I was recently asked by a YU person about how the sharp rise of Hassidus at YU in the last eight years relates to American Neo-Hasidism of Reb Zalman, Art Green, Boteach, and the Kabbalah Center (the inclusion of the latter two shows how clueless he was), which he assumed must obviously be closely related. I said that it was not related in any significant way. The YU Hasidic Hevra all admit to reading the Neo-Hasidic works at some point but their connection to hasidus came from trips to Tzfat, to Chabad, to Meron and most importantly regular connection to the five major Hasidic thinkers, all in their 40’s or 50’s, Rabbis Zilberstein, Erlanger, Morgenstern, Kluger, and Schwartz- who are galvanizing a new generation.
This is essential for grasping the direction that YU’s new Mashgiah Ruhani- who is himself influenced by these figures-will lead the institution. In another few years, the rigorous halakhic parents of Bergenfield may find their children looking at them as religiously marginal because they lack the requisite Hasidic piety.
In the course of trying to explain the current scene, I found an article by Yoni Garb that addresses this new phenomenon for those not in the loop. Here are some selections.
Jonathan Garb- MYSTICAL AND SPIRITUAL DISCOURSE IN THE CONTEMPORARY ASHKENAZI HAREDI WORLDS Journal of Modern Jewish Studies Vol 9, No. 1 March 2010, pp. 17–36
The intensification of mystical and spiritual discourse amongst the Haredim has been largely overlooked by the emerging field of research on contemporary Kabbalah. the main schools of contemporary haredi mysticism are described, focusing on three Ashkenazi worlds in Israel: Hasidism, “Lithuanians”, and trans-haredi figures. New networks of younger leaders are identified as directing their followers away from standardized forms of generic haredi identity and towards inner-directed spirituality, which enables forms of mystical specialization. This plurality, resulting from dramatic demographic expansion, justifies the claim that scholars should move towards speaking of haredi “worlds”. The new leaders, openly addressing the unique needs of this generation, subtly critique accepted mores, as well as phenomena that most Haredim regard as signs of success.
R. Tzevi Maier Zilberberg, head of the Nahalat Ya‘aqov fellowship in Jerusalem. Zilberberg is a prime example of an emerging Hasidic form of leadership, which breaks from dynastic and sectarian patterns to establish a trans- Hasidic world.Born into a Ger Hasidic family in the United States, Zilberberg has become one of the most influential contemporary Hasidic leaders or mashpi‘im (“influencers”).
Although he himself does not function as rebbe in the technical sense (as in accepting kvitlach or written supplications), Zilberberg nonetheless enjoys a following far wider than that of many rebbes.
The heart of his influence lies in the talks given before and after (and significantly extending) the Sabbath. These are attended by hundreds of listeners from virtually all Hasidic sects, as well as Lithuanian scholars, a scattering of Religious Zionists, and newly observant adherents.
The talks have been published in two media: one is the series of seven volumes published anonymously as Divrei Hizuk [words of strengthening]. These include five volumes, written in a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish, on the weekly Torah portions. The second medium, which is quantitatively more significant, is a vast and ever-increasing series of MP tracks, which includes numerous talks (including talks in English) delivered by Zilberberg over the last decade in other locations, including many yeshivot in the United States, where he is in great demand as a speaker. It further undercuts the utility of the classical book-centred approach for the study of contemporary Kabbalah in general.
Zilberberg’s teaching is not kabbalistic in the classical or technical senses. He does not extensively quote from the classical writings of Jewish mysticism, and usually prefaces such quotes with the assertion that he is not aspiring to deal with mysteries, which “are beyond us”,
The collection of talks published as Sihot Hithazkut: Be‘Inyanei Diyun Lekaf Zekhut addresses the imperative of favourably judging others, whether individuals or collectives. Against the background of the fragmented and often harshly polemical nature of haredi public life, one can discern here a subtle critique of prevailing socio-political trends, which further accounts for Zilberberg’s harmonizing function as a trans-Hasidic figure.
