Monday, November 27, 2006

Question & Answer With Neil Harris Of Modern Uberdox - Different Paths In Serving Hashem

(Image courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

How has your background as a Litvak influenced you in terms of your choice of seforim that you learn and your general outlook on Yiddishkeit?

Neil Harris from Modern Uberdox answers:

My background as a Litvak (and I admit, I dislike most labels, with the exception of “Torah observant”) is really a label by genealogical association. My great-great-great grandfather was originally from Lithuania. As the first Torah Observant Jew of my family in, at least, three generations, I consider myself a Litvak.

I’ve been taught that the neshamah naturally gravitates towards Torah and Mitzvos. It’s how we are created. Environmental factors (where/how we are brought up or the traditions, if any, of our parents ) might block our natural flow towards Yiddishkeit, but the spark is there. Most people have found memories of the place where they grow up. When traveling to a new city, I always smile when I see something familiar like a particular bank chain, drug store, or a 7-11. It’s a landmark that I can reference. This reflects our neshmah’s recognition of Hashem and his Torah. Our neshamah connects to Torah.

I think that as someone who’s relatives came from Lithuania, I have over the years gravitated towards more towards the study of mussar than anything else. While becoming frum I was exposed the writings of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zt’l, who’s knowledge and love of chassidus, and specifically Reb Nachman also has had an impact on me, but it’s not as noticeable within my personality. Not like mussar. While an understanding of Halacha is key of any Torah observant Jew, there is something about mussar seforim that resonates in me. From the time I first read the introduction to Messilas Yesharim I was hooked. I found that the sefer spoke to me in a way that other works hadn’t before. My mind was opened up to an entire system of ethical perfection that completely clicked with what I had studied in psychology classes. For me, the search for wholeness brought me to mussar.

My general outlook on Yiddishkeit most probably stems from the emphasis on emes within mussar, when ultimately stems from Torah. For me, the vehicle for emes is the Litvish tradition of mussar. No one group or sub-culture with Torah Judaism holds the copyright on emes. Torah is emes and the emes is Torah. They are one.

Each shevet had its’ own flag and individual identity, yet together formed National Achdus. Each shevet also had their own nusach of tefillah, yet Hashem accepts all of the tefillos of klal Yisrael. My desire to grow as a Jews and display an attitude of respect and tolerance for others is expressed through my willingness to read and learn from various sources. As children of an ‘orphaned generation’, as expressed in Eyes to See by Rav Yom Tov Schwartz, we must strive to reclaim a sense of Achdus, tolerance, and Kiddush Hashem regardless of our background.


At November 27, 2006 at 5:59:00 AM EST, Blogger Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear ASJ and Neil,

Beautifully said!

I am ...

Very Sincerely yours,

Alan D. Busch

At November 27, 2006 at 10:14:00 AM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Thanks, Alan. ASJ has a knack for asking great questions!

At November 27, 2006 at 11:06:00 AM EST, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

Great vort, Neil!

At November 27, 2006 at 1:22:00 PM EST, Anonymous A Yid said...

Few words about Mesilas Yeshorim.

The Ramchal is primarily a mekubol, and only secondary he is a philosopher (his approach was to mix together philosophy and Kabolo, which was the way of some mekubolim even earlier, while there were also mekubolim who didn't approve of this approach). Many Yidden (especially litvishe) are exposed to Ramchal only as to a supreme teacher of ethics. However this is a very narrowed view.

The Ramchal wrote his Mesilas Yeshorim as a commentary on the Brayse of Rabbi Pinchos ben Yoir, which speaks about 10 levels in avoydo. Originally Ramchal explicitly wrote how they correspond to 10 sfiroys, supplying this practical manual of avoydo(!) with extensive explanations from Kabolo. However the Ramchal had such sharp redifoys from misnagdim (who chased him out of Italy to Amsterdam), that he was forced to remove almost anything explicitly related to Kabolo from Mesilas Yeshorim in order to publish it without further redifoys. That's what we have today. Many aren't aware that Ramchal had such a hard life. He was a baal hasogo, who had a maggid (malach) who revealed soydoys haToyro to him. This wasn't apporved by some misnagdim, who persecuted him severely because of this, and forced him to leave to Amsterdam, where he suffered because of all kind of difficulties.

