Over the past few weeks, there has been much talk over a series of articles that were recently published in Mishpacha Magazine. The original article, written by Rachel Ginsberg, focused on the chasidut of the Baal Shem Tov and the so-called “neo-chasidic” movement in America. The article was met with much criticism from Rabbi Noach Shafran, a rebbe at Yeshivas Ner Israel of Baltimore, who took issue with the movement as a whole and who stressed that we must remain loyal to the classical style of yeshiva learning and forsake the learning of chasidut. One idea in his article, a mere few lines, has caused shockwaves to pulsate throughout parts of our community. He wrote that “It’s easy to say that a person has a relationship with Hashem wherever he is, regardless of what he is doing, but it’s not true. Many of us break that connection through destructive habits and the like, and sugar-coating them doesn’t make them any less destructive.”
This idea, whether or not Hashem loves us and maintains a relationship with us even as we are involved in sin, was the focal point of several shiurim that Rav Moshe Weinberger, famed rav of the Aish Kodesh Kehillah in Woodmere, New York, delivered in his shul on the topic of Hashem’s unbreakable love for the Jewish people. Since the original articles and subsequent shiurim were published, many other distinguished leaders in our communities have offered their opinions on the topic.
While I certainly have my own perspective on this question, it is not my goal to share that view here. People much bigger than myself have offered more worthwhile perspectives. My goal in this essay, however, is to elaborate on why this machloket l’shem shamayim has been a wonderful breath of fresh air. To begin, a short story is in order.
Unlike his grandfather Rav Akiva Eiger, Reb Leibele Eiger decided to enter into the world of chasidut. As he was beginning his journey into chasidut, Reb Leibele decided to spend the Yamim Noraim in a chasidic town. A powerful Rosh Hashana and 10 intense days of Aseret Yemei Teshuva prepared Reb Leibele for the awe-inspiring day of Yom Kippur. After Shacharit on Yom Kippur he noticed a commotion taking place in the beit midrash; people began arranging the tables in a different fashion than they were for davening. Not familiar with chasidishe minhagim, he inquired as to what was going on. “Kiddush” one chasid responded. Reb Leibele stood stunned. “What Kiddush?! It’s Yom Kippur!” But to his utter bewilderment, the chasidim began setting the tables and bringing out glasses. In shock, Reb Leibele ran to one of the bookshelves, grabbed a Chumash and showed them the pasuk that says one will surely die if he eats on Yom Kippur. The chasidim were unfazed. Reb Leibele then showed them the same din in the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, and still, no response. The alcohol was brought to the tables, prompting Reb Leibele to yell that the Zohar also relates the issur of eating on Yom Kippur.
As they are about to take a sip, Reb Leibele banged on a table and screamed in Yiddish, “Hakadosh Baruch Hu zogt nain!” “Hashem says no!” The chasidim put down their drinks. One chasid turns to Reb Leibele and says, “Oh. Hashem says no. He’s part of the picture. OK then.” In a matter of moments, the tables were cleared and the Musaf service began. Such was Reb Leibele’s wake-up call and entrance into chasidut.
I heard this incredible story from Rav Moshe Tzvi Weinberg, mashpia at Congregation Beth Abraham and rebbi at Yeshiva University, in a shiur he gave in Yeshivat Sha’alvim a few years ago. The topic of that shiur was about talmud Torah being an encounter with Hashem. Too often, Rav Moshe Tzvi told us, we can go many hours of learning Torah and never mention Hashem. Strange, considering we are learning His Torah. We must, he told us, remember that with every word of Torah we learn we are encountering Hashem.
I believe, however, the problem exists not only in talmud Torah but also beyond.
Too often, שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד is a verse that sits above the aron kodesh in your shul, but doesn’t sit center stage in school. Too often, educators focus solely on the avoda aspect of avodat Hashem. I can’t remember a rebbi in high school telling me about forming a relationship with Hashem. I can’t remember many drashot that focused on making Hashem a very real presence in my life. For whatever reason, He seems to constantly be sidelined.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu is supposed to be more than just an abstract concept, some faraway deity. Rashi in Masechet Shabbat (31a) understands the pasuk in Mishlei (27:10) of “Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your Father” as referring to Hashem.
Hashem is supposed to be our best friend. We are supposed to feel that we can turn to Him in times of happiness and darkness, just like a child turns to his father. But if rabbanim and educators don’t speak about Him, if they don’t stress the importance of forming a relationship with Him, if students like myself don’t hear about Hashem, rabbanim and educators have themselves to blame for wondering why so many feel that their Yiddishkeit is lacking.
The Rav Weinberger-Rav Shafran machloket is the first time I can remember Hashem occupying center stage in Jewish conversation. Although they were coming from two different angles, both were talking about Hashem and avenues to reach Him. Pulpit rabbis began making God the subject of their drashot, sometimes agreeing with Rav Weinberger, sometimes with Rav Shafran. Educators began discussing how they should and could incorporate Hashem into their curriculums. It was the first time that we, the players, finally decided to discuss the coach’s goals and ambitions He has for our upcoming season, although many of us differed regarding which play to take from His playbook. It was a breath of fresh air.
Although we might feel that his derech does not sit comfortably with us, the Alter of Novardok’s biting character and teachings stemmed from an uncontrollable thirst for truth. In his eyes, every conversation must lead somewhere. There must be some practical takeaway from every conversation. I believe the takeaway from the Rav Weinberger-Rav Shafran machloket is clear. We need to speak more and more about Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We need to keep Him the center of our divrei Torah and our classrooms. More importantly, we need to stress that the cultivation of a real and intimate relationship with Him is the goal of avodat Hashem.
May Hashem bless us all with much siyata dishmaya as we embark on this holy endeavor of keeping the main thing the main thing.
By Phillip Dolitsky
Phillip Dolitsky is currently a junior at Yeshiva University where he is studying history and philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @phillyd97.