I shall be blunt: the response to my essay contained nothing of substance, but was instead full of somewhat snide remarks, something unbefitting an elder talmid chacham. I noticed, however, that he is someone who highly values Chassidic thought and therefore must have been personally offended by what I had written. I will begin, then, with a sincere apology to the author of the response (henceforth referred to as AOTR) for offending him, as this was not at all my intent.
This website, as far as I know, is meant to share thoughts of Torah. Since I acknowledge the greatness of many Chassidic masters, and yet I see things within Chassidus which seem contradictory to true Torah hashkafah, I am plagued by this seeming contradiction and hoped to evoke some response that would resolve it. This explains my somewhat contradictory writing in both praising and criticizing Chassidus, with the hope that the above offense would not be taken. I was apparently wrong on both accounts.
I would like to additionally point out that not only were most of my own ancestors talmidei chachamim and Chassidim, but some of my closest relatives were and are Chassidim as well. I say this to emphasis that no personal insult was intended in my original essay, nor do I wish to place my close relatives outside the realm of Orthodoxy, obviously. Once again, however, after reading and listening to some of what Chassidim say, the goal of my original essay was to raise some issues so that it could be explained to me why I am wrong in my critic.
The Beginning Of Chassidus
AOTR made a number of statements not germane to our subject, such as the contributions of Chassidus after the war, some comments about Zionism, etc. These points were completely unnecessary, and therefore I will not address them at length, other than to mention that I do not agree with his assessment that the talmidei chachamim of the time erred in their original response against Chassidus, as AOTR wants to imply.
To say that the early Misnagdim did not understand the Chassidic movement is highly inaccurate. In fact, the Misnaged tradition in the Litvish world is that the Chassidus itself changed, not that the Vilna Gaon or the Noda B’Yehuda misunderstood it. It is true the Chassidim make the claim that the Vilna Gaon did not understand the original movement, but it is said in the name of the Chafeitz Chaim that the Gaon's cheirem only applied to Chabad and Breslov Chassidus. This I heard from more than one person, in the name of a few different Roshei Yeshivas, in the name of the Chafeitz Chaim. So, while I cannot reproduce a written source, nor do I really believe the quote is exactly accurate, I mention it only to say that the Litvish approach does not assume that the early Misnaged leaders misunderstood Chassidus at all.
Indeed, one does not truly understand the Chassidic movement if he thinks that the Noda B’Yehuda was wrong in what I quoted of his words in my original essay. AOTR obviously does not read contemporary Chassidic writing — and I do not mean their seforim, which I am not familiar with, but their newspapers and storybooks intended for their masses. Until today they educate their masses in literature to scorn the Litvish rabbinate of old, and for their Rebbe’s to be able to change Halacha at will. If AOTR would read the Hamodia Torah section (ironically), and a few modern Chassidic storybooks, he would see this as much as I have for the last 20 years.
When the book “HaGaon” came out, the author claimed that R. Chaim Kanievsky told him to print the book with all the cheramim. The Chassidim violently opposed the book, putting it in cheirem for insulting their leaders. However, at no point did the “pulmos” dispute the claims of the book, just that it was insulting their leaders. Plus, R. Kanievsky's approval of printing it obviously speaks volumes for what Litvish Gedolim hold. I will also take the liberty of assuming that AOTR is not familiar with the constant fighting between the Chassidim and Litvish, of which I observe regularly here in Eretz Yisrael.
To dismiss the words of the Stechiner Rav, then, the son-in-law of HaGaon R. Moshe Wolfson and a prominent Chassidish Rav in Borough Park, is a non-starter. To make the claim, unverified, that Satmar, Belz, etc., do not agree with him makes AOTR just as guilty of not quoting sources as he accuses me of being!1
As to the issue of claiming new revelations: this has nothing to do with R. Kook, the Beis Yosef having conversations with an angel, or anything of the like. When a claim uses the words “A revelation of ‘a Torah chadashah’ for the Messianic era,” this is qualitatively different by all understandings. This is not poetry, or simply nice prose. The proper response should have been to debunk my words. I quoted the Biala Rebbe’s siddur as making similar claims, but this quote was ignored by AOTR. Does a prominent Chassidish Rebbe, like the Biala Rebbe, changing Rambam’s ikkarim not raise serious questions?!
