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Wa Doe Caidim Offer o
Conservative Rabbi William Berkowitz Dialogues with Founder of Jewish Renewal, Spiritual Guru Zalman Schachter
By Rabbi William Berkowitz

A dialogue on the role of love, joy and women in the world of Chasidism; the function of a Rebbe; Martin Buber and Neo Chasidim; the Yiddish language and the Psychology of Chasidism.

Some time after retiring from his World Wisdom chair at Naropa University, 82-year-old spiritual Guru Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is as busy as ever.

At his south Boulder home, where he lives with his wife, Eve Ilsen, he works in a basement office lined with computers. Wires snake behind desks, books are piled everywhere. Schachter is the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, a spiritual mentor to thousands and the author of numerous books, including "Jewish With Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice" (Riverhead), published last year. His attempt to synthesis Jewish mysticism with other traditions of spirituality, leaving the confines of Halacah and tradition, has put him at odds with many traditional Jews, yet no one can question the keen ability of Zalman to communicate Chasidism to people of profoundly diverse backgrounds.

Searching for a New Way

BERKOWITZ: What better way is there to begin a discussion of Chasidism than to quote a parable from Chasidim tradition? 

A long time ago, a man who had been wandering through a forest for several days, not knowing the right way out, found himself at nightfall enveloped in the darkness of the woods. He was alone, frightened, and lost and then suddenly he saw a glimmer of light in the distance. His heart grew lighter as he caught sight of a traveler carrying a lantern who was slowly approaching him.


“Well, now I shall certainly find out which is the right way out,” he thought.  When the two travelers neared one another, he asked the man with the lantern, “Tell me, which is the right way out of the woods?  I’ve been roaming about in this forest for several days.”


The man with the lantern said to him, “My friend, I do not know the way out, for I too have been wandering about in this forest for many days.  But one thing I can tell you, do not take the way I came. That way is not the way, for it will lead you astray.” He said to his fellow traveler, “Let us look for a new way together.”


This is a story from a different century, from a country and a climate vastly different from ours. Nevertheless this parable has meaning for the modern Jew. It speaks of the Jew of today with more insight and understanding than do many of the long volumes on present-day Judaism. The forest is our world of today, and the two lost travelers are the present generation of our people. Like the lost travelers, the modern Jew has not found a way out of the forest of confusion that might lead him to a clearly patterned life of Jewish living and Jewish commitment. He does not know what kind of Jew to be. He has not decided what kind of synagogue he should belong to – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Chasidic, or any at all. He is not certain whether he wants his children to learn Hebrew, or his wife to kindle the Sabbath candles. He has not made up his mind whether the people of Israel are really a chosen people, or if the Bible is, indeed, the word of G-d. And finally, he does not know whether he should believe in prayer or in the Torah itself, with all of its Commandments. In short, the modern Jew is lost in the forest of doubt, confusion and consternation. The way to an acceptable and meaningful pattern of Jewish living and thinking is not clearly before him.


One of the answers of this confusion of our day and age of finding the right road, is the answer given by Chadisim. As an ancient, powerful and still vital force, Chasidim is part of our Jewish civilization. It not only teaches us, but, more important, it gives us a way of living. We tend to think of Judaism as traditional, unchanging, and in a sense, inadaptable to modern life. We are continually faced with day-to-day problems that seem to force us to choose, very often against our desires or feelings, ways of living that seem contrary to our beliefs. Too often we feel that our spiritual life is out of joint with the times, or that we are not modern enough. We fail to recognize that in our dualistic society it may well be the other way around. Perhaps our religion, culture and tradition have truths that can change our way of life. 


It is for this reason that we have chosen to discuss a Jewish discipline about which most Jews have little real knowledge. Out conversation takes place with a traditional thinker who has adjusted his teaching, writing, and living to our modern, atomic, satellite age. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is originally a “Lubavitcher Chasid,” garbed today in modern dress, with a yeshivah education and a masters degree in psychology. For a half century, he has counseled men and women around the world. He has held many professional positions in religious studies in the United States and Canada, and has been a creative and highly influential spiritual guide. 


I would like to begin with a broad general question: What is Chasidism? Tell us something about the origin and the history of the Chasidic movement. 


