That was modern Jewry’s reaction to learning that the Ger Chassidim’s extremely prohibitive sexual mores reportedly led to Esti Weinstein’s tragic death a month ago today.
Modern Jews across social media ridiculed and condemned the Ger Chassidim’s fanatical obsession with kedusha (holiness), not realizing that the joke was just as much on us. Our reality is actually just the other side of the same coin. Both of us are erring on the sacredness front.
Esti, z”l, was born into a family of prominent Ger Chassidim. She was schooled in that community, met her husband there, got married, earned a comfortable living, and raised a nice, large Ger family. Her life was, by her community’s measures, idyllic for a while – as long as she was willing to follow its leaders’ fanatical rules governing interactions between the sexes. Then it all unspooled.
When she no longer could abide those extreme rules, her life came apart. She chose to leave the community in search of a different lifestyle, but the communal leaders were determined to thwart her at all costs. They broke her spirit and crushed her soul. They alienated her from her children, cut her off from her family, and pursued every means possible to make her life unbearable.
They were, tragically, successful. Last month Esti reached her breaking point. She could no longer bear the pain and decided to end her life.
On the last day of her life, Esti shared a fictional short story with her friends, which many are convinced is a thinly veiled autobiography. In it she chronicled the story of a life of sexual experimentation that eventually spiraled violently into perversity and soul-crushing sexual abuse.
It is clear from her writing that she blames the violent disintegration of her life on the Ger community’s radical “kedusha” standards and restrictive sanctity laws. Their kedusha “takanot” (rules) impose severe limitations on people’s desire for closeness, physical intimacy, and emotional connectedness. Esti’s death shone a harsh spotlight on those takanot. The world was now aware of those brutal prohibitions. We were outraged.
We moderns were happy to decry their fanaticism. We gleefully shared with our friends and social circles the lists of harsh rules imposed on the men and women of the community, restrictions whose ultimate goal is to severely limit intimacy and human interaction. Ger Chassidim were made to look foolish and cruel.
While the Ger Chassidim are certainly worthy of condemnation for this, we are not much better. We are, as a matter of fact, the mirror image of them. They pursue kedusha wrongly, while we do not pursue it all, both of us thereby robbing our respective communities of one of Judaism’s most potent spiritual and emotional elixirs.
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Judaism espouses a pyramidal taxonomy of religiosity, a list of behaviors that enable a person, with increasing potency, to achieve a life of optimal spiritual satisfaction. (See Avodah Zara 20b) Kedusha is at the top of that list. Holiness, according to this lineup, is the behavior most conducive to achieving psycho-religious growth and spiritual wellbeing.
The list was generated by R. Pinchas Ben Yair, a 2nd-century pietist; was made famous (and adopted as the basis of a book) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, an 18th-century kabbalist; and eventually became the credo of the two divergent groups within the ultra-Orthodox community, the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim.
Modern Jews are the only ones ignorant of this list. Many of us do not know that the list exists. Those who do know about it are, for the most part, oblivious to the meaning of the categories enumerated therein. Modern Judaism never got around to sufficiently understanding or explaining these concepts. The lack of native interpretation by modern Judaism’s leadership left a void. Over the years, that void has been filled by the Chareidim.
Chassidim and Mitnagdim, each in their own way, have invested an inordinate amount of intellectual currency in defining and mastering the religious behaviors enumerated by Rabbi Pinchas.
While the list is universally accepted in the Chareidi community, different groups emphasize different aspects of the lineup. Ger Chassidim have latched onto kedusha; they have made sacredness their creed.
While the simple read of that list implies suggestion, which would make the adoption of those behaviors volitional, their leadership turned it into an imperative. They changed the value of holiness from something optional with the potential of enhancing our lives to something essential without which the religious journey has no validity. Sanctity, they believe, is crucial for the wellbeing of a community, and a lack of sacredness is detrimental to the success of a religious collective.
They are not wrong about this. Kedusha is indeed essential, religiously and therapeutically. Kedusha is the belief in human beings’ ability to infuse life with sacredness and transcendence. As such, kedusha is meant to serve as an elixir to the trauma of modernity, a balm for the vicissitudes of life. Having that transcendent ability is indeed a crucial aspect of religion’s mission to help us navigate life’s treacherous journey. Kedusha, as the Ger Chassidim believe, is indeed a primary religious attribute we all have to pursue and embrace.
