Thursday, February 21, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Dovid Sears - Minhagim Under the Magnifying Glass

(Picture courtesy of

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.


At February 21, 2008 at 12:40:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been so busy lately that I've barely had a free moment to read the blog, but B"H today I found a few minutes to check it out - so I figured I might as well chime in. I would say that I pretty much agree with R' Sears's analyis, but I don't know enough about each specific group. I would just say that I get the feeling that ALL groups have consistently and continually become more focused on their individual minhagim, and this is because of four obvious reasons (in no specific order):

1. When there is less toichen, there is more chitzoniyus

2. When many groups are mixed together in a small area, people want to emphasise their own unique "way to do things" (this keeps people in, and keeps the group's own specific flavor)

3. Nostalgia for a world that is no more (and often never was)

4. People are more educated today when it comes to halacha and minuteae - so, while people were once less concered with rules and more busy just doing what was seen and done based on memory, we are now more textual so we like to have a specidic rule for each thing we do....

Just my two cents.

At February 21, 2008 at 12:44:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chabakuk Elisha's points are all right on target!

Dovid Sears

At February 23, 2008 at 9:50:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very interesting discussion. Coming from Anglo-Jewish ancestry I notice that many of the new generation of religious Jews keep alot more strict customs than our grandparents and great grandparents did. It seems that Eastern European style customs has taken over the more liberal Western European customs of our ancestors.

Cheers Athol

At February 23, 2008 at 9:54:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About minhogim - the question is multifaceted.

One one hand, focus on them exclusively draws one away from pnimius to chitzoynius, on the other hand ignoring them leads to anarchy. I don't agree with statement, that anarchy pays for not falling into chitzoynius - they are simply both bad.

The question is stronger for baaley tshuvo who came from background of nothing at all. It is a different situation from the case of one who inherited all family and kehilo traditions. And since in Breslov there are so many baaley tshuvo, this weak attention to minhogim and etc. played a bad service - it perpetuated anarchy even more, (especially when someone says - no matter what one does etc. if he learns Breslover sforim he is a Breslover, let him be even litvak).

At February 28, 2008 at 7:12:00 AM EST, Blogger Unknown said...

IMHO (over-)emphasis on minhag is just another form of chumra yeseira, something Rebbe Nachman zal says to avoid.

Emphasis on minhagim or lack there of, has no affect on baal-teshuvah anarchy. It seems, in fact, that many b"t groups within Breslev mimic/imitate their newfound leader(s) on the outside, with unknown/undetermined change on the inside.


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