Torat Chaim Ve’Ahavat Chesed –Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz has been quite active on Facebook with short hundred word glimpses into his ideas. Here is a guest post by Rabbi Katz turning these epigramic statements on current events into an actual article. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz received ordination from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. He is now the director of the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies at YCT and Rabbi of the Prospect Heights Synagogue. For his earlier activity on this blog, see here and here.

This very personal essay conveys Katz’ sustenance and continuity with a real Hasidic community, his definition of Chassidism, his disregard for history and philosophy, and where he sees Chassidus as a resource for today, especially as imminent within one’s social life. When you get to the end, reread the first page to see how the end positions flow directly from his autobiography at the beginning.


Torat Chaim Ve’Ahavat Chesed
Ysoscher Katz

I was raised in the chassidic community of Satmar. I should make it clear from the outset: I am modern but not Orthodox. Do not get me wrong, I am observant and my practice is orthodox but that is not who I am. In other words, I am orthodox-my practice is halakhic and my belief orthodox-but Orthodoxy is not me. It is not an integral part of my identity. My orthodoxy is merely a means towards a religious end. Keeping halakha and accepting orthodox faith-claims provides me with the infrastructure which allows my soul to strive and pursue perfection. Orthodoxy enables me to be who I really am: a Modern Chassidish Jew.

As I mentioned, my identity is comprised of two parts, Modern and Chassidish. I inherited these identity markers from my parents, the modernity from my mother and the chassidut from my father. Here, I mean real Chassidic, and not Neo-Chassidic. How my chassidic, homemaking and sheitel-wearing mom made me modern is a conversation for another time. At the moment I wish to focus on my dad.

My father is the most non-chassidish Chassid. He does not study “chassidus,” nor does he want to “understand” it. The few times I tried to explain to him Moshe Idel’s distinction between theosophy and theurgy, his eyes glazed over. Chassidut is what he does, not what he learns. From his perspective, Torah is for learning, chassidut for practicing.

His aversion is not limited to the study of academic mysticism. He also stays away from traditional kabbalistic or chassidic texts. He never studied the Zohar nor did he ever read any of the Arizal’s writings. Not only would he not read them, he also would not touch them. He is so intimidated by their sacredness; he fears that his touch would contaminate them. Yet, despite never having formally studied chassidic texts, he still is the quintessential chasid. Chassidut is his essence, part of his religious DNA, but it is a chassidut that is behavioral, not intellectual. Chassidut is how he lives his life. It is the prism through which he encounters the world and the ethos by which he lives by.

He adores his wife, loves his children, cherishes his community and reveres and respects his neighbors and fellow human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike. While this practice is not special, many people love their family and surroundings, its flavor is unique. It is Chassidic love, deriving its passion from the Chassidic teachings he has absorbed throughout his life. These teachings have filled his being with a deep religiosity, which, in turn, infuses his actions and emotions with a deep and robust spirituality. His love of humanity is, therefore, a love that is sensualized by its spiritualized valance.

Chassidut does not just spiritualize my father’s interpersonal relationships, it also enhances his religious practices, particularly the yearly calendar. Chassidut allows him to infuse the annual cycle with a sensuous spirituality.

Satmar is a Hungarian/Romanian Chassidut (The broad strokes difference between Hungarian Chassidut and the Polish and Russian versions is that the latter were intellectually inclined while the former was not. Hungarian Chassidut was predominantly behavioral. This is, of course, a generalization; the nuances are far more complex but outside the parameters of this presentation.)

Hungarian Chassidim are nourished by an elaborate “sacred calendar.” They have more days of note than the conventional Jewish calendar, and their holidays tend to be richer than your typical modern Jews’ chag experience. A Satmar Chasid’s year is thus replete with days of deep joy and periods of intense reflection. While the Jewish calendar has several biblical holidays and two Rabbinic ones, the Chasid’s calendar records additional dates of importance.

Every winter, the Hungarian Chasid has six to eight weeks of “shovavim,” a period that usually falls sometime between Chanukah and Purim, which is dedicated to repentance and introspection, largely focusing on sexual impropriety; the days of awe continue through the end of Chanukah, the potential for repentance lasts for them for two more months; Purim celebrations begin three days earlier than usual; and (a modicum of) Pesach extends all the way to Shavuot (based on Nachmanides’ notion that the interim weeks between Pesach and Shavuot are somewhat akin to a chol ha’moed of Pesach).  Combined these add up to a significant number of additional days of awe and periods of celebration.