“Once a Jew merits growth, he understands that one cannot interpret a Jew by his Study Hall or by his clothing or by a certain custom, as all this is only externality and this is a great foolishness and emptiness.”
“When one defines another Jew only through externals such as where he learnt or to which Zaddik he goes or what hat he wears… this becomes his reality and then my reality is also transformed into these things and the internal is lost.”
The second trope in Zilberberg’s addresses is expressed in a recent volume dedicated to the weeks of shovavim, six weeks which classical kabbalistic sources already set aside as a period of repentance.
The other is the application of these earlier statements to the specific and mostly psychological challenges of our generation, which is often described as exceptionally shvach, or weak and thus requiring special strengthening. Indeed, a useful starting point for understanding contemporary Hasidic discourse, as part of the history of the present, is to examine its various descriptions of the present, usually conceived in terms of “the last generation”.
R. Yitzhaq Moshe Erlanger is more of a classical kabbalist than Zilberberg, as he studied for an extensive period in the major Ashkenazi kabbalistic Yeshiva, Sha‘ar Hashamayyim, which can be seen as a major hub for twentieth-century haredi networks. Erlanger…presents kabbalistic digressions in a smaller and special font, together with the injunction that these passages are not intended for the general reader. Erlanger creates a two-tiered text, which demonstrates the known dialectic of esotericism, as it simultaneously contains and invites curiosity. Erlanger’s works are nonetheless similar to Zilberberg’s, both in their focus on the festivals, to which he dedicates two volumes in this series, and also in repeated discussions of the special needs of the current generation. As opposed to Zilberberg’s diagnosis, Erlanger writes of the positive opportunities of this generation, as follows: “most certainly there are also tremendous powers that only our generation can attain”. Another is the development of an independent youth culture, itself a result of the demographic explosion in the haredi world. However, one should bear in mind that the advisors that Erlanger is referring to, starting with himself, are actually quite young for a society accustomed to leaders in their nineties (such as the above-mentioned R. Elyashiv).
One of the youngest of these is the 43-year-old [now, 47] R. Yitzhaq Maier Morgenstern, head of the kabbalistic yeshiva Torat Hakham. Like the previously mentioned figures, Morgenstern conducts his classes in the new centre of haredi life in Jerusalem, the Tel Araza neighborhood. Morgenstern, who grew up and acquired his initial Jewish education in England, studied for several years with Erlanger at Sha‘ar Hashamayyim (thus demonstrating the general sociological pattern of formation of networks preceding the outward success of their members) and is in close contact with Zilberberg. He is the most kabbalistic of these figures, as is apparent both in his voluminous (and anonymously published) yearbook, Yam Hahokhma, as well as his slightly more popular D’ei Hokhma Lenafshekha (distributed in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, and French). These demonstrate a truly impressive synthesis of classical and often technical kabbalistic sources. On the scholastic level, Morgenstern’s main innovation is a kabbalistic reinterpretation of talmudic and halakhic texts, the most ambitious project of this nature ever essayed. Similarly to Milikowsky (AB- known as the Amshinover), Morgenstern is renowned for his lengthy prayers. These include a unique mix of kabbalistic techniques (kavvanot and yihudim), and the slightly audacious device of halting for Hasidic melodies (nigunim) at key points in the liturgy.
This delicate combination of the conservative and the radically hypernomian is also apparent in his resistance to the growing presence of alternative medicine and Far Eastern meditation techniques in the spiritual landscape of many haredi worlds, especially amongst the newly observant, as well as women, who turn to these fields as a new avenue for financially supporting their husband’s career of full-time learning. Despite his official position, in which one can discern subtle shifts, Morgenstern himself writes quite openly of what can be described as meditation, trance, and breath control, and as a result he has magnetized haredi counsellors with a background in alternative methods.
