Neo-Chasidus – Not the Torah’s Essence

There has been quite a bit of discussion about Neo-Chasidus online and elsewhere. That is a phenomenon that seems to be taking hold in many places where one would not expect it. Like Modern Orthodox circles. Although there is certainly room for more spirituality among Modern Orthodox Jews in many cases, it is a phenomenon that I question.

The source of this discussion is a recent article in Jewish Action magazine. It is based on an interview with one of its leading proponents, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger  the newly appointed ‘mashpia at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and the rav of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York.’  In essence Neo-Chasidus takes on some of the aspects of Chasidus but not all of them. For example one of the primary aspects of Neo-Chasidus – the Chasdic Rebbe is not a necessity – if it exists at all. Neo-Chasidus is about focusing on feelings rather that the intellect.

Chasidus also deals a lot more with Nistar – the hidden (inner light of the) Torah that was not revealed to us. The Torah is all about Nigla – that which was revealed at Sinai. The father of the popular study Nistar is Rav Sheneur Zalmen of Liadi – the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. His Sefer, Tanya, is all about finding that inner light.

As a devout rationalist, it has always been my contention that Nistar… the inner light or secrets of the Torah are not possible to study. That is why they are called secret. If God wanted us to know Nistar, it wouldn’t be Nistar (hidden). It would be Nigla (revealed). This is in fact an admission we make every Yom Kippur during the extended portion of the Amidah know as Vidui. We do not know Nistar.

Traditional Chasidus has evolved since its founder, the Baal Shem Tov. In its early days it was considered a departure from traditional belief that bordered on heresy. It was fought vigorously by the Vilna Goan, (the Gra). After some later modification of its ideals and the advent of Haskala, Chasidus was accepted. Haskala was perceived to be  a far greater threat to Judaism than Chasidus – so their forces combined,

Traditional Orthodoxy now consists of two types The Chasid and the Lithuanian Yeshiva type Jew – formerly called Misnagid (Misnagid is the Hebrew noun for an opponent of Chasidism – but now under a united banner of Orthodoxy, that terms is considered somewhat pejorative.)

Chasidism of today has evolved into many incarnations. Although many sects dress alike in distinctive dress with some minor variations they each have their own Rebbe… or spiritual leader that transcends the role of a rabbi. They are seen as Tzadikim and treated as royalty. Chasidic Rebbes are seen as so holy by their Chasidim that they go to great lengths asking for their Brachos (blessings) often leaving them great sums of money for it.Their edicts are law. They are given awe and deference that would make the Queen of England jealous.

Although it is not germain to the issue at hand. I want to paint a picture of traditional Chasidus so as to compare it to Neo-Chasidus.

There was a time where Chasidic Rebbes controlled virtually all aspects of their Chasidim’s lives. But that is no longer the case for most Chasidim. Although the same awe and respect remains, Chasidic Rebbes are otherwise un-engaged in the day to day lives of their Chasidim. Satmar Chasidim are devout adherents of their Rebbe’s dictates but other than that they go on with their lives with little engagement from him.

This is not the case with Skvere. The Skever Rebbe’s city of New Square is a throwback to the Rebbes and Chasidus of old. He controls every aspect of the lives of his Chasidim. Anyone veering off of his path (such as trying to have an independent Minyan receives punitive actions from committees loyal to the Rebbe – and can ultimately be expelled from the sect.) One would think that no one would ever want to be controlled in such a way. But his Chasdim apparently love it.

Neo-Chasidus has none of these trappings.What it does have is some of the components of Chasdidus; (e.g. emotion and joy in service to God). It is a personal involvement that evokes the kind of feelings that Torah study alone – or any intellectual pursuit thereof – does not.

I do not agree with this approach.

There are those who say that the dry study of Torah and Halacha does not make them feel any closer to God. But the trappings of Chasidius do. It enhances the meaning of Mitzvos for them. It raises their consciousness and fervor. The singing and dancing elevates their spiritual connection to God. This is why Carlebach Minyanim have increased in popularity over the years. Some might argue that Carelbach Minyanim are the original Neo-Chasidim. I think they might be right.

The truth is I understand the need to engage one’s emotions into the performance of Mitzvos. But I reject the notion that this is the essence of Judaism. To me it is all artificial. Listening to music does stimulate the emotions, but it is the Mitzvah that is important, not the music. The problem with Neo-Chasidism is that the music becomes the Mitzvah. The peripherals of Chasidus end up becoming the essence of Judaism rather than the Mitzvos themselves. This is why for example a Chasidic Rebbe might spend a lot more time reciting Hinini Muchan U’Mezuman (the preamble to doing some Mitzvos – which is not required by Halacha) than on the Mitzvah itself.

In my view this is wrong. As Rav Soloveitchik pointed out in his masterwork Halakhic Man, God wants of us to to see the world through the prism of Halacha. Not through preparation for it. God requires that we bring the spiritual down to us, not to bring us up to the spiritual with neo-mystical acts like a Chasidic Rebbe dancing himself into religious elevation.

This is not to say that we can’t experience joy in doing the Mitzvos. Of course we can and we should. But in my view focusing on the joy misses the point of Judaism. The Chasidic peripherals that are becoming so popular now are in my view artificial.

I know all of this seems odd considering my own Chasidic heritage. But I long ago abandoned the emotional approach to Judaism in favor of the intellectual one. That may leave me with a lot of questions. But it also leaves me with a sense that Judaism is more than about what feelings it generates in you. Because if feelings are all that important, than Jewish Orthodox feminists  like those of JOFA would be right. Let them do whatever it takes to make them feel the joy of Judaism. Why then not follow the paradigm of Open Orthodoxy (or at least their approach to feminism)?

What about the inner light of Torah that Chasidism focuses upon which they apparently think will be derived by these artificial means? I don’t think they have found it. Because I don’t think it is humanly possible to do so by very definition.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.