What’s the Difference Between a Hasid and a Mitnaged?

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Lubliner RavI can’t resist posting a cute story Rabbi Bleich quotes in the latest Tradition (46,1, Spring 2013). Full disclosure: I have not read the rest of the article yet, though it looks very interesting. The topic is “Liability for Harm Caused by Metaphysical Forces”, and if you don’t know what that means, read the story, and you’ll get it. I’ll just quote the beginning of the article:

“Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the renowned Lubliner Rav and head of Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin, was once asked to explain how the approach to Torah study in his yeshiva differed from that of the Lithuanian yeshivot of his day. He responded that the difference was that which distinguishes a hasid from a mitnaged. Asked to elaborate, the Lubliner Rav responded with an apocryphal example.
Once, two students, one a hasid and the other a mitnaged, were studying tractate Sukkah together. When they reached the statement “It was said of Jonathan ben Uzi’el that when he was engaged in Torah study a bird that flew through the air would be immediately burned” (Sukkah 28a) both students became lost in thought. “What are you thinking?” the mitnaged asked his friend. The hasid answered, “I am pondering the awesome spiritual conduct of the sacred Tanna, Jonathan, who was privileged to attain such a great, superhuman state.” “And what are your thoughts?” continued the hasid. The mitnaged responded, “I was sitting and pondering the liability of Jonathan ben Uzi’el. Assuming that the bird had an owner, would Jonathan ben Uzi’el have been liable for the damage that he caused?”
And so, that is the difference between a hasid and a mitnaged. In case you’d like to know why Rabbi Bleich wrote about this question, it is because, in his own words:
“This writer unabashedly confesses that he shares the quixotic interest of the mitnaged”.
I can’t help but be interested too now, and I’m excited to finish the article. I might post a tidbit or two from it when I do, but I won’t give away the conclusion.
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