A final member of this network is a disciple of Morgenstern R. Avraham Tzevi Kluger, of the new haredi centre in Beit Shemesh…Kluger has anonymously published two specialized volumes, Nezer David, similar to Morgenstern’s writings in style and structure. However, he has published a collection of popular essays, entitled Divrei Hakhamim Benahat, which originally appeared in the mass-circulation haredi daily Hamodi‘a (which some say were edited by a student named Barukh Lev). Kluger’s main contribution is a strong espousal of inner-directed spirituality, accompanied by a critique of achievement-oriented study and practice.
Indeed, in an intriguing historiosophical move, he writes that the original Hasidic teachings were revealed prophetically, with the needs of the current generation in mind! Like Erlanger, Kluger emphasizes the positive qualities of this generation, which he describes in rather kabbalistic terms as “souls of inner quality”. In a very subtle manner, Kluger links this bold claim to his critique of the standard haredi comportment and to the positive effect of the addition of the newly observant to this world.
We have here not merely a challenge to standardized observance and learning, afforded by the fresh perspective of voluntary adherence. Rather, it is a generational critique of the senior scholars and leaders, on the part of a member of the emerging network of Morgenstern and Zilberberg, all currently in their 40s. At the same time, Kluger reflects the seeping in of contemporary and global spiritual influences in the direction of inner-directed spirituality, through the mediation of the newly observant.
Although in general I focus here on the developments in Israel, which are the most vibrant, one should mention some figures in the American Hasidic world, such as R. Moses Wolfson of Boro Park and the late R. Samuel Kraus, author of Siftei Hen, a popular interpretation of kabbalistic concepts in the light of Hasidic inner work.
Beyond the Hasidic and Lithuanian networks, one can observe the emergence of transharedi figures, whose influence extends beyond any specific centre or circle, as well as basing their ideas on a variety of sources, rather than any specific tradition.
R. Itamar Schwartz of the elitist and fast-growing haredi town of Kiryat Sefer (Modi‘in ‘Ilit) near Jerusalem. Although Schwartz was initially trained in the Lithuanian world, at an early age he went on his own path, and began anonymously publishing a series of original works on the ways of the worship of God, which acquired the title Bilvavi Mishkan Evne (“In my heart I will build a sanctuary”, based on a poem by the sixteenth-century pietist R. Eliezer Azikri). The first volumes were an unique development of the methods and ideas of the musar movement and received approbations from several leading Lithuanian and Hasidic figures, including kabbalists from the Sha‘ar Hashamayyim yeshiva. However, one of these letters, by the young Hasidic rebbe R. Yitzhaq Menachem Weinberg of Tolne, an intriguing figure in his own right, criticized the glaring absence of Hasidic sources. As a result, Schwartz expanded his repertoire to include Hasidic and later Sephardic sources.
One expression of his success is the adoption of his methods by spiritual directors in several yeshivot, in Israel and in the United States. Another is his enthusiastic reception in the world of the newly observant, as expressed in psychological books of his directed at the secular world, a popular website, and a book on the process of return to Judaism written by a student.
The key to the progressive spiritual path that he maps out is a transformation of self-awareness and identity, in which one comes to perceive oneself primarily as a soul, experienced as a concrete reality. Schwartz describes spiritual guidance as a process that helps the seeker to “reach” his soul, as “whoever has not tasted the feeling of his soul has never tasted the true taste of life”. Elsewhere, he describes this self-revelation of the depth of the soul as the revelation of the personal Messiah. Schwartz closely relates his other major theme— the purification of the heart—to this shift. The heart is purified through revealing one’s true will and desire, which is that of the soul. Schwartz bases the detailed spiritual practice, which he recommends, on the formative decision to set aside a daily period for deep contemplation (indeed, his website includes a poll asking the surfers if they do so).
He stresses that this choice must be taken in face of the culture of speed and haste, which for him is the “greatest problem” of the generation. The centrality of individual psychic life necessitates an individualistic structuring of spiritual guidance. Some souls require the more intellectualistic Lithuanian approach, whilst others are of the “soul root” of Hasidism.In other words, one’s spiritual nourishment is dictated not by familial or social identity, but by individual psychological inclinations.
