Saturday, September 16, 2006

Chasidish, Livish, UO, and me?

Many people have "pop", folklore version of Chasidus -- kind of analogous to the idea that Judaism is all about bagels and lox and maybe saying kaddish and marrying your daughter off to a doctor. There's the folklore version of Judaism, and the folklore version of Chasidus. In short:

1) Chasidus is not a "movement" - the phrase "chasidic movement" was not made by the Baal Shem Tov but by observers - not very scholarly ones at that - who interpreted it to be so. And, I suspect, that even they did not mean the phrase literally, or in the sense that your protagonist means it. In reality, Chasidus is (are) teachings. Simple as that. It is no more a "movement" that the "Brisker movement" of Rav Chaim, or the "Kabbalah movement" of the Arizal, or, of course, the "Mussar movement" of Rav Yisroel Salanter. Any of these can be called a "movement" if you like, but of course all it means is "teachings".

As far as its "newness" in concerned, there is little "new" about the teachings of chasidus, in the same sense that there is little new about mussar, which, like chasidus, is based on chazal and rishonim. Chasidus also adds a large chunk of kabalah-based teaching as well.

The "newness" of chasidus is that it emphasizes teachings of Torah -- established, already known parts -- because the generation needed emphasis on those aspects of Avodas Hashem.

This itself is nothing new. The idea that different teachings apply to different people based on their needs is itself an ancient Torah principle. Check out the Gemora at the beginning of Kiddushin where the Gemora asks a contradiction: One place it says its better for a person to get married early and learn Torah afterwards; another place it says the opposite -- better to first learn then get married.

The Gemora answers "Ha lan veha lehu" -- each one was true for the group of people to whom it was said. In other words, something was taught by Chazal generically, without any conditions or specifications, just the opposite can be true for another group of people with different needs.

Sometimes, a Rebbi will emphasize simcha a lot with his talmidim because they may need it; other times, or in other places, humility will be the teaching; still others will work to instill a sense of pride and Gadlus HaAdam in their students. Whatever is needed.

Chasidus - meaning, the Chasidishe Rebbe - will teach his group of Talmidim what is needed according to the "roots of their souls", and according to the needs - both in terms of personal growth and the individual's "mission in this world" (which he himself may not even know) of their students, and their generations. It is the Rebbi's job to know this.

The Satmar Rebbe ZTL once said that all the approaches of all the Talmidei HaBaal Shem Tov can be found in the Chovos Halevovos!

The question is merely, if you had a Rebbi who could peer into the depths of your soul and teach you specifically the approach that you need to grow, as well as to fulfill your particular existential mission here on this world, and to "fix" whatever it is that you are here to fix, he would be your "Rebbe" and you would be his "Chosid".

The Kabbalists -- way before the Chasidim -- also taught that Hashem Himself sometimes helps this process by revealing to the leaders of certain generations, certain teachings that were not previously available even to perhaps greater leaders in greater generations, because those teachings are revealed only when they are needed by the specific generation.

This, they have said, is why the Zohar and Kabbalah was made available when it was, and not before. The Rambam (at least for most of his life) and Rav Saadiah Gaon did not have the Kabbalah, because they did not need it for their Avodah.

The Ramchal writes this in response to the claims that were leveled against him that he must be a faker because the supernatural revelations that he had were not had even by the Arizal himself. The Ramchal answers (in his letters, Ramchal Ubnei Doro) that although he does not compare in the slightest to the Arizal, since his (the Ramchal's) generation was in need of those revelations, someone is chosen, in this case the Ramchal, to be the recipient of those revelations, to be used for the needs of the generation.

And so, when you see such an idea in Chasidishe Seforim regarding Chasidus, it is neither new no Chasidic in origin.


Often, many Chassidishe kehillos have clear cut rules about things like tznius and chukas akum that honestly reflect the ratzon Hashem without compromises, a lot more than what is practiced in the non-chassidsh places. This includes the separation of boys and girls, dress codes for girls that satisfy a much larger section of Halachic authorities, tznius issues such as not allowing girls to speak in public for men (like by High School graduations) which is Halachicly questionable at best, beards and payos are mandatory which is demanded by many halachic authorities, the insistence on not going to college, and numerous gedorim and siyagim, such as their mode of dress for men and their speaking yiddish.