SCHACHTER: You have heard the Yiddish saying, Eider ich gey reden vill ich zugen a por verter; before I begin to speak, I would like to say a few words. Reb Mendel of Kotsk, a Chasidic Master once said: “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.  But if I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you, and we can talk.  And that is the essence of dialogue.


The other thing I want to react to before entering into this discussion was the story you quoted. It is a lovely story. There is a little sequel to this story. I do not know whether the sequel originally was there, or whether it was added later, but the sequel is this: The man asked him, “then why are you walking around with the lantern?”  And he said, “If I cannot find the way, maybe somebody will see that I have lit a lantern and he will come and find me.” This is a very wonderful story with which to begin our dialogue.  You have lit a lantern; you are here. We have just celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Simchas Torah. That is lighting the lantern. If we cannot find the way, maybe someone will find us. 


The Light of Moshiach


Now to Chasidism. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, was born in 1698. If you ask where and when, these are sociological questions. But if you ask why, that’s a Chasidic question. Why was he born? Chasidim says he was born because of the darkness of the Golus, the Exile that was lasting so long, and the Jews were so faint that they had no strength to last until the Mashiach, the Messiah, would come. So G-d took a little bit of the light of the Mashiach, and sent it down in the person of Baal Shem Tov to tide us over. 


Where was he born? At the border that was between what was Russia, Austria and Turkey in those days, in a village called Okop. There was a time when Chasidim did not have a name – it takes a while until the baby gets a name – and they were considering calling themselves Baale Teshuvah – Penetents. This had connotations that were too sad for the spirit of Chadisim, and so they chose a name known from before. A group of people who lived in Germany in the thirteenth century were known as Chasidey Ashkenaz, the Pious of Germany, and there were some Chasidim even in the time of the Second Temple. So you see, it was natural for them to take the name Chasidim. Basically it is a way of serving God with a greater sense of sophistication.  


BERKOWITZ: One of the words often used, in fact always used, I Chasidim is tzadik. Tell us what is Tzadik, who were some of the Tzadikim, and what was – and is – their function in the Chasidic movement.


SCHACHTER: Joseph Albo had a saying: Ilu yaditiv hayitiv – If I knew him, I would be he. If I could tall you what a Tzadik really is, I would have to be one myself. But I am not.  Yet we have an interpretation of that a Tzadik is: a Tzadik is a person who has so fully realized the divine intent in a human being’s life that he has fully gotten there already, and therefore is capable of showing other people the way. In other words, he does not have to go around with the lantern any more. He knows the way, even at night. He knows where to go, what to do. 


BERKOWITZ: Who are some of the Tzadikim in the Chasidic movement? 


SCHACHTER: There was Levi Yitzchak Berditchev, a good prototype of a Tzadik, and also Reb Mordechai of Chernoble, who was the first Tzadik to have a fine place to live, and who traveled with six horses and a schpitz. Chasidim would come to him for guidance. Another example is Rebbe Elimelich of Lizhensk who, you know, was lustig un freilach, happy and joyous, except that sometimes he was not so freilach; he was a very serious person.


The Role of the Tzadik


BERKOWITZ: Would you say that the Tzadik in Chasidism serves as some sort of intermediary between the individual and God?


SCHACHTER: That is a lovely question. You know, one would have to put on a tallis and really gird one’s loins for this question, because anything one might say is going to get one into trouble. If you say that Reb Elimelech teaches, for instance, that a Tzadik is an intermediary, then this sounds Christian. If you say that a Tzadik is merely someone who shows the way, but does not get in between – this is not quite what it says. So I would just switch the metaphor and say a Tzadik is one who stands behind the Chasid and boosts him up. 


BERKOWITZ: I recall reading years ago that this concept of tzadikism was somewhat the cause of the downfall of the Chasidic movement. Would you agree with this?


