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Celebrating 19 Kislev: A Primer of Chasidus for Non-Chasidim

This weekend marks the 19th of Kislev—known throughout the Jewish world as “Yat Kislev”—a worldwide celebration of chasidus. Approximately 220 years ago, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was imprisoned on trumped-up accusations of treason—fomented by anti-chasidus forces within the Jewish community. His 53 days spent in a harsh Belarus jail under severe interrogation was viewed as a heavenly referendum about the movement of chasidus; perhaps the world was not yet ready for this revolution and perhaps this architect of chasidus should remain behind bars, unable to disseminate his bold ideology. His liberation on the 19th of Kislev was regarded as a heavenly confirmation that chasidus would persevere and would renew the sunken Jewish spirit. In the chasidic world this day is referred to as the “Rosh Hashanah of Chasidus.”

What about non-chasidim? For the unexposed, the entire world of chasidus feels foreign and impenetrable. The optics of chasidic societies are sometimes very difficult for outsiders to decode; the distinctive dress, dissimilar social codes and general nonconformist leanings baffle many outsiders who don’t understand the inner logic of these societies and the deep pool of ideas that underwrites chasidus. For their part, chasidic societies have become very insular and very unwelcoming of outsiders. Two hundred years of ideological attacks, capped off by the Holocaust, which disproportionately gutted chasidic communities, have caused these communities to contract inward to preserve besieged traditions.

Here is a primer for non-chasidim—a list of five bullet points summarizing how chasidus inspired my life. Apologies to actual chasidim who may find this list insubstantial or to more rigorous students of chasidus for whom this list may seem shallow.

1. Finding God Everywhere

God is obviously omnipresent and His presence isn’t limited to a particular location. Though he pervades all reality, there are classical channels through which we interact with Him. Traditionally, we communicate and interact with Him through patently religious rituals such as Torah study, performance of commandments, and acts of charity. Chasidus teaches that God can be accessed in mundane day-to-day activities as well—which though they don’t feel religious still allow an encounter with an ever-present God. Chasidus helps stretch the vistas of religious feeling and fervor outside the tents of study and the halls of prayer. Otherwise religion can become bifurcated—acutely sensed during moments of ritual but imperceptible during daily routine.

2. Sweet Surrender

Our world has become very cognitive and our experience very empirical. Dramatic advances in science have reinforced the value we place on intellect. However, intellectual experience doesn’t always move our spirit, and doesn’t always touch our soul. Religious failure often stems from inability to translate intellectual activity into moments of spirit. Chasidus stresses that deeper reservoirs of experience are accessed through non-intellectual means. The doctrine of “hitbatlut,” or surrender to God, demands that we submit our intellect and human enterprise to the larger presence of God and the larger force of His will. By suspending our own human faculties and drawing directly from God, we attain deeper truths and more substantial results. The principle of “hitbatlut” can help us identify the limits of human intellect and the limits of human effort in general. In a very hard-driven world with demanding standards of success, hitbatlut teaches us to sometimes just let go. Letting go is sometimes more difficult than piling ahead.

3. We Are Not Alone

Ancient cultures were unable to study or fully understand their world; unaided by science, they inhabited a very dark and mysterious planet. However, they were better able to believe in realities their eyes couldn’t discern but which they knew existed based on delivered traditions. Our world, carefully mapped and classified through the tools of modern science, leaves no room for mystery and no room for belief in anything beyond the rational.

Chasidus is based on Kabbalah, the system of Jewish mysticism that traces the interaction between our own universe and upper worlds; these upper tiers intermediate between our physical world and an infinite non-physical God. Science and ration are completely incapable of describing those upper worlds since these realms lie beyond the reach of human detection. Imagine, for a moment, that our world was just a room—an incredibly large room—but a room nonetheless, and merely part of a larger building with upper stories we know to exist but cannot ever see. Kabbalah depicts these worlds and the dynamics through which our worlds interact.

Kabbalah study, which predated chasidus, was always a vital part of Torah study, though typically reserved for advanced students. Gradually, the study of Kabbalah receded, and Jewish intellectual activity retracted to the rational sphere known as “niglah.” Chasidus restored general awareness of Kabbalah, even though it didn’t assume that average people would be capable of rigorous Kabbalah study. However, even consciousness about Kabbalah and about these “other” worlds puts our own world into perspective. Living with awareness of upper tiers expands our sense of time and space and stretches the horizons of our experience. It also reminds us that our experience isn’t bound by that which is tangible or material.

4. Redeem the World

Judaism views history as circular and our lives are dedicated, in part, to accelerating the repair of our fallen world. Man’s first disobedience in Eden led to the first general “fall” of humanity. Jews were then selected to spearhead a spiritual regeneration of man but failed a second time; our constant betrayal of God prompted the fall of Jerusalem and the long Jewish exile. Ideally, religious behavior can reset the shattered historical arch and restore the original blueprint of history.

Kabbalah in general, and chasidus in particular, speak of a different “fall”: whereas God is indivisible, the creation of our physical world produced a partitioned and divided world. Man is charged with “ichud,” restoring the original “unity,” and every action—if taken with proper intent—can contribute to that historical progression. Chasidus empowers man, living in the lowermost world, to affect and to redeem the entire state of the universe. Chasidus accentuates the redemptive capacity of man—an especially resonant message in the modern State of Israel.

5. Two Great Loves

Every human being was created in the Divine image and possesses uniquely human features such as intelligence, creativity, emotions, consciousness and free will. Additionally, Jews were selected as God’s children and as bearers of the Divine message. Chasidus, however, asserts a more radical idea: Jews are “imbued with an emanation of God Himself” (Tanya chapter 3). Given this core Divine implant, every Jew remains inalienably righteous regardless of their sinful behavior. Even horrific sin is merely extrinsic but doesn’t define a Jew’s core or essence. This gives rise to a great love that Chasidus espouses for every Jew—simple or sophisticated, saint or sinner. Chasidus embraces every Jew in unqualified fashion.

This notion of a Divine implant within every Jew also gave rise to a second great love—between God and His people. The middle 18th century, which witnessed the rise of chasidus, was a very dark period for Eastern European Jewry; exile had lasted too long and God seemed distant and disinterested in His long-lost children. Chasidus reaffirmed the great love between God and His people and provided hope for a nation drifting gradually toward the end of history and the final chapters of redemption. God decided that the world needed this message!!

Happy 19 Kislev.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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