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Shemini 5779 -  Open Chassidus

04/04/2019 01:04:05 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Our Torah portion is called Shemini.  It refers to the eighth day of the inauguration of the Temple.  According to the Talmud, this day coincided with Rosh Chodesh Nissan (Shabbat, 87).  After the Mishkan was built, it needed to be properly inaugurated before it could be used.  There were 7 days of inaugural services leading up to the first day of Nissan.  The first day of Nissan was the 8th and final day of the inaugural services—and that’s where our portion begins.

The first seven days of the inaugural services are described at the end of last week’s portion, Tzav.  The Lubaviticher Rebbe asks why is our portion separated from last week’s portion.  Why didn’t last week’s portion contain all 8 days of the inauguration?  Explains the Rebbe, the number 7 represents the cycle of the natural world, for example, the days of the week, whereas the number 8, represents that which is beyond the world, the spiritual realm which defies physicality.  And the Torah separates the two portions in order to tell us that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the physical and the spiritual – between the finite and infinite.  But continues the Rebbe, there is a way to bridge that gap: the 613 mitzvot are the bridges between the physical and the spiritual.  When we observe the mitzvoth properly we have the ability to allow God’s infinite presence to become visible even in this finite, physical world (Likutei Sichos, vol. 17, p. 92).  

As the Torah says, when all the inauguration services were completed, “Vayerah kevod Hashem el kol ha’am, the presence of God appeared to all the people” (Vayikra, 9:23).

This is perhaps the main idea of Chassidus: to bring the fire of Hashem down from the infinite into our physical world (see the Rebbe’s, On the Essence of Chassidus, page 3).

The following story is told about the great Reb Eliemelekh.  On the night he revealed his greatness to the world, his followers chanted, yechi adoneinu ve-rabbenu, let our master and teacher live a long life.  Soon after Reb Elimelekh requested from the inn keeper where they were staying extra sheets and linen.  His followers were horrified that the rebbe was going to sleep like a regular commoner.  How could this be?  They were beginning to doubt their choice as a leader.  Reb Elimelekh slept and slept and no one was brave enough to wake him.  Finally, they turned to his brother Reb Zusha and asked him to wake Reb Elimelekh.  Reb Zusha walked into the room and simply put his hand over the mezuzah.  Immediately, Reb Elimelekh jumped out of bed.  Reb Zusha explained that when Reb Elimelekh “slept” he was envisioning a fire coming out of the name of Hashem written in the mezuzah, so when he covered up the mezuzah the fire had disappeared (The Holy Brothers, xvii).  
The great Reb Elimelekh even saw the fire of Hashem while he was sleeping!
This week we commemorated the yarhzeit of my grandfather (going back ten generations), Reb Elimelekh of Lizhensk, also known by the title of his classic work, the Noam Elimelekh.  In honor of my grandfather I would like to talk a little bit about how chassidus can be relevant to all of our lives, even in our Open Orthodox congregation.

First, some history.  

Chassidus really began as a counter culture movement.  In late 17th century Eastern Europe, there was a feeling in the air that Judaism had become stale and also inaccessible to the majority of Jews because the rabbinic elite was over emphasizing advanced Torah study as the exclusive path to service of Hashem.  

In this context there emerged a singular figure known as the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760).  He is credited with the founding of Chassidus even though he had only one major student, the Maggid of Mezrich (1704-1772), and has left us almost no writings.  The Maggid of Mezrich himself had just a few students.  His two main students were, R. Shneyer Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe, also known as the Baal Hatanya, who founded Chabbad Chasidus and Reb Elimelkh of Lizhensk.  The majority of chasidus, other than Chabad, descended from Reb Elimelekh.   

Reb Elimelekh’s main work is the Noam Elimelekh which I admit that I have a hard time relating to.  It is centered around the concept of the tzaddik, the holy righteous spiritual leader who serves as the intermediary between God and the people.  In contrast the Alter Rebbe downplays this idea and instead emphasizes that the true tzaddik is in each of our own hearts.  

