Isaac Kaplan

"Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?"

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Chassidus in 2006

If you read the papers, it seems like the chassidic movement is past its prime. Whether it's the ongoing civil war in Satmar, the Boro Park riots, or the occasional financial scandal, it seems like the chassidim get nothing but bad press. And it seems like everyone out there knows a chassid or two who has cable, watches movies, and generally seems apathetic towards yiddishkeit.

When I was in yeshiva, the age-old issue of working for a living vs. kollel came up. I argued that perhaps we should follow the "Torah Im Derech Eretz" approach advocated by R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, ZTL. But someone said, "no, what Rav Hirsch had in mind was only meant for that generation, to help combat the influence of the haskalah. But his mehalech was not intended to be applicable for all-time."

Recently, I've been speculating whether the same logic holds true for chassidus. A quick disclaimer: I'm not here to discuss the general issues of chassidus such as davening late, blindly following rebbes, etc. I'm just discussing whether, assuming chassidus is "legit," is it still a solid movement these days?

When the Baal Shem, Baal HaTanya and other early rebbes started the chassidic movement, you can see why it made a lot of sense at the time. Culturally, it was a totally different world. People lived in ghettos, and it was still possible to stay away from the goyish influence. The media wasn't all over the place. Financially, things were much different than they were now. Very few people had money. And very few Jews were "professionals."

In 2006, things have changed drastically. The chassidish focus of avoiding the media, newspapers, and anything goyish can't work anymore. Even in Boro Park or Williamsburg, you can't avoid it. There's a whole world out there, a world full of temptation, and a life that looks a lot freer than the confines of chassidus. Maybe the chassidim that are engrossed in learning and who find their movement meaningful won't feel deprived. But many of them, especially those in the business world, can be much more tempted than their counterparts at the turn of the 18th Century.

Besides, think about how, during the riots, they chanted "No justice, no peace." They must've gotten that from somewhere, and chances are it wasn't from the rebbe's tisch. And I'm sure the rebbe didn't teach them to punch out the chassidim who are for the other rebbe. Instead of an approach telling them to shun all tumah, perhaps an approach for dealing with the inevitable clash with the media would be more sensible. And the fact that they can't even play basketball because it's goyish. I think that's a little crazy. Most kids need an outlet. Either it'll be basketball, or smashing police cars.

In 2006, the costs of living are astronomical. I've heard there are many chassidim in Touro, and it's definitely a step in the right direction. For all the stories of nissim in business, the fact is that a college education is an important part of hishtadlus these days. And I'm only speculating here, but perhaps if more chassidim were professionals there would be fewer business ethics issues in those communities.

Additionally, perhaps more than any other sect of Orthodox Jewry, Chassidim give women the fewest opportunities to learn or have any job with an intellectual aspect to it. There's teaching, and that's about it. Again, when chassidus began, very few women worked. In 2006, they see a society where women have many more opportunities. So for the more shallow women who couldn't give a damn, their yiddishkeit is devoid of meaning regardless. But even for the ones who are smarter and more ambitious, how can they enjoy yiddishkeit if they see it as stifling their opportunities to grow and accomplish?

- Maybe there aren't thousands of chassidim going off the derech. Maybe many of them seem to be happy and content with their lot. But again, do we know how meaningful their yiddishkeit is? Do we know how many of them commit egregious sins secretly? Do we know how many of them are unhappy and feel stuck in a rigid culture?

Let's not forget that chassidus is a relatively new movement. (If Judaism started at mattan torah, that was over 3300 years ago. Chassidus is only about 250 years old.) It started as a response to what was happening in the world around them. And as such, it only makes sense for the movement to be further cognizant of our current culture and how it can adapt to be as successful as possible in today's world.


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