Qualitatively, chassidic holidays are different as well. Although many things distinguish a chassidic chag, there is one distinction that is particularly noticeable to the keen observer: chassidic religious celebrations are comprised of a dissonant blend of joy and contemplation.

Here are some examples:

Shabbat in Satmar is an incredibly meaningful day, bookended by powerful contradictory modes. Friday night is a time of joy, where the spiritually and mystically rich Lecha Dodi chant inspires celebration of the metaphysical significance of the day.

While this spirit carries through most of the Shabbat, towards the end of the Shabbat the Satmar Chasid shifts gears, switching modes from the celebratory to the reflective. This transition occurs in a much starker manner than it does in most other communities. A Satmar Shabbat never ends at “shekiah.” Sehudah shlishit is always a two hour affair, spent singing and listening to the Rebbe’s dvar torah. Speaking in highly evocative tones, he expounds on the weekly reading, spending close to an hour challenging and rebuking his followers.

Growing up, this is exactly what Shabbat looked like for me. My dad’s Shabbat was intense and complex. While the day began upbeat, it gradually shifted into the contemplative.

But, my father’s Shabbat, like his chassidut, is adamantly experiential, text and study play a minor role in the development of his religious persona.

Kegavna (a section from the Zohar which Chassidim recite during Friday night prayers), is one of the most powerful kabbalistic liturgical texts. Utilizing the connection between Shabbat and the number seven, a prominent kabbalistic trope, it succinctly articulates the mystical value of Shabbat. It emphasizes that Shabbat is a day of heightened divine intimacy and advanced mystical union. I have begged my dad on many occasions to read this Zohar text with me. He refused each time. Sacred mystical texts are for the elite. The lay receive their nourishment residually, from the spiritualized environment created by those qualified to access those recondite sources.

While he will not study Kegavna, he does recite it every Friday night as part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Notwithstanding that he does not fully grasp its meaning, he reads it with the pathos and passion it deserves. Kegavna’s power for him is metaphysical, not intellectual.

Purim provides another example of the intensity of Hungarian chassidic practice. Many Jews celebrate Purim, but not the chassidic Purim. The chassidic Purim is unique in its richness and multiplicity. Communally, preparations for the holiday start early. More than a week before Purim, one can already detect the arrival of the holiday, both, in the discourse of the scholars and activities of the laity. The learned discourse focuses on the legal and spiritual aspects of the chag, while the public sphere is filled with people making arrangements for every aspect of the day. When Purim finally arrives, it takes on a distinct theological flavor. Appropriating the Zoharic notion that Purim is analogous to Yom Kippur (Yom Kippurim), Satmar Chassidim created a unique Purim blend that is both frivolous and somber. This day of festivity is overlaid with practices of repentance and reflection.

While I am nourished by my dad’s behavioral Chassidut, personally it is not enough. Behavioral Chassidut gladdens my heart but does not stimulate my mind nor sufficiently satisfy my soul. I personally seek a religiosity which nourishes both pillars of my being, the mind and the heart. My personal journey is, therefore, informed by a combination of my father’s passion and the academic’s sophistication. Chassidus resonates with both of them, sometimes simultaneously, when the intellectual engagement and behavioral spiritual encounter complement one another, and sometimes separately, when I religiously shift back and forth between the intellectual and the experiential.

Ultimately, the attraction to Chassidut is the fact that it can operate in different modes at different times, in the process offering up a variety of mechanisms to help spiritualize my life.

It is precisely this multifacetedness which convinces me that Chassidut is the proper theology for us moderns. Its theology is perfectly situated to offer meaning and spirituality to the contemporary modern seeker. I feel strongly that it is our only hope.  Chassidut today is not a luxury, it is a necessity. If the Torah-u’Madda project is to succeed Chassidut needs to become an integral part of its curriculum.

Chassidut is of course a vast discipline, teaching all of it would be a daunting task. For the moment there are three aspects of chassidic theology that stand out as particularly suited for the world we live in today.