When Chassidus started it was heavily criticized by some of the greatest rabbis of the time, most notably, the Vilna Gaon.  They saw in Chassidus a dangerous break from traditional Judaism.

Today Chassidus has transformed itself into the most traditional stream of Judaism—not veering one iota from the teachings of their ancestors.  Yet, at its core, Chassidus is a revolutionary theology that emphasizes the spiritual needs of everyone, even the non-academic elite.

Lately I have become enamored by the theology and core teachings of Chassidus.  Not modern day Chassidus, necessarily, but early Chassidus.  When I view the Modern Orthodox world it strikes me as a stale community desperately in need of inspiration.  I have started drawing closer and closer to Chassidic thought.  And then, this week, I received in the mail a new and brilliant book by my rebbe, Rabbi Avi Weiss, “Journey to Open Orthodoxy.”  Many of the chapters in the book are pieces that were not necessarily written exclusively for this new book.  But when I opened the book there it was staring at me--a new chapter written just for this book.  It was called “Open Chassidus” (239-244).

In this chapter Rabbi Weiss writes that he prefers the term Open Chassidus, rather than Open Orthodox.  Chassidus is a Hebrew term meaning piety and emphasizing religious actions and spiritual connection to Hashem, whereas Orthodox is a Greek term emphasizing Jewish thought or a mandated belief system.

Rabbi Weiss defines four areas of Chassidus that directly impact his own practice of Judaism:

  1. Seeing God Everywhere: Chassidus understands yesh ma’ayin, to mean that everything that exists is an emanation of God; i.e. seeing God everywhere, in every aspect of life.  More than that, true Chassidus understands that spiritual greatness can only be achieved by living in the world and not by removing ourselves from it. 
    The story is told about a certain Jew named Reb Avrum, who lived a pious life as a successful businessman.  As he grew older, he decided that he wanted to study more Torah.  So he sold his business and began to study with Reb Elimelekh.   One day he heard Reb Elimelekh say that even the wicked King, Jeorobam ben Navat, was able to acquire a place in the World to Come because he was able to go 24 hours without uttering a lie.  So Reb Avrum became convinced that if he would only be able to go 24 hours without uttering a falsehood, he would secure his share in the World to Come.  He went and secluded himself in a room in his house and stayed up all night so as not to even have a wayward dream.  As the 24 hours came to a close he heard a knock on the door.  He rushed to get the door before his family was awakened.  It was a man who said, “Do you have a shovel here?”  Reb Avrum said, “We do not.”  The man said, “You lie.  I gave a shovel to your wife to hold for me last night.”  Reb Avrum was crestfallen.  He went to Reb Elimelelkh in despair about having lost his share in the World to Come.  Reb Elimeleh explained that Hashem had arranged for this accidental lie to occur because the point of his teaching was not to avoid lying by secluding oneself in a locked room.  Indeed, if had not secluded himself, he would have known about the shovel.  The point is to engage in the world and still avoid falsehoods.  The essence of Chassidus is that the Torah was meant for this world and not for a secluded world (The Holy Brothers, 183).
  2. Exoteric Judaism: Chassidus places an emphasis not only on reaching the educated elite through esoteric teachings, but also the less educated through emphasis on the experiential.  Chassidus is not just a faith for the elite but for the entire community—men, women, and children.  (I have spoken about this experiential aspect in the past.)
  3. Optimism: Chassidus makes a conscious effort to suffuse our life with optimism—promoting hope, by exuding positive energy.  Last week I was visited by a group of chassidic students who are studying for the year in Crown Heights.  These students came into my office and we had a conversation. Our conversation was interrupted several times by them getting up dancing with me.  We would innocently say a certain word in our conversation and that would set them off.  They would jump up and dance.  I felt energized and optimistic after meeting them.  We all need positive energy to thrive.  Chassidus makes it a religious ideal.
  4. The Rebbe: Chassidus places great importance on having a spiritual teacher to guide us on religious questions.  There is great value in this, but it is often misunderstood.  The rebbe is not some mythical figure who knows the answer to every question.  Instead, the greatest rebbe is the one who helps each of us find our own answer. 
    There is a story about the Lubaviticher Rebbe and Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb.  When Rabbi Weinreb was a young man, living in Summit Hills in 1971, he was not yet a synagogue rabbi.  He was a clinical psychologist wrestling with serious existential questions.  One day he decided he needed to call the Lubavitcher Rebbe with an existential question (to this day he has never revealed what the question was).  The Rebbe’s secretary would pick up the phone and talk to the caller, and the Rebbe would stand next to the secretary and hear the phone conversation.  The secretary asked who was calling.  Rabbi Weinreb was unwilling to identify himself so he said, “I am a Jew from Maryland.”  The Rebbe said, “From Maryland, then you need to go and speak to Weinreb.” (To this day, Rabbi Weinreb has no idea how the Rebbe could have possibly known his name.)  Rabbi Weinreb responded, “I am Weinreb!”  So the Rebbe quickly responded, “Sometimes you need to go and ask yourself!” (As told to me by Rabbi Weinreb’s son.) 
    To these beautiful formulations of Rabbi Weiss I wish to add two more:
  5. Brotherhood:  Chassidus places enormous spiritual value on caring for fellow Jews and seeing the Jewish people as a large family.
    There is a story about Reb Elimelekh that illustrates this:
    Reb Elimelekh would at times intentionally impose upon himself an exile (galus), where he would wander as a beggar in order to merit atonement.  One day he was returning from a long galus and was on the outskirts of his home town, when he heard two men talking about a very sick boy named Eliezer.  Reb Elimelekh had a son named Eliezer and he frantically ran home to ask his wife how their son was doing.  His wife said Eliezer is fine.  It’s the other boy named Eliezer—the son of the bath attendant--who is sick.  Reb Elimelekh breathed an immediate sigh of relief.  But then he caught himself.  He said, “Oy Elimelekh!  What benefit did you achieve with your galus if you breathe a sigh of relief upon hearing that a different Eliezer is sick.”  Immediately he turned around and went back into exile (The Holy Brothers, page 10).
    The true chassid feels the pain of our extended family.  The true chassid is moved to act upon hearing of the suffering of others.  The true chassid feels this brotherhood of family.
  6. Romanticism for Tradition: The Chassid loves the traditions, the minhagim, of our ancestors.  This week my son asked me what are our mihagim for Pesach.  These family minhagim inspire us and connect us with our family in a manner that transcends time.  This is why when this summer I visited the grave of Reb Elimelekh’s brother, Reb Zusha, I deeply felt his spirit.  Seeing his village of Anipol it was like we had all stopped in time.  We had to take a horse and wagon down a two-mile path through a muddy road through the village. Then before I visited the grave I immersed in a mikvah—Reb Zusha’s mikvah.  Only then did I visit the grave and feel the presence of my ancestors holding me and inspiring me.    


Finally, one last story.  

This week I had the opportunity to meet with Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter and hear about her plans to begin a congregation in Philladelphia.  On June 1, she is moving to South Philly, renting out a storefront, and opening up a synagogue called, The Shtiebel.

She explained to me that she has named her project The Shtiebel in deference to an earlier synagogue, which was named the Gorn Shtiebel, or the Upper Floor of the House.  The Gorn Shtiebel is a reference to Chanah Rachel Verbermacher, or the Maiden of Ludmir, a female Chassidic rebbe who lived in 19th centure Ukrane before emigrating to Palestine. 

Rabbanit Dasi is carrying on the legacy of The Gorn Shtiebel.  She is creating—yesh mayin— (MY WORDS, NOT HERS) an Orthodox Open Chassidus Shtiebel.  This is an historic occasion worthy of us taking note and supporting—a brave, ordained female spiritual leader proudly identifying with Chassidic Judaism and opening a congregation. It is true Chassidus:  Halakhic, Spirited, Romantic, Spiritual, Optimistic, Counter Cultural, and led by an ordained Rabbanit.  It is Open Chassidus!  

Sun, May 31 2020 8 Sivan 5780