SCHACHTER: No. There was an idea that first there was the Baal Shem Tov and Chasidism was rather democratic, and then, after a while, there were some people who had the idea that there was a good business there, and because it was such a good business, started to exploit the situation. With this I disagree. Before Baal Shem Tov and Chasidism there existed the idea of the Tzadik being a y’sod olam – the foundation of the world, to whom certain keys were given, and the keys were not necessarily “keys to the kingdom,” but the keys to a heart to be opened, a soul to be opened. A Tzadik has that key to open them up, so the idea of tzadik y’sod olan was discussed in the Zohar and, in fact, is even mentioned in the Gemora. The Tzadik as a central theme is found in the literature of Reb Isaac Luria, the great Cabalist of the sixteenth century. 


So you see the Tzadik idea was there before. Obviously there were fellow travelers with Chasidism, people who would much rather eat lekach and kugel, drink l’chayim to the Rebbe – not taking the obligation of coming to the rebbe to ask him questions about how to transform their lives but letting the rebbe do it.  They gave him a retainer: “You’re my rebbe, you protect me.” 


BERKOWITZ: I have a quotation: “A Chasid implies a living and continuous relationship with a rebbe. Through the rebbe there is spiritual direction, and through the mitzvos (good deeds) there is acceptance of the yoke of God.” Do you accept this definition of a Chasid? Do you agree with the premise that the relationship with the rebbe is basic? Especially in a democracy, where there is freedom and self expression, do you give up your own self or your own being in going to a rebbe? 


SCHACHTER: Yechidus is the term that describes the audience with the rebbe. It implies that they are at one, together, alone. A Chasid comes in. He has a kvitl, a little note that he has written. On the kvitl he writes, for instance, Lichvod k’dushas adoni moraynu v’rabaynu, (In honor of his holiness, our teacher and preacher). This is the honorific term with which he greets the rebbe. Then he will ask the rebbe to arouse G-d’s great mercies for the person of–––. And then he mentions his own name, and his mother’s name, not his father’s name. There are two interpretations for this: One interpretation is mamen is zicher, miten taten ken men kane mol nit vissen – the mother is a biological verity; the father is not.  And you ask G-d for a sure thing. 


The other explanation, as Rav Nachman of Bratzlav, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, would put it more politely is: When you come to ask G-d on behalf of a person, you say, Ribbono shel olom (Lord of the World) have rachmones.  Pity this person; have compassion on him. G-d may say he doesn’t deserve it.  You say, do it for his father’s sake, and G-d may say, he doesn’t deserve it either.  You say, Tu es far der mamen vus hut getrogen im uter’n hartzen far nine hadoshim lang un sie hot gehat veitigen. Do it for the sake of his mother who, for nine months, carried him under her heart, and suffered pain. 


At this point, even G-d relents, for G-d respects mothers far more than fathers in this respect.  


Then the Chasid might ask for some particular thing – for instance: Yiras shomayim u’briyus haguf.  In other words, he asks the rebbe to intercede for him so that he may attain fear of heaven and health of body. Now what does he want the rebbe to do at this point? It is a mistaken idea to say that one gives something up; one asks the rebbe to enhance one’s potential. He is not saying, I give up all my potential in becoming a Chasid. He is saying, I have an endowment. This endowment is my physical, spiritual, mental endowment which G-d has given me. I cannot develop it to the fullest, and so I ask the rebbe’s intercession for it. 


But this is only the beginning. One then asks the rebbe for eytzes – counsel, advice. This is very, very important. So I do not think that the question of giving something up is on the same level as that which actually occurs when a Chasid goes to see his rebbe.


On the other hand, there is this feeling: Az der rebbe shikt, furt men. In other words, if the rebbe sends you to the ends of the earth, you are going to go, and you are not going to ask the rebbe why. Does this not imply a reduction of one’s personal freedom? Does this not imply, for instance, a giving up of one’s autonomy?   


Does the Rebbe Deny Individual Freedom?


BERKOWITZ: Then is it not a matter of the rebbe making decisions for you against your own mind and your own feeling in deciding a particular activity, fact, or enterprise? 


SCHACHTER: Yes and no. The rebbe often makes such decisions because he takes for granted that a person has what is called a sefeikah – a real doubt. That he comes with ambivalence and he cannot decide on a question. It is not that he is saying, I want to do this. Do I have to do what you say?  I would much rather do something else.  If the Chasid has made up his mind as to what he really wants to do, the rebbe often says, Mir matern Keinem nit – there is no forcing a person.  Obviously this would go against a person’s potential. 


