Monday, July 13, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Fishel Jacobs - Coercion?

A Simple Jew asks:

In the first epistle of Iggeres HaKodesh, the Alter Rebbe wrote,

“It is my intention to send spies secretly to all congregations to find out and to notify about anyone who has the ability and the time to worship at length and to meditate while at prayer, but is slothful. He shall be punished by estrangement, being distanced by both hands when he comes here to hear Chassidic teachings.”

Instead of motivating people with warmth and love, why do you think that the Alter Rebbe felt it necessary to resort to a tactic that some people may view as coercion in this case?

Rabbi Fishel Jacobs answers:

The following is my reply to this observation. Though, I would like to point out that it only represents my personal thoughts, not, for example, a researched response.

To understand this Iggeres HaKodesh, I think it's important to remember the time period. Of course, it was written by the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad movement. And, of course, the movement was in "infantile" growing mode. After all, that was the first generation of Chabad Chassidim.

In that context, it was the Alter Rebbe's necessary goal to grow the group. The followers needed to be educated in the proper way to pray, study, and serve Hashem. As we all know, there are different outlooks and aspirations to the Chassidic movement as compared to other schools of thought.

A primary emphasis is learning Chassidus and proper prayer.

In that light, I simply see this Iggeres Hakodesh having been enacted as a necessary tool. Simply to emphasize to the newly educated Chassidim the importance of slow, thoughtful and meaningful prayer.

Is there an element of coercion? Perhaps. But, isn't there an element of coercion in any educational atmosphere?

In school, principles pay surprise visits. And they can punish, (within guidelines).

The army, of course, uses surprise visits by officers to keep troops on guard.

In prisons, where I served for thirteen years as a chaplain, surprise visits after which sanctions could be imposed were a daily experience.

The rabbinate here in Eretz Yisroel generally uses the halachic concept of "yotzeh v'nichnos." That roughly translates as "a supervisor who can enter the premises unannounced." When we gave kashrut certificates in our kitchens we always used this halachic "tool." In broad terms it meant: "We trust your work. But, be careful. If our supervisor comes in and finds you straying from our guidelines, you will pay the consequences (maybe lose your certificate)."

I think one would be hard pressed to find an area in the human experience (from government audits, to medical school, to who knows where) where surprise visits are not found in order to keep people on their toes.

In that sense, and in the context of education, I think this Iggeres HaKodesh makes complete sense. For, after all, the Alter Rebbe, first and foremost was a leader and educator.


At July 13, 2009 at 8:51:00 AM EDT, Anonymous yehupitz said...

The Baal HaTanya was the founding leader of a voluntary fraternity of like-minded Jews. Coercion implies force. Jews are free to attach themselves to any Rebbe, who will set standards and expectations for the relationship.

It is clear from the Chassidim's descriptions of those early years, that there was a high standard set for the founding members. There was a high standard in Torah learning, set out in the "Chadarim", where the Talmidim had to be on a high level of learning before even being admitted. In the cited letter, the Baal HaTanya states that he intends for his group to have high standards for Avodas HaTefilla as well. Any Jew who felt the expectations were too high was presumably free to connect to another Tzaddik, or be connected to the Baal HaTanya himself through the intermediate channels of the Gedolei Hachassidim who lived all over the area and would share the Rebbe's teachings upon their return from Liadi.

Many other letters and stories highlight the bond the Alter Rebbe had with his Chassidim. I think the message the Alter Rebbe was sending his Chassidim was that his Chassidus, at least in that first seminal generation, is not for the lazy. This is a common refrain in classical Chabad Chassidus: It is not for people who expect the Tzaddik to do the heavy lifting while they look on in admiration. (The Tzaddik B'Emunaso Yechaye model) They have to pull their own weight as well to be part of the group. That's my reading.

At July 13, 2009 at 5:00:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question is:
Are they being observed with a eye toward weeding the lax daveners out or with an eye toward taking them aside to motivate and train properly?


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