Writer Binyamin Ehrenkranz speaks with Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, the founding rav of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York, and mashpia at Yeshiva University, about the rising popularity of neo-Chassidism and the power of the Chassidic worldview.
Binyamin Ehrenkranz: Aish Kodesh was started more than twenty years ago, before Chassidus was as popular as it is today among the Modern Orthodox. What made you think it would be successful?
Rabbi Weinberger: The shul was built upon the world of the Ba’al Shem Tov, about which I had been teaching for some years before and which these particular families were interested in. Slowly but surely, more people began to come. It was not that I had a strategy for success. Besides, of course, [learning] Gemara and halachah and all of the basics of Yiddishkeit, this was my personal journey to try to bring myself closer to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and when I met other Jews who wanted to join me on the journey, we fell in love with each other, and then it grew into something bigger than that little group.
BE: Were there challenges in the group’s embracing a Chassidic approach to davening and avodas Hashem?
RW: I remember the first Friday night. We were renting space from a school . . . . After davening, I said a little devar Torah. Then I began to sing. I’m not really very good at that, and it was very hard for me. By nature, I’m very shy. I began to sing, and then I grabbed the closest guys’ hands—both sides—and they looked at me like I was from outer space. And I began that first Friday night dance after davening.
This was something that they had never seen before. But I’d say within three weeks there were forty to fifty people pushing to be part of the circle.
I find that the Jewish heart very easily melts in the face of divrei Elokim chayim, when it confronts the teachings of Chassidus. As far as [challenges in] implementing more of a Chassidish style of davening . . . . We had to find chazzanim and ba’alei tefillah who would be on board with that. We wanted davening that was filled with song and dance. And, of course, that’s a challenge in a community not accustomed to that. But the people met the challenge, and we’ve been having a ball ever since.
BE: What has most likely triggered those who consider themselves Modern Orthodox to become interested in Chassidus today?
RW: I think it’s the same thing that brought the generation in the days of the Ba’al Shem Tov to cleave to him and his teachings. There was a general feeling that God was missing from Judaism, and that the Yiddishkeit that the old generation was serving the young generation was mostly defined by ritual and rote. There was a spiritual vacuum that that generation experienced.
There’s a certain humility I’ve seen among the Modern Orthodox, especially the youth . . . they are prepared to acknowledge a sense of spiritual desolation that they’re experiencing. There was and still is a readiness to hear more about Hashem, to find out more about Hashem and develop a personal relationship with Him, as opposed to just keeping a finger on the place in the Gemara and, in a more robotic way, observing the rituals of Judaism; to seek a living relationship with God. This is not to say that’s only possible within Chassidus. But it certainly resonated hundreds of years ago, and it certainly resonates now, especially with young people.
I find that people have heard thousands of sermons proving how one pasuk and another can [be reconciled], and explaining whether or not we can eat from disposable tin pans without toiveling them. These are all very important issues. I’m not, God forbid, making light of any of these things. Every detail of halachah is significant.
However, there was a feeling that the broader picture of all of these details was not coming together. How do they coalesce? How do they come together to bring me to a greater, more effusive and more intense relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu?
As Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote many times, the last generation before Mashiach comes will no longer be satisfied with just the details, with just the trees. They will want to be able to see the forest. And whether it’s the teachings of Chassidus, or the teachings of the Ramchal or the Vilna Gaon, when a Jew gets a peek at the breathtaking panoramic view of what it means to be a Jew, he’s very excited and he wants to have a part of it.
BE: In some places where Chassidus has been embraced, it seems there is less of an effort to limit materialism. Is that a contradiction to the teachings of Chassidus, or can the two coexist?
RW: One of the fundamental principles of the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his students is avodas Hashem b’gashmi [serving Hashem through the physical], using everything that we have as a means of serving Hashem. Therefore, traditionally, it was not common that Chassidim would learn in yeshivah for extended periods of time—certainly not after they were married. And it was not, and still, to a large extent, is not seen as an embarrassment to have a Chassidic truck driver, plumber or carpenter. Work, and being part of this world, including wealth and all of the blessings of this world, are simply other ways that Hashem disguises Himself. And the essence of Chassidus is to dig deeply, and to uncover the Godliness in every single thing that we do. And therefore, [within Chassidus] there was never a contradiction between personal wealth and avodas Hashem.
