Response to Jewish Action’s “Neo-Chassidus” Article


Boyaner Rebbe leads a tish in the giant sukkah erected at Yeshivat Tiferes Yisroel, 2009. With permission of Eli Segal.

By Yonatan Gordon

Someone close to me read the recent Jewish Action feature on the “neo-Chassidus” movement, and asked if this is what I am, a neo-chassid?

It’s an interesting question. So I read the article, then wrote my response to them, copied it then to the Jewish Action staff, and now I thought that the public could benefit as well.

First it should be mentioned that the “neo-chassid” terminology, as used in the article, refers to fully observant individuals. In previous decades this was not the case as the addition of the prefix “neo” often meant that some manner of traditional observance was compromised. But now we have a new, a neo rendering of neo, that still fastly adheres to observant life. So this is a good progression in the evolution of the term “neo-chassid.”

My initial reaction, however, was that there is no need for the prefix to begin with. While it is wonderful that Jewish youth and adults are interested in learning Chassidus, there is a distinction between being a chassid and someone who learns Chassidus. Whichever side of the camp you see yourself today, there is no need to mix the two. You can be into modern things and learn Chassidus–this is most encouraged and welcomed. But to be a chassid takes adherence to the directive and path of a rebbe, the leader of a Chassidic movement.

Let’s first see why the neo prefix was added to begin with.

The first is that young people like to learn what interests and inspires them. Perhaps today it will be something from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, tomorrow the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and so forth. But to ascribe to only one group, one specific tradition seems limiting.

The second is the view that Chassidic life eschews the modern world. So as chassidim generally don’t go to university, for instance, maybe a prefix is needed to differentiate those that are more open to exploring the modern world, and those that are not.

Some of what I am about to say was written in an article entitled “Modernizing Modern Orthodoxy,” but for this present piece, I wanted to reiterate the main points as straight-forward as possible.

The approach comes from observing Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and his students over the years. And while I am writing this piece at my own behest, not as a representative of Rabbi Ginsburgh, I will try to convey the approach as best I can.

First, to be a chassid means to have a rebbe.

Admittedly this is a constraint. That to be a chassid of one group means not to be a chassid of another. But along with this constraint comes a greater openness. That from the mindspace, perspective or consciousness of one specific chassid paths, from this vantage point, once a firm foundation in a specific path is established, then all other good and holy paths can and should be learned as well.

Rabbi Ginsburgh, a Chabad chassid, encourages his students to learn the works other tzaddikim (righteous persons). So while Rabbi Ginsburgh delivers classes and farbrengens (Chassidic gatherings) according to the Chabad approach, occasionally a class spanning over a few hours will be devoted to explaining a few lines from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s Likkutei Moharan. Thus as a Chabad chassid is encouraged to learn Likkutei Moharan and other holy works according to the Chabad approach, a Breslov chassid is encouraged to learn Tanya, the central work of Chabad Chassidus, authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Second, Chassidic life eschews the modern world.

As mentioned above, there are two possibilities. Either a person is into modern things but likes to learn Chassidus or they are a chassid. But unlike what appears to be established fact, being a chassid doesn’t mean that you have to eschew the modern world. If you are interested in modern things, you can also be a full-fledged chassid. What is required is to view the world through the lens of Chassidus. To perceive whatever interests you through the lens of your Chassidic tradition.

To this extent, Rabbi Ginsburgh has developed thousands of systems for analyzing phenomena in the natural world within a greater system called the Torah Academy. This is not now the place elaborate on specific teachings or initiatives (e.g., the Torah-based mathematics curriculum, the school of Jewish psychology), but as explained in the article referenced above, instead of a Torah Umadda (Torah and natural sciences) paradigm of Torah subjects in the morning, and secular in the afternoon, there should be a unification between the two. This is what the Zohar terms the “kissing” of the higher waters [of the wisdom of the Torah] with the lower waters [of the wisdom of the natural sciences].

This is a Messianic vision, and the Chassidic movement is unabashedly a movement that came to inspire and awaken the world to the imminent coming of Moshiach. But this intensity, this fervor and light, needs to be contained. As mentioned in the Jewish Action article, dedicated study very much should remain a central part of Jewish life. And as Chassidic teachings are full of light, the challenge is to contained these lights into what are called “rectified vessels;” the dedicated study of Jewish law and tradition.

I understand where the neo-chassid motivation comes from as I was in a similar mindspace fourteen years ago in Yeshiva University. I was learning whatever interested me, and it was all nice and good, but my outlook and perspective on the world was a mix of a bunch of divergent thoughts and ideas. Since then, since becoming Chabad, I find it hard to read a new headline without thinking how it relates to the Chabad perspective on reality. For those who have followed my articles over these past few years, I’ve written on everything from last year’s Polar Vortex, to TED videos, to currents events in Israel. Being a chassid of one rebbe doesn’t limit a person, it grounds so that the world can then be perceived through the Chassidic lens appropriate for your soul-root.

For those looking for options beyond Chabad and Breslov, in the NY-area, two Chassidic rebbes that I feel a personal connection to, two very warm and open English-speaking tzaddikim, are the Nikolsburg Rebbe of Monsey and the Biala Rebbe of Boro Park. I encourage you to ask your Chassidic friends for other wonderful rebbes both in the NY-area and abroad.

This does not mean that you are expected to become a chassid in a day. To adhere to all the directives and practices of a particular rebbe and dynasty overnight. But the journey begins by seeing where you feel most comfortable, where your soul-root is most drawn to. And then once you have a firm foundation under one rebbe, to explore from  there to the full gamut of the Chassidic spectrum.

To Reiterate:

It is wonderful that Jewish youth and adults are interested in learning Chassidus. It is wonderful that these individuals wish to become inspired from a more eclectic blend of the holy rebbes and tzaddikim in Chassidic tradition. But to begin formulating one unified perspective on reality takes adherence to one tradition. The adherence to one rebbe serves as the “home base” from whence to view all other Chassidic teachings, all other Torah teachings, and the world around.

Adherence to a rebbe is called hitkashrut (connecting), and like the “tying the knot” terminology used to refer to getting married, becoming a chassid takes commitment and devotion to one specific rebbe. We should learn from all rebbes and Chassidic dynasties, but to be a chassid means to be connected to one.


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