So personally I personally perceive Mesilas Yeshorim as an avoydo manual, rather than a textbook on pure ethics. And I feel that this is an original meaning of "musar", as denoting avoydo namely, i.e. perfection of midoys and self improvement, as an instrument for attaining the higher perception, and not as goal in themselves. In this fashion, for example, Reb Chaim Vital looks at the famous Iggeres hoRamba"n, a classical musar text. Reb Chaim Vital puts it in a very avoydo oriented light, which I think is a general outlook at sifrey musar amongst Chasidim. For early chasidim such musar sforim as Reyshis Chocmo, Toymer Dvoyro and the Shl"o were almost a constant companions. The Mezheritcher Maggid and his talmidim say in their hanhogoys to learn sifrey musar daily (those based on Chochmas hoEmes, i.e. Reishis Chochmo and the like).

By the way, Rebe also advised some of the Breslover chasidim to learn Mesilas Yeshorim.

At November 27, 2006 at 1:46:00 PM EST, Anonymous A Yid said...

Neil Harris: Do you know if you great-great-great grandfather in Lita were from chasidim or not?

At November 27, 2006 at 11:30:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

I believe they were straight Misnagdim. Not to much info available, sadly.
Thanx for the comments re: the RAMCHAL. I actually went through Derech Hashem w/ a Chabadnik. After the first time learning it, Mesilas Yeshorim was a totally different sefer.

At November 28, 2006 at 5:24:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

The Ramchal was "on the sidelines" of the Chassidic-Misnagdic struggles, although somewhat parallel in time to both the Baal Shem Tov and the Ohr HaChaim [another "sideliner"]. Besides Mesilas Yesharim, Chassidim learn Derech Hashem, Klach Pischei Chachma & other sefarim of the Ramchal's, which the non-Chassidic Litvaks don't seem to be aware of.
The Rebbes of the Twerski-Hornosteipel line are big on Derech Hashem...Rebbe Shloime Twerksi ZT"L knew it practically by heart. R. Shia [Avraham Yehoshua Heshel] Twerski has written a sefer on Mesilas Yesharim, Lights Along the Way.

At November 28, 2006 at 6:12:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't like labels either,especially since we're all (should be) bound by the same Torah.

Yitz-I have that book and always use it when studying Mesilas Yehsarim, highly recommanded.

At November 28, 2006 at 2:37:00 PM EST, Anonymous snag said...

""The Ramchal was "on the sidelines" of the Chassidic-Misnagdic struggles, although somewhat parallel in time to both the Baal Shem Tov and the Ohr HaChaim [another "sideliner"]."

I'm happy that you mentioned that.
Reading what a yid wrote, that "the Ramchal had such sharp redifoys from misnagdim......This wasn't apporved by some misnagdim, who persecuted him severely because of this....." some people may think that Litvaks were persecuting him. Misnagdim in this case (as in others), doesn't mean Litvaks, just generally 'opponents'. Ramchal lived in Italy, not in Eastern Europe.

"Besides Mesilas Yesharim, Chassidim learn Derech Hashem, Klach Pischei Chachma & other sefarim of the Ramchal's, which the non-Chassidic Litvaks don't seem to be aware of."

Not true.

Many Chassidim don't learn sifrei Ramchal, they stick to sifrei Chassidus, I think often it's non-Chassidim who use Ramchal more actually.

At November 28, 2006 at 2:45:00 PM EST, Blogger Bob Miller said...

For example, Rav Chaim Friedlander ZT"L of Ponevezh Yeshiva was very much into the thought of Ramchal.

At November 28, 2006 at 2:45:00 PM EST, Anonymous snag said...

Neil - nice to read about you and where you stand. Keep it up, go higher and higher in the tradition of the holy men of Lita. Nice to see that you have found the spirituality and holiness in their derech, without abandoning it for foreign fields.

I am a bit surprised to see ASJ post a positive portrayal of a Litvak though. What's happening ? Is Moshiach here ?

At November 28, 2006 at 2:48:00 PM EST, Anonymous snag said...

Just as an aside, Neil, FYI, some people way back when called the Litvishe mussarniks 'Chassidei Zamut (the part of Lita where some of them were)'.

At November 28, 2006 at 2:49:00 PM EST, Anonymous A Yid said...

Snag: Correct, I didn't mean litvaks-misnagdim, I meant Ramchal's misnagdim (Kabolo opposers, overzelous anti-shabsous kanoim or the like). But those redifoys were pretty similar to that of the litvaks against chasidim in essence. Ramchal lived in Italy only until he was forced out to Amsterdam by his roydfim.

Some chasidim, do learn Ramchal, some not. Komarno is very critical of Ramchal, why Bney Yisoschor references him in his sforim. Still, Ramchal is not a primary limud in Kabolo for Chasidim anyhow. Primary are Rama"k and the Ari za"l.


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