Of course this is a generalization, and does not reflect on the frumkeit level of any particular individual. Also, regarding things like learning in Kollel, or even the prohibition of chodosh in some circles, one can argue in the other direction. But on a communal level, it is definitely often the case that there is reason for people to think that chasdim are simply more haclachicly and religiously stringent.

The separation of men and women is mandated in the Halachah. The Bach (as per sefer chasidim without attribution) writes that if there is mixed seating at a wedding, one may not say "shehasimcha b'meono", since it is not a simcha, but a tragedy.

Separate catering halls are not mandated by anybody.

In ancient times, in the days of Moshe Rabbeinu too, men and women celebrated separately. By Moshe you see this at Krias Yam Suf, where Miriam had a separate group for Shira than did Moshe, and in Tehillim, "Bachurim v'gam besulos", an extra word stuck in there which means that boys and girls do not praise Hashem together (as do the other entities mentioned), rather concomitant but separate.

Also, it is normative halachic practice for siyagim and gedorim to be added as time goes by, since the generations get worse and worse. That includes rabbinically enacted gezeiros, self-imposed restrictions (such as many minhagim as cheromim), and certain halachic practices (such as the preference of Chalitzah over Yibum, where Yibum used to be preferable, due to the later generations' tendency to perform Yibum with ulterior motives).

The behavior of Chasidim, like their non-Chasidic counterparts, are rooted in the instructions of their Gedolim in their communities. Under the supervision of these Gedlim, there can be no enactments that are inappropriately machmir, or maikel.


The Bnei Yissaschar writes that before Moshiach comes, Hashem will give us great Tzadikim, but the leaders chosen by the masses will not be those Tzadikim.

"...This refers to the fake Rebbes, [someone] who makes himself like a Tzadik, is meyached yichudim, wears the Talis of a Rebbe, and with all the clothing of a Rav and a Rebbe, but in reality he is the work of the S"M, in order to mislead the masses . . . G-d should save us from them and from the likes of them" (Munkatcher Rebbe ZTL, Divrei Torah #82).

The Kotzker Rebbe ZTL said (Emes VEmunah) that before Moshiach comes, there will be "white jupitzes" (Bekisches, i.e. Rebbes) who are apikorsim."

The Satmar Rebbe ZTL (Vayoel Moshe, end of ch. 2) writes that the Derech of the Baal Shem Tov is already totally forgotten from our generation.

I am not talking about nay individuals, but simply stated, the above and other Chasidishe Tzadikim have told us not to be surprised when, in these generations, there are Rebbes who are not what we would expect them to be. It says nowhere that just because someone's father or uncle was niftar and left him a Kehilla of Chasidim, that that makes him a Tzadik.

In fact, if this wouldn’t be happening we would have a big "kasha" on Chasidus, because this was predicted and expected, as per above.

But don't worry - or maybe this is reason to worry more - it's not only by the Chasidim. The world is problematic today in all segments of Orthodoxy.

There are still Tzadikim, and there are Bainonim, and there are others. Just because someone has a big straimel doesn’t make him a Tzadik and just because someone has no big Yeshiva doesn’t mean he’s not a Godol Hador - e.g. the Chazon Ish, the Stepiler, the Vilna Gaon, just to name a few.

So the fact that people in high "positions" aren't what you expect them to be doesn't conflict with Chasidus - or the rest of Torah - in fact, Chasidishe tzadikim have said this themselves. But it does NOT leave us leaderless, for there are real Gedolim and Tzadikim out there. You just have to judge them by real Torah standards - Torah knowledge and righteousness - and not by a popularity contest.


There was, in the olden days, opposition to Chasidim from the GRA and his Talmidim on several grounds:

First, the Kabbalistic concept of "tzimtzum" was, they claimed, misrepresented by Chasidim (this concept explains how a materialistic world can exists if G-d encompasses the whole universe. If G-d is not material, and He is all over, then how can a gashmiyus universe exist?)

