Question & Answer With Rabbi Dovid Sears - Minhagim Under the Magnifying Glass
A Simple Jew asks:
In an e-mail conversation five years ago, you wrote me these words: "After having spent many, many hours studying such customs about 15-20 years ago when I could have been learning Chassidisheh seforim, I have come to the conclusion that this sort of thing is of minor importance and is not what the Baal Shem Tov came into the world to teach Klal Yisrael."
I recently shared this thought with Rabbi Ozer Bergman and he replied: "I concur. Yiddishkeit is about the mind (i.e., attitudes, beliefs and emotions); the minutiae of minhag have little if any meaning without understanding what they are supposed to reflect. Before Chassidic seforim, it is MUCH more important to study and know Shas and poskim, Zohar and Midrash. All Chassidic seforim are based on them, and many of the rebbes assumed their readers would know them. A talmid chakham can get a lot more mileage out of a Chassidishe sefer, than can an am ha'aretz."
It would certainly seem that most Chassidim do put great emphasis on minhagim. Do you think that Breslov inherently differs from them in this, or that this is a recent development for all Chassidim?
Rabbi Dovid Sears answers:
Actually, this is a complex issue. First of all, minhagim account for a substantial part of halachah and are not just "icing on the cake," as we see from the Maharil, Rama, etc. Yiddishkeit is pretty conservative about these things. Historically, changes in minhagim were usually driven by extremely powerful forces -- such as the popularization of kabbalistic minhagim of various sorts, especially as the works of Rav Chaim Vital and his rebbe, the Arizal, caught on among both Sefardim and Ashkenazim. So the changing world-view of the Jewish people was the key factor here.
This overlaps with the growth of the Chassidic movement, which also entailed massive ideological change and the formation of new kinds of chaburos (brotherhoods) and kehillos (full-fledged communities). Minhagim are social and psychological "binding agents," whatever else they may be in terms of halakhah or kabbalah.
I think the Chassidim empasized their own special minhagim mainly for ideological reasons -- to strengthen the movement and derekh in avodas Hashem -- and only secondarily for kabbalistic reasons. After all, the medieval Chassidei Ashkenaz (German-Jewish pietists) were great mystics, and their customs were basically consistent with Ashkenazic customs prior to the Baal Shem Tov / Maggid of Mezeritch / Reb Pinchos of Koretz, etc.
It seems that there was always a certain amount of guilt or at least conscience about this issue, too. Most Chassidic leaders were reluctant to break with their pre-Chassidic roots, and tried to harmonize tradition and innovation. For example, there are plenty of regional Litvishe minhagim in Chabad; regional Ukrainian minhagim in Chernobyl and Skver; the Komarna Rebbe is staunchly loyal to Ashkenazic practice and nusach ha-tefillah in trying to find legitimate ways to make kabbalistic modifications; and the Minchas Elazar takes a similar approach, although his conclusions are different.
As for the minhag-centrism you mentioned, a few Chassidic groups have placed tremendous emphasis on their own minhagim, while others are more easy-going and stress different aspects of communal life and Yiddishkeit (such as singing and creating their own niggunim, or studying certain Chassidic texts, or davenning a certain way, etc.).
Cherbobyl-Skver, Belz, and Lubavitch seem to be vying for the lead in the minhagim olympics, while most other communities fall into the middle zone. The Breslov community is definitely among the least emphatic about special minhagim; from the research that R' Dovid Zeitlin and I have done, it seems that there have been many changes and variations regarding minhagim in Breslov over the generations. Yes, we have a few real, bonafide minhagim, and many time-honored traditions and hanhagos tovos, worthy practices. But what gets the high voltage in Breslov is following the Rebbe's advice in avodas Hashem, learning the Rebbe's seforim, intense davenning, hisbodedus (secluded meditation and personal prayer), and following the inner path. In a way, this means that kehillah life -- while undeniably important, as in any Chassidic group -- is not really the focal point in Breslover Chassidus. The old fires of personal mysticism are still burning, and there is still some wiggle room for less conformist spirits. This has its pitfalls, too, as we see from some of the bizarre characters that turn up in Uman. But all things considered, a little hefkerus seems worth the price when matched against the alternative of religion by assembly line.