Sunday, March 8, 2015

Old Litvish Comes Back Into View (Chofetz Chaim video analysis)

The recently discovered Chofetz Chaim video has garnered much publicity and commentary, and rightfully so.

A few days ago, a more sophisticated analysis appeared online, giving important context to the video.

However, I don't recall seeing some of the points that occurred to me, so I will share some of my thoughts here.

Old Litvish vs. new Litvish

Many people, perhaps the overwhelming majority of people out there in the sugya, have a certain image of what a Litvak, an orthodox, Torah observant Litvishe Yid, is. It likely is, for most such people, someone wearing a fedora, with a necktie (often with eyeglasses as well). Or, if they are a Rav, perhaps with a Homburg type hat. They might picture him as beardless, in a light colored modern suit as well. However, the Chofetz Chaim, one of the most famous and venerated Litvish Torah personalities of modern times, and perhaps of all time, in a few moments of moving pictures, demolished all those stereotypes. Not one of those things are seen on him in the video!

What is the explanation for this?

The answer is, that the Chofetz Chaim, when the video was filmed in 1923, was a Litvak from an earlier era. A throwback to pre-modern Lita. That partly was due to his age. Recall that he was born way back in the 1830's. But also due to his chosen way of life. He deliberately did not wear a Rabbinic hat, preferring the hat of a simple baal habayis (layman). The modern garb of light suits, ties, and fedoras adopted by many young Litvish Yeshiva students in the early 1900's, reportedly under the direction of the Alter of Slabodka (although some aspects of it started earlier), to give the Yeshiva students status, to counter the picture of them promoted by their 'enlightened' opponents that painted them as 'shleppers', giving them instead an aura of sophisticated urbanity, was a new thing, and one that the Chofetz Chaim, as a conservative small town Yid from a previous generation, did not adopt.

While we have many photos showing the new Litvish style, Yeshiva students, Rabbonim, and gedolim, in the newer garb, we have many less images that give a glimpse of the older, simpler, Torah observant Lita. Seeing such images, therefore, are a great revelation, taking us back into an earlier time. Being transported to the old Lita with such video footage, even for just a few seconds, is therefore an unexpected revelation and delight.

A posek, a Litvishe Halachist, and Baal Mussar - and not a Brisker!

Another way in which the Chofetz Chaim was an old fashioned, pre-modern Litvishe Yid was in his type of Yiddishkeit. He was from the pre Brisker era. Nowadays, many (rightly or wrongly) identify Litvaks with people learning with 'lomdus' and 'Brisker Torah', in wake of the revolution wrought by R. Chaim Brisker. Often, those who followed that trend shied away from hammering out halachic conclusions, and they were also not part of the musar movement as well. The Chofetz Chaim, on the other hand, was diametrically apart from this new Lita of Brisk. He was, on the contrary, heavily involved in and promoting halacha study and mussar.

Lessons to be gleaned

The overhelming reception to this video, as well as the great, enduring popularity of the Chofetz Chaim zt"l, tell us that there is a thirst and a need for the old Lita, the old Litvishe way. The new, modern Litvish way, of some, of placing great emphasis on Brisker chakiras and fedoras, needs to be reexamined (a process already underway for a while, but more still is needed). Perhaps it was important and necessary for some a century ago. But that doesn't mean we must follow it slavishly now as well, without modification.

The fact the Chofetz Chaim video resonated so well with the frum masses, tells us something very important.

People crave authenticity, Emes. Especially nowadays, when the sheker in the alma deshkira (world of falsehood) has gotten so strong and pervasive. The Chofetz Chaim exuded old fashioned, authentic Yiddishkeit, and Emes.

Such lessons are ignored at our own peril



Monday, February 16, 2015

R. Chaim Halberstam of Sanz on Chasidic stories

R. Chaim Sanzer is a legendary Chasidic figure, father of Hasidism in Galicia, the progenitor of many Chasidim and Chasidic groups, such as Sanz, Bobov, Klausenberg, Zmigrod, Gorlitz, etc.

He said the following related to Chasidic stories - 'When a Chasid says he saw a miracle, he heard it. When he says he heard it, he plainly invented it.'

So states Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in "My Rebbe", his recent book on the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, on p.173.

There is also an old Chasidic teaching re stories of the Baal Shem Tov, that says 'If someone believes all the stories of the Baal Shem Tov, he is a fool. If he says that they couldn't have happened, then he is an apikoros.'

The above two Chasidic teachings (there are other of the kind as well) are an admission by Chasidim themselves that reliability is an issue with Chasidic stories.

It seems that there are a number of different aspects of this.

Firstly, in general, stories often become transformed as they are passed along by people. That is a general problem of accuracy of transmission, not limited to Chasidic stories. Secondly, with Chasidic stories, there is also a problem of exaggeration, if not fabrication. Some people believe that they are allowed to change the facts for (in their eyes) a good cause. Like 'frumkeit', or 'emunas tzadikim'. Some of these issues re veracity of stories exist for some outside the Chasidic world as well.

The Satmar Rebbe, R. Joel Teitelbaum, who was heavily influenced by Sanz, was known to make fun of Chasidic miracle tales.

I believe other Chasidic leaders came out strongly against falsification of history too.

The main thing is, we must remember what our Torah teaches - מדבר שקר תרחק - one should stay far away from falsehood. There is a Chasidic vort that interprets  מדבר שקר תרחק homiletically, that midevar sheker, from falsehood, tirchak, you will distance yourself from Hashem. One cannot sell or build a religion of truth, a Toras Emes, with falsehood. Maybe Hashem help us stay on the path of truth.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Should a Jew dance on Tisha Be'Av? Examining a Chasidic story

Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Rabbi of Cong. Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY, and Mashpia at Yeshiva University, tells the following story every year to his congregation when Tisha be'Av comes around (heard from Rabbi Weinberger). You can hear it here, around 16-17 minutes into the recording.

