Thursday, December 18, 2014

Some thoughts on the Jewish Action article on Neo-Chassidus

By now, most people have at least heard about the Jewish Action's cover story on "Neo-Chassidus". Over the few weeks that have passed since the issue came out, several folks have reached out to me about my response to the article and whether or not I agree with the article. In all honesty, I have mixed feelings about the overall tone of the article, although I remain hopeful and optimistic about the trend, as it were.

For the most part, I'm filled with excitement when I learn about peoples' move toward growth, especially in their relationships with each other and with God. When one makes a conscious decision to delve deeper into such a major component of their life, to simply not allow what is to just be but to grapple, to contend with it and to confront the existential elements that inform our everyday actions - I see that as a positive in general. If that brings a person closer to their roots, or draws them into a whole different world but gives them a healthy, meaningful perspective that allows them to actualize their spiritual potential then I fully support and encourage that exploration. That is what I believe is happening for many today, as they become exposed to the world of pnimiyut.

I have a long standing reluctance to use the term neo-Chassidism or its more well known alias neo-Hasidism; this is primarily because of its association with camps that exist clearly outside the realm of Torah Judaism. I would argue that one of the reasons why chassidut in general gets its bad rap nowadays (long after the hatchet has been buried between the so-called "camps", although there are a few clueless holdouts) and carries a reputation of being a twee, less-than-intellectually-serious derech haChaim is in no small part due to the neo-Hasidic movement with their romantic revisionism of what the Chasidic lifestyle was and what it was intended for. Why anyone would want to even bear a resemblance to that shameful miscarriage of a great and holy path of avodah is beyond me.

I find myself reluctant to even describe myself as a chassid without a prefix - if I do at times it's purely an aspirational thing.

Moreover, assuming the name neo-Chassidut effectively sets one apart from a great living tradition, a gestalt that has infused these last days of galut with light, joy and energy, not to mention volumes of astonishing Torah in all areas of study. I fear that this insistence on choosing a distinctive name stems from an egocentric place; I hope that I am wrong, although I have seen other indications that certainly point to a pronounced lack of bittul.

The article highlights the spread of chassidut in the Modern Orthodox world, but this is so much bigger than that. Indeed, there has been a renaissance of sorts in the past two decades at least even within the "mainstream" chassidic world. With teachers such as Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg, Rav Itchie Meir Morgestern and Rav Gamliel Rabinovitch - among others - dedicating their strengths to once again cultivate a more conscious approach to Judaism, more and more people are "buying in" in response to the phenomenon of "selling out" with a pale facsimile of monolithic Judaism. Instead the article focused on people within the movement for the most part, as opposed to the individuals leading the movement. Again, I'm concerned that this is indicative of a larger issue of people not understanding the need to have real leaders to rally around; neo-Chassidut has been described as a DIY (do it yourself) movement. While this can foster individual responsibility, it has many risk factors as well, especially in light of the youthful composition of the "movement's" adherents. There are not yet enough resources that make chasidic texts accessible to the initiate, although thankfully that is changing. Yet by and large, translations of major texts come from places and individuals who are not observant, and whose well-meaning attempts to translate and explain these fundamental aspects of chassidut fail miserably in so many ways. It's a very dangerous place to be, to enter into something as potentially powerful as pnimiyut without an experienced teacher and structure. Lord knows that I have so much lost time as a result of this. The JA article did not do justice to this warning.

We have to tread carefully and be very cautious in this area.

I was somewhat dismayed by the response in the various social media sites from both those within and without the neo-chassidut camp. There was some sort of triumphant horn-tooting and self-congratulating that came across to many including myself as immature, as well as premature. There was an impression of eliticism in response to those that didn't necessarily agree or appreciate the article (I saw "snag" and other derivatives of the word mitnagid bandied about); I have more to say on the general subject of the "right" way to serve God, but this post is too long as it is. Another time.

(I will mention one thing in particular: an individual who is a senior faculty member in RIETS has been ridiculed by many in response to his reported comments to JA. This individual is at least partly responsible for Rav Moshe Weinberger being at YU in an official capacity. At the very least he deserves some gratitude for recognizing what is "working" with many of the students and - despite his misgivings and skepticism - brought Rav Weinberger in as mashpia. The scorn leveled at him based on a quip that was quoted as part of a larger article is not fair, nor is JA's use of his on-the-record remarks to be set up as the "bad guy". Bad form.)

Many of the responses to the article have been so very cynical, even caustic in some instances. And while it is so natural to assume a defensive position and swat away at the attacks and criticism, we would do well to at least take heed to some of the more salient points that those critics make. It is precisely that opposition that keeps us on the straight and narrow and it behooves us to at least take it seriously, because there is a grain a truth in some of their words and we can learn from it.


Neil Harris said...

Great post and I loved the sixth paragraph. I am not surprised (sadly) about the flack that senior faculty member has been getting.

As I emailed to JA the only thing I think they missed was quotes and pics of some MO yidden who have been inspired by Chassidish Rabbonim. Have a quote from a member of Rav Weinberger's Shul who is a senior lecturer at AishHaTorah and faculty at YU would have brought this movement off the page and into people's hearts and minds. It also would have balanced out the way-to-big pics of the neo-chassidim.

Micha Berger said...

I strongly disagree with you decision not to name Rabbi Yosef Blau. He deserves a lot of respect in general, but especially in his role in all this. How many rabbanim would choose what their talmidim need over guiding them to more closely following his own derekh? To give credit where due, he needs to be named.

Second, I think the author conflated different sets of people under the rubric "neo-Chassid" and some of that confusion underlies your response.

There is a bigger movement toward a growth orientation. Regardless of which derekh they're pulling from. Think of examples like those in my ve'adim (or, judging just from his blogs, the person of Beyond BT, who I am not naming because I'm not sure he names himself). Or R' Shlomo Einhorn's work at West Side Institutional and at the OU "WINGS" project.

Most people looking for growth are pulling heavily from Chassidus. I would say including yourself.

Then within that group there is some sort of Anglo Chabaku"k phenomenon. These are the guys for whom the singing minyan and instrumentalized Hallel and Selichos are so central. I don't think that describes you, but it does describe the majority of the people the article is labeling "Neo Chassidim".