BE: But isn’t there a point at which it’s hard to grow spiritually while pursuing a lifestyle of comfort?
RW: It’s all a question of what level a person is on. To delude oneself into thinking that “I’m finding God in the tennis court that I just put into my backyard, or in the indoor pool,” and that somehow “through my fourth Ferrari I’m getting closer to the Creator” is certainly not the intention of Chassidus, nor is it part of Judaism. Therefore, there are great challenges. Unless a person is on a very exalted level, it is extremely difficult to use prosperity as a way of drawing closer to the Creator.
Some of the greatest Chassidic tzaddikim had tremendous wealth, such as Rebbe Yisroel of Ruzhin. He lived in a palace and traveled in a golden wagon drawn by white horses. He wore golden slippers, but when he passed away, inside the golden slippers [his followers] found pieces of crushed glass. On the outside he was living a luxurious lifestyle, but it was all a means of serving God. Very few people are capable of that nowadays. Today wealth is just as challenging to the Chassid as it is to any God-fearing Jew.
BE: Perhaps the most common criticism of Chassidus is that the experiential overwhelms the intellectual. This seems pretty significant because everyone agrees that Torah knowledge and learning is critical to spiritual growth. How does one negotiate the two?
RW: Some of the greatest talmidei chachamim of the past few hundred years were Chassidim, including the Ba’al HaTanya, the Avnei Neizer, the Sefas Emes, the Rogatchover Rav, Rabbi Yosef Engel, the Chiddushei HaRim and the Koznitzer Maggid . . . the list goes on and on. Torah learning was never something that was denigrated, chas v’shalom, among the Chassidim. It was always seen as a tremendous tool in the service of God.
However, it was not seen as the only tool, or necessarily the ultimate tool in serving Hashem. Therefore, historically, there were complaints regarding certain groups of Chassidim that were not, perhaps, spending as much time learning as was traditional in other European communities. Nevertheless, in modern times that really, for the most part, is not an issue . . .
BE: Isn’t it likely there are a number of people—especially young people—co-opting Chassidus as a shortcut or alternative to intensive learning and shemiras hamitzvos?
RW: There’s no question that there’s a very strong emotional appeal in Chassidus. Therefore there are going to be individuals—and I have seen this increasingly taking place—some of whom are less emotionally stable than others, who will naturally be drawn to that part of Chassidus or to those teachings that resonate with the feeling of an emotional emptiness or a lack. This is something that has happened in the past and throughout the history of Chassidus. There is a stronger likelihood of that happening in the Chassidic world than in the non-Chassidic world.
Is that a risk? In the non-Chassidic world there are many, many young people who are simply dying from the dryness and the emptiness. Are there going to be some outlandish, strange individuals who are going to latch on to some of the externals of Chassidus, and over-emotionalize and over-dramatize and focus on just small particular pieces of Chassidic teachings? Yes. It’s obvious that that has happened and will continue to happen. But overall, Hashem, through His hashgacha pratis, [ensured that] there has been a balancing over the years. And for the most part, those who are connected to Chassidic rebbes and to Chassidic teachings are as devoted to the study of Torah as anybody else.
BE: For someone who wants to work on growing in his or her spirituality through Chassidus, which sefer is the best place to start?
RW: Many people in our generation have found that the Nesivos Shalom of the Slonimer Rebbe is a very good starting point. It’s been said that Rav Shach, a”h, himself said that the Nesivos Shalom is the Mesillas Yesharim of our generation. The Slonimer Rebbe is able to give over teachings of Chassidus in a wrapping that is more digestible by those who are not accustomed to Chassidus or kabbalah. Another sefer that is very popular and that’s very [accessible] is the Shem MiShmuel. He quotes a lot from the Maharal and Kuzari, and [draws upon] machshavah [Jewish philosophy], which appeals to those who are more accustomed to yeshivah learning.
BE: What’s the best way to begin working on bettering one’s davening?