Some Responses To Specific Quotes
AOTR wrote: “I suspect much more must be said by this writer to clarify what he just placed on the table. Either “most” or “all” Chasidim believe the Torah can be altered. This is heresy à la Joseph Smith. Okay, fine. So why does the author begin this essay by placing Chasidim in the Torah world? Should they not be outside with Joseph Smith??” Indeed, this is the whole thrust of my dilemma! AOTR did not respond to this issue of mine, nor deny the claim. It makes for a shoddy response. AOTR also wrote “Hmm, wasn't the problem put forth in the previous section that Chasidim lack a major revelation and are thus relegated to Joseph Smith status? And why just the Arizal? Isn't the Zohar, Tikkunim etc., claiming revelatory status as well as Ramchal and so many other examples? Are they all Joseph Smith heretics?” AOTR just did what the Chassidim typically do; I accused them of new revelations and he brought others who claim the same. “Hurray.” The accusation I leveled is that Rambam said the Torah will not change, and all children from all sects of Orthodox Judaism are taught this as the basics of Judaism. Therefore, anyone claiming any change is on the defensive to prove how he does not violate Rambam’s principles of faith.2
Another quote of AOTR: “My goodness! Who is believing legends now? As always, citations, please.” What does this have to do with anything? You already said you do not want to be ornery, but your whole essay proves otherwise.
Another quote: “I assume this question could be equally directed at the Vilna Gaon and R. Chaim Volozhiner, correct? On another note, where does the Arizal conflict with Halacha?” Hmm, the Vilna Gaon's approach of deciding between earlier opinions is the same as claiming a new revelation regardless of all previous opinions? As for the Arizal conflicting with Halacha, one need only learn Orech Chaim in depth to see all the changes he made to the accepted Halacha; unlike the Vilna Gaon, he was not deciding between earlier sources.
I quote AOTR again: “It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Noda B’Yehuda did not favor Chassidus. Nor did R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch favor “Torah-Only,” or Rav Kook favor anti-Zionism, or non-Mussar Yeshivas in Lita favor Reb Yisroel Salanter. However, the question before us is not whether great men have disagreed in Jewish history. Rather, it is whether one particular approach in Orthodoxy may very well harbor heretical or quasi-heretical beliefs. In fact, in footnote one of the original essay we read that the only legitimate differences in the Torah world are in the realm of “united belief in different practical application.” There weren’t and aren't, according to our author, any “theological disagreements” among the “tribes.” Except, of course, Chasidism — the only such “theological difference” which is still part of Orthodoxy. Or are they a part of it?“ Once again, AOTR misunderstood what I wrote, and the intent of it all. I waited for him to explain how I was wrong, but instead got only petty comments with no factual content, nor sources quoted. My intent with the reference to the tribes was to preempt an attempt to use “eilu v'eilu” as a response, nothing more. The snide remarks here were unnecessary.
Another quote: “Once again we are in the anything-Chazal-didn't-mention-is-in-conflict-with-them realm. Well, did Chazal ever mention that Tehillim is to be recited in times of suffering? Or, did they say Zohar should be recited, as is common in Sefardic circles? In general, do we find that Chazal advocate for song and dance to the degree that all of Klal Yisrael have adopted it today — misnagdim and German-Orthodox included? How about the derech of lomdus, which surely, though completely innovative, has become the sine qua non of the Yeshiva world, the very apex of their Judaism? Clearly, new things are always being done and the standard is whether they help our Avodas HaShem.” How can you suggest that something that actively contradicts Chazal is the same as something which they merely did not mention?!
AOTR concludes with “This final paragraph has to come as a source of utter confusion to the reader. After having been told that Chassidim change the 13 basic principles of our faith and that they also reject Chazal, which should surely qualify them for, at least, apikorsim b'shogeg, all is forgiven. The Chasidim are “strictly observant” and “keep their followers religious” among other statements of praise. Quite a resurrection! Are they the philosophical equals of many a heretical movement? Or preservers of “religion?” And with that question, exhausted and befuddled I lay down my pen.” Once again, nothing new has been added here which he did not say more than once. He also seemingly misunderstood my intent, as discussed above. His being befuddled is therefore understood, but perhaps if he has nothing to add in regards to content, he should have put down his pen earlier.
I truly did not mean to be so harsh in my critic of AOTR, especially as he is much older than I. But as I read and reread his response, I saw that AOTR never intended to give a respectful response or exchange of ideas. Rather, he intended to attack, impugn, malign, etc. Had he not meant to do this, instead of a line-by-line snide attack, he would have simply written a scholarly rebuttal full of the sources he so often complained he did not receive from me. Since he intended to offend, I take the liberty to be offended and respond in turn.
1. If you do not believe the Stechiner Rav said what I originally wrote, you can ask him directly, as he is alive and well, b’h. Furthermore, feel free to contact me and ask for the shiur recording in which he said it, or try to find it on Google, which is how I presume those who sent it to me first found it.↩
2. The Zohar, for those who consider it to be a Tannaitic or Amoraitic work, is the exception to this, as it obviously does not get to be censored by Rambam.↩