Let me tell you a maisseh, a story, to illustrate the way in which a rebbe does not force a situation: Reb Aaron of Karlin, who was known as Reb Aaron the Great, was still a disciple of the Maggid of Mezerich, whose name was Dov Baer, the successor of the Baal Shem Tov. One day he went to him and said, “I would like to go home for Pesach.”  The rebbe said, “Fur gezunterheit, hob a guten veg.” He blessed him to have a good journey. As son as Reb Aaron left, he called Reb Zushe, one of his other disciples, and said, “Loz im misht furen” – ”Don’t permit him to go.” So Reb Zushe went out and told Reb Aaron, “Don’t go.”  Reb Aaron asked, “Why do you tell me not to go?”  Reb Zushe said, “Because the rebbe hot mir geheisen dir zogen.” “The rebbe said I should tell you not to go.” Reb Aaron protested, “But I just said goodbye to him and received his blessing.” So he went back to the rebbe and said, “Ich halt ba foren, zal ich foren?– I am on my way.  shall I go?”


“For l’hayim un l’sholom, gei gezunterheit,” was the reply. “Go in peace and life, go in good health.” 


This happened three times. Each time Reb Aaron was about to leave, the rebbe sent someone else to bring him back. Finally, Reb Aaron left and when he arrived at home, the day before Pesach, he died. The disciples were angry with the rebbe. They said, “Rebbe, if you knew what was going to happen, and if this was the reason that you wanted to keep him here, why didn’t you speak up?” To which the rebbe replied, in the tradition of the Old Testament, that he saw and did not take away the choice from a person.


I think this holds true with many a rebbe and many a situation. Wherever there is limitation of freedom, the rebbe does not want to enter into it; but if the question is one of doubt, of I really don’t know, he says, “Here are the facts of the situation. Balance them either way.” This is a different kind of thing. It does not imply a pathological dependence on another person’s decisions. 


Women in Chasidism


BERKOWITZ: What is the place of women in Chasidism?


SCHACHTER: Now if I could take a time machine, this would be a delight, because I would take you back to mein elter bobe, my great-grandmother, Dvoireleh, who was married at the age of 14, and when she was 16, hot eingeshpant dem vogen – hitched up the horse before the cart – took some preserves that she had canned, and traveled to the rebbe. She did not travel to the same rebbe that her husband, my great-grandfather, visited, because somehow the Rabbi of Belz, to whom my great-grandfather traveled, said, “Zolen di mener kumen tzu mir, zolen die veiber geyen tzu yenem.”  (“Let the men come to me, let the women go to someone else.”) He was more a “man’s rebbe.” The other one, the Samborare Rebbe, was the one who received the women, and this was very interesting. He would receive them in the court, under the open sky – that is to say, that one zol nishtzein alein mit a froi – must not be separated from other people. It was an open view, but the women would keep a sort of cordon sanitaire, so that no one could overhear. This was really to be a private conversation.  A woman would come out with the kvitl down.  She did not put it in his hand, but she put it down on the table, along with the preserves, a bissele eingemacht, a little jam, and at this point would begin to ask the rebbe some questions about her own life, about her prayer, or ask blessing for a child.


There is another lovely story about how the mother of Reb Hersh Elimelech, Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, came to Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk and he rose up before the woman. The Chasidim later asked, “Why did you stand up for a woman?”  He told them, “Because she carried a great tzadik within her, and it was for the soul of the tzadik that I rose.” So again you see that women had access to the rebbe and there was a place for them, but not in the beit midrash, the study house on the men’s side. 


BERKOWITZ: And what about today?


SCHACHTER: Ah, today things are more equal. Today women can even see the rebbe with the door closed.


I have still another story, a very interesting one. Charles Raddock wrote about the life of Chanah Ruchel, the moyd from Ludmir, in the Jewish Monthly. He described the life of a woman who was a Chasidic saint. This maid of Ludmir put on tallis and tefillin and had a minyan of her own.  In other words, she kept ten men davening on the other side, and many women around her. She would even have a Sholosh S’udos with her women and would preach a sermon on the Torah for them.  Obviously, the men did not like the situation. She did not stay too long in her ministry.  After a while, she had to go to Jerusalem. A beautiful story by Agnon, “Tehillah,” is a description of the life of Chanah Ruchel and her later years in the Holy Land. 


