Why Just Neo-Hassidut? Why Not Neo-Hitnagdut?

Neo-Hassidism is not necessarily the only way to answer the need for spiritual involvement and passion in Modern Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

In yet another new thought-provoking issue of Jewish Action, readership was introduced to the dynamic and quickly spreading movement of Neo-Hassidism, in which the original emphases and spiritual experiences of the hassidic movement are being revived and promulgated in order to reintroduce spirituality into perceived doldrums of Modern Orthodoxy. Farbrengens (festive evenings insterspersed with Torah words), hisbodedut (meditation), Carlebach-style davening, and soul-touching stories and teachings of the hassidic masters are among the prominent features of this old-new movement.

While this new trend raises some serious questions, I do not want to get into that here. My only comment is that the perceived lack of passion and arguable absence of a dynamic consciousness in Modern Orthodox discourse and mindset of Hashem’s presence and involvement have precipitated what is nothing short of an outright, non-confrontational rejection of the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy on the part of some of the finest cream of its crop.

What I would like to discuss, though, is that those seeking to strengthen their connection with Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu (the Almighty) should perhaps consider redirecting their focus toward the core values of “Hisnagdut” – the approach of traditional non-hassidic Eastern European Torah life – in their journey to provide and experience a truly authentic and meaningful devotional path. In an atmosphere in which religious ignorance, confusion, turmoil and vacuity are rampant, we should look to the traditional values of “Hisnagdut” (for lack of a better, more positive term) for direction and spiritual grounding.

The following represent what I believe to be the key features of “Hisnagdut” (the name given to those, like the Gaon of Vilna, who did not agree with hassidism and a term that will not be used here again due to its negative connotations):

The Role and Source of Inspiration

Inspiration flows in large measure from performing Hashem’s Will, and performance of His Will is always the starting point and primary goal. In other words, being inspired is not the starting point, but is the result. The objective and whole essence of Torah and mitzvot are the service of Hashem. This is the reason we learn Torah and observe the mitzvot. All else is an outcome and is not the motivation.

To quote from a spectacular (as usual) shiur (lecture) of Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik, zt”l:

The religious experience is not the primary gesture. It is only secondary. The point of departure must never be the internal subjective experience, no matter how redemptive it is, no matter how colorful it is, no matter how therapeutic it is, no matter how substantial its impact upon the total personality of man…

We can never determine what is a religious experience in contradistinction to a hedonic mundane experience. We know of many hedonic emotions which are provided with enormous power, which are hypnotic, and, at first glance, redemptive…

Yahadus (Judaism) expected the religious experience to follow the religious act. The great romance follows the divine discipline. Not the reverse. Moshe said that if one fulfills the mitzvah of Tzitzit (fringes), a glance at the purple thread will produce in him, perhaps, the experience of infinity. If one proceeds from action to experience, the blue color of Techeilet will remind him of the mystery of existence and our link with God.

Furthermore, inspiration is to be found within Torah and within tefillah (prayer), and inspiration derives from acts of serving Hashem, from mitzvot. Proper Torah learning, davening and mitzvah performance, and the resultant knowledge that we are fulfilling Hashem’s Will and coming close to Him, should be our greatest source of inspiration.

Torah Above All

The most holy article ever gifted to man is the Torah. By immersing oneself in the Torah, even at simple levels, one taps into the realm of the Divine in the most profound manner available. There is no substitute for connecting with Hashem through His Torah. While one may not immediately feel the sensation of being enshrouded in the Shechinah (Divine Presence) when learning Torah, this is indeed what occurs.

Spiritual experiences, such as Torah learning, can be so sublime that they can seem elusive, but if one takes a step back and appreciates the spiritual elevation that learning Torah embodies, and that Talmud Torah is the most exalted of all mitzvot, one realizes that he need go no further to perform the Ratzon Hashem and encounter the Divine in the most optimal manner. Again, as significant as the ecstatic meta-sensory experience of being close to the Shechinah may be, our ultimate goal is to perform Hashem’s Will.

