Chussidus and Modern Day Orthodoxy

By Avi Bieler

See what I did with the title there? I don’t like the term “Modern Orthodoxy”. Others learnt philosophy before Rav Soloveitchik and they too incorporated it into their theology. “Modern Orthodoxy”?  That’s just a new name for a type of Orthodoxy that has existed for hundreds of years.

The argument about “Grecian Wisdom” dates back to Talmudic times and has continued throughout the proverbial ages. Only at some point along the way those of us who had heard of Aristotle deemed ourselves to be especially modern. It’s as if the 2400 year old writings of a guy who wore a toga outside of his frat parties are the arbiters of who is hip. You see, I know of a certain “yeshivish/charedi” Rosh Yeshiva who receives translations of Artie’s works so he can better understand the RaMBaM. Does he lose modern status because of proclivity to wear hats when he prays? No one is “Modern Orthodox”; people are “modern Orthodox”, or perhaps “Grecian Orthodox”. Torah conscious Jews throughout history live in different permutations of the “Grecian Wisdom” argument. Like the Matrix.

Why do I start with this other than to be obnoxious? In today’s modern environment (Jewish and otherwise), the pro-Greece lobbyists are haunted and hunted by the idea of being “irrational” and therefore “immodern”. So much so that I dare say it places them in many uncomfortable positions with regards to religion. I once ate Shabbat lunch with a family whom I deeply respect. At one point the father and son told a story about a poor man who approached them at the Kotel. The man said that if you give me charity and the name of a sick person I will pray for him. O how the father and son laughed at the concept of prayer (Tefilla) and charity (Tzdaka) removing the evil decree. The family is very pious and I have no doubt that they pray very hard on Yom Kippur, but they struggled with one of the most basic concepts of that Day and of Judaism in general. Why is that?

The wise Hillel Mansfield once suggested this brilliant theory. The RaMBaM’s religious thought is based on Apophatic Theology, a word I only use to make myself sound smart. In English that means that Maimonides only discussed what G-d is not. In the Jewish tradition, this goes back to a gemara in Brachot where one rabbi says many wonderful things about G-d and upon finishing his fellow rabbi asks him “can you possibly be done”? It’s a very sound idea with a major weakness. When you only talk about what G-d is not, you can eventually conclude that G-d is not anything.  Eventually, you may decide (perhaps only in your subconscious) that He/She/Zee has no effect upon this world. Simply put, G-d becomes so transcendent that He ceases to meaningfully exist.

Rav Soloveitchik once said “my students understand my brain, but not my heart”. The biggest threat to modern Orthodoxy is the tin man problem. I would like to propose that one of the causes of this quandary is our insistence on the word “modern”. The word carries with it a suggestion of subservience to current ideas of what is scientific even though many aspects of religion necessarily fail the rationality test. G-d cannot be completely understood with the head no matter how hard we try.

Worry not though; the Good Lord creates no disease without first creating its antidote. One solution is to look to the past. The heroes of “Grecian Wisdom” in Jewish history did indeed believe in the irrational (as did Grecian Wisdom itself) while incorporating rational ideas into their theology. We should be able to as well. It is my belief that chassidus (combined with Grecian Orthodoxy) holds the power to synthesize rational thought with spirituality.  In these blog posts I hope to demonstrate that one can bathe in kabbalistic waters without drifting off into the deep sea and that ideas in chassidus can sometimes be best understood by the intellectual mind.

Until next week, (showing how the main principle of chussidus and Grecian Orthodoxy are related), raise a glass and sing a niggun.



Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

7 responses to “Chussidus and Modern Day Orthodoxy

  1. Jake

    Great post Avi.

    I would, however, like to make a little comment on your story about the father and son laughing about the man at the kotel.

    I come from a background that embraces mysticism and chassidus. I really do think there is something to it. However, one thing that really grates on me is when people ask me for money and then promise me great prosperity, health, happiness, and other forms of good fortune. I’m happy to give them money, but their meaningless promises irritate me to no end. You know how I know that they are meaningless? Because immediately after they bless me, they give the same blessing to someone else! They probably do it 50 times a day.

    Anyways, I just wanted to defend the father and son.
    I’m singing a nigun and having a drink now.

    • avibieler

      Thanks Jake,

      Another gemara in brachot suggests that prayer is only effective when others pray for us (a prisoner cannot escape on his own, but needs someone else to open the cage). Furthermore, during a משברח in a synagogue. You don’t recognize most of the people on the list, but as part of the “קהל” you are praying for them. Some Jewish theology posits the idea that all Jews are connected (something which I will get to in a few weeks) and therefore have the power to effect one another regardless of recognition. Finally, I’m not sure that a bracha is diluted if it is “overused”.

      Where you are right is that no person can promise anything. All they can do is pray for you. Maybe it will come to be and maybe it wont. But based on classical Jewish theology, a stranger’s prayer is heard and charity does have a metaphysical effect.

      Thanks for reading whether you agree or disagree (even better if you disagree). Hope you come back for more.

