Monday, September 17, 2007

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Foundations?

A Simple Jew asks:

There is a phenomenon within certain Chassidic groups only to learn the Chassidus of their rebbes. If you ask them about Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Me'or Einayim, or Degel Machaneh Ephraim they look at you with a blank stare or suggest you learn one of their seforim. While a person only has a limited amount of time to learn, and it is a given that he will learn the seforim of his Chassidus first, would you still consider it to be a form of spiritual arrogance to believe that a person can ignore these classic seforim that are the bedrock foundation for all Chassidic groups?

Akiva at Mystical Paths answered:

First, I don't believe this 'phenomenon' is limited to 'certain Chassidic groups', but rather is a general phenomenon among what some call 'ultra-orthodox Jews', both Chassidic, Litvish, and Sephardic. I'll explain what I mean by this a little further along.

Regarding Chassidim, we see that the students of holy gaon, student and leader of the chassidic movement after the Baal Shem Tov, HaRav Dovber, zt"l, the Maggid of Mezerich, fanned out to become the Rebbe's of various geographic areas. But stories from that time teach us that this was not a random affair, rather the holy Maggid targeted specific leaders to specific areas. As different communities faced different needs, such as a depressed farming district that needing uplifting, versus a more town or city centric area that was dealing with nasty issues of Jewish society class stratification, different leaders, Rebbe's, with different approaches focused on the same goals, were appropriate. More emotional, or more intellectual, more learning, or more davening, more singing, or more meditative.

As the chassidic communities grew and the generations past, the Rebbe's directed the spiritual welfare of their communities. More learning, or teaching, of a particular type. Adjustments to yeshiva curriculum's, deciding which minhagim would strengthen, and which would not.

Historically, these communities where geographically separate. Indeed, one could easily understand the differences in the local environments, political and social conditions, education and work/commerce opportunities, leading to different approaches to which parts of Torah life to strengthen, and which not to. If one would travel from one community to another, itself a major journey of days to weeks to months, one could easily understand a community's directed learning and minhagim in the context of their local conditions.

Ahh, but now we live side by side. A single family may contain members of different chassidic groups (indeed, we had a neighbor with 5 married daughters, one married a Lubavitcher, one a Breslover, one a Gur, one a Tzanzer, and one a 'generic' chossid), and a single neighborhood may have many living. Still, our Rebbe's of today (or spiritual leaders if not chassidic, or one of the chassiduses without a living Rebbe) try to focus the community path in relevance for their situation, whether it be part living in New York and part in Israel, or in tighter communities, or spread around the world. More insular or more worldly.

So now to your question... "would you still consider it to be a form of spiritual arrogance to believe that a person can ignore these classic seforim that are the bedrock foundation for all Chassidic groups?" Given what I wrote above, though the goals are the same, the paths to get there are not. One who has a mature understanding of their path can learn from others, and/or take positive parts from many and synthesize a a wonderful multiple view. However, others can become confused at apparent conflicts between paths. And this is the majority.

G-d forbid, this is not 'spiritual arrogance', this is following the tzaddikim of their generation who focus each path for the generation, the place, and the conditions of our time.

And referring back to my opening comment, we see this among the Litvish and Sephardim as well, to study Zohar or not, to study Rambam or not, to study the Aruch HaShulach or the Mishneh Berurah or the Shulchan Aruch HaRav.

I'll add two personal notes... In dealing with a recent personal problem, I consulted my friend and co-blogger, Rabbi Nati, who's a Breslover chossid, and a Chabad rav of mine. The action answer both gave was identical, but the spiritual reasoning was quite different, one focusing on emunah in Hashem and seeing the best in the situation and emunah that all will work out with the opportunities presented, the other focusing on the value of the mesiras nefesh in working on the opportunities presented, and that doing so will open spiritual channels to blessings being fulfilled.

The other is my spending time learning Tzavarat HaRivash. This is a wonderful sefer with many foundational concepts of chassidus (attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, or at least a direct compilation of sayings from him). Yet, for personal application I found the sefer daunting, as many of the concepts presented seem way beyond reach my reach. I could easily understand how a Rebbe would state that such a sefer is not appropriate for the general community population (the again, maybe it's just me.)

...G'mara v'Chatima Tova, you and your family and all of Klal Yisroel should be sealed for a good and sweet year, one with the ultimate blessing of Moshiach Tzidkaynu, mamosh now! Please, Ribono Shel Olam, no more waiting, no more pain, no more tears, no more fear of this world!

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