The Koidenover Rebbe (he uses the term Koidenover tzadik, but I think it means the same thing here) used to dance on Tisha Be'Av. His puzzled Chasidim asked him about it. He responded to them as follows. Tisha be'Av there is a mitzvah to be be'aveilus (in mourning for the Beis Hamikdash). And we know that every mitzvah must be done besimcha (with joy). That is why I am dancing.

Now that is an interesting story, but the whole thing does not add up, due to the following

a) Do Rabbi Weinberger himself, and his congregation, dance on Tisha be'Av, and follow the way of the Koidenover Rebbe? If not, why not? If he holds it is correct, why not do so? And if he holds it is not correct, why does he repeat it every year?

b) According to this story, people should dance at a levaya (funeral), and burial as well, as well as when visiting a shiva house for nichum aveilim (condolence call). After all, those are mitzvos too. Do they do so?

Rabbi Weinberger states, regarding this story, that 'the Misnagdim bichlal can't hear it'. Well, maybe the Misnagdim can't hear it, because it doesn't add up, as above. So it is actually a praise for the Misnagdim, that they don't accept it!

It seems like this is another cute Chasidic story that should be discarded, as it doesn't add up. Even among Chasidim, I am not aware of anyone who actually follows the story and actually dances on Tisha Be'Av.

File it away in the recycle bin.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Kotzk blog

Over the years I have read/heard things about Kotzk and the Kotzker Rebbe. Some of them have actually appealed to and resonated with me significantly.

After all, the main thrust of Kotzk is said to be Emes, truth, and that is not a Chasidic thing, it is a general value (or should I say general Jewish value?), that appeals to Litvaks as well. Especially perhaps to those into mussar.

Anyway, the other day I was surfing around and came across a Kotzk blog! I sampled it some and found some good stuff there! So you might enjoy it as well.

It is from South Africa, yes, that country that gave the world The Shabbos Project.

Anyway, in case it interests you, you might want to check it out.

Enjoy!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Yehuda Green's new song Rebbe, Rebbe - a Chasidic song, not for Litvaks

Yehuda Green, chazan at the Carlebach Shul in New York, and a talented singer, has recently released a song with the title Rebbe, Rebbe.

The lyrics seem to be more or less as follows

רבי, רבי, רבי, מיר ווילען זיך מקשר זיין צו דיר

הנני מקשר נפשי, רוחי, ונשמתי, לנשמת אדוני מורי ורבי

עם שאר הצדיקים והאבות הקדושים ועם שאר הצדקניות והאהמהות הקדושות

In the parshas Vayigash issue of the Yated Neeman newspaper published in the USA, there was a feature on Reb Green recently (p.64-5). In it, this new song was mentioned and it was claimed that it carries a special message for anyone who has a Rav or a Rebbe, and is very meaningful, not only to Chasidim, but to anyone with a spiritual leader who guides them.

However, the language, and the idea of hiskashrus used, is from the Chasidic world. The composer, R. Pinchas Pomp, is a Chasid, and Yehuda Green himself, according to the Yated feature on him, is from a large Chasidic family in the Beis Yisroel neighborhood of Yerushalayim.

According to Wikipedia's entry on Yehuda Green, Green is from a Breslov family, and went to a Lubavitcher Yeshiva.

It seems to be coming from a Breslov milieu. Here one can see a video in which it is sung at a Breslov gathering (at 3:10). If you examine the lyrics, and are familiar with Breslov teachings, you can recognize a strong Breslov influence.

So I don't buy that it is a universal song, for anyone with a Rebbe. The song is a Chasidic song, about a Chasidishe Rebbe, not a Rebbe in general, of the types non Chasidim can also have. While non Chasidim also have connection to their Rabbonim and Rabbeim, their conception and practice of hiskashrus, if you want to call it that, is different than that of Chasidim.

Litvaks please be aware of this.

See also this writeup about it at a Habad website, along with some interesting comments by Lubavitchers.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Breslov - Lubavitch Dance Continues. Breslov visits 770 after Lubavitch plants flag in Uman

A few months ago, Lubavitch planted their flag in Uman in a major way, during the big annual Breslov Rosh Hashanah get together there, in the guise of an Uman Chabad House.

Now, Breslov has returned the favor, with a Na-Nach truck visiting Lubavitch HQ at 770 the other day.

What will be the future of the relationship between these two Chasidic groups, who have grown in popularity and visibility in recent years, who share the characteristic of their Rebbe having passed on? Time will tell. Stay tuned.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Moshiach will be a Misnaged: As Related by the Seventh (!) Lubavitcher Rebbe

Previously, a post here discussed the Lubavitch teaching that Moshiach will be a Misnaged (opponent of Hasidism).

Someone might think that it is an obscure, forgotten teaching, dug up from over two hundred years ago, when the Alter Rebbe was still alive. But that is not exactly the case.

I found some more information about it recently. It is mentioned in the recent book on the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin, and he gives a source for it, from the last Rebbe. The late seventh Rebbe himself (!) mentioned it, right in the beginning of his tenure as Lubavitch leader. His version is a bit different than what was posted here previously, but the basic facts are the same.

You can see it here, in a sicha from Chol Hamoed Sukkos 5712 (1951 C.E.), תורת מנחם ד:נג