Friday, November 07, 2008

Question & Answer With Yitz - Chassidic Culture

A Simple Jew asks:

You once wrote, "Hassidut is a huge part of my life, yet I have so little to do with Hassidic culture."

Why do you think this is so?

Yitz of A Waxing Wellspring answers:

You asked why or how it was that I could be so connected to the Torah of Hassidut but have no connection to Hassidic culture.

The answer is a very complex one. On the simplest level it has to do with my upbringing. My father's family is from an old Iraqi family who reached America by a number of waypoints, most notably Calcutta, India. One of the special things about the Iraqi Jews who came to India was the proximity of affluence and poverty. It seems to me that most of those Indian Jews who experienced relative poverty in India benefited the most from the experience. The Indian work ethic and practicality, combined with a sincere (and pragmatic) relationship with HaShem, made my grandfather, a brilliant and very rational individual, a very special gift to the world. His sense of family loyalty, being both an immigrant and a Jew of Sefaradi background gave his children very strong family values. This only gained in strength as it was transmitted to his grandchildren.

As we grew up in a predominantly Ashkenazi American environment my grandfather, father, and uncles recognized the importance in creating a Sefaradi minyan and community so that our heritage wouldn't be lost entirely. This happened around the time I, the oldest of the grandchildren, was about 8 years old.

School was all Ashkenazi, minhagim, nusach, etc. So as I grew up my Judaism deviated pretty significantly from those around me. (I remember getting answers wrong on halachah tests because i hadn't studied enough and answered based on my personal experiences -- we do Tashlich after minha for a nit-picky example)

Having a slightly different Judaism to those around me wasn't very problematic because my family loyalty and values already created a pretty big vacuum between my world outlook and those around me.

Israel was another central ingredient in my family upbringing, and my grandparents eventually built a house in Jerusalem when i was 11 or so. We generally didn't go to sleep-away camp, instead we visited Israel in the summer -- another thing that distanced me socially/ideologically from my peers and modified my values from theirs.

Basically, from the time I was exposed to Hassidut, I was very comfortable being different and very committed to preserving the minhagim of my ancestors. From my perspective Hassidut brought Ashkenazi Judaism a lot closer to what was my normative Judaism.

Whenever there is a clear difference in Sefaradi custom in line with the Mekubalim, (usually based on the Ben Ish Hai) and Hassidic custom, I have a preference (obviously) for the Sefaradi custom. Like wearing Rashi AND Rabeinu Tam for example. I wear my Tzitzith unexposed. Sometimes my grandfather's particular customs take precedence over even these, out of kavod to him. The exact way he showed me to lay tefillin for one. He never did mayim achronim, and I generally abstain out of deference to him. Having said that, he was never happy with my pe'ot, saying it wasn't our custom -- but I maintain them as a specific Jewish fashion statement. It's the only thing about my appearance that I can safely say, no non Jew would ever take on.

I found my heart finally met its home in Hassidut, and so most (often all) of my Torah study centers on it. It has a great impact on my observance of the mitzwoth and my kawanoth. (The intentions involved in the performance of the mitzwoth) But when it comes to the halachah, although I love Likkutei Halachoth, and Shulchan Aruch HaRav, I stick with the Ben Ish Hai and later Sefaradi poskim who taught and guided my ancestors.

There are some overlaps which have allowed me to get inventive, the Ben Ish Hai refers to an avnet, a wide belt, which my tefillin actually necesitate which has allowed me to wear a sort of gartle of my own invention. (Something which my father later found other Mekubalim doing, so there is actually a precedent for it.) My wife's father and uncles, children of the Rishon Le'Tzion (Chief Sefaradi Rabbi) R' Yitzhak Nissim had pe'ot as children, so that gave me the excuse to not feel guilty about my own.

But in general, even when it comes to Hassidic minhagim and mitzwoth, any performance of them is a personal adaptation or acceptance. The question and answer really refers more to Hassidic culture.

Basically it comes down to: How and where would I have gotten into Hassidic culture? I'm used to being different and I wouldn't change my customs anyways, I have prayed in all manner of Hassidic batei knesset, but more out of convenience or happenstance than out of a desire to seek out a different culture. Perhaps Yiddish is a bigger barrier here in Israel than I would have thought, now that I stop to think about it.

