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The war has already been won: The modern-day revival of Hasidus and the future of Orthodoxy

Hasidut gets the credit for shifting many who were only going through the motions to keeping mitzvot with fervor
Rabbi Elimelech Biderman and thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrating in Meron, Northern Israel, December 1, 2017. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Rabbi Elimelech Biderman and thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrating in Meron, Northern Israel, December 1, 2017. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Shavuos edition of Mishpacha Magazine carried a lengthy article about the rejuvenation of Hasidus throughout the Orthodox world that sparked much discussion on social media. Two weeks later, Mishpacha printed a letter of protest written by Rabbi Noach Shafran of Baltimore, alongside Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s response. Earlier this week, Rabbi Weinberger elaborated on that response in a powerful speech delivered in his shul, Aish Kodesh, in Woodmere, NY.

I would like to present some of my thoughts on this subject, which touches the core of my very being, in the hope that they may provide further clarity and context to these developments.

Firstly, for those who have not read the original article, it is important to define exactly what it is that we mean when we talk about this recent rejuvenation of “Hasidus.”

Though it is difficult to capture in words a matter that is so synonymous with spirit, it is impossible to have any conversation without a working definition of the subject at hand. Hasidus, in this context, refers to the outlook on Torah observance and avodas Hashem (service of God) that was revealed to the world by the Hasidic masters and captured in their hundreds of written works. It does not mean the lifestyle maintained by our Yiddish-speaking brothers in their communities (although many of the spiritual elements of that lifestyle do, in fact, represent the authentic Hasidus of old). It refers, instead, to the consuming fascination that so many thousands of Jews, of all ages and backgrounds, have developed for the ideas of Hasidus as taught by the early Hasidic masters, the soul of the movement, which has, over the years, become largely concerned with externalities, and the light and vitality its ideas shed on their avodas Hashem.

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. Deep inside, however, a paradigm shift has taken place in his hashkafa, his general outlook on life, which fills him with hope, joy, energy, and excitement for both avodas Hashem and for living in general. When we speak of Hasidus, we mean attaining a deeper way of seeing the world; a deeper way of studying the Torah, a deeper way of understanding Hashem and our relationship with Him, and a deeper way of approaching every person, place, and circumstance we encounter. It goes without saying that Hasidus is so much more than these things alone, but this definition will suffice for the purpose of this article.

(For further exploration, see here, here, here, here, and the Mishpacha article, here.)

The original article in the Mishpacha magazine strikes me as a wonderful thing, for what some had written off as being a fringe and fleeting fad has been brought to the consciousness of the mainstream Orthodox public in a major way. People are slowly beginning to realize that what they originally assumed was a small number of “crazies” who study Hasidic works with devotion, travel to Uman and other kivrei tzaddikim (cemeteries where the righteous are buried), or daven in Carlebach minyanim has, in fact, grown into a massive and dynamic force that simply cannot be ignored any longer.

I am overjoyed that more Jews have been made aware that there is a legitimate alternative to their stagnant and uninspired hashkafa (world view), one that requires them to change nothing more than their way of looking at Hashem, His holy Torah, and the Jewish nation. For these reasons, the article excited me and brought me much joy and hope that the door to messiah’s arrival that began to open in 17th-century Medzhibozh will continue to open ever wider before our very eyes.

However, I feel that the discussion of who emerged “victorious” in the debate between Rabbi Shafran and Rabbi Weinberger, and the dissection of the points that were expressed is, while fascinating, entirely moot. The way I see it, this and any other sort of modern-day debate over the legitimacy and value of Hasidus, be it public or private, is merely a battle in a war that has already been won.

Allow me to explain.

My generation of non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews does not have the reservations and hang-ups about Hasidus passed so faithfully along from rebbe to talmid, from mentor to student, that can be traced all the way back to Volozhin (despite the inevitable corruption of the respect for and deep understanding of Hasidus that accompanied that original reservation and its reduction, over time, to blistering ignorance and baseless animosity).

That reservation, which lost steam in almost exact proportion to the explosion of interest in and excitement about Hasidus, no longer prevents us from seeking out that which speaks to our hearts and souls. We don’t feel as if we are giving anything up by opening our minds to a different way of seeing our relationship with Hashem. On the contrary, we feel, increasingly, as if there is simply nothing to lose. The thousands of “shmuessin” (speeches of rebuke) we heard in yeshiva had too small of a real emotional impact to foster any sort of commitment to a path we now find unequipped to deal with the struggles of our generation. And as those struggles continue to grow and the gap between what we have been taught (“Just learn Gemara and everything will work itself out”; “Success in avodas Hashem means to be a lamdan”; “Torah, Torah, Torah”; etc.) and our uninspired reality continues to widen, we eventually come to the stark realization that this is simply not working. Not for us in our personal lives, and not for the Jewish people as a general path. When that happens, (for those of us who don’t grow disillusioned entirely, r”l), we are lucky enough to have been blessed with the open-mindedness and humility to explore the solution, which, today, is to be found everywhere, and I mean everywhere.