2) The Chasidim changed established Minhagim (such as the nusach of tefilah), and they were accused of violating certain halachos (such as the time of davening).

3) There were Chasidim who did weird things - like bizarre gyrations and movements during davening, and things like that. Also their seeming frivolous attitude would violate "Ashrei Adam mefachad tamid" - Fortunate is he who is always scared (of doing an aveirah), and their emphasis on happiness unrelated to happiness from a mitzvah would fly in the face of the general attitude of awe and seriousness that a Yorei Shamayim should have.

4) Their seeming minimizing of the important of learning Torah, in favor of other Mitzvos, and sometimes even "Chasidishe tishin".

The Chasidim countered the above claims either by defending their position based on torah (such as their understanding of Tzimtzum, which is explicit in the Ramak), or that the GRA was misinformed about their philosophy or behavior. But in any case, it was a machlokes between two great Torah schools.

Today, however, these issues are really non-issues. There was a good moshol given by the Kamarna Rebbe ZTL, about today’s Chasidim and Misnagdim:

There was once a rich man who married off his daughter, and was willing - as was the custom in those days - to support the new couple by having them move in to his house.

He told him that he would give him his own wing in his mansion, but on one condition - that he (the son in law) only eat fleishigs. The son-in-law agreed.

Some time later, the rich man married off his next daughter, and made the new son-in-law the same deal, but this time, he was only allowed to eat milchigs. Agreed.

So he had his fleishig son-in-law on one side of the house, and his milchig one on the other side, supporting them both.

Until one day, when the wealthy man unfortunately lost all his money. Now he could no longer support his sons-in-law the way he used to. So he went to the fleishig son-in-law and said "Sorry, fleishiger son-in-law. Until now, you’ve been eating steak and lamb chop. I can’t afford that anymore. Now you will have to subsist on potatoes".

Then he went to the milchig son-in-law and said "Until now you were eating ice cream and tiramisu. Now you will have to eat only potatoes."

And so it was.

One day shortly thereafter, the two sons in law went to their father in law and said when one of us was eating fleishig and the other milchigs, it made sense that we had to have separate rooms. But now that all of us are eating potatoes, we can just live together in one apartment.

The nimshal is, there used to be chasidim, and misnagdim. Fleishigs and michigs. And there were two separate camps, that would not mix. But today, we have all gone bankrupt - our madreigah has dropped so that the chasidim are not chasidim and the misnagdim are not misnagdim. Never mind tzimtzum, never mind supremacy of learning as opposed to other types of avodah - halvai we should all keep the basic Torah and mitzvos.

Today, we are all eating potatoes.

And so there is no longer much difference between the chasidim and the misnagdim, both are living on a bare and basics level, and so there is really no reason to have separate camps anymore. Today, we're all eating potatoes anyway, so why have separate kitchens?


"Frum" is just a word, which means "religious." It has no measurable meaning in itself - it's just a word and you can use it any way you want.

When I got to shamayim after 120 years Hashem will ask me if I fulfilled the Torah; he is not going to ask me if I was "frum". So if Hashem doesn't care about what it mean why would I?

There is no threshold of "frum" or "religious", because since the definitions of those words make no difference, whether you are "religious" or not becomes an issue of semantics - how you define the word.

What does matter is that you set as your ideal the lifestyles of the great Tzadikim, our role models. Of course, you are not yet able to be on that level, and of course the Tzadikim themselves often had to work very hard for many years to reach their level. Very hard. And many years. But they always had their eyes on the prize, on their goal, on Perfection.

As Rav Yisroel Salanter once said - where you are does not matter as much as in what direction you are going. Striving for greatness the way and working toward that goal the way people work toward any glorious goal is what we are supposed to focus on.

So the question "at what point in my observance do I become religious" is not really a question - it is a question of semantics. We are also not supposed to stop at any given point. If G-d has given us an additional day of life, it is for us to use it to grow.


The black hat is a purely cultural thing. In Europe yeshiva guys all wore hats (grey, usually, not black), and the style, I guess, just continued. Could mean absolutely nothing at all, could mean a statement, depends on the whole picture. No way to judge just by the hat.

