Guest Posting From Rabbi Dovid Sears: Knish Wars
Rabbi Dovid Sears, Director of the Breslov Center for Spirituality and Inner Growth, and author of many books on Jewish thought provided the material for the posting below.
Are there fundamental differences of emunos ve-de'os (basic theological beliefs) that divide Chassidim from non-Chassidim? Or are the main differences those of emphasis and spirit?
Reb Noson once observed, "The difference between a Chassid and a Misnaged is the difference between a hot knish and a cold knish." We all have the same Yiddishkeit, the same Shulchan Aruch. So I would say that the latter part of your question is nearer the truth -- although we cannot gloss over differences of emphasis and spirit, either.
My teacher, Rav Elazar Kenig of Tzefat, has often said, "All the pnimiyus ha-Torah we study is only meant to help us to learn the same blatt Gemora with more emes and more geshmak!"
Reb Elazar's father, Rabbi Gedaliah Kenig, zal, addressed this issue in his book-length essay, "Chayei Nefesh," Chapter 4. There, he states:
"We maintain that it is impossible that there could be any contradiction between [Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin's] holy words and the premises of Chassidism. For I have received a tradition from the house of my father and master [Rabbi Elazar Mordechai Kenig, after whom the present Rav of the Tzefat Breslev community, shlita, is named], as well as from the house of my teacher [Rabbi Avraham Sternhartz, zatzal], that the issues in the dispute between the Chassidim and the scholars known as the P'rushim did not touch upon the principles and foundations of our religion. In fact, these principles and foundations of our holy faith are beyond dispute. All Jews share the same underlying faith in the absolute unity of the Creator, may He be blessed, in Divine Providence, in His holy Torah, and in His faithful servants, who are the Prophets and Sages, the true tzaddikim of every generation, and in their holy words that are spoken in truth. This is the very foundation of the entire Torah, both Written Torah and the Oral Torah. Since the words of the Sefer Nefesh HaChaim mentioned above deal with fundamental and essential matters of our holy faith, then clearly it is impossible to conjecture that the Chassidim, may God protect and bless them, say or think otherwise, heaven forbid."
Some say that there is a dispute over the kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, the Chassidim following the view of "tzimtzum she-lo ke-pshuto," and the Misnagdim following that of "tzimtzum ke-pshuto." There is much discussion about this in the Chabad seforim in particular. However, the idea of tzimtzum she-lo ke-pshuto did not originate with the Baal Shem Tov, but appears in earlier sources. And the concept of tzimtzum ke-pshuto, to which the Vilna Gaon and other great kabbalists in the non-Chassidic world subscribed, was rejected by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the author of Nefesh HaChaim. So we can't even say that this constitutes a real dividing line between the two movements.
Yet the distinctions between the various schools of Chassidus and the various "Litvishe" approaches also need to be recognized and appreciated for what they are.
The Litvishe approach tends to be more focussed on intensive Torah study, particularly of Gemara and Poskim, keeping the Kabbalah pretty much under wraps for all but a small elite. It takes a more rationalist approach overall; does not foster the same attitude of bittul toward tzaddikim and teachers; and allows the critical intellect to remain dominant, within the confines of basic emunos ve-de'os. Additionally, in modern times, the yeshiva has become the unifying factor in Litvishe communities, as contrasted with the Chassidic "courts," which revolve around the figure of the Rebbe, and which tend to be intensely close-knit.
Rabbi Nachman praised the Chassidic Rebbes for preserving the traditional Jewish form of dress and appearance, and for keeping their followers distant from secularism (chokhmos chitzoniyos) (see Chayei Moharan 421). He also praised the early Chassidim for their fiery enthusiasm in prayer, which he wanted his talmidim to emulate (Chayei Moharan 79; Tovos Zikhronos 5).
In addition, Chassidim have traditionally placed greater emphasis on matters of kedushah (sanctity of body and mind), including regular use of mikveh before davenning, etc. They also have placed greater stress on hiskashrus / attachment to tzaddikim; on ahavas Yisrael, which eliminated some of the elitist tendencies of the Litvishe world; and on deveykus / mystical attachment to Hashem as a serious goal in the spiritual life of the average person. Although these points of emphasis have gone in and out of focus over the course of time, they are still recognizable in the Chassidic world.
These are the roots of the seemingly opposite polarities of the "cold knish" and "hot knish." However, despite the implicit value judgment in Reb Noson's comparison, he is clearly stating that the contents are the same -- although I don't know if he identified the Universal Orthodox Knish as kasha or potato.