Wherever you look in the Orthodox Jewish world, Hasidus peeks out from behind the curtain. The keynotes at the popular Pesach programs are those who carry the positive, Hashem-focused message re-introduced to Judaism by the Hasidic masters. The most popular Jewish songs of the past five years sung with great emotion by Hasidim and Litvaks alike at kumsitz gatherings everywhere have been those with lyrics or messages from the holy books that have sparked such a revolution and reawakening in our times.

Rabbis in shuls across the entire spectrum of Orthodox affiliation have begun to host monthly “Carlebach” or “Ruach” Shabbosim, in attempt to wake their congregations from their spiritual slumber. The tables in even the most “yeshivish” institutions are piled up with Tanyas, Kedushas Levis, volumes of Sefas Emes and copies of Likutei Moharan. Everywhere one looks he see signs and advertisements for trips to the kivrei tzaddikim in such places as Uman, Berditchov, Lizhensk and Kerestir. Finally (though there are so many more examples), which mid-sized Jewish community anywhere in the world doesn’t have at least one “shteible,” “Carlebach minyan,” “Nusach Sefard minyan,” or some other name that represents a group of Jews who, fed up with the distinctly societal element of the lackluster tefillah in their shuls, joined together in mind and spirit to bring Hashem back into their davening with passion, energy, emotion, and song? Such congregations are everywhere. Hasidus is everywhere, dressed in so many different garments. And the revolution is only just beginning.

It is an unequivocal fact that Orthodox teens and millennials who discover Hasidus and experience the complete transformation of their avodas Hashem that its study engenders are more passionate, idealistic, and eager to spread the treasure they have discovered than those who have not yet discovered Hasidus. Their minds are bursting with the deepest and most relevant ideas about Hashem, the Sabbath, the Land of Israel, tzaddikim, the Jewish soul, and every other major and minor Torah concept and their hearts are aflame with the emotional energy these ideas engender. In addition, those drawn to Hasidus are usually the most spiritually inclined, which implies above-average maturity and intelligence and, oftentimes, poetic talent expressed in music, writing, and art.

Seeing Hasidus as having been a game-changer for them, (think: “Baal Shem Tov, heilige Ba’al Shem Tov, you mamash changed my life”), these Jews feel charged with the holy mission of bringing its message to the world. The millennials have already become popular “mashpi’im” (influencers) in shuls and yeshivas throughout the world, or have taken other positions where they can do their part to share the message of Hasidus, have written books on the subject, (many of which have become enormously popular), or have found other ways to “spread the light.”

And the teens? These teens with holy books in their hands and fire in their eyes will fill every conceivable leadership role of the next generation. They will become principals, teachers, therapists, speakers, and rabbis. Most importantly, they will become parents who are able to pass on a yiddishkeit of passion, joy, and excitement to their children by way of experience and shining example, something we so sorely lack today. They will open new shuls, schools, and organizations. They will create a brand new curriculum balancing the rigorous study of Gemara and Halacha with the deepest explorations of our faith through p’nimiyus haTorah, the internal workings of Torah, and institute a brand new model of education.

And through all of those mediums, the flame of Hasidus, which had flickered so violently and threatened to grow dim after the devastation of the Holocaust but which today burns more strongly than ever before, will continue to light up the hearts and souls of Jewish men and women, boys and girls worldwide until, in the decades to come, it becomes a tremendous torch of faith, yearning, passion, joy, humility, love, life, and universal God-consciousness.

My friends, the war has already been won. Not despite letters like the one Rabbi Shafran wrote, but specifically because of them. Because the more that dated perspective is repeated over and over again in our yeshivas or in our press, the more it continues to lose resonance with a nation blessed with the innate ability to sense exactly what it needs for its survival.

Do you have any idea how much pain that letter caused? Do you know how painful it was for parents across the spectrum whose children have simply lost interest in yiddishkeit despite their success in Gemara studies to read that learning Torah “yeshiva-style” will alone alleviate all of our problems? Do you know how painful it was for alumni of the finest yeshivas who have indeed set aside time for study and yet still feel little to no connection with Hashem or authentic Judaism to read a letter according to which everything should theoretically be perfectly fine while feeling, with every fiber of their being, that something is so very wrong?

The more loudly these opinions are expressed, the less the Jews who know what is really going on are paying heed. This generation is reclaiming our yiddishkeit. We are demanding more. We refuse to be denied the soul of the Torah, the truths of our relationship with Hashem that has been closeted away from us and shuttered behind all kinds of sophisticated excuses and explanations.

We refuse to feel forced to walk a path which our souls whisper is not ours to take, to wear the shoes of a generation that tread a very different terrain. It takes only a short exploration of its main tenets to realize that Hasidus offers just about everything we lack. It appeals to the masses, the “working-class Jews,” and teaches that each person, regardless of his intellectual capacity, can become a tzaddik, a righteous person, that Hashem is so real and so close to each one of us, and that He takes so much pride in our effort and believes so strongly in our ability to succeed.

