By Yochanan Gordon
Unless you daven at KMH or the White Shul, or you are an imposter on our Dokshitz family WhatsApp chat, you wouldn’t know that my father and my brothers Dovi, Nison, and Nachi decided on their own to wear a kapota instead of a suit on Shabbos. It’s not just the decision to wear the long chassidic garb but to add a gartel and hat to complete the look that represents a real, commendable commitment. A lot of people have been looking in my direction saying that I am responsible or can take credit in some form or fashion. While I do wear my kapota proudly and have done so since my wedding 15 years ago, I never really broached the subject with any of them but was supportive and encouraging when they brought it up.
There is certainly significance to the clothing worn by chassidim that they brought over with them from their origin. For one thing, one of the merits by which the Yidden were extricated from Egypt was that they maintained their names, language, and distinctive clothing.
Contrarily, however, although I don’t remember where, I saw an interpretation this year that the fact that the Jews did not change their names, language, and clothing was a denunciation of the poor spiritual conditions that the Jews in Egypt found themselves in. So this begs the question: Is there significance in maintaining a chassidic style of dress or is it purely external, devoid of anything meaningful or spiritual? The next question that comes up in this discussion is based on the halachic principle known as yuhara, wherein a person attempts to aggrandize his or her image and be perceived more pious than they actually are.
In reflecting upon the aforementioned questions, I am reminded of a game that Jimmy Kimmel once showed called “Hipster or Hassidic.” He displayed a zoomed-in photo of a mustache, mouth, and beard, and the audience had to guess if the person pictured was a hipster or a chassid. In the aftermath of my own decision to grow out my beard, I often think about this and wonder if, superficially, we often can’t tell the difference between a hipster and a chassid, then what is the value in a beard without the foundational ideals upon which those hairs are given true significance?
Ultimately, this can be related to the age-old Talmudic dispute of mitzvos tzrichos kavanah oh ein tzrichos kavanah, which means: Do our mitzvos require purpose or intention in order to discharge one’s obligation, or is the perfunctory fulfillment of a mitzvah valid as far as one’s obligation.
I opened this piece mentioning our family Dokshitz WhatsApp chat. Dokshitz, or Dokshitzy, as it is referred to, is a town that was a province of Poland or Russia, depending on who won the war that week. It’s also the town where our great-grandfather and my namesake, Reb Yochanan Gordon, lived with his wife, Zishe, whose yahrzeit was observed this week, and their four children, our grandfather and great-aunt and uncles.
Dovi, Nison, and Nachi posted pictures of themselves wearing their kapotas. It caused great excitement from the Chabad members of the chat, with many of them scratching their heads in wonderment trying to figure out what precipitated this move. Rabbi Yossy Goldman, whose articles often appear in the pages of this newspaper and who served faithfully for over three decades as rabbi in the Sydenham Shul in South Africa, posted the following reminiscence, a conversation he recalled having with my zeide, Nison. He said they were talking about some young men from Chassidic homes who nebach didn’t find fulfillment and satisfaction in frumkeit and sadly drifted afield of the path. My zeide, in a kind of tongue-in-cheek manner, stated, “Don’t worry, they will ultimately get married, put on a kapota, and they will be chassidisher yungermen,” facetiously insinuating that all it took to be a chassidisher yungerman was to look like one.
To address all this I’d like to analyze two aphorisms, one from the Ba’al Shem Tov and one of Chabad, which seem to contradict each other, and then to perhaps offer an explanation to bring both of them squarely in place.
The Ba’al Shem Tov said that the prayers of the unpretentious, simple Jews touch the essence of G-d, so to speak.
When speaking about G-d in the chassidic philosophy, there are two basic aspects of the G-dly experience—atzmus and giluyim, essence and revelation. The analogy often employed to understand this in layman’s terms is the sun versus the sun’s rays. We benefit daily from the rays of the sun, but if the ball of the sun would creep closer to Earth than it actually is, it would consume all of existence. However, another distinction between the sun and its rays and the essence of G-d versus His revelation is vis-à-vis the need to lavish Him with love, awe, and deep religious conviction.
There is a Gemara that details a conversation between a heretic being belligerent with a blind amora about his inability to see. The amora replied, “I can see far better than you can.” They would demonstrate their prowess in trying to determine when the king, who was scheduled to make an appearance, would actually be passing through.
Before the king passed through, many members of his kingdom preceded him with great fanfare and trumpet blasts and music. And each time the heretic insisted that the king was surely passing through, the amora insisted that he was wrong. When silence fell over the crowd and a spirit of awe and reverence reigned, the amora told his friend the heretic that the king had finally arrived.
Of course, this story in Gemara is an interpretation on the words in Nach: G-d is not in the fire, G-d is not in anger nor in wind; rather, in the silent, still voice. These two variant experiences describe what I see on one level as an ecstatic relationship with G-d verses an unfanciful one. When the Ba’al Shem Tov said that the prayer of the unpretentious, simple Jew touches the essence of G-d he meant due to its sincerity and simplicity. Therefore, in the worldview of the Ba’al Shem Tov, since a Jew is hewn from the Divine G-dly chariot, anything he or she does, regardless of the intention or infused meaning, is tied to G-d.
However, there is an aphorism in Chabad that says, Chabad mont penimiyus, which to me sounds like the opposite of what the Besht was saying—that it’s important to activate the inner workings of our beings in serving Hashem. It’s not enough to perfunctorily go through the motions. One needs to understand the inner workings of creation and understand where the prayer that he or she is uttering or the Torah that he or she is studying fits within the greater scheme of things.
Every generation has its own unique avodah in birurim. In 1951, the Lubavitcher Rebbe welcomed us quite ceremoniously into the dor ha’shvi’i. The Rebbe said in his first ma’amar that there is nothing inherently special about the person occupying the 7th designation other than the fact that he was placed there for a Divine purpose.
When I was in beis medrash, a Sefardic bachur told me that the Zohar writes at length about the greatness of Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin and says that it should only be worn by yechidei segulah. He wasn’t happy that at 20 years of age and single I was pretentiously putting on Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