1) Truth. We live in a post-modern world where objective truth is rejected and absolute claims are frowned upon. I would go as far as to say that rationalism (in the general and colloquial sense) as a source for Emunah is bankrupt, it increasingly speaks to fewer people. It, therefore, behooves us to come up with alternative models. Chassidut could very well be that alternative model.

Facts and empirical truth is not Chassidut’s primary currency. While it does a priori accept the biblical theological faith statements, its goal is not to argue or prove the scientific veracity of the Bible’s claims. Truth is not of primary concern for these thinkers. Chassidic theology has two main features. It is a-rational and a-historical. It is apathetic about Jewish historicity as a proactive theological stance. The Torah for Chassidim is there to teach us how to live life and serve God, the narrative qua narrative (the origin story) is mere background music. The narration parts of the Torah are, therefore, not of much theological significance to them, they are a-historical

However, during those rare occasions when they do pay attention to the biblical “stories,” their orientation is a-rational. They absolutely “believe” those stories, but their belief is internal: it is true because it happened in the Torah. That is where these events transpire and that is where these stories matter. Asking about their historicity is, as far as they are concerned, foolish and missing the point.

At the same time, to the extent that the biblical narratives have religious and theological significance, they read those stories through the Rabbinic lens. So, for example, while Moshe’s historicity is not historically relevant to them, his persona carries theological and ethical significance.

The same is true for God’s attributes. Chassidim are, by choice, apathetic about God as a scientific reality, his attributes and characteristics, however, are theologically highly significant to them. For that they did turn to the Bible, but the encounter with the Torah is filtered through Chazal.

They see Chazal as essential to the understanding of the Torah. As believers in immanence they actually see the Sages as much more integral to the experience of the written Torah than the rationalists did. They did not think that the presence at Sinai (mamad har Sinai) ended at the giving of the Torah (mattan Torah). For them the Torah is perpetually and continuously revealed.  The modern reader of chassidic texts would, therefore, not have to decide whether they scientifically accept these postulates in order to engage with them.

Chassidut’s goal is instead to describe an immanence which provides spiritual and emotional transcendence. Chassidut (informed, of course, by kabbalah) promotes a sophisticated immanence which results in a dramatic shift in Judaism’s orientation towards God and His commandments. Prior to the emergence of chassidut on the historic scene, theology was convincing and Jewish observance was rewarding. Chassidut changed that. Chassidic theology offered meaning and kabbalistic observance provided sanctity.

Personally, my rejection of the Maimonidean ethos and realization of the degree to which chassidut can speak to the modern searcher was a long and arduous process. It came about as a result of a deep sense of betrayal by Maimonides, the champion of Rationalist Judaism. I for many years was the object and fool of Maimonides “the seventh reason” as presented in his introduction to the Guide by not seeing his philosophic views.  In that passage, Maimonides condones misleading the masses for their greater good, even to the point of advocating contradictory ideas for different audiences and then obscuring those contradictions.

Growing up in Satmar and then Brisk, I was oblivious to his non-halakhic writings and led to believe that he fully and literally believed every word he wrote in the Yad. I was exposed to his other writings only later and when I did I felt cheated. I was part of that the masses, whom he thought could not handle his unconventional approach to theology and tradition. As much as I have read about him, I personally have not managed to reconcile his two sides. I do not find Prof. Isidore Twersky’s harmonizing approach compelling or convincing.

Realizing what a fool I was led me on a tortuous and circuitous search. As the Rabbis say about Yisro, חזרתי אחר כל האלהות; I explored all the options. I finally found the answer in kabbalah and chassidut, they speak a language which resonates with our current reality. They emphasize that which contemporary Judaism needs.

The emphasis in chassidut on meaning and sacredness, are perfectly suited for our community. These are exactly the things our culture needs more of; holiness and meaning. This emphasis in Chassidut on immanence also generates a move towards spiritualization.

2) Spiritualization. As scholars have pointed out, chassidic teachings contain elements of spiritual psychology. They provide us with a language which helps us infuse our lives with meaning. One can point to many examples where this psychological spiritualization occurs in chassidut, I will mention two of them.

Everybody sometimes has a bad hair day, when we wake up feeling less than optimal. Chassidut has a term to describe that mood; it calls it mochen de’katnus. While it technically means the same as a “bad hair day,” the language is mystical. Mochen de’katnus describes a less than stellar spiritual state, a low energy level which does not allow us to engage in the usual religious pursuits we crave to pursue.