So you can see that there is room for women in Chasidism. Today they even publish a magazine.  I would call it The Chasidic Woman’s Home Companion. It is known as Dos Yiddishe Heim, The Jewish Home. There are fine articles written by women in it. Fine poetry by women, illustrations done by them. Occasionally a man gets a chance to say a few words there too.  Half of it is in Yiddish, and half in English.


BERKOWITZ: We have been speaking about many facets of Chasidism. There are certain basic premises upon which the Chasidic philosophy is built. Let us begin by discussing the role of joy in Chasidism. 


SCHACHTER: What isn’t the role of joy?  At this point, I have to reverse it and put it in Reb Aaron of Karlin’s terms.  He said, “Sadness is no sin, but what sadness can bring no sin can bring. Joy, except on a holiday, is no mitzvah, but what joy can bring, no mitzvah can bring.  Joy is that which opens everything. It opens the mind; it opens the heart; it opens the soul. Joy is that which stems from living in G-d’s view.”  You cannot be sad, Hod v’hadar l’fanav – ”Strength and joy are in His place.” From where does this strength derive? It derives from the word shiflus – humbleness, humility, and this seems to be a contradiction, really. How can one be humble almost to the point of being nothing, and yet be joyous?


Because there is a kind of happiness that comes out of not having to protect one’s vulnerability, a boundless joy. Because as long as joy comes from material blessings, it is a finite joy. Chasidim talk about an infinity of joy that only a poor man, or a humble person, has. 


BERKOWITZ: What is the importance of love in Chasidim?


SCHACHTER: I am not a Karliner Chasid, but if you want a short definition you can do very well with the Karliner’s words. Here is what he says: “To serve G-d with fear but without love, that is no service. The best service is when one serves G-d with fear and with love, because it if fear that makes a person refrain from that which he must not do.”  


Love cannot be a one-sided situation, because love alone in gematria is only thirteen.  How does love come to be thirteen?  Aleph is one, hey is five, bet is two and another hey is another five. But G-d’s name, yud hey, vov hey is twenty six.  So when I love you and you love me, then we have twenty six. 


BERKOWITZ: What about kavonoh?


SCHACHTER: Roughly translated, it means intention. Intentionality is one of the most important things in life. It is very, very easy to be nothing but a reflex mechanism. At one time, psychology looked at people this way – stimulus and reflex. It did not even recognize that there was an organism in between modifying the reflex that resulted from the stimulus. Kavonoh is that which takes what the world does to a person and transforms it into a deliberate, meaningful act. In other words, if I have kavonoh, I fill the act that otherwise would be a reflex act with intention. When a Chasid eats, he takes a lefel, a spoonful, and says, for Him, for Him. You remember how bobe used to feed you.  A lefel farin zeiden – one for you and one for him, and so on. The idea is that there is no single act in life on which one cannot put a label, and the label is l’Shem Yichud Kudsha b’rich Hu Shchintey. For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He and his presence. That is, not only should He be holy up in heaven, but he should be very much present here on earth. Therefore, I do this act when I invest with this intentionality.


BERKOWITZ: What of esthetics in Chasidism? 


SCHACHTER: Did you ever hear Chasidism discuss who is a guter Yid, a good Jew?  They will say, A sheiner Yid, a sheiner Yid – a beautiful Jew. The late Reb Moshe Pakarski, may he rest in peace, was a wonderful neshameh, a wonderful soul. He used to tell a story about someone who nebech er hot nisht kein un iz blindtoif an oig, and maybe he has even a hoiker, ober er iz a sheiner Yid – unfortunately he is missing a hand, is blind in one eye, and maybe even has a hunchback, but he is a beautiful Jew.


