optimism and a focus on the joy of tradition and life itself. I find one central difference between your average 21st century chassidic community and neo-chassidic community is that a chassidic community tends to be more insular to keep its members “safe” from the outside world, whereas a neo-chassidic community typically is made up of orthodox Jews in more modern and open communities that may feel inspired by the ideas and values of chassidut.
I discussed the challenges to the neo-chassidic movement now as being the same as the challenges to the chassidic movement in the 18th century. Is there not enough emphasis on Torah study? Is there too much forgiveness for sins and not enough taking responsibility for our own behavior? Do we outsource too much responsibility for religious and also for mundane matters to the tzaddik or the rebbe?
On the flip side, followers of the neo-chassidic movement assert that many people in modern orthodox communities are observing mitzvot by rote without any spiritual feeling. In many instances, if parents are observing mitzvot by rote then it is very challenging to transmit orthodox traditions to the next generation, and many children go off the derech. As such, followers of this movement argue that the solution to religious apathy is chassidut.
The question, of course, is how do you choose which approach is correct? I once heard someone point out that you need a vessel with light inside. You can’t have the vessel without the light but you can’t have the light without the vessel. The vessel refers to the formal halacha and the light refers to the inner feeling. I meet some people who are convinced that the modern orthodox approach is dangerous without the neo-chassidic approach and they will point to so many people in modern orthodox communities who are uninspired and they will point to so many people who have embraced the neo-chassidic approach who live fully inspired religious lives. At the same time, I meet people who are convinced that the neo-chassidic approach is dangerous and they will point to so many people in modern orthodox communities who live religiously meaningful halachic lives and they will point to so many people who have embraced the neo-chassidic approach who spend all their time singing in kumsitzes and attending tisches, but these activities have not made them more halachically observant or more committed to talmud Torah.
How do I personally decide what religious approach to lead my life? First of all, for me personally, I make religious decisions generally based on aspiration and not based on fear. For example, I am a product of YU and the YU-hashkafa (Torah u-madda, religious Zionism, high level religious education for women, etc.) and I identify with that hashkafa. In raising my children, I wanted to educate them on a trajectory where they would embrace that hashkafa in a committed, meaningful way. Many years ago, someone told me that he felt that it was “pikuach nefesh ruchani,” or spiritually dangerous, to send a child to a more modern yeshiva day school because many children in that system are not so committed to halachic sensitivities. But I didn’t base my decisions on fear. I value the YU-hashkafa. That was my aspiration, and my wife and I tried as best as we could to navigate the challenges of that system for our children, fully aware that there are challenges in every system. But that’s point number one. When deciding your hashkafa, focus on your aspirations, not your fears, because every hashkafa has its success stories and its failures. I truly believe that if you are committed enough to any mainstream hashkafa, meaning one where there are a lot of success stories, then you will hopefully find a way to make it work for you and your family in most instances.
Secondly, I think that personal experience has a major impact on which hashkafa we choose. If we come across a lot of people who are leading more spiritual and more meaningful lives through the study of chassidut then we are going to feel one way about this hashkafa. If we come across a lot of people who call themselves folllowers of chassidut who, for example, spend an inordinate amount of time looking for segulot for various rewards without working on bettering themselves, then we are going to feel another way about this hashkafa. Some of us are also more inclined to mystical Torah, whereas some of us are less so inclined.
As mentioned above, I for one identify with a YU-hashkafa, while at the same time I appreciate the value of inspiring a deeper connection with God in all the mitzvot that I perform and the tefillot that I daven so I feel that a tisch or a musical tefilla is spiritually beneficial for my inner experience of mitzvah observance. I educated my children in this way and I am happy that this approach has worked out for me and my children. At the same time, I recognize that there are many wonderful people who have raised their families with a more yeshivish or a more chassidic approach, and they have raised families who are passionate committed Jews in all areas of halacha, both mitzvot bein adam la-chavero and mitzvot bein adam la-makom, and they take personal responsibility for their own spiritual growth. My approach works for my family and me, but I see others who are very successful with a different approach.
At the end of the day, I am more inclined to side with the Ritva’s perspective of “multiple truths.” The Talmud in Masechet Eruvin states that both the opinions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are the words of the living God, but the halacha follows the opinion of Beit Hillel. In his commentary on this Talmudic passage, the Ritva cites French Rabbis who asked how it is possible that both positions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are the words of the living God if they are diametrically opposed to each other. They answered that there is not one singular truth. Rather, when Moshe ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, God demonstrated to him that every matter was subject to forty-nine lenient and forty-nine stringent approaches. According to the Ritva, then, there are multiple legitimate perspectives regarding what the truth is; however, when deciding what to do, we need to decide which perspective we will follow and it was decided that the halacha is like Beit Hillel.
When I consider chassidic, litvish, yeshivish and modern orthodox approaches to leading a meaningful Torah observant life, I can point to the advantages and dangers of each approach. I am not a statistician such that I can evaluate the extent and likelihood of the advantages and dangers of each approach. All I can tell you is what I think works for me and the reasons why. We must reject extremism that results from any approach, but I personally see so much beauty in all of our communities. I see many committed Jews who are deeply connected to God with wonderful bein adam la-chavero values in every community. We just need to decide which approach personally resonates with us and then constantly re-evaluate and adapt.