Before we begin, I would like to point out that many true gedolim, whose seforim are universally recognized and studied, belonged to the Chasidic movement. Indeed, as a whole, the Chassidic movement has brought about a great increase in religious observance to the Jewish nation. These two major facts cannot be denied. Nevertheless, there were many gedolim who strongly opposed the Chassidic movement. While many attempt to sweep away this reality by simply stating that any detractors must not have truly understood the Chassidic movement,1 this is not only inherently disrespectful to the greatest of Acharonim, but is also simply not true, as we will demonstrate.
We shall begin with a theological discussion: R. Mottel Zilber, a prominent Chassidic Rabbi in America, explains in a lecture of his that Chassidus is the correct approach to Judaism, and that all those who do not follow the path of Chassidus are at best incorrect, and at worst heretics. R. Zilber continues that the Chassidic belief system is based on a new revelation for the Messianic era. His implication, at the very least, is that had all the non-Chassidim accepted the new belief system of the Chassidim, the redemption would have already come. Many, if not all, sects of Chassidim believe or claim similar ideas. Indeed, the siddur of the Biala Rebbe, also known as Chelkas Yehoshua, actually changes Rambam’s 13 ikkarim by both adding, and altering two principles to include believing in Chassidic Torah. In so doing he brands any “misnaged” a heretic.
I eagerly await someone to explain how such beliefs do not contradict Rambam’s 13 ikkarim which state without reservation that the Torah will never change. Even R. Yosef Albo’s Sefer HaIkkarim — which allows for a theoretical alteration of the Torah — states clearly that in order to do so a revelation of the same magnitude as that which took place at Sinai would be required once again. Private revelations such as those claimed by the Chassidic movement are more reminiscent of Jesus, Muhammad, Shabbetai Tzvi, or Joesph Smith. I do not think anything more need be said on this particular matter.
Despite all of this, many will respond with the challenge that the Arizal essentially claimed a revelation as well, but many Jews follow his halachic decisions, Chassidic or not. What, then, is the real difference between following the decisions of the Arizal, and accepting Chassidic revelations? Why do we all accept one but not the other?
In answer to this challenge, I must say that besides the fact that I do not see any reason why someone must believe the Baal Shem Tov just because he believes the Arizal, there is a further problem with this line of reasoning: As is well known, R. Chaim Vital (the Arizal’s main student) buried all his writings on the Arizal’s Torah. It was actually his son who dug them up and publicized them. Thus, the Arizal’s innovations were not intended for anyone but himself and his own student. Therefore, the real question is why indeed do later generations accept the Arizal’s teachings at all — especially when they contradict previously accepted halacha.
Arguing With Chazal
Another way in which Chassidim will respond to the above challenges is by stating that Chassidus does not actually intend to change any halachos, rather merely put greater emphasis on certain halachos. The trouble with this is that if Chazal teach that a certain mitzvah or law is of greater importance than another, changing this emphasis is quite simply arguing against Chazal.
What is the great problem with arguing with Chazal? When it comes to theological issues, I think the answer is obvious, for any disagreement will leave open the ability to change the whole religion. I would like to quote a responsa from the Noda B'Yehuda, R. Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793):
דע תלמידי החביב ויהיו דברים הללו חקוקים על לוח לבך לזכרון הכלל הגדול שאין לכל חכמים שאחר התלמוד רשות לומר דבר נגד התלמוד והאומר דבר לסתור קוצו יו"ד מדברי התלמוד לא יחשב בכלל חכמי ישראל
Know, my dear student, and place these words upon your heart, to remember this general principle that there are no wise men after the Talmud that have permission to say something in contradiction to the Talmud, and one who does say something in contradiction to the Talmud is not considered to be amongst the wise men of Israel.
