Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Y.Y. Bar-Chaiim - Tight Knit: A Chassidic Ideal?

A Simple Jew asks:

In honor of zayin Av, the yahrzeit of the previous Slonimer Rebbe, the author of the Nesivos Sholom, zts"l (1911 – 2000), I'd like to ask about your experiences of integrating into the Slonimer community. In particular I've heard that it is rather tightly knit and insular. Is that the ideal?

Rabbi Y.Y. Bar-Chaiim answers:

The Nesivos is definitely unique in having crossed deep cultural divides. The most surprising development since the publication of the first volume in 1982, steadily followed by six more over the next decade, is how it has stormed the National Religious camp. It's right up there next to Tanya, Likutey Moharan and sifrei HaRav Kook. For less proficient learners, it's often more popular, probably due to its more fluid, modern Hebrew. Add to this the fact that the entire chassidic world holds by it (some with a passion) as well as large swaths within the Litvishe and religio-academic world (I increasingly hear of steady shiurim in these circles, world wide) – well, we've definitely got a major message for the Klal going on!

My interest in understanding this message was a driving force in my coming into Slonim. As your question implies, there was a shock when I discovered that the ethics of self preservation and micro-refinement often trumped over devotion to the Klal and addressing macro-issues. At the same time, while you interchange the terms "tight-knitted" and "insular", I think we need to make a distinction.

Insular is reactionary. Tight-knittedness means internal integrity.

If anything characterizes Slonim, it's devotion to NOT being reactionary. While there is plenty of impurity and confusion in the wider world about which Slonimers are acutely cautious, which on the surface seems similar to the many anti-Zionist and anti-modernity neighbors of the main Slonimer Shul in Meah Shearim, the Slonimer Rebbes have always gone out of their way to prevent that caution affecting the inner life of the chossid. They don't want to be anti ANYthing! The main thing is to know what yes to devote to; to make dveikus (cleaving to Hashem) your proactive agenda. Every circumstance that impedes dveikus, by definition, must be avoided. That this may separate you from the norm of even the chassidic world – it's a temporarily unfortunate but necessary fallout of a most noble battle. In the end, it is fervently believed, we're tending the King's garden (the dveikus enflamed soul) not just for our own benefit but for all the King's kin, even those who presently aren't in the best position to appreciate it. When they are – we'll all readily bask in the wealth together.

Still, I must admit, after years of learning Slonimer sfarim, meeting the major mashpiim and attending a number of Tischim, during my first years of being in the community I was definitely under the impression that it championed a way of life that could be a model for the entire Klal, here and now. I understood it wasn't for everyone in an active membership way, yet my fantasy was stoked to view it as a paradigm for quickening the arrival of the Geula shleima.

Then, slowly but surely, the rude awakening occurred. I realized that while the doors were open to all kinds to peek inside (which many routinely do every Shabbos and Yomtov), the fact is that the community isn't so welcoming. It is rather a very distinct, refined spiritual brotherhood – and wants to remain that way! If you want a taste, feel free. But you're expected to nudge your way in, which, depending on your personality type, can be a real struggle. Very few will go out of their way to help you. They'll basically just nod and shine a profound little "hello" and on special occasions let you know that your Neshama (soul) is as precious as the best of 'em. Yet when push comes to shove, they have no compunctions conveying the tough and unvarnished truth – that the real work is yours!

The knitting is indeed tight and if you want to be a part you gotta learn the art.

The greatness of the Nesivos was in writing an incredibly learner-friendly manual to that art without compromising one iota on its depths nor making any attempt to whitewash the difficulty in getting there. For one little example, at the end of Volume I, buried snugly within the section on Chossidus, subsection Chavrusa (companionship), he writes:

Companionship needs wholeness. Everyone must share one covenant. If there are people whose heart are at odds with members of the community, even if no one expressly says so, they'll cause division amongst even those most fervently attached.

This is what Tsaddikim have said about the verse (Yer. 17): Mikveh Yisroel Hashem (G-d is Israel's hope). It alludes to the three realms that purify a Jew: The purification of a Mikveh (natural pool of water, which has the same verbal root as hope); the aspect of Israel – for when Jews unify, behold this also purifies, just like a Mikveh; when the blessed Holy One Himself purifies a Jew.

(…) Our master, the Beis Avraham, zy"a, adds: Just like a Mikveh won't (halachically) purify as long as there is even a miniscule division (between the one who immerses and the water), so too the aspect of Israel will not purify as long as there's even a miniscule division amongst a single Jew and his companion.

