A few months ago, a girl named Basya commented on my blog, reacting to my notions about Chabad being “the truth.” Her questions inquired into my reasoning for promoting the Chabad way of life, and the learning of Chassidus.
While I can only say I try to live a Chabad life, and I wish I learned more of the Chassidus I so passionately preach, Basya pointed out that I may have had some experiences that can serve to answer her questions, which she says no one has ever properly answered.
I have had brief interaction with her via e-mail, and have decided – especially by the demand of other Hilltop enthusiasts – to start responding to her on my blog. This way, a larger audience can benefit from our interaction.
Basya’s question was personal. Therefore, so is my response.
The following is the first step.
To begin answering your question, I must take you back in time, and then to the present, to highlight what I want to propose as the foundation to this discussion.
Over two years ago, I was sitting in a non-Chabad classroom in Har Nof. The teacher’s elbows lay on both sides of a Hebrew text. He taught us enthusiastically as we took notes. It was nearing nightfall, and the trees could be heard moving through the window in the back of the classroom.
Suddenly, one of the students pointed our attention to the beautiful display of intense colors that the sky was showcasing. The sun was setting in
Naturally, we all got up and rushed to the window. Camera’s came out, and our wonderfully overwhelmed sounds filled the room.
In an effort to get girls back to their seats, our teacher was suddenly heard yelling out, "Girls, come on! We're learning Torah here!" He smacked the text with the back of his right hand to elucidate his point, but did not succeed in deterring a group of eighteen year old girls from marveling at a beautiful sky.
The teacher did not scream, nor was his reaction overboard in temper. However, it was what he said that is so troubling.
While our fascination with the sunset clearly interrupted classroom decorum, it was Torah itself that the teacher pointed out as being victimized by our inattention to the text.
How is it that a supposedly Torah-learned man has come to view Torah as something separate from the very world which it seeks to describe and illuminate? The fact that this Rabbi was hired to teach and inspire girls is worrisome, and that he represents a larger group of people is even worse. Although the incident seems subtle, and almost understandable, I have come to learn that it reflects an ideology owned by a lot of people who, in Torah’s name, maintain a rather warped view of the world.
The Rabbi’s words represented a huge portion of world Jewry that don't view the world as one entity in which G-d dwells in everything.
Flash forward some years to about a month and a half ago.
I am in
During one particular class, about twenty students are gathered around Rabbi Manis Friedman, feeling his words like needle points in and out of the fabric of their lives. It’s evening, and we're sitting cozily in the lobby, with only a closed curtain behind our teacher separating us from swaying palm trees and the glistening ocean. We're talking about love. We're talking about G-d. We’re talking about our forefathers. Torah's wellsprings are spilling forth, and quenching the thirst of its drinkers.
Suddenly, Rabbi Friedman gets out of his seat.
In all the hours I've spent in Rabbi Friedman's classes, I have never seen him make any unnecessary gesture, movement, even eye contact.
He turns his back to the group, and, with a sweep of his hand, pulls the curtain all the way open to reveal a bright sunset, warm with orange and darkening in purple hues.
And with that, he takes his seat and resumes the class,
Something about Rabbi Friedman's action felt so right, and moved me to my core. While the sunset and deep lessons blended to form an almost euphoric experience, my mind went searching for the root of what I found so beautiful in Rabbi Friedman’s decision to open the blinds during class.
It was a passing moment that defined the eyes through which Chabad views the world.
The core differentiation between the two classes is what I always knew was different about being Chabad. No matter where I was personally holding, and how much I was actually learning, I always sensed that these were the eyes I wanted to have.
If something is going to be teaching me truth, it better be in line with the world around me – the world I walk in, the world I breathe in. If you’re going to illuminate Torah for me and inspire me to serve our creator, it better happen without leaving a trace of his craft out of my hold.
And, at the root of my fascination with Chassidus, is this very idea – that the whole world is G-d, and G-d is the whole world. G-d is invested in everything. It’s not one G-d and one world. Rather, it’s all G-d.
The Chabad Rabbeim were brave enough to reveal a vital aspect of Judaism’s most essential prayer - the Shema. They saw the word “Echad” and revealed what it truly means. “Echad” means a oneness that encompasses and includes all existence, unlike “Yachid” which implies a one that allows for the existence of a second, a third, and so on. When our Rabbeim unraveled the true definition of the Shema, they revealed a oneness that is about unity, and not numbers.
I have experienced this distinction to be at the heart of the difference between the Chabad and non-Chabad world. To not believe in G-d’s unity is to believe that things exist by themselves, on their own. It means believing that G-d is separate from existence. And when you believe that, you can be a very learned Jew and feel like a foreigner to the world, like the world is out to get you – like a sunset is the enemy.
Part of my decision to strongly pursue the study of Chassidus was to ensure that I would never be learning from a Rabbi who is threatened by the world outside his window.
I found people who learned Chassidus to be extremely humble, for they knew that the world we live in is real and huge and relevant. While I saw other teachers swell with ego, my Chassidus teachers were eager to hear our insights - they understood that the truth that they were teaching were sitting inside the hearts and minds of their students. While the study of sources and texts were vital, it was never seen as something separate from the world, our experiences, and the rhythm of the universe which G-d created.
Chassidus is the only thing that has actually showed me that G-d is one. Everyone else only talked about it. And talked and talked some more - like a preachy sermon in a church. As Jews, we know that we have to believe in one G-d. For me, no one ever challenged this belief to its depths until I really learned Chassidus.
And no, it is not the invention of the so called Lubavitch movement. It is the essence of Judaism. However, Chassidus is the study which confronts, explains and enlivens G-d’s oneness, so that it truly comes to life, changing the eyes through which we view the world, and each other.
So, you ask, Why Chassidus when you can be frum without it? Yes, of course you can be frum without Chassidus. Chassidus isn't about being religious. It's about understanding the makeup of the world and our creator with clarity and truth. It's about tuning your eyes to the G-dliness in the world, inherent in everything and everyone.
For me, this theme is the beginning point necessary before dissecting all the aspects of Chabad that inspire the tone you hear in my writing. I hope this serves as a strong foundation for the rest of our discussions which will, G-d willing, be enlightening for the both of us.
All my best,