The key to the progressive spiritual path that he maps out is a transformation of self-awareness and identity, in which one comes to perceive oneself primarily as a soul, experienced as a concrete reality. Schwartz describes spiritual guidance as a process that helps the seeker to “reach” his soul, as “whoever has not tasted the feeling of his soul has never tasted the true taste of life”.Elsewhere, he describes this self-revelation of the depth of the soul as the revelation of the personal Messiah.Schwartz closely relates his other major theme— the purification of the heart—to this shift. The heart is purified through revealing one’s true will and desire, which is that of the soul.Schwartz bases the detailed spiritual practice, which he recommends, on the formative decision to set aside a daily period for deep contemplation (indeed, his website includes a poll asking the surfers if they do so). He stresses that this choice must be taken in face of the culture of speed and haste, which for him is the “greatest problem” of the generation.
The centrality of individual psychic life necessitates an individualistic structuring of spiritual guidance. Some souls require the more intellectualistic Lithuanian approach, whilst others are of the “soul root” of Hasidism. In other words, one’s spiritual nourishment is dictated not by familial or social identity, but by individual psychological inclinations.
Under the tutelage of figures such as the above-mentioned Shach (1898–2001) and Alter’s successor, R. Yisra’el (1894–1977), the haredi world focused on ideological and halakhic uniformity, rather than on individual creativity. These forms were both expressed and enhanced by the emergence of the figures described here, who do not aspire to any political or institutional sway (indeed, some of them, most notably Morgenstern, have joined the growing movement to boycott Israeli political life).
thanks, Alan. i’m trying very hard to mull this mix of Hasidut and more generic New Age religion, what with its focus on individualized/individualizing soul-growth. i’m wondering how you perceive the lines of structural connection and influence.
What alarms me about what’s going on in YU is not the retreat from (barren) rationalism into mysticism.This is an advance towards more sophisticated texts and spirituality. What alarms me is that they are choose flagrantly anti modern mystical directions instead of pro modern ones like Rav ashlag,Rav kook and his school, Rav Shagar, or at least basic and arguably neutral texts like Rav Nachman, Tanya etc. Does anyone in YU acually agree with this direction or in mystical realms they are “She’eino Yodea Lish’ol”? Do they have no connection to Hesder counterparts in Israel who might be able to clue them in?!
If i may jump in – It is because (almost) all the texts and thinkers you just mentioned require a teacher at the very least to make them enjoyable and meaningful (let alone comprehensible). That, and the language barrier (for example, Sihot Hithazkut of R. Zilberstein is really a pattern of the same hebrew words and formulations and easy to aquire also) stand in the way. The “set” that is learning these works is already charting an individualistic path and wants to learn alone, away from the regular beit midrash, and ‘experience’ these texts in solitude.
I’ll resist my contrarian urge to claim that Rav Shagar was in fact flagrantly anti-modern – and instead point out that his hasidic/mystical/philosophical writings are quite difficult and idiosyncratic and can involve original (and debatable) interpretations of classic hasidic texts as well as mention Sartre and Zizek. Can’t see them developing much of a following at YU in the absence of R. Shagar’s personal charisma.
On the other hand, R. Shagar’s writings on gemara and halakha probably would appeal to a certain element. I wonder if the current bachurim have been at all interested in R. Shagar’s essay on eg. giyur or his methodological writings
I fail to see why the rise in neo-Hasidut in YU circles would cause these newly minted aherents to look askance at the more Halakhicly oriented circles. If anything, the sociological reality at YU is quite the opposite: if you are learning from R. Wolfson (whom you fail to mention, but Garb does – as he is especially more relevant than an Erlanger to the American scene) or R. Schwartz in the YU beit midrash, well, you arent learning at all in the eyes of the majority. This culture will not change with the arrival of a new Mashgiach.
Furthermore, a casual reading of Garb shows how he takes seriously the Kabbala Center, Berg family, even Michael Laitman arbiters of Kabbalah/New-age mysticism in the global spread of these doctrines (by no means does that mean that they are “serious” themselves, as Garb mentions often in The Chosen). I dont understand how a simple question including them in the conversation would render your questioner “clueless” at all.
