Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chabad - the Closest Religion to Judaism by Adam Reiss

A friend of mine recently sent me an article about a rabbi in England who was arrested after a week long binge of cocaine and hedonism ( A wealthy man, a prominent figure in the community. Something was upsetting enough about the story to make the international news circuit. Now, conspiracy theory set aside (that a latent or not so latent antisemitism in the media picked up the story to prove the hypocrisy of orthodox Judaism), there is something disconcerting about the fact that after the passing of his wife this fellow sank into a depraved life of drugs and women. In spite of all of his religiosity, or some may say as a consequence of it, something was missing and that something he tried to make up for by other means. But the question still remains, something is missing from many people's lives and their stories don't make it all the way into my email inbox. So what is so bothersome about this man, a rabbi, falling prey to his baser instincts?

The Chassidic movement of the Baal Shem Tov began as a revivalist movement about three hundred years ago with a conscious goal. The false messianism of Shabtai Tvi, the pograms of Tach v'Tat, and the European Enlightenment had left the Jewish world in shambles. Education was very possibly at an all time low. With all the best intentions the rabbis of the day forbade the studying of kabbalah because Shabtai Tzvi's movement validated itself on the basis of heretical interpretations of certain passages in the Zohar and the teachings of Isaac Luria. All of these factors combined to create an atmosphere of rampant poverty, both materially and spiritually. The rabbis conglomerated their power to keep Judaism alive in the face of its oppressors, and advocated an approach of the most limited observance and unflinching obediance for the peasant class. The vicious cycle begun, the fate of the simple folk to live in ignorance was all but sealed when the Baal Shem Tov arrived. The true mark of genius is that the paradigm shift it engenders appears after the fact as having been totally common sensical from the outset. Thus, to describe his message is difficult, because it was neither radical nor conservative, novel nor traditional. Like a sculptor chiselling away at a stone to reveal a new form the Baal Shem Tov did not innovate in the true sense of the word. His message, that the spirit of the law and the letter of the law are inextricably bound and that one cannot exist nor substitute for the other is the fundament of all of Judaism. That God communicates with man, and that his chosen method for doing so is through the Torah, and that through its proper observance man can achieve a contact with the Divine even unto the level of prophecy – that is the message of Abraham and Moses, David and Maimonides.

There was another time in Jewish history when similar problems threatened the Jewish people. Foreign occupation, ecclesiasticism, and false messianism. It is a time we don't like to think too much about, perhaps because it's problems are similar to our own. One solution which presented itself at the time was the total abrogation of the Torah. The Christian movement claimed that the spirit of the law was in contradistinction to the letter of the law, and at that point it ceased completely to be Jewish. Confronted with a Jewish world that looked much like the one leading up to the destruction of the Temple, the Baal Shem Tov offered a solution that the proper observance of the Torah requires more than the routine performance of empty rites. He offered this solution, however, only after recognizing that there was a problem.

A rabbi in England hooked on drugs, so-called Chasidim in Jerusalem throwing stones at their fellow Jews on Shabbos, and Jewish family men sitting in Federal prison for embezzlement – how have things come to this? Does it mean that the Torah is a lie and its exemplars hypocrites? How can it be that less than five hundred years after the redaction of the Shulchan Aruch we can ease our consciences by living in a manner which is externally flawless and yet completely out of touch with the sentiment that Yosef Caro took for granted we would have when studying and trying to live by his work? I hear many people joke that Chabad is the closest religion to Judaism. A joke being like a frog (when you dissect it you kill it) notwithstanding, I can assume that what they are driving at is with its departure from many of the popular customs of European and American Jewry and its strong Messianic leanings Chabad looks like something new. But the truth is often said in jest and they have a point. Chabad recognizes that there is a problem with rote and feelingless observance. As spiritual heirs of the Baal Shem Tov our solution to that problem is recognizing that the letter of the law needs the spirit of the law and vice versa—the beginning is wedged in the end and the end in the beginning—and that this is not something close to Judaism, that this is Judaism.


Benyomin Aaron Patzik said...

This story, as well as your post, reminds me of a Baal Shem Tov story passed down by Chabad Rebbeim. Basically, a tremendous scholar in the days of the Maharal M'Prague made fun of 'Kaballah.' As a result, his son, a great talmudic scholar, also 'fried out' later in life. It was really scary, because even though he did teshuvah for the last year of his life, he ended up in Gehinom until one of the Baal Shem Tov's followers schlept him out. Like decades down there. Think 'Acher.'

Nice article bro. Very nice call- the media is always quick to pick out any untoward behavior amongst Orthodox Jews. I really hate that- but they have a point, in the end: Jews are held to a higher standard because we are the children of G-d. Sometimes these articles are just the nations way of saying, "Hey, you guys are the Chosen People, whats going on here?"

Yeah, I also can't stand all the crap Chabad gets from other Orthodox Jews. Buncha player haters if you ask me. Oh yeah, BTW the RAMBAM believes Moshiach can come too. I'll have to put a post about how uneducated all the haters are.

Lea Farkash said...
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Dovid Chaim said...
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