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Was Moses a Chassid?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-01-30

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

My late father shared a room in his Lithuanian Yeshiva, Mir, with a fellow student from an aristocratic Lithuanian rabbinic family, who went on to become a well known Rosh Yeshiva in Israel.

As a young man I was sent to study under him. He had a profound impact on me. In the yeshiva at the time there were two powerful charismatic leaders, the Rosh Yeshiva, the
academic head, and the Mashgiach, best translated as 'the Supervisor.'

One was concerned primarily with study, the other with counseling and behaviour. As with any institution where two powerful minds dominated thefaculty, the students veered towards their favoured man according to their own natural predilections. By nature I was more inclined towards the Mashgiach, I regarded myself then and now as more a person person
(emotional intelligence) than a brain box. But he was a rather somber sort of kill joy (although he was very kind to me) and I found the Rosh Yeshiva far more attractive and likeable.

As a Litvak, a Lithuanian, from a  family of orthodox intellectual giants, he was brilliant and his lectures were way, way above my head. But his magnetic style of teaching, command of language and enthusiasm were infectious. As a young neophyte my main contact with him came when during vacation time and the other students went home, I stayed on and was
invited to his home on Shabbat for meals.

There I absorbed some of his ideas. Coming from the English countryside, I was unaware of many of the divisions that marked European Jewry, Yekkes, Litvaks, Galicianers, Hungarisher and the bitter rivalry and competition between various Chassidic sects. I was also new to the rivalries in the Sephardi world between the Morroccans, the Yemenites, the Baghdadi and the
Syrians. Everyone it seemed had someone else they didn't want to mix with and even despised.

My Rosh Yeshiva when his guard was down, made fun of many groups and particularly Chassidic customs and attitudes which he described variously as superstitious, primitive or simply foolish.

In particular he made fun of the idea of writing kvittlech, pieces of paper on which one wrote ones name and usually that of ones parents and passed it to a Chassidic rebbe who would look at it and give a blessing. He conceded that the idea of the blessing of a saintly person was important and of course parents gave blessings to their children and one should never take a blessing lightly. But blessings were not commodities to be handed out or traded in. In a
siddur he gave me, he wrote the blessing Joseph had given Benjamin ' May God be kind to you , My Son.' Incidentally he was particularly scathing about and strongly opposed to the custom of kapporos, taking chickens and whirling them around ones head as atonements before Yom Kippur. According to him this was never done where he came from.

The years passed by and I would see him very rarely and the last time was in Stamford Hill fifteen years ago when he was on a fund raising visit for his Yeshiva and I had seen him alone, sitting quietly and studying in modest room. I had tried to see him in Israel a while back but I was told that he had been very ill. And then to my delight, a few months ago he was back in London. I went to see him. But this time instead of being alone, he was surrounded by a veritable court of  assistants, body guards and henchmen, something I have only come across in Chassidic circles.

As I entered I was asked by his secretary if I wanted to write a kvittel.
'A kvittel?' I asked incredulously.' The Rosh Yeshiva takes kvittlach?
'Of course he does and he will give you a very important Brocha.'
'A brocha?' I repeated dumbfounded?
The Rosh Yeshiva is giving out brochas?'
'Yes, important brochas, they are very successful , they'll bring you a
lot of mazel.'

I could not believe my ears. My Lithuanian Rosh Yeshiva had been turned into a Chassidic Rebbe. I went in to see him but immediately realized he was indeed not well. A shadow of the man I remembered. His new persona was a creation of his gang of minders who were using him as a way of raising money for the yeshiva.

I exchanged a few words, left my donation and left in tears. I was crying I think for my father z''l. He would have been of similar age and his terribly early death meant that my memories are of a powerful, vibrant and charismatic man in his late forties. I had been spared seeing him grow old and lose his strength and control. This man could have been my father.

Would he have gone into the 'kvittel' business had he lived? But soon my tears turned to anger. I was angry at the way the orthodox world has come to be dominated by a sort of mind set that once was no more than a marginal version of popular religion for the less educated masses
of Eastern Europe. Together with the growth in miracle workers, mezuzah readers, ketuba decipherers, red bendelach salesmen and a host of other pious, religious miracle workers, our religion is being dragged down into the realms of superstition and hocus pocus.

May I stress here that I am not anti Chassidic. On the contrary they if anyone in Judaism have kept the flame of religious passion alive. I regard myself as being far closer to the fire of Chassidus than to the cold torch of Litvak academic detachment. But I do not feel comfortable with the trade in miracles or with the paraphernalia of pseudo aristocratic dynasties. Charisma is one thing, heredity is another.

I understand that people are confused and insecure and look for and cling to all sorts of reassurances. I guess better they turn to Jewish placebos than to Madame Fifi. But if this is the face of mainstream orthodoxy, if the Lithuanian citadel of rational halacha and intellectually sustainable thinking has fallen and all we have left is this, then I almost despair for the future nature of Judaism that has always had a variety and a range of orthodoxies to suit different temperaments and attitudes. The philistines are winning. To the ramparts O Israel!

Shabbat Shalom