You get the idea – a beautiful Jew.  The whole esthetic sense was developed not so much along the Greek view that someone qualified through “the holiness of beauty,” but rather through the “beauty of holiness.” This is very important, this kind of beauty. To see a rebbe all decked out in shtreimel un kapote, die Shechinah rut oif im, what is the idea behind it? Oy, azoi shein!–Oh how beautiful Beauty means fitting to the situation.  It is an intentional fitting to the situation. Men darf basheinen dem Shabbos –Sabbath has to be beautified.


A few years ago in Israel, on the two hundredth anniversaty of the death of the Baal Shem Tov, they had an exhibition of Chasidic memorabilia. Many of them were exquisite in their beauty. How can you serve G-d if it is not shein? This is very important; the esthetic sense. 


Women had to do a great deal of this. This was part of their work. Oisneyen a paroches, to embroider a curtain for the holy ark, and the flowers and the sequins and every soft kind of thing–that was very important. 


BERKOWITZ: One of the fundamental factors in the element of joy in Chasidim is nigun, song. 


SCHACHTER: Yes. Professor Heschel coined some beautiful phrases in a book called The Earth is the Lord’s. He gives a number of beautiful definitions. One is a nigun, a tune flowing in search of its own unattainable end. I think one of our grave problems has to do with the fact that we do not sing enough. A Jew has to sing.  Do you remember when a maggid, a preacher, came to town and began to preach in a singsong” “Once upon a time there was a king, and the king nebah, had a son.  And the son did not go in the proper way, and he had to send him into exile?” Pretty soon there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. A nigun is very important. Without the nigun the words do not take on all the harmonies that they can take on.


Now, when Chasidim sit down, they have to have a nigun. There are all kinds of nigunim. Sometimes there is a drinking song borrowed directly from Ivan next door which says, “Don’t worry fellows; as soon as we get to the end you can get all the vodka you want.” Now why should Chasidim sing a song like that? Es iz nit shein. “It is not nice.” So they sang it with a change in words “As soon as we get to Lubavitch, we get all the Chasidism we want.”


This is a dancing song.  Then there is a nigun that is known as a tish nigun.  A rebbe conducts a table with people sitting around it, and the rebbe begins, “Da da doy, doy, doy, doy, doy” and the Chasidim would go “M, m, m, m.”   And the rebbe would go, “Dai, da di da da dam,” and he would begin a hymn like Reb Eleazar Askari, Oy yedid nefesh, beloved of my soul, merciful father. This is a tish nigun.  Then there are davening nigunim, and among the davening nigunim you can find some beautiful marches.  You can go into an average Galitzianer shtiebel on Shabbos morning and you will find somebody who will start, “Tra tra, tra, din, ta, ta, tum, pompom” with a march tempo that will out Sousa Sousa, and then go on to “Praise God who is the Lord of all creation.”


Today you can enjoy the nigunim in the privacy of your hi-fi. There are three volumes of Lubavitcher records, and you can get Chasidic music everywhere.  It has become almost a byword for cantors and music directors when they speak of music that has a ta’am.  They call it Chasidic. 


My Attraction to Chabad


BERKOWITZ: Are there schools of Chasidism that differ, and in what respect? 


SCHACHTER: Yes, there are differences. Often the differences seem superficial, but sometimes they go very deep. Differences that are superficial – what kind of a shtreimel, what do people wear. How long is the kapote (coat) supposed to be? These are superficial things. Now what are the deeper things as far as schools of thought are concerned? Some people feel that emotions, the arousal of the emotions, to be alive emotionally, is by far the more important thing. Other people feel differently, that one has to first get rid of yeizer hora, the inclination for evil. There are different ideas, for instance, as to what constitutes proper study. Some Chasidim will hear only the teaching of their rebbe, but will not study the literature. Others will say that one cannot really be a good Chasid unless one learns a great deal of the Chasidic literature. 


BERKOWITZ: You are originally a Lubavitcher Chasid. What are the characteristics of Lubavitch Chasidism? 


SCHACHTER: Lubavitch Chasidism is an intellectual kind of Chasidism. It says that the arousal of emotions is not enough, that the person has to really understand, that he has to conceptualize clearly – klor gruntig farshtein. Only when he fully and completely conceptualizes a thing, when he understands it in all details and when he mediates on it, can he know it in its essential qualities. Only then will the emotions that he arouses not be sham emotions. And so Chabad stresses the intellectual life quite a bit. The rebbe will spend hours in teaching his Chasidim some of these basic concepts of Chasidism, making sure that there is going to be a good understanding, then demanding that his followers meditate and study the writings. 