RW: I get a lot of calls from all over—not just from throughout the country but from different places all over the world—inviting me to seminars to speak, often for a yom iyun, to explain different concepts in the siddur or in tefillah. And while I’m happy to go, it’s not a matter of another peirush [commentary] on the siddur or explaining [the tefillah], though it’s very valuable to understand what you’re saying. But I believe the basic problem is that there is a huge disconnect between Jews and Hashem—and if you don’t believe that the Creator is a very real presence in your life, then whom are you going to talk to? There’s nobody there. And I think that emunah [belief] is terribly lacking—basic emunah.
To have tefillah that’s meaningful, there has to be emunah that’s meaningful. That’s why I believe there needs to be a widespread revolutionary teaching of emunah and hischazkus [reinforcement] and chizuk [strengthening] of emunah. A Jew who has strong emunah, who believes that Hashem is his father and that Hashem loves him more than it’s possible for any human being to love his child, that Jew is going to want to speak to his Father.
But if you don’t believe that your Father loves you, if you don’t believe that He wants to hear from you, if you don’t believe in that relationship and connection, then the best you could do is to come up with some nice chiddushim [novel ideas] to explain the berachos in Shemoneh Esrei. But as far as having real, deep tefillah that’s meaningful, and wanting to daven, what kind of davening can there be?
The Koznitzer Maggid said that when a person says “Baruch Atah Hashem,” those words should be k’daber ish el re’eihu, like a person is speaking to his most dear and beloved friend. If you don’t believe that God is your dear, beloved Friend, that He’s your Father and, like the Ba’al Shem Tov says, that He kisses the lips of a Jew as the words of tefillah come out of his mouth—then how are you motivated to speak to Him? You just lose your interest. You feel [as if] it’s a one-way conversation, and it’s much more fun to go to the Kiddush Club.
BE: But even though some people cultivate emunah and really believe in Hashem, they still struggle to connect to the siddur, the same text every time.
RW: The siddur is magnificent. The problem is within ourselves, in our lack of emunah. Certainly we could supplement our davening from the siddur with the practice of hisbodedus [prayerful meditation in which one talks to God in his own words], something the Chofetz Chaim encouraged. Everybody thinks hisbodedus was started by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov—it’s not true. That’s how Jews originally davened [before the siddur was canonized]. They spoke to Hashem in their own words.
. . . So one should supplement the davening from the siddur with his own personal tefillos. If a person develops a relationship with Hashem and then revisits the siddur, it’s a whole different world. When you’re in that place, then those words have deep meaning for you.
However, if there’s no sense of shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid [continuous consciousness of God’s presence], then tefillah is meaningless. Unless a person believes deeply that “I’m standing here and God is listening to me,” then whatever new ideas he has about the siddur is just another form of learning. But if he believes with all of his heart shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid, and he cultivates a relationship with God, then those very same old words become exceedingly beautiful in his eyes and take on the kind of meaning that they were meant to have.
BE: If someone wants on his own to begin cultivating that relationship but doesn’t feel he has the tools or even a rebbe, how might he, or even a community together, begin that work?
RW: If the individuals are in range of such a person, I’ve often recommended that they seek a teacher who’s familiar with these teachings, who can come and guide them a little bit and learn with them during the week. And then, to begin to have a shalosh seudos together once a month, to get a chevra who want something more than just the old Mizmor l’Dovid and fighting over a schmaltz herring . . . or to replace shalosh seudos with a shiur, to be able to actually gather together and share deeper teachings of Torah, to sing and so on, under the guidance of a person who’s experienced. I’ve seen this happen and I’ve tried to make this happen in a number of communities, [establishing a time and setting] where individuals can go and be guided. Now, thank God, there are other ways of accessing these teachings, online and elsewhere.
You’ll see that in every community, in every yeshivah—wherever Jews are—you’re going to find like-minded individuals thirsting for a deeper connection to Hashem. If these people seek each other out and begin to make different times to gather together—like a melavah malkah or shalosh seudos—without in any way challenging the institutions of the community, but just to have private gatherings in their homes, to get together with people who know how to sing and to give over teachings of Chassidus, in a relatively short time that community can be revolutionized.