I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of Rabbi Tzvi Meyer Silberberg. In speaking to some young people I heard of their enthusiasm, especially for the weekly tisch he conducts beginning with shalish seudas and ending hours after shabbus is over. They think he’s truly impressive. I can’t imagine that the content of his talks are so new and special. From what I have heard they are normal themes of chizuk, more davening, more learning, more kedusha. What is new is his delivery. At first when I saw the talk he gave at Pupa (see below) I thought he was deranged, over the top. Who talks like this? Where did he pick up such body language? I now see he modulates his presentation somewhat, as in his talk in English to the Yeshiva Derech Hamelech. I don’t know if it’s my age or because I have lived in the Midwest for so many years, but I don’t think I could get used to this style. I recognize they said the same thing lehavdil about Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. So I conclude that though I can’t appreciate this new taste in preaching, I am happy to see this new energy and hope it becomes
a positive force.
The link to the talk of Rabbi Zilberberg at Pupa was somehow deleted in the posting. The interested reader can find the video I referenced. (Pupa pt.2) by googling the rabbi and clicking on Videos. I would add that this frenetic style can be compared to the straightforward speaking style of Rabbi Silverberg’s grandfather Rabbi Gedalya Schorr z’l , samples of which can be found here: http://old.torahlectures.com/s-23.aspx
Even his uncle Rabbi Avraham Schorr, an excellent and animated orator, is in a different league than his nephew.
Agree with Shaya’s hesitancy.
The service of God is axiomatically an un-selfconcious excercise. Intense devotions based on mystical texts seem to have as much to do with closeness to Hashem as maths has to do with understanding Birchas Shmuel.
Whipping up fervour is not a recipe for long term personality development.
Great post, Alan! I just wanted to add my two anecdotal cents about R. Tzvi Meyer based on spending a Shabbat with him in Boro Park over a decade ago, because I think the experiential angle is missing from your otherwise great description of this group of mashpiim. What attracted litvishe yeshiva bochurim (which he referred to as Amerikanishe bochurim) to Tzvi Meyer then – and I suppose the new YU devotees now was never the depth of the Torah, his kabbalistic understanding etc. It was basically the spiritual athleticism. He operates in the mold of a kind of holy man. Davening takes many many many hours and you find him in completely ecstatic states that demand an amount of stamina that few frum leaders even can hope to emulate – especially the older generation – were they to want it. Even more interesting was watching the almost entirely physical struggle against the mundane that I saw at Sunday morning davening, after the hoopla of Shabbes died down. Tzvi Meyer was locked in a very palpable battle against “shvechkeit” at all times. I also think that even his discourses should be “read” on an experiential level. It’s not the content as much as the passion when talking about passion – the way he articulates ‘Feuer’ and ‘brenn’ and gesticulates. As for the effect of all this spiritual athleticism on the audience, I think it’s pretty much impossible to measure. The one weekend has certainly “stayed” with me and it’s something I think about not infrequently.
Apropos ecstatic states: on the Yomim Noraim Rav Shagar zt”l would give sichot in a fervent trance-like way – shukeling and saying the sicha in a kind of sing-song that then led immediately into the tefillah.
What do you think of R’ Doniel Katz, who seems to have many young women fans (he teaches in a sem, I think)? He combines mysticism & Mussar into a frothy mix. He has a good 3-hour lecture on R’ Wolbe’s “concentration” method, but I haven’t listened to much else of his yet. Does he fit your neo-hasidism mix?
Katz is more tied to the American self-help literature. His Hasidism/mysticism is romantic and then connected to self-fulfillment. He is more Neveh/ Aish in his tone – he is not reaching Haredi Yeshivot.
I was going to do a post on him and then never did.
Thanks so much for starting this conversation in a very important topic. I hope to have time later to add to Garb’s analysis with some other streams
I look forward to it. If your comment is long enough maybe it should be a post.