This is different in many other Chasidic branches. I think this is one of the things that committed me to Lubavitch because I can reach the material.  I can understand the material, I can digest it, I can even, in part, disagree with it.


Neo Chasidim


BERKOWITZ: What is neo-Chasidism and how does it differ from the original Chasidic movement?


SCHACHTER: As an example, take Professor Martin Buber, who may not have characterized himself as “Neo-Chasid” but who, I think, fits that description. If one can be a Chasid without having a rebbe, he is a Neo-Chasid. The word rebbe is a relationship word, as are the words father, child, husband, wife. One cannot be a husband without a wife. One cannot be a child if there is no mother, no father. A rebbe and a Chasid – these are relationship words. 


And this is one of the basic differences that we have with Neo-Chasidism, with people who say: “I like the Chasidic flavor” – whatever that is. Chasidic does not mean jumpy melodies. Chasidic does not mean wearing a beard. If someone says that he is a Neo-Chasid – that is he wants to be a Chasid, and daven, and celebrate Shabbos, and be involved – we call him a Neo-Chasid.  However, we cannot agree with his point of view, because he still denies the essentiality of a rebbe, the centrality of the rebbe. 


BERKOWITZ: What is your opinion of Martin Buber and his contribution to the field?


SCHACHTER: Now that is a different story. He is a man who has done far more than many Chasidim to put the word Chasidim before the general public. Many of the stories that make the rounds do so because he pulled Chasidism, as it were, out of the shtiebel, out of the prayer house, and put it into modern dress. He translated Chasidic tales into German, although some Chasidim were not satisfied with is translations, and I often think hat the stories are twisted because of his translation. He, himself, admitted that he does not tell the stories quite straight. He has “Buberized” them, as it were.


But let us not say that he has made no contribution. He has made a very real and important contribution by making Chasidic ideas accessible to the general public long before any among the Chasidim were ready to do it. 


If we were to ask the Union Theological Seminary who they thought was the greatest philosopher of our time, they would say Martin Buber, because his contributions mit a handt ken men ihm nisht avec machen – cannot be dismissed with a wave of a hand. I would say that he has made a great contribution, but the contribution is not essentially to Chasidism.


The Language of Intimacy


BERKOWITZ: You have used Yiddish expressions quite frequently. Is this part of Chasidism, or is this your own choice? 


SCHACHTER: When I talk to one of my students on campus, and he brings up a subject that came up in – say – counseling, and I somehow have the sense that I somehow don’t want to discuss it then and there, but I want him to know that I am willing to discuss it, I slip into Yiddish. That is to say, I want to establish a sense of intimacy. I think Yiddish does this far more then English. This is a way in which Chasidim establish an intimacy, to say something that is zaftig, that is geshmak – a word that by itself is going to say so much more than any Webster definition of the word.


BERKOWITZ: What about the Hebrew language then, in lieu of Yiddish?


SCHACHTER: If I were to say Hu m’shulhav, that would be a nice way of saying, “He is inspired” in modern Hebrew, but it still would not be the same thing as if I were to say Hu baal hislahavus – ”he has inspiration.” Even if I were to speak to someone in Hebrew, I would use this particular term in its Yiddish pronunciation because I want him to get the full meaning of the phrase. I want him to get the full implication of the term. 


Forgive me for a moment if I get to be a little technical. It is a good question, and it ought to be dealt with. Korzybski, when he founded General Semantics, was very much interested in what he called “time binding.” If you use the words, “Liberty 1776" they would mean something else than the word “liberty” in Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land” – so it is a different word. Korzybski always demanded that people “time bind” the word in order that it be clear. By saying a Yiddish word or pronunciation I “time bind” as it were, and this allows for a communication that is different than if I were to translate or lift it out of the contextual framework in which it ought to be. 


