Editor’s note: This essay is a response to R. Moshe Shure’s original essay which is available, and should first be read, by clicking here. Bolded text is R. Shure’s original, while standard text is R. Schiller’s comments and response.
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.
…and played a pivotal role in resurrecting Torah after the Holocaust.
These two major facts cannot be denied. Nevertheless, there were many gedolim who strongly opposed the Chassidic movement.
And many gedolim who forbid or promoted Zionism, secular studies, disagreed on a host of women's issues, favored or fought tenu'os ha’mussar etc., etc. ad infinitum. Therefore, what?
While many attempt to sweep away this reality by simply stating that any detractors must not have truly understood the Chassidic movement,
By and large it is the Misnagdic leaders themselves who have abandoned the positions maintained by the their earlier leaders. No Misnagdic Rosh Yeshiva today would say the types of things routinely stated in the assorted charomim that came out of Lita in the late 1700s.
this is not only inherently disrespectful to the greatest of Acharonim, but is also simply not true, as we will demonstrate.
Well, this is a dicey problem then. The Chasidim have maintained their positions and practices since the 1700s. Gedolei Lita first called them heretics and gave them a din of goyim. Now they call them fellow Gedolim.
We shall begin with a theological discussion: R. Mottel Zilber, a prominent Chassidic Rabbi in America,
Prominent? One of the Stechiner Rebbe's talmidim with a small following. If he is prominent what are Satmar, Belz, Viznitz, Skver, Bobov, Rachmistrivka, etc.?
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.
We don't mean to be ornery, but can we have a full quote and citation for this?
R. Zilber continues that the Chassidic belief system is based on a new revelation for the Messianic era.
The phrase “new revelation” needs a better definition here. From the Beis Yoseph to R. Kook, claims are made for special Divine contact made with many movement's heroes. Are they “revelations?” Again, we need a quote.
R. Zilber continues that the Chassidic belief system is based on a new revelation for the Messianic era.
Novel ideas like Zionism, the universal yeshiva system, or girl's schools have all been presented as special for Messianic times. These are poetic statements and should not be read as systematic theology.
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.
Does he say this? We need an exact quote. And if he did say it, so what? R. Breuer always said that R. Hirsch's “Torah im Derech Eretz” would bring the geulah. Cute, poetic, but so what? Poetry is not theological prose.
Many, if not all, sects of Chassidim believe or claim similar ideas.
Citations needed for some of the “many” or “all.”
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.
Does he deny belief in the Torah status of, say, the Chasam Sofer or the Beis ha’Levi?
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.
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??
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,
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?
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.
My goodness! Who is believing legends now? As always, citations, please.
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.
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?
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.
Which Chasidim have so responded? Citations? Or, please, at least an example of this conflict between Chazal and the Chasidim. And yet again, how can a movement defying Chazal be portrayed by our author as a benefit to Torah observance as in his opening paragraph?
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):
Responsa of Noda B’Yehuda Mehadura Tanina: E.H. 79:
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:
Responsa of Noda B’Yehuda Mehadura Kama: Y.D. 93:**
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.