Monday, April 30, 2018

Mati V'lo Mati- Experiencing chassidus through seforim and the academy

One of the highlights of my week is the 45 minute chavrusa I have before mincha each Shabbos afternoon learning the Torah of the Piaseczna Rebbe. The combination of contemplating his approach to chassidus, along with the timing so close to the end of Shabbos, a time the Rebbe describes  as having the high that comes from having reached the highest stage of Shabbos, along with the sadness that it will soon be over, has a profound effect on me. Temporarily transformed, Mincha following this chavrusa is usually qualitatively different from the rest of my tefillos.

It is not just the chassidus of the Piaseczna Rebbe which draws me. In chassidus in general, I have found a psychologically profound approach, which has become a lens through which I see the world. The focus on interiority, and on finding Hashem in all parts of my life, has transformed the way I understand Judaism. At the same time, I not only do not consider myself a chassid, but I also find myself drawn to various academic approaches to chassidus, works which often pull back the curtain on that which I find so meaningful; analyzing, deconstructing, and, well, in some ways, neutering it. After recently picking up Mendel Piekarz’s book on Polish chassidus, I found myself wondering why I engage in two activities which, although somewhat connected, are in many important ways so diametrically opposed.

It would be easy to say that the academic approach adds to my appreciation of chassidus, helping flesh it out in a way somewhat akin to utilitarian nature of secular knowledge in the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach, but that would be letting myself off the hook. As much as there are times when the academic approach enhances my appreciation of chassidus, there are many others when it detracts. Even as I try to avoid those approaches which are more glaringly hostile, or coming with a strong agenda, it is not always possible to know what I will discover before proceeding. It is not always good to know too much about one’s heroes. In certain respects, less is more.

If I’m to be honest, there’s a part of me that is relieved to have some of the chassidus I learn demystified. I am deeply moved by much of what I learn, but I want it on my terms. I’m not interested in fully diving in, something that at earlier points in my life might have been tempting. While I have written glowingly (if you’ll excuse the pun) of someone who made the jump, I could never do so for all sorts of reasons.The academic literature helps put a bit of a brake, or even a damper, on some of my enthusiasm and passion. This helps create a “yes, however” approach in me, which leaves me somewhere in the middle, simultaneously drawn towards, and pulling away from the chassidus I learn, although not in equal measure.

The elusive balance which I’d love to achieve is best conveyed in a delightful story told by Rav Menachem Frohman about Professor Yehuda Liebes, which I encountered in a post by Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld on the Seforim blog. Rav Frohman writes:

I will conclude with a story 'in praise of Liebes' (Yehuda explained to me that he assumes the meaning of his family name is: one who is related to a woman named Liba or, in the changing of a name, one who is related to anAhuva/loved one). As is well known, in the past few years, Yehuda has the custom of ascending ( ='aliya le-regel)[21] on La"g b'Omer to the celebration ( =hilula) of RaShb"I[22] in Meron. Is there anyone who can comprehend - including Yehuda himself - how a university professor, whose entire study of Zohar is permeated with the notion that the Zohar is a book from the thirteenth- century (and himself composed an entire monograph: "How the Zohar Was Written?"[23]), can be emotionally invested along with the masses of the Jewish people from all walks of life, in the celebration of RaShb"I, the author of the Holy Zohar?

Four years ago, Yehuda asked me to join him on this pilgrimage to Meron, and I responded to him with the following point: when I stay put, I deliver a long lecture on the Zohar to many students on La"g b'Omer, and perhaps this is more than going to the grave of RaShb"I.[24] Yehuda bested me, and roared like a lion: "All year long - Zohar, but on La"g b'Omer - RaShb"I!"
(emphasis added).

I’d like to believe that somehow I can simultaneously be deeply immersed in chassidus, letting it mold and shape me, while at the same time imagining myself to be sophisticated enough to know the difference between what nourishes me, and what I can experience with a knowing wink, or even some skepticism or doubt. I don’t think I’m there yet, but increasingly I believe I can almost make out my destination from here.

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  1. That is a common scheme for last names. The Mahare"tz Chaye's and the Maharsha (R' Shmuel Eliezer Halevi Eidel's) come to mind.

    (Spellings intentionally adapted to make the point.)

    I was told this happens when the matriarch supports the family. So, a talmid chakham who is supported by his mother or his mother in law would sometimes end up with that kind of surname.

  2. Examples: Bashevis, Tamares, Rikles