A Private Relationship with Hashem

Every individual experiences and communes with Hashem in a different manner than his fellow; avodat Hashem, serving G-d, is principally private and personal. One’s personal chumros and minhagim (stringencies and customs) should thus be private, reflective of his unique relationship with Hashem. By keeping one’s chumros and minhagim private, his personal connection with Hashem remains intimate and unique.

Independent Thinking

Hashem gifted every person with an intellect that is exclusive and distinct to that person. One’s role in Torah and the manner in which one conducts his life revolve very much around the use of his creative intellect. By harnessing and employing one’s independent intellect to analyze Torah, to formulate opinions and to make important decisions – so long as one is rooted in the values and parameters of Torah and one defers to those of greater experience and knowledge when he is in doubt or when precedent has already been established – one fulfills the Ratzon Hashem, through the application of his creative talents to learn Torah and to understand and conduct his life.

In fact, when one appreciates his creative intelligence and applies it properly, he imitates Hashem Himself, the Ultimate Creator and Ultimate Intellect. (As my chavruta, Torah study partner, commented, in terms of Torah study: One who does not first try to carefully analyze the words of the Gemara or the Rishon that are before him, and he instead goes straightaway to the Achronim or Roshei Yeshiva for an explanation, is akin to someone who flips to the back of a textbook for the answers to exercises, failing to really apply himself to the limud (study).)

Kiddush Hashem and Dignity

Rebbi stated: Which is the correct path upon which a person should go? One that is glorious to the person himself as well as to others… He (Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa) used to say: One who is pleasing to others is pleasing to Hashem, and one who is not pleasing to others is not pleasing to Hashem. (Avos:2:1, 3:13)

One’s public comportment must embody Kiddush Hashem and dignity. Not drawing attention and not being too loud, but being humble, pleasant and dignified mark the way of the Jew in the company of others. Being distinctively Jewish is praiseworthy, but the private, inward posture of the Jew’s spiritual identity governs his public comportment.

A Direct Relationship with Hashem

Although the committed Jew seeks to be as close as possible with leading Torah personalities, his relationship with Hashem is personal and direct. When the Jew engages in Torah, mitzvot and tefillah, he stands before Hashem and enjoys a private audience. No intermediary or inspirational group gathering is needed for the Jew to reach Hashem and commune with Him.

This concept is exceptionally so regarding Torah study. As Rav Soloveitchik explained, Talmud Torah is democratic – every Jew has equal access to Torah and can equally excel and achieve greatness in it.

There are no Shortcuts

A few decades ago, when I was enrolled at YU, signs were posted before Shavuos on the beis medrash (Torah study hall) walls and in adjacent rooms that read:

קדושה צריכה הכנה (“Sanctity requires preparation.”)

The signs attributed this saying to Rav Soloveitchik. When the Rav’s son was asked about it, he replied that he never heard his father articulate that precise maxim, but that it certainly sounds like something that the Rav would have said.

Attaining kedushah (sanctity) requires real effort, and so does excelling at Torah and mitzvot. Hashem only expects us to do our best – no one is perfect, and everyone has different strengths – yet authentic kedushah hinges on hard work and sustained commitment. There are no shortcuts. When one has invested the proper time and energy, the indescribably rich fruits of a firm foundation in Torah and mitzvot will be achieved, and a bona fide, palpable sense of kedushah will be at hand.

The concept of "sanctity requires preparation" also imbues a genuine sense of humility. When one recognizes that reaching a spiritual apex can only be the product of serious and methodical toil, he will not delude himself and he will experience true and accurate self-realization in his avodas Hashem.

We need not necessarily look to any movements in order to maximize our service of G-d, avodat Hashem. We need to look to our Mesorah (handed down tradition), to our rebbeim and to ourselves, as we embrace the traditional emphases and attitudes that have guided our people with nuance and fortitude and have brought us close to Hashem and His Torah.

Rabbi Gordimer is a kashrus professional, a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

This article also appeared on Cross-Currents. Sent to Arutz Sheva by the writer.