Neo-Chasidut and the Future of Modern Orthodoxy

This past Sunday the following cryptic message appeared on my Twitter feed:

Breaking News: #UofPWest Chanukah Chabura TONIGHT! #zoschanukah #nesgadol #hegiyahhazman

What is the meaning of the cryptic message, and why does it matter? Let’s begin with #UofPWest. U of P refers not to the University of Pennsylvania but to the University of Purim, a Twitter username that since 2010 has garnered an impressive 14,938 likes on Twitter. “Neo-Chasidut,” as outlined in a 2014 article in the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine, represents a burgeoning trend especially popular among young, post-high school Modern Orthodox men who have begun gravitating toward Chasidic practices. These include daily mikvah immersion, study of Chasidic texts, growing long, flowing sideburns, wearing tzitzit that reach nearly to the floor, participating in Carlebach-style minyanim on weekday mornings, praying at the graves of righteous rabbis, and even traveling to the Ukrainian town of Uman, closely associated with Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, for Rosh Hashanah. Purim, a holiday associated with joy and festivity, seems to be a particularly apt name for a Twitter account associated with the new trend.

The term “West” refers to a new West Coast study group or “chaburah” that began this past Sunday night. Neo-Chasidut, in other words, has reached a new frontier in Los Angeles. #Zoschanukah refers to a favorite Chasidic teaching suggesting that the final day of Chanukah is invested with particular religious significance; #nesgadol refers to the great miracle of this expansion; and #hegiahhazman indicates that this growth is timely or perhaps even overdue.

With this brief introduction – feel free to read the Jewish Action article for more background – we can inquire: is this good news for the Jews? Asked differently, what lessons might we derive from this phenomenon?

A perspective from the haftarah of Parshat Vayigash, taken from Chapter 37 of Yechezkel, offers a way of thinking about the rise of Neo-Chasidut. The navi describes the fusion of two sticks, one representing the kingdom of Judah and the other that of Joseph. What is the symbolism of this vision?

On the simplest of levels, Yechezkel means to convey that the two warring First Temple period kingdoms will ultimately merge into a single, unified dynasty during the messianic era. On a deeper level, however, the two monarchies represent opposing models of political and religious leadership, going back to the time of Joseph and Judah.

From a young age, Joseph relies on his savvy to position himself as a leader, no matter the environment. Faced with a variety of seemingly insurmountable challenges – tossed into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery at age seventeen, imprisoned by his master after being wrongly accused of rape, summoned to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh that had stumped even the greatest of necromancers – time and time again, Joseph successfully positions himself to rise to the top. Joseph, then, represents a leadership primarily animated by rationality and calculation.

Judah, by contrast, betokens a more intuitive, emotional approach. When the brothers consider how best to “deal” with the young, ambitious Joseph, Judah sees a caravan and spontaneously - if wrongly - suggests selling his brother as a slave. In the episode of Tamar, Judah sins in a story of sexual passion. When confronted with his father's fear of losing Benjamin, Judah's sense of responsibility wells up within him, compelling him to don the mantle of leadership and assume responsibility for his brother’s safety. And when the moment demands it, Judah bravely approaches the ruler and offers himself as a prisoner in exchange for Benjamin. The contrast in styles between Joseph and Judah – rational versus feeling, calculating versus spontaneous - emerges in sharp relief.

Much the same may be said for Saul and David, heirs to the two respective dynasties. Saul, descended from Benjamin, Joseph’s beloved younger brother, shares many characteristics with his ancestor. After being anointed king, Saul is overwhelmed by a spirit of prophecy and joins a band of prophets. His friends’ response is telling: “What happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets” (Shmuel I 10:11)? Ecstatic prophecy, in other words, is completely foreign to Saul’s otherwise sober persona. Saul’s two major sins – his failure to wait for Samuel’s return before offering a sacrifice and his unwillingness to exterminate the entire nation of Amalek – do not stem from untamed desire but from a basic lack of commitment to the word of God (Samuel I 15:26).

King David's temperament, on the other hand, true to the model of his forebear Judah, is more spiritually-minded than that of his immediate predecessor Saul. As the latter begins to fall into a bout of depression, Saul's advisors recommend that he recruit none other than David to play music and lift the king’s spirits. David’s consuming desire to build the Temple leads to many sleep-deprived nights: “Surely I will not come into the tent of my house, nor go up into the bed that is spread for me; I will not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to mine eyelids, until I find out a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.” The Talmud (Berakhot 4a) famously teaches that David awoke each night at midnight to play the harp and compose songs of praise. David’s major sin, seizing Batsheva in a lustful fit and consigning her husband Uriah to near-certain death at the battlefield’s front lines, parallels the episode of Judah and Tamar.