Chasidism for the Modern Jew


BERKOWITZ: Reb Zalman, you come to us as an exponent of the Chasidic way of life.  How much of what you represent is transferable to the modern Jew? Does Chasidism have an approach to modern theology, and can you relate its psychology to a person’s behavior?


SCHACHTER: One of the important things that Chasidism has to contribute is attitude.  This is even more important than its theological and psychological aspects. It has to be an attitude of real concern, what Buber and Heschel call “the attitude of ultimate concern,” the significance of a person’s act, the significance of a person’s life. I think this is something that has to be transferred, and it is transferable. It is not a question any more of taking a shtreimel from Chasidim and bringing it to people today in their search for meaning, especially students on campuses. Existentialism is a search for meaning. The question troubling people is, am I really significant as a human being.  Does my existence have any reason behind it, and is there any rationale for my being?  I think that the Chasidic attitude comes to grips with such questions. Yes, it is very important to know that Bei dem Riboneh Shel Olom bistu a Kenig – ”To the creator of the universe you are a king.” 


Then there is the question of the interpersonal relationship that Chasidism creates. A Chasid always has a guten freind. It is not enough to have a rebbe, you have to have a very, very close friend, and most of us do not have close friends after adolescence. We have many acquaintances – but a friend?  I wish I could tell you what the connotation of the word “friend” really is – the kind of person to whom you can tell those things that you do not dare to tell even you analyst. It has to be, therefore, a relationship of utter candor, which, again, is based on this ultimate-concern relationship, I mentioned before.   


Now coming to theology, Chasidic theology is on the one hand very flexible, and on the other hand, it is a vast thing. And here again it differs from what Buber does.  Buber takes one idea and expands this idea, and this becomes the entire system of the philosophy. There is far more to Chasidic thinking than philosophy. It subsumes many miniature systems underneath it. 


Chasidism has a doctrine of “sparks.”  The whole task of man is a cosmic effort of lifting up sparks of divinity that are imprisoned here below, and that he has to bring back to G-d. I think it is an idea that has not yet fully been explored.


I am giving you just a sort of potpourri of Chasidic theology.  What does it mean to say that person has a soul? Chasidim never say, ”He has a soul.”  They say, “He is a soul; he has a body.”  He is a soul.  That is very important to them, survival after death.  This is the kind of question with which theology has to deal. Here, too, Chasidism has something to say that has not been heard for a while. 


Another area is the area of psychology. It is not enough to tell people what they ought to do. Chasidism does not only say you must do this or you must do that.  It gives you a functional way of doing what you know you ought to do.


BERKOWITZ: I know that you have worked with young people at Camp Ramah, which is one among many in the networks of camps established by the Conservative movement. You have also worked with teenagers at the Camp institutes sponsored by the Reform movement. What motivates the Chasid to mix with Conservative Jews and Reform Jews?


SCHACHTER: As long as there are Jews, a Chasid will not recognize the divisive definitions. It is very important that “I cover the waterfront,” and the waterfront is as big as American Jewry. If you listen carefully, and you are not offended by the words that today’s kids use, and if you really know that they are groping underneath the words that they are using, there is a great deal that can be done.


BERKOWITZ: I have had the privilege of talking with a very deep and spiritual Chasid, but with a man who is also very “hip.” I think that is important to the modern adult Jew and youngster alike.  May I conclude with this final thought: the Hebrew alphabet has the letter shin, which Jewish tradition has interpreted as representing the name of G-d – Shaddai. The shin is on the mezuzah on our doorpost. It is the shin that is etched on the hand of the Jew wearing the tefillin. In a novel, Agnon tells about a Chasidic rabbi, Yudl, who, when he stood in prayer before G-d, lifted his hands over his head so that his two uplifted hands and his head made up the letter shin – all of him symbolizing the name of G-d.  I believe that the image of this rabbi can serve as the ideal of Jewish life to which we are summoned ourselves – to hold up our hands for G-d, for Torah, and for Israel. I believe that every Jew must himself become the living embodiment of the faith he holds, the witness upon earth of the G-d whose name he bears. And so long as we have men who continue to lift up their hands and symbolize the letter shin, as does Reb Zalman, Judaism will live.

Posted on November 30, 2006
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