This states most clearly that one cannot argue with Chazal. We continue with another important quote from the Noda B’Yehudah:
ולדעתי זה רעה חולה בדורנו ועל הדורות שלפני זמננו שלא ידעו מנוסח זה ולא אמרוהו והיו עמלים כל ימיהם בתורה ובמצות הכל ע"פ התורה וע"פ הפוסקים אשר דבריהם נובעים ממקור מים חיים ים התלמוד עליהם נאמר תומת ישרים תנחם והם הם אשר עשו פרי למעלה וגדול מעל שמים חסדם. אבל בדורנו הזה כי עזבו את תורת ה' ומקור מים חיים שני התלמודים בבלי וירושלמי לחצוב להם בורות נשברים ומתנשאים ברום לבבם כל אחד אומר אנכי הרואה ולי נפתחו שערי שמים ובעבורי העולם מתקיים אלו הם מחריבי הדור. ועל הדור היתום הזה אני אומר ישרים דרכי ה' וצדיקים ילכו בהם “וחסידים” יכשלו בם. והרבה היה לי לדבר מזה אבל כשם שמצוה לומר דבר הנשמע כך מצוה שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע וה' ירחם עלינו.
And according to me, this is a bad illness in our generation. And those generations that came before our time would toil in Torah all their days, and in mitzvos, everything according to the Torah, and the poskim, their words like a spring of the water of life… But in our generation, we have left the Torah of God, and the spring of the water of life that is the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud; we have chiseled in them holes and broken them, and have become arrogant in our hearts, such that each one says “I am the one who sees,” and “for me the gates of heaven are open” and “for me the world was created,” but these people are the destroyers of the generation. And on this orphaned generation I say “the straight is the path of God, and the righteous will follow it, but the Chassidim will fail.” There is much to say, but just as it is a mitzvah to repeat that which is sound, so too it is a mitzvah not to repeat that which is not, and may God have mercy upon us.
Examining his words in the context of the Chassidic movement, it is clear that he felt that the Chassidim acted in the negative way he described. One finds numerous Chassidic practices that are not consistent with the Talmud. While such practices might be based in Kabbalah, when they openly contradict the Talmud, we are meant to follow the Talmud.
In fact, the Chassidim do not hide their contravening of Chazal, and generally enjoy telling and popularizing with great pride stories about various Rebbeim contradicting the Gemara. I recall reading the following story in (the Chassidish newspaper) Hamodia a number of years ago (in their Torah section, no less!): A certain Rebbe came to a town which was observing a fast for lack of rain. Upon understanding this predicament, he proceeded to set up “tisch”. When questioned as to his actions, he responded by explaining that fasting when in need of rain is incorrect since not eating shows HaShem that rain is unnecessary.
This is cute, but it is utterly wrong. The Gemara states explicitly that we are to fast when there is no rain. There is an entire tractate called Ta’anis devoted to these sorts of fasts! Indeed, the same Gemara rules that if one comes to a town which is observing a fast, this person is obligated to join said fast. How can someone ignore this explicit ruling, claiming Chazal’s way is incorrect? And such stories are not hidden by the Chassidim, but publicized in their newspapers! To be sure, while this is but one recounting of one occurrence, such stories abound in Chassidic circles. This is far from an isolated incident. Chassidic tales are replete with such stories of contradictions to Chazal.2
Before we end this essay, I would like to again stress that these thoughts, questions, and challenges are not meant, God forbid, to cause any sort of hatred of any Jew. As we began by saying, Chassidus has indeed brought about much good to the Jewish community at large, and its adherents are generally extremely involved in chesed and many other mitzvos. This is not to mention the fact that most Chassidim are generally strictly observant, and many are quite involved in kiruv. Chassidish communities are also usually very successful in keeping its followers religious, and their leaders have included some of the great Acharonim (whose seforim are widely learned even in “Litvish” circles).
The challenges and contradictions mentioned in this essay certainly are perplexing, but it obligates us to further examine the issues to try to come to some sort of rectification.
1. I would also like to take this time to discuss the common refrains of “שבעים פנים לתורה“ or “אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים“ or “י”ב שבטים” — all of which are often employed to tell non-Chassidic people to accept the Chassidic movement as merely another equally valid approach within the Jewish tradition. However, I challenge anyone who uses these statements in such a way to, say, prove which one of the shevatim had theological disagreements with the others. There was a Sanhedrin in that time which decided all issues, and, one can assume, what would be considered proper faith as well. These expressions refer to expressing the same unified belief in different practical applications.↩
2. To take things a step further, the local Rabbi in these stories is usually a “misnaged,” portrayed as some sort of rasha or ignoramus. This borders on Chazal’s statement of “שנאת עם הארץ לתלמיד חכם.”↩