With this background in hand we can return to the prophecy of Yechezkel. The merging of the staffs signals an embrace of both the intellectual and emotional traditions. Joseph and Saul’s sober rationality and Judah and David’s passionate spontaneity are both critical to our continuity. On the one hand, it is imperative that our religious community be grounded in an abiding commitment to deep Torah study and consistent, punctilious halakhic observance. At the same time, we dare not underestimate the profound impact of spiritual inspiration. Only by embracing both can we succeed in nurturing commitment in the next generation and work toward a fulfillment of Yechezkel's prophecy.

Despite the ideal of a healthy balance between the two poles, however, from time to time things have been thrown off-kilter. The rise of Chasidut in the late 18th-century, for instance, came at a time when East European Jewish life was experienced by many as cold and uninspiring. Chasidut served as a warm antidote to that chill, swinging the pendulum back toward spirituality and d'veikut. On the other hand, as many in the rabbinic establishment perceived Chasidim as teetering on the edge of antinomianism, they pushed back toward the center of deeply-anchored halakhic commitment. In almost Hegelian fashion, the story of Chasidut's reception exemplifies a process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

It is in this sense that I believe we can understand the significance of the rise of Neo-Chasidut in our generation. The new trends suggest that despite our best efforts, we have not done enough as a community to inspire the passions of the next generation. Our young people are telling us that the pendulum has swung too far toward dry intellectualism and mimetic halakhic observance.

Indeed, for those in the know, the accusation that Modern Orthodoxy and Torah Umada are overly intellectualized has been with us for some time. Rav Soloveitchik himself bemoaned his own frustrating lack of success in conveying to his students not just the knowledge of Torah but also its soul. And while we have taken extremely important steps in our schools, youth groups, summer camps and shuls to address the issue - our significant success harnessing music for inspiration is a good example - the take-home is clear: through Chasidut or otherwise, we must do continue to do more to inspire our youth and our communities.

In that spirit, below are a few modest suggestions that might help us continue swinging the pendulum back toward the center. By no means a comprehensive list, these are meant simply as conversation-starters. In future posts I hope to elaborate a number of these suggestions and perhaps add some more.

1. Storytelling
I would argue that our community stands to benefit tremendously from more storytelling. As Yitzy Blau has correctly noted, there are many genres of stories, including those that abound in the Haredi camp, that do not necessarily match a Modern Orthodox ethos. Still, there are many others – some of the stories of Rav Amital zt”l and the 100 autobiographical stories recounted in Rabbi Riskin’s “Listening to God” come immediately to mind – that are appropriate for our community. Moreover, many Chasidic tales can be utilized or adapted for Modern Orthodox settings. To my mind, increased storytelling should be a major priority in our community.

2. Children’s Books

Along similar lines, there is a tremendous need for inspiring children’s books that, unlike the majority of Artscroll’s publications, are consistent with Modern Orthodox values. Of course, a host of prickly questions confront any attempt to compose a Modern Orthodox children's summary of Chumash, for example: How can we depict the avot and imahot in a manner that does not do violence to historical accuracy yet does not confuse our children (why isn't Avraham wearing his kippa)? Is there any place for midrash in a retelling of the Bible? Which stories ought we retell and which should be omitted? Despite the formidable challenges, such a series is a major desiratum and I hope our publishing houses will take up a major project along these lines.

3. Rituals

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written eloquently about the impact of ritual on fostering Jewish continuity. Rituals are crucial to the success of families, schools and faith communities in inspiring members of a community to bind themselves to its core values, and I believe there is room for the thoughtful cultivation of more rituals in our repertoire.

4. Expanding and Exploring the Canon

In Israel today, in particular in high schools, yeshivot and midrashot, there is an efflorescence of Tanakh, agadah, and midrash study, as well as more spiritualized approaches to the Gemara learning. While this is not the place to detail and analyze those efforts, it is fair to say that while retaining the primacy of traditional Talmud study and being mindful not to sacrifice the critical value of ameilut ba-Torah, toiling in Torah study, we ought consider increased communication and cross-pollination with our Israeli colleagues with an eye toward adapting some of these methods for the American scene. In particular, the work of Rav Yaakov Nagen, Rav Yehuda Brandes and many others comes to mind.

5. Mussar Va’ads

Borrowing loosely from the model of the mussar movement, it could be profoundly impactful if we were to instate in our school and shuls optional mussar va’ads. Individuals would choose an area of focus and engage in a combination of journaling and, to borrow the language of R’ Aryeh Ben-David, founder of Ayeka, nonjudgmental spiritual chavrutot. One particular area of focus could be enhancing tefilla, a notoriously challenging difficult for even the most religiously committed of us.

As stated, these are just a few brief thoughts to get the conversation started. Whatever specific recommendations emerge as the most promising, the larger landscape is clear: the emergence of Neo-Chasidut on both coasts of the U.S. sends a critical message about the need for us to up the ante of spiritual inspiration at every level. The tradition of Joseph and Saul must be better counter-balanced by that of Judah and David. By responsibly introducing a range of spiritual “portals of entry," we can take critical steps toward doing our part to merge the two staffs, thereby bringing Yechezkel's utopia a few steps closer to becoming our reality.