We could say even further: The Mikveh purifies the impure body; the aspect of Israel, the connection between members of G-d revering communities, purifies the personality and spirit; (love of) G-d purifies the soul. For there are blemishes that affect the body and those relevant to the personality and spirit. And then there are those of the soul.

Purity must be whole.

(…Now, in respect to the Mishna in Avos instructing us to "acquire" companionship), the Sifri on Par. Netzavim writes: "How can a true friend be acquired? Can it be done with money?? Rather the acquisition is through subjugating your personality to another; subjugating your personality, natural character and traits."

This is the spiritual price to pay for acquiring a friend. Much contemplation and probing thought is necessary to accomplish this, similar to that required for buying a precious diamond. One investigates its value sevenfold. Indeed, only especially gifted
individuals, possessors of rare character, are talented enough to achieve a truly loyal friendship; to achieve a genuine bond of loyal and reliable love.

(…) As the holy Rav Menachem Mendel from Vitebsk, zy"a, writes (…): "The general rule and main principle of everything (in life) is in this (saying of Chaza"l): The blessed Holy One never found a better vessel for retaining blessing than peace and unity amongst man and his brother who cleave their personalities one to the other, as one man; friends who mutually heed the voice of G-d, each companion assisting the other."

How great are these holy words! They describe the enormous affect that brotherly love can have on each and every one of us, in body and spirit.

And so we begin to understand the paradoxically attractive and daunting nature of tight-knittedness. It is indeed a chassidic ideal but not for the Klal; only for individuals. If we'd try to pander it amongst the Klal, it would dilute legitimate, individual differences. But once there is a natural affinity between INDIVIDUALS, then tight knittedness becomes the maka b'patish (final blow) for forging their achdus towards its true purpose: facilitating love for G-d.

Slonim is respectively exemplary, I believe , both textually and socially. Nevertheless our generation needs many OTHER models. Certainly for those communities without the advantage of being led by major Tsaddikim and time honored, holy traditions. They need new perspectives on how to realistically achieve "subjugating your personality, natural character and traits" to another. It should be studied at least as intensively as they do Talmud!

To be sure, I've met many good Jews at my Shabbos table, through my travels and yes (Shhh!), internet exchanges, who are impassioned about their initial interest in finding THE community, THE cheider, THE marriage, THE chavrusa… only to become profoundly discouraged, disillusioned, or worst of all, cynical. It gets me fantasizing about opening a "College for Quality Jewish Relationships". Or perhaps a "School for Social Chossidus". (In all honesty, if there are likeminded people out there who have an interest in promoting such institutions, and especially if you could help finance it – please let me know!)

In the meantime, let me conclude with a little less heady fantasy, which actually is quite HEADy – literally. I'm referring to that great picture at the top of this post. The white knitting, as I see it, symbolizes true chabura, brotherly bonding. The blue knitting indicates the more b'dieved, loosely knitted, scattered, dysfunctionally "religious" bonds that dominate our people today. What emerges is that there are three realms for cultivating the real thing: At the periphery, in the middle and at the top.

At the periphery, a thin white light of kindness guides our misfits. They are the "retarded sons" (see the A.S.J. posting of July 20) who deserve the best we can offer in communal sharing. Unfortunately, it's often neglected or simply too complicated to facilitate. Still, life seems to arrange its occurrence in many special circumstances. Like after a tragedy or while struggling with poverty and estrangement (lo aleinu!), many Jews find one another and experience the greatest moments of achdus. Sometimes the saatya d'shomaya (heavenly assistance) helping such yidden tighten the knit between them is unbelievably palpable.

Then there is the norm; the middle band. This is the realm of your Shul; your place of work; your family. Oh, the other members might "function" without you, but it's just not the same. If you make a concerted effort at tightening the knit, everyone will reap incredible benefits. True, it may mean not INcluding some who are not a part. But that's the price to pay for residing, temporarily, in a far from perfect world.

As for the star, well, what can I say? That's the tightly knitted place we should all aspire for; the dimension of genuine social cohesion we''ll all be in one day when the world is proactively pulsating with Jewish pride. Each and every social bond will vibrate with the most intense awareness that life is about better serving our Maker, b"H. No, not utopia – on a macro scale. No paradise where good feelings are served on silver platters. It will be still be WORK. But there will be a constant, shining light guiding that work in the right, micro direction. No more pressure to tow a line. No more need to imitate your Rav or Rebbe or Maggid shiur. No more worry about which design of kippa or style of tfilla or consistency of yichus or length of skirt. Each will just be his / her own, blessed self in total commitment to the only thing which truly bonds – love for G-d, in all its halachic glory.

May it come soon!


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