It's not nearly frowned upon if you don't wear one as much as you may think. Especially if for business dress or the like. But since in "dress mode" such as Shabbos or formal weekday wear what people wear on their heads - black hat, knitted yarlmuka, colored giant Tzefas-type Yarlmuka etc. - happened to have become very statistically equatable with the different segments of Judaism, it will naturally raise an eyebrow if it's incongruous with the segment that observers would expect you to identify with.

It's like let's say you're having lunch in a wall street eatery where everyone is wearing horn-rimmed glasses, suits, yellow ties, and reading the wall street journal, and in walks a guy with pink hair, 6 piercings, leather pants and a copy of "High Times". Of course, this person may well be the most savvy broker in the group, but people are going to ask themselves what's up with him. True that, even though there is nothing intrinsically investment-oriented with gray suits or thin ties. It's just a cultural thing.

In Yeshiva, if a bochur suddenly stops wearing his hat, more than the removal of the hat itself, the question would be why did he do it. Is he trying to make a statement, or what? Since the fact is that teenagers (and adults) generally do dress according to the style that the group they identify with does (regardless of personal taste), if a person who identifies with the Yeshiva world dressed differently it will raise questions.

So it's not a chumra thing, it's a style thing. But instead of the style of Calvin Klein, it's the style of the Yeshiva world. Intrinsically, it has zero significance (except during davening, where there is Halachic discussion about wearing a hat over your Yarlmuka). It is purely social, and nonconformity here has the same connotations as nonconformity with the dress norms of any social group.


There is a chumrah of covering your entire head with a bigger yarlmuka than just one that we wear. Gedolim wear hats or big, whole-head Yarlmukas for that reason.

It is a cultural thing, not a Halachic thing; it tells the world what group you identify with and how you want to be recognized, but the fact that it is a black hat (of a certain style, technically called a fedora) is pure coincidence. In Europe, in the main yeshivos, the head covering of choice was a GRAY hat (today it would be considered very unyeshivish); in certain Sefardishe circles, gedolim would wear turban type hats; Rav Moshe Feinstein used to sometimes wear a straw (dark) hat.

When I was a teenager, back hats had small, narrow brims and large, wide bands. Today if you wore such a hat they'd laugh you out of the Bais Hamedrash. Some guys used to wear feathers in their hats, or - this was once very popular - imitation pearls. No more. It's a style, this hat thing. The style of Bnei Torah, true, but a style.

I'm not saying not to wear the hat. I'm saying that whatever you do, you should know why you are doing it -- is it a mitzvah, a chumrah, a minhag, a siyag, an aveirah, a davar reshus (neutral), a cultural thing, etc. The black hat is not INTRINSICALLY meaningful; it has become a cultural style of the Yeshiva world.

The concept of following the Rabbonim means either to follow their directions, or to figure out why they do what they do and then take it form there. Sometimes you should do as they do; sometimes you should NOT - some things are appropriate only for people of a certain stature - and sometimes it's in between.

If you don't know WHY the person you are following does what he does, you are likely not following correctly. Example: The Kedushas Yom Tov always used to specifically eat egg kichels for Kiddush Shabbos morning. Some Chassidim thought there was some significance to that and followed suit. When they asked the Kedushas Yom Tov his reason, he explained that he was Makpid on making an Al haMichyah only if he ate a Kazayis of flour; and since egg kichels do not have much flour in them, he is always safe.

So if a Chosid did not have the Rebbe's chumrah and made an al hamichyah on his kichels, or if he ate so many kichels that he had a kazayis of flour, he may have thought that he was following his rebbe by eating the kichels, but actually he accomplished nothing.




Anonymous Grafix said...

Hi taon.

What would you like me to do?

10:26 PM  
Anonymous taon said...

thanks. two things

1 Being an english teacher, do you have any ideas on how to include questions and quotes into the answers, so that the information is in book format? do you understand what I mean?

2 If you have time, could you collect R' Moderator's posts on being a Baalei Teshuvah and everything involved with it? you can put it in a comment and I'll move it. thanks so much.

12:49 PM  

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