While the Ger Chassidim are absolutely right about kedusha’s importance, they are at the same time terribly wrong about its definition. They believe that human intimacy is incompatible with sacredness. Kedusha for them requires ascetic restraint. That is why their decrees are designed to keep interaction between genders to a bare minimum. Sadly, they could not be more wrong. Human connectedness is a conduit to kedusha, not an obstacle.
The Talmud says as much rather explicitly. The rabbis proclaim (Sotah 17a) that איש ואשה שכינה שרויה ביניהם, God is at the center of our pursuit of intimacy. The Rabbis believed that God can be found right there, in the middle of the spousal sensual encounter. Kedusha then, contra Ger, is immanent. Holiness is achieved by immersing ourselves in materiality and sanctifying it, not by avoiding intimacy or transcending corporality.
Intimacy, though, is not the only place that sacredness can be found. Sacredness is multidimensional and can take many forms: It can be a peaceful walk in the park, a pleasant conversation with a close friend, a meaningful Shabbat meal, a tender engagement with a relative, immersion in a religious text, getting lost in a beautiful tune or meaningful lyrics, or, when saying a prayer with passion, focus and devotion.
These are just a few examples. There are many more. The common denominator is that they all provide moments of transcendence, times when we mentally pause our mundane routines and enter into an out-of-body, transcendental space. The pause can be long or short. Either way, when we return to our routines, we feel vivified and refreshed. We were given a few moments of intimacy with that which is greater than we are.
Some might call that “that” God; others might call it something else. Regardless of what we call it religiously, we all agree that something transcendental has happened during those special moments. Kedusha is the term tradition uses for those moments, those times in life when we feel caressed and embraced by something holy and divine; an electrifying touch whose power stays with us for a while.
Life without those momentous pauses would be unbearable. Making sure that every human being has optimal access to those beautiful moments, and is also equipped with a spiritually rich vocabulary that will enable them to infuse those moments with transcendental significance, is, therefore, crucial. That is our role as parents, teachers, friends, and lovers.
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But sanctifying life is not an innate ability; it needs to be taught, modeled, and then reinforced. We need to provide our children and students with the skills and awareness needed to experience kedusha in their lives. We need to teach them how to access it, guide them in how to pursue it, and empower them to create it. Failure to do so is reckless and irresponsible, a dereliction of our parental or educational duty.
If we listen closely to our children, our partners, our peers, and our friends, it will become clear to us that this is what many are asking for: help with their desire to infuse life with meaning and transcendence, something that will help them make modern life bearable.
Life is difficult – for all of us. Finding a partner is hard, maintaining a relationship is difficult, making a living nowadays is extremely tough, and providing for our families is incredibly challenging. Kedusha provides moments of reprieve during those difficult pursuits. It is an island of rest in the midst of the choppy tides of life. It allows us to take a momentary transcendental break from the misery of our routines. Our duty is to help our friends, relatives, and dependents find those islands of sacred transcendence.
Sadly, we have not done that so far. We have neglected to teach sacredness or to define kedusha on our own terms, instead letting Chassidim (wrongly) define it for us.
It is time we take back this most crucial religious category, champion it, make it our own, and make it an integral part of our religious discourse. One of our most important religious concepts has been coopted, and we need to redeem it – soon!
Kedoshim tihiyu, God pleads with us: be holy; pursue it and create it. Modern Jewry so far has not heeded that call.
Ve’ata Kadosh is the prayer that transitions us out of Shabbat and into our weekday routine. Shabbat has many attributes, but the liturgist chose to highlight kedusha as the last thing we celebrate before we depart shul at the end of the holiest day of the week. As we are getting ready to embark on a new and challenging week, we pray that the obstacles we inevitably will encounter over the next six days be elevated by the kedusha, the transcendental sacredness, our psyche soaked up on Shabbat.
Today is Esti Weinstein’s shloshim, the end of the traditional thirty-day mourning period. The most appropriate way to honor her legacy would be to commit ourselves to undo the damage Ger causes its adherents, by aggressively pursuing the antithetical alternative. Instead of pursing kedusha by negating life, let us promote it by engaging in the world meaningfully and transcendentally. Let us infuse our animate and inanimate encounters with an overflowing of correct holiness, so much that all those around us are able to tap into it.
When our loved ones turn their accusatory eyes toward us, blaming us for not helping them cope with the challenges of modern life, we want to be able to look back at them and direct them toward those points of transcendental reprieve we diligently created for them. We owe it to them.
Yehei zichrah baruch; may Esti’s memory be a blessing!