  2. Joan

    I just wanted to comment on your definition of “Modern”. I define Modern Orthodoxy differently. I see Modern Orthodoxy as recognizing that ALL of creation is God’s. We are not merely Shabbat Jews trying to preserve Shabbat in our actions all week long. We recognize that God created all the days and all the creations making them all holy (am I sounding chasidig?). Thus, there is nothing wrong with involving yourself with worldly things, as long as you do it by the rules. This might mean reading the classics (which are certainly, like Aristotle, not MODERN) or seeing a movie or researching the function of cells or conversing with people who are not like you.
    You try and make it a distinction between M.O. and chasidus as either using your head or using your heart and I think, like in everything, there’s a distribution of people in every group who will use either or both or a combination of the 2 in any given situation.
    Actions of individuals may *reflect* on a group but they don’t necessarily define the group. Keep your chasidig heart open to Modern Orthodoxy. We’re not as cold as you think.

    • Avi Bieler

      Thanks for reading!
      I actually intend to make the very point you have just made next week. Both MO (ideally) and chussidut view the entire world as holy. What I am trying to point out here is that due to the focus on the rational in MO the irrational has been left behind. In a religious setting that makes it very difficult to relate to G-d. I’m not proposing the elimination of Orthodoxy as you practice it, but am insisting that chussidut is a great way to infuse it with spirituality.

      • Anonymous

        Unfortunately, I found your article rather uncomfortable to read.
        For one, you did not make it clear who in particular you were deeming to be the representatives of Modern Orthodoxy from whom you could discern where the focus of the ideology lies. Because if you have read the Rav’s Lonely Man of Faith then you would have absolutely no doubt in your mind that there is no overlooking of the emotional/spiritual/irrational elements of Judaism. In fact, it is one of very, very few points on which the Rav actually disagrees with the Rambam.

        Secondly, to try to equate the general Chassidus philosophy with that of Modern Orthodoxy is ludicirous. Chassidus

      • Anonymous

        Apologies, I pressed submit midway.

        As I was saying, one of the fundamentals of Chassidism is to create a separation between the holy and the unholy. (The most fitting symbol of this is the wearing of a gartel which divides between the lower body, of physical pleasure, and the upper body of the soul). Whilst the philosophy also sees the importance in “lighting a spark of holiness” in every place, this cannot be taken in isolation.

        Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, sees the entire world as legitimate (טוב מאוד) and puts enormous importance on enriching your own religious, spiritual experience, with general knowledge – whether that be knowledge of science or philosophy or literature. Of course this was not invented by Rav Soloveitchik or anyone else of recent history. The difference between lighting the spark and finding value in secular knowledge is rather great. MO does not go to the science textbook to light a holy spark. MO goes to the textbook in order to draw from it, something that will enhance our relationship with God.

        Lastly, the Gemara in Brachot does not say that we should not praise God. It says that we should not divert from the script of הא-ל הגדול הגיבור והנורא. Because this is found in the Tanach and us mere humans would not be able to come up with fitting shevach with our own limited intellects.

  3. avibieler

    Thanks for reading!
    I will try to answer you in sequence
    a)My goal was to imply that anyone involved in the modern world not just as a way to make money and who considers themselves Orthodox is Modern Orthodox. However, I also believe that this distinction is silly and would prefer that everyone identify as simply Orthodox.
    I wish that more people would take Lonely Man of Faith into account in their lives as opposed to just reading it. I agree a hundred percent that the Rav was sensitive to the spiritual side of Judaism. I also would like to note that he was raised by a chussidic mother and had a chussidic teacher early in his life. In the book MiPninei HaRav (p.126) R. Shachter notes that the Rav disagreed with his father’s approach to certain mitzvot (specifically the story recounted in Halachic Man about the Ba’al Tokea who started weeping before blowing the Shofar). Instead the Rav allowed for mystical ChBaD understandings into his theology. I will argue though that many people who, thank G-d, do view the world outside of Torah as holy have not absorbed this aspect of the Rav (hence, the anecdote about the Rav’s heart). I also would like to point out that the Rambam knew kaballa and is looked at as a hero also by mystics, although it is unclear if he was a mystic.
    b) many streams of Chussidut most certainly do not separate the holy and the unholy and instead view the world as holy. That is the very lesson of the “sparks”. I will be writing more about this in coming weeks so I don’t want to elaborate, but I can refer to the chabad concept of Klipat Nogah and the entire Pshyska (sp?) movement which is analyzed in this book The Sfas Emes also emphasized the holiness of the 6 days of work and even owned a tobacco shop!
    c)As stated above in coming weeks I hope to show how some streams of chassidut do value secular knowledge (as opposed to Breslev for instance, although it is clear to me the R. Nachman at least dabbled in secular knowledge). I certainly do myself and was brought to study chassidut through my study of Medieval Islamic philosophy. In no way will this blog attempt to discourage the value of exotoric (I just made up a word) knowledge.
    d)The gemara in brachot allows for the exceptions based on tanach. I agree. I still think there lies a great danger in the theology of it. I’m not sure if you’re point disproves mine, but this seems to be a minor aspect of your rebuttal

    Once again thanks for reading (and feel free to reply to this comment). I will be writing every Thursday.

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