Another example is Kabbalah’s elaborate taxonomy of love and awe: Kabbalah and Chassidut talks about superior and inferior love (ahavah ela’e’e and ahavah tata’a) or superior and inferior awe (yirah ela’e’e and yira tata’a)While these terms primarily describe nuanced stages in our engagement with the Divine, they have traditionally been imported into the colloquial arena. They are used to describe varied emotional states which we experience in our interactions with our friends and loved ones.

Contemporary life does not provide us with that many opportunities for encountering the Divine in our daily lives. Chassidut allows us to bring God in. Sprinkling our conversations with mystical and Chassidic terminology allows us to spiritualize our daily routines and infuse our mundane pursuits with meaning and spiritual significance.

Besides enriching our personal encounters, adopting a chassidic ethos could also enhance our communal experiences.

3) Social Change. One of the most pressing tensions in the community is how to reconcile our values with our convictions; what to do when halakha points us in one direction and our values in another direction. We are tempted to follow our values but pulled to abide by our halakhic commitments. A proper resolution requires an emboldened stance towards tradition, one that allows us to cajole the tradition to reconcile itself with our modern sensibilities. [Using, of course, legitimate halakhic mechanisms developed by our predecessors when they were confronted with similar challenges.]

Our values are so emboldened because they derive their power from Chaissdut. A chassidic life is a spiritualized life which infuses our values with powerful theological significance, and it allows us to aggressively challenge the tradition to reevaluate its assumptions and attempt to accommodate itself-when halakhically possible- to a changed modern reality.

Chassidut is very explicit about the value of religious aggression. The following two quotes are often encountered in chassidic writings, “even a thief says a prayer before he breaks in to his victim’s home” (quoted on the margin of Brachot 63A, from the Frankfurt manuscript), and “an aggressive stance towards the Divine bears results” (Sanhedrin 105A). While the provenance of these texts is Talmudic, they take on significant prominence in Chassidic theology. They become the impetus for an aggressive theology which is informed by a religiosity that sees itself driven by a Divine immanence which infuses our values and ethical intuitions with spiritual resonance, subsequently leading to radical societal change.

Such change is actually an integral part of Chassidic social history. When one looks at recent major changes in traditional Jewish society it is hard not to notice that the forerunners were often Chassidim. The last sixty years have seen far reaching social and political change.

The two most dramatic changes that have happened is that Jews are now sovereign and women have made significant progress in their pursuit of religious equality. The pioneers of both these changes were driven, at least in part, by a chassidic ethos.  R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbi of Lubavitch, was one of the first orthodox scholars to champion female Talmud scholarship, while R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, a serious student of Chassidut, was an outspoken early proponent of a Zionist state.

There is no doubt that their chassidic worldview, at least partially, informed their proactive stances towards these changes. Their adherence to a spiritualized religiosity allowed them to explore new religious vistas. Their unique theological outlook changed the religious and legal equation for them, simultaneously making their decisions more complex, but also more progressive. Their spiritualized worldview allowed them to see divinity in the ostensibly secular state or the seemingly illegitimate request of women for greater equality.

Granted, this hybrid of chassidic spiritualization and robust religious creativity would be a 21st century concoction, traditionally, these two do not go together. Chassidism, for the most part, frowns on change and rejects innovation. As a matter of fact, nineteenth century Hungarian Chassidim were vociferously opposed to any accommodations to modernity. Further, the contemporary thinker is not going to intuitively embrace spiritualized non-rational thought. It is, nevertheless, a match pregnant with immense potential and could go a long way towards reviving a dormant Modern Orthodoxy.

Contemporary Modern Orthodoxy is struggling; a significant number of its adherents are abandoning yiddishkeit and many who stay no longer find it meaningful; inertia has set in. I suspect that Modern Orthodoxy’s rationalist ethos is partially to blame. Current Modern Orthodox theology is Litvish and hyper-Maimonidean, it lacks a native spiritual core, and does not satisfy people’s search for meaning. We are due for a change. Chassidus could be that change agent. I strongly believe that a chassidic theology combined with a sophisticated modern overlay could be the elixir for the dispassion and disinterest that ails our community. It will provide our community what it so desperately needs: a torat chaim ve’ahavt chesed; a Torah that stimulates our minds but at the same time also gladdens our neshamah.

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