Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues: Thoughts on Parashat Vayetsei, November 13, 2010 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

Making Room for Prayer in Our Synagogues: Thoughts on Parashat Vayetsei, November 13, 2010 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Angel’s dvar Torah contains one of my favorite Hasidic stories dealing with prayer.  The story is about Rabbi Levi of Berditchev and his experience of a synagogue in which are the prayers remained instead of going up to heaven.  What are we thinking about when we pray?  How are we directing our prayers?  Are our synagogues conducive to creating a spiritual space to allow our prayers to go beyond words we are saying by rote?  These are the challenges spiritually inclined people face on a daily basis.  We must always strive to carve out privacy in the middle of a public ritual.

Messianism and End of History

Eliyahu Touger, most well known for his translation of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, authored a book about messianism and his experiences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l,  From Dawn to Daylight.  While his book rehashes the standard Chabad messianic descriptions (not to be confused with doctrines of Rebbe as Messiah), I found his first appendix to be most fascinating.  In it, he discusses how the world we live in today is already manifesting aspects of the predicted messianic period.  More people have the luxury of recognizing G-d in life, whether due to modern technology or to the increase in new-age spirituality, in which finding meaning in the divine, in whatever manifestation, is at an all time high (even as the latest religious revival comes to an end).  Without being able to discuss this in much detail, his appendix reminds me of the debates regarding “the end of history.”  These debates took place in the post-berlin wall world, before 9/11 might have changed the world back into empire building (an example is Robert Kagan’s recent works, including “The End of the End of History.” and his book The Return of History and the End of Dreams).

Avoid depression – Don’t be fooled

A statement of the Baal Shem Tov that is recorded in the Tzavaat HaRivash:

Sometimes the yetzer hara deceives you by telling you that you committed a grave sin when there was really no sin at all or [at worst you violated] a mere stringency. His intent is that you should feel depressed as a result thereof, and thus be kept from serving the Creator, blessed be He, because of your depression.

You must understand this trickery, and say to the yetzer hara: “I will not pay attention to the stringency you referred to. You speak falsely, for your intent is but to keep me from His service, may He be blessed. Even if there really was a degree of sin, 1 my Creator will be more gratified if I do not pay attention to the stringency that you pointed out [to me] to make me depressed in His worship.

“In fact, I will serve Him with joy! For it is a basic rule that I do not think the Divine service to be for my own sake but to bring gratification to God. 2 Though I ignore the stringency you mentioned, the Creator will not hold it against me, because I do not pay attention to it only so that I will not be kept from His service, blessed be He. For how can I negate His service, even for a moment!”

This is a major principle in the service of the Creator, blessed be He: avoid depression as much as possible. 3

In our lives, we often convince ourselves that something which happened is worse than it really is.  Once that occurs, the consequences are terrible.  It becomes easy to spiral further down once sadness enters our psyche. 

In looking at this piece of the Baal Shem Tov, its seems to be a primary text about Hasidic thinking.  Much of early hasidut revolves around Devequt, connecting to G-d.  While this is not the only element of hasidic thinking, it plays a major role.  With that said, one of the common challenges of Devequt is the warding off of depression.  Remedies include the famous words of Rebbe Nachman, that it is a mitzvah to always be happy.  One of the reasons for this constant need to be happy is that in order to connect with G-d, one must be in an ecstatic state, not a depressed, qatnut state.  Additionally, as has been documented in many studies, many Hasidic rebbes suffered from depression, often of the manic-depressive variety.  As an example see Zvi Mark’s “Madness, Melancholy and Suicide in early Hasidism,” Kabbalah 12 (2004) 27-44.  I specifically mention this piece by Mark, who has also worked specifically on psychological issues in Rebbe Nachman for it encapsulates the challenges of being Rebbe as well as issues of depression among Hasidic masters. 

The Rebbe – further online reflections.

It seems the Chaim Rapoport review on The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson has spurned a response from Heilman and Friedman.  See the Seforim blog for links to all three documents, Rapoport’s review, Heilman and Friedman’s response and Rapoport’s rejoinder.  I guess this goes to show the challenge of attempting to capture the life of great, controversial figure truly is.

Heilman and Friedman claim that many of those who have offered critiques of their work are doing so based on R. Rapoport’s review and not from having read the book itself.  To reiterate points I made earlier, their book was disappointing because it seemed too speculative and that their speculations tended towards a preconceived conclusion.  Now, it happens that R. Rapoport was better qualified to make various arguments about the book, but I did not need him to spell out the problems in order to come to the conclusion of being underwhelmed.  Besides, it is clear that Heilman and Friedman have attempted to take on the wrong reviewer.  One thing about R. Rapoport from his writings is his thoroughness in checking and presenting sources.  It is almost encyclopedic.  Just the fact he has written 72 pages of critique and says he has more for an updated draft should cause them to pause and reconsider.

Even the mundane can become holy

Sefer Baal Shem Tov Bereishit 114 ( Tzavaat HaRivash):

Also, serve God with all your might, because everything is “required [for Above].” 3 God wishes to be served in all possible ways. This means the following:

Sometimes one may walk and talk to others and is then unable to study [Torah]. Nonetheless, you must attach yourself to God and effect yichudim (unifications). 4 So also when on the road, thus unable to pray and study as usual, you must serve [God] in other ways.