Hasidus gives us a foundation of hope and holy brazenness upon which we can build a healthy relationship with Hashem, one that can withstand the winds of insanity that blow so strongly today. It treats the terrible malady of which so many of our gravest issues are mere symptoms at its very root. While a hashkafah celebrating intellectual success as the highest goal in avodas Hashem appeals only to the elite few who are equipped to serve Hashem in that manner, alienating everyone else who end up feeling like they are second rate at best and completely worthless at worst (r”l!), Hasidus appeals to the masses, teaching them that regardless of their mental capacity, social standing, or occupation, they each have a particular mission to carry out and that they can also attain true, “l’chatchila” closeness with Hashem.

Is it any wonder then, that, slowly but surely, we are witnessing the fulfillment of the Baal Shem Tov’s vision that Hasidus would spread far and wide before the coming of the messiah?

Unfortunately, though every Jewish leader who, to quote Rabbi Weinberger, has “taken a peek outside of the beis midrash” will readily admit that we are suffering from a terrible lack of connection and interest in Judaism, which manifests in so many devastating ways, it is apparently far more difficult for them to accept the notion that our loving Father in heaven has already prepared the remedy to this malady.

After so many years of exile, we have sadly sunken into such despair that we automatically view any claim of a solution to our problems with crippling suspicion and skepticism. We have known many problems over these 2,000 years, but we have not known many solutions. Sadly, most solutions proposed ended up failing miserably and causing considerable damage.

Therefore, there still exists a tremendous urge, oftentimes well-intentioned, to fight this movement, to proclaim that it represents inauthentic Judaism, that it is some sort of “sugar-coated,” hippie-influenced, feel-good version of the truth, as if the tzaddikim of Hasidus were some kind of jokers. When confronted with sources in Hazal, the Zohar HaKadosh, and the Rishonim, which overtly support the major ideas of the Baal Shem Tov, the response is the same now as it has been for over 200 years: an eye-roll and perhaps a pitying glance.

Throughout the ages and all we have been through, only the dates and places have changed; that eye-roll has yet remained. And perhaps it will continue to remain for the foreseeable future. But I have come to the liberating realization that is hardly worth the effort to respond to each and every protest with proofs and explanations to support the tenets of Hasidus and the reasons its message is so vital for our generation, because despite the mighty protests, the alternative is growing more and more irrelevant with each passing day. On its own, without any further assistance, Hasidus is poised to take over the Orthodox world and transform the global scene of Judaism. Try as they may, no amount of eye-rolling can hold the Jewish nation back from reconnecting to the soul of Judaism, “Even an iron barrier cannot separate the Jewish people from their Father in heaven.” (Sotah 38b)

R. Nosson of Nemirov, the leading disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov zy”a, was once asked how he would define the difference between a Hasid’s avodas Hashem and that of a non-Hasid. Without hesitation, he answered that the distinction is akin to the difference between a cold potato knish and a warm potato knish. Both have the same exact ingredients and appearance; the difference between them would surely be difficult to record in scientific and empirical terms. Yet anyone with eyes is able to tell that they are simply worlds apart. The fragrance, the warmth, the experience… it is something else entirely.

Friends, our generation is fed up with cold potato knishes. We are no longer satisfied with a page of Gemara or Mesillas Yesharim that doesn’t emit the most wondrous fragrance of Hashem’s presence, no longer interested in a cold and stale tefillah that doesn’t set the heart aflame. Our souls are simply not being fed by mitzvah observance that is seen as an end unto itself instead of a means of connection with the Infinite One.

Our generation doesn’t need any new ingredients. True Yiddishkeit, as it has always been, is ours for the taking; it is ready, willing, and able. All we need is a “toaster oven,” something which has the ability to draw out the true inner nature of the very same Torah and avodah we have always had throughout all the generations; something that can reveal the brilliant light of health, vitality, joy, and excitement latent in our holy tradition in a way that guarantees it will see us through to the finish line.

Its effectiveness demonstrated throughout 17th century Europe, the study of Hasidus has proven to do just that, and it is doing it again today, more powerfully than ever, before our very eyes. Any debate on the matter is a mere battle of a war had already been won.

Yaakov Klein is the author of “Sparks from Berditchov: An Inspirational Guide to Avodas Hashem” recently published by Feldheim. His next book, “Sunlight of Redemption”, will be in stores this coming January. His essays on a broad range of Torah thought have been featured in print and on the web. Originally from Far Rockaway, New York, Yaakov currently lives in Chicago with his wife Shira, where he teaches for the Illinois Center for Jewish Studies and writes for the Chicago Jewish Home. He can be reached at sparksfromberditchov@gmail.com or on Facebook for questions and comments.

About the Author
Yaakov Klein is the author of Sparks from Berditchov: An Inspirational Guide to Avodas Hashem recently released by Feldheim Publishers. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Shira, where he teaches for the Illinois Center for Jewish Studies, writes a bi-weekly column for the Jewish Home and produces music.
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