Somehow, I feel most at home in a small minyan thats been around for ages, no matter the cultural background. I love connecting to simplicity. Simple Jewishness.

I guess what it comes down to is that I love HaShem, and no Torah can bring you closer to HaShem than Hassidut, what I see (and value) in Hassidut isn't a culture, but closeness to HaShem.

But for me, family comes even before Torah, because family is derech eretz, and derech eretz comes before Torah. Family is also Yirah, which also must precede Torah for the Torah learning to be healthy and fruitful. Family really does lay the framework for how you connect to and understand HaShem.

Perhaps, in the same way the family of partzufim had to be emanated in atzilut before the rest of the world(s) could be created for the very same reason; but that is just hazarding a guess into matters I don't understand, and more than likely misunderstand.

Perhaps also Sefaradim relate more to HaShem as children, and Ashkenazim relate more as servants, and Hassidut came along to help them relate as children as well. Which begs the question, how do Sefaradim handle the servant relationship? I guess the kavod and yirah we are expected to show our parents and grandparents etc.


At November 7, 2008 at 8:51:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Yitz, for your comments about the importance of family. I think that for a Jew, abandoning family or derech eretz, G-d forbid, would nullify the Torah. Among the Jewish people, family and Torah are inextricably bound up, even if we are not always aware of it and even if we think we can separate them.

At November 7, 2008 at 11:14:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who are the people in the photo? I love it!

At November 8, 2008 at 7:55:00 PM EST, Blogger Menashe said...

I would like to suggest Mikneh Rav from the Rebbe Rashab's Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashana Tof Shin Somech Vov (Commonly known by those last two words)

I've never seen the ben-eved relationship analyzed quite so well.

At November 9, 2008 at 7:40:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

G-d bless you all.
i am a noahide and indian as well, though i have never been to India yet. Are there still jews in india, and if so where, predominantly.
i am not speaking of those who have been linked to the menashe tribe and some have returned home, but jews like your grandparents etc.

At November 9, 2008 at 7:53:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that it is wonderful that you have a community and a belonging. I do also think that it is impossible to richly understand chassidus without a group because so much of it depends and is transmitted within a "fellowship". You cant fully understand music without playing an instrument and you cannot grasp fine points of chassidic thought without exposure to its lifestyle. As they say in Lubavitch, "you have to have eaten kasha in Tomchei Temimim". Perhaps, you can make a space for a live exposure to some chassidic group, while primarily maintaining your wonderful traditions and environment.Your understanding of chassidus will be enchanced manyfold.

At November 9, 2008 at 11:43:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...


it's my grandfather (with grandmother looking on) at my father's brit, if i'm not mistaken.


thanks, i will have to look it up :)


my grandfather actually did a documentary called 'the last jews of calcutta' but i'm not sure it's available anywhere. there are a few jews still in calcutta and bombay (mumbai?) but they are mostly all very old.


thanks for such an insightful comment. my first inkling is to disagree with you.. but how could I do that without 'really knowing' what you mean? i would definitely agree that most people need to experience something to understand and know it.. to a large extent i don't know that it's so relevant in my case. BUT, my comment smacks of youthful ignorance so i don't think i could justify my case :)
it's something i'm definitely going to think about a lot more. thank you!

At November 10, 2008 at 2:20:00 AM EST, Blogger Menashe said...

avakesh -

Do you think that today's chassidic culture can truly be called chassidic? I fear that [all] we've inherited [is] the culture. If that is true than even the culture itself is not chasidic!

How many people today can truly be called chasidim, in the real sense of the word? I don't mean minhagim, niggunim, etc. But living the emes of "Elokus is everything," which is, after all, the entire chassidus.

At November 10, 2008 at 1:21:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think that today's chassidic culture can truly be called chassidic? How many people today can truly be called chasidim, in the real sense of the word?

Quite a few! Not as many as used to be, many flawed as human beings are, but many, to some degree, nevertheless.

Don't discount "minhagim, nigunim etc". A lot of chassidus is about bringing the mind and the heart together and the "lifestyle" is an important key to this end,

At November 10, 2008 at 1:42:00 PM EST, Blogger Menashe said...

They are the chitzonius shebkedusha which should come mimaila from being shaleim bpnimius. I want to share your optimism that there's a pnimius left in many people but it's not what I'm seeing on the street..

Nu, we've got to tracht gut vet zein gut. This creates a keli for yeshuos for above!


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