Do not be disturbed by this. For God wishes to be served in all possible ways, sometimes in one manner and sometimes in another. That is why it happened that you had to go on a journey or talk to people, i.e., in order that you serve Him in that alternate way.

The Baal Shem Tov believes human beings have the capacity to multitask.  We have the ability to talk to someone and be able to focus on G-d.   This is illustrated by many stories of great rabbis, in the midst of a conversation with another person, the rabbi would be able to give the person full attention while also be focused on G-d.  Or the tailor who works on fixing garments while in the meantime is focus on unifications (Yichudim). 

The question for today is; Is the Baal Shem Tov really assuming this is a possibility for all people or is this the level of great people, while the rest of us are not capable of such singlemindedness? In my opinion, I do believe this line can be read and incorporated into any individual’s daily practice.  However, as is a noted argument amongst historians of Hasidism, I am not convinced that the Baal Shem Tov would have considered this to be for the general public, rather this was an idea that would be for the aspiring elite.

Has Hasidism Gone Astray?

This is the subject of a piece written by Art Green in this week’s Jewish Forward.  In his article, he describes how early Hasidic thinking was about love of G-d and infusing Judaism with spirit.  As with any grass-roots movement, however, events occurred making it main stream,  the teachings allowed for the eventuality of change and perceived loss of innocence.  Hasidism became dynastic, as each court saw familial successors and Hasidism became another vehicle to stave off Enlightenment in Eastern Europe.  To make matters worse for Green, post Holocaust Hasidism was highly insular, though this stemmed from a need to regroup and regrow.  Green calls for a return to a “pure” Hasidic thought. 

The challenge he presents is both real and naive at the same time.  For many in the Modern Orthodox community, the study of hasidic thought is a means of infusing life with spirit, yet we, like Green, try to gloss over the realities of what Hasidism is about.  It is about the rebbe/tzaddiq, which is described hagiographically even in the early Baal Shem Tov stories.  It is about fighting modernity, for to stave off monotony, we need to constantly be finding spirit in Judaism and not outside.  Hasidism is not necessarily compatible with a secular lifestyle.  Its early thinking can’t be removed from the people, who were all halachically centered. 

Of course, at the same time, never judge a religion by the people who practice it.

The Rebbe – book review

Disclaimer:  I purchased the book The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

I think to some up my whole review in one word, this book was disappointing.  Much of my concerns have been discussed in other reviews which I have posted to at the end.  However, I will share some of my personal impressions of The Rebbe

First, the authors attempt, rather poorly, at psychoanalyzing the life of R. Schneerson.  Part of their challenge is that they do not engage more of his thought.  How can I gain an insight into a person’s inner psyche when I am not privy to what he was thinking and saying.  Profs. Heilman and Friedman conjecture and speculate based on secondary material and mere speculation.  The most obvious examples include the question of why he spends years in Berlin and Paris.  Profs Heilman and Friedman believe this was his way of living a cosmopolitan, secular life.  This is assumed for the simple reason as there seems not to be another legitimate reason for R. Schneerson spending time in the decadence of the west. 

Another disappointment of the book was that the book seems to die immediately after R. Schneerson dies.  They devote one chapter to the movement post R. Schneerson.  In the chapter, they seem to argue that Chabad-Lubavitch can'[t last without someone in charge.  I would beg to differ on the following grounds.  One, we cannot conjecture from other movements because Chabad is the first chasidic movement to have losts its Rebbe physically but to have a vast library of audio and video that can keep him alive.  Regarding his teachings, let me just state one word, Breslov.  Chasidic movements can exist without a Rebbe if the movement believes the Rebbe continues to lead even after life.  Third, in our world, many of the major Orthodox movements, such as Lakewood or YU Orthodoxy continue to thrive without the visionary figurehead.  Their followers, whether they were impacted directly by the particular rabbi, continue to look to the rabbi’s books to find inspiration and answers in this world. 

Not to say this book is a complete waste, I do want to delve briefly into one aspect of R. Schneerson’s personality which I do believe the authors were able to stress.  R. Schneerson was alone.  He seems to have not had a human confidante other than his wife with whom he could express his fears, doubts, etc.  Heilman and Friedman claim this is part of led to his supposed increasing sense of messiahship, based on their belief that R. Schneerson believed and hence acted as if he would be the Messiah.  Their argument was that if he had people to whom he could turn who weren’t his Hasidim, then perhaps he wouldn’t have been caught up in his own hype.  Again, I do think they lack evidence to fully justify their comments on this subject, yet I do concede that R. Schneerson partially spent much time at his father in law’s grave so as to have time to be alone with someone whom he could “talk to” about his problems, etc. 

I may have more thoughts on their book later in the week.   Meanwhile, again, please read some of these reviews for different perspectives on The Rebbe.

For additional and informative reviews of this book see the following links:

Chaim Rapoport Review

“Giving the Rebbe a Biography”

No Holds Barred: Did the Lubavitcher Rebbe con the world?

How The Lubavitcher Rebbe Lives On

Rabbi’s Biography Disturbs Followers

The Life (and Death and Life) Of the Rebbe