Thursday, March 02, 2006

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.


At March 2, 2006 at 10:57:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If there was no dispute touching on emunos v'deyos, why were all the charomim issued? A cheirim is exclusively a tool for "high crimes," not for political upheaval. It seems that there must have been some significant difference in tangible areas of Yiddishkeit, no?

At March 2, 2006 at 2:26:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I did not mean to say that there was never any misunderstanding about this. Certainly those who signed the original cherem believed that the beliefs of the Chasidim were antinomian -- the Jewish world being a bit paranoid after the Shabsai Tzvi disaster. The GRA seems to have believed that the Baal Shem Tov's mysticism was a form of pantheism,i.e. identifying Hashem and the briah, chas ve-shalom, when in fact this was a gross oversimplification. Like several earlier kabbalists, the Baal Shem Tov espoused a Torah-based version of what theologians call "panentheism," meaning that the Creator is simultaneously immanent and transcendent, present within the limitations of creation ('olam-shanah-nefesh), yet ultimately existing beyond all limitations completely and absolutely.

Some of those precedents include the RaMaK, Maharal, and the SHeLoH. I think Rabbi Immanuel Schochet goes into this further in his "Mystical Concepts in Chassidism," if you are interested.

However, the bottom line is as Reb Noson stated, even in the thick of the Knish Wars: we all believe in the same Ribono Shel 'Olam and the same Torah.

At March 2, 2006 at 3:09:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With ASJ's permission, you might also be interested in seeing the conversation that has been going on related to this matter at

At March 2, 2006 at 3:14:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yes, Chabakuk Elisha's view on this can be read at Circus Tent here

At March 2, 2006 at 3:58:00 PM EST, Blogger Mottel said...

We see today how chassidim are mehader in matters such as mikvah, beard, two pairs of tefillin etc.

At March 2, 2006 at 7:18:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But still, can it be said that these two views on tzimtzum are an argument in emunos v'deyos? These two views are exclusive and consider each other almost like an apikorsus. Yes, it originates before Baal Shem Tov and Vilner Goen, and Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner didn't hold like his teacher, but still Vilner Goen held like he held. Can it be said that for Vilner Goen there was an argument in emunos v'deyos with chasidim?

At March 3, 2006 at 12:37:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a yid:

If this was the key issue, Reb Chaim of Volozhin would not have taken a similar position to the Chassidim.

No doubt the GRA believed that the Chassidim were apikorsim (chas ve-shalom). But as I said, he did so because he thought they were a lot more radical than they in fact were.

Also, I seriously doubt that tzimtzum rates as a major issue in emunos ve-de'os at all, since the Geonim and Rishonim do not discuss it. The term makes its debut in the writings of the ARI zal (sixteenth century), although its roots may be found in earlier kabbalistic sources.

At March 3, 2006 at 10:09:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As to R' Chaim not holding like his Rebbe, let me just mention the following story:

The Chai Adam (also a talmid of the GRA) on many occasions takes different positions than his Rebbe. When he was questioned about this, he replied:

"My Rebbe would support me doing this, for this is what my Rebbe taught - to be loyal my your views."

At March 3, 2006 at 11:05:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(That should read ""My Rebbe would support me doing this, for this is what my Rebbe taught - to be loyal TO MY views."

At March 3, 2006 at 11:41:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would just like to get my vote in on the knish dispute:

Definitely potato.

At March 3, 2006 at 1:30:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're right. The emes is that the dividing lines between the two camps are blurred today in many ways, as Chabakuk Elisha has pointed out. Rosh Yeshivahs are "Rebbes," and Rebbes are Rosh Yeshivos (sometimes literally). The Litvishe world often has a lot of warmth, and is far from being as elitist as in former times. There are overt mystical trends in both camps today, too (The well-known "Litvishe" mekubal Rabbi Moshe Milstein teaches both Chassidim and non-Chassidim in Brooklyn, as does Rabbi Moshe Shapiro in Eretz Yisrael, etc.). So it is not pashut.

Reb Noson is speaking about two contrasting models that have both changed over the generations. Yet we can still see what he's driving at. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the "varmkeit" of Chassidus is what really caught on and has even been co-opted by other ideologies.


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