Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 10 May 2008 / 5 Iyyar 5768

Devotional Divide

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Ryan in Philadelphia

Dear Rabbi,

When I first started becoming religious I became aware of the difference between Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jewry. At first, it seemed strange to me that there should be differences among Orthodox Jews, but I have come to understand it in terms of the great geographical distance separating the communities over such a long time. However, I recently found out about a divide in Ashkenazi Jewry itself between regular Orthodox and Chasidim. Why should there be such a difference, and why does there seem to be tension between these two groups? Thanks for any light you can shed on this problem.

Dear Ryan,

Your sensitivity to this issue demonstrates your sincere love for the Jewish people and your intuitive understanding of the importance of Jewish unity.

To adequately explore all the historical and spiritual factors that gave rise to this division would be beyond the scope of this forum. So I’ll just outline the general development of this divide in order to put things in context and to provide a framework within which to organize details you’ll glean from your own study.

The dispersal of the Jews throughout the Diaspora resulted in great geographical distances between communities. Many social, cultural and even religious differences evolved between the far-flung communities. As you mention, this is particularly so regarding the Ashkenazi communities of Europe and the Sefardi communities of the near East and North Africa. While the communities within each larger group were basically similar, of course, for similar reasons, there were differences between them as well.

Among Ashkenazi Jewry, such a geographical/social/cultural distinction existed between the Jews of the countries identified as Western and Eastern Europe.

In addition, over the many centuries of religious, political and economical persecution, particularly in the countries of Eastern Europe, there developed a strong and growing rift between what became the religious/rabbinic elite and the masses of Jews whose dire situation barely enabled them the most rudimentary Jewish education, let alone advanced Torah study. This simultaneously effectively cut off the Jewish masses from the Torah leaders and undermined their appreciation of Judaism and the Jewish way of life.

It was in this context that the Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, referred to as the Baal Shem Tov (meaning Master of the Good Name) introduced a brand of Orthodoxy intended to speak to the materially and spiritually impoverished masses and infuse even the simple folks’ observance with enthusiasm and meaning. The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, all pious Torah giants, spread these teachings and approach to Orthodoxy throughout Europe in a movement which came to be called Chasidism — path of piety.

Chasidism was met with well-intended suspicion and opposition by most of the leaders of what was then established Orthodoxy (or what you call “regular Orthodox”) that came to be called “Mitnagdim” (opposors) or “Litvaks” (insofar as Lithuania was the bastion of Torah scholarship of the day). These righteous pillars of Torah were all too well-aware of past movements which initially intended to provide meaning for the masses but eventually tore many away from Judaism and left many others religiously decimated. Concerned for the continuity of Judaism and with feelings of great responsibility for each Jew, the Mitnagdim leaders were concerned that the rapture and zeal of Chasidism might ultimately do more harm than good.

As it turned out, Chasidism stood the test of time and proved to be not only a vitalizing, but also a stabilizing force in Orthodoxy. Not only did it infuse a new spirit of love for and commitment to Judaism among the masses, but also many great rabbis who initially opposed it were won over to its ranks. In addition, the enthusiasm and meaning that Chasidism engendered in its adherents largely protected them from the tantalizing winks of Enlightenment, whereas many of the descendents of the cerebral-minded Mitnagdim were swept away in the tide of intellectualism.

Nowadays, both groups recognize the strength of arduous Torah study coupled with serving G-d with enthusiasm, joy and meaning. By and large, all groups have fused both approaches to varying degrees. If the differences are divisively used to cast aspersion on one another, that spells our downfall. However, if we respect, value and appreciate the differences, our devotion will be directed Heavenward where the sky’s the limit.

I heard a wonderful story from Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz that illustrates this point.

There was once a wealthy Jew who had two daughters whom he wanted to marry Torah scholars. With one son-in-law he stipulated that as long as he learned Torah he would provide his family with a daily meat meal. With the other he similarly pledged a daily dairy meal. After time, he noticed that instead of learning Torah his sons-in-law were bickering over which was the better deal – the meat or the dairy meal. Having slacked in the stipulation, the father decided to reduce their portion to potatoes. However, he decided that if he wasn’t going to give either meat or dairy, he would at least cook the one’s potatoes in a meat pot and the other’s in a dairy pot. Not much time passed before he heard them bickering over whose potatoes were more important, the meaty or the dairy. Astonished, the father cried in anguish: “You fools! Even when each of you was getting either nutritious meat or dairy meals it was wrong of you to argue, but at least there was something of substance to argue about. But now that you’re both only getting potatoes anyway, just that these are from a meat pot and these from a dairy, there’s not even anything of substance to argue about!”

So too regarding the historical tension between the Mitnagdim and the Chasidim. G-d stipulates and desires the service of both. In the old days, when a Litvak was a real Litvak and a Chasid was a real Chasid, even though G-d disapproved of the argument, at least the differences were substantial enough to argue about. However, nowadays, when a Litvak is no longer a real Litvak and a Chasid is no longer a real Chasid, rather each is only ‘like a potato’ with such a taste or such a taste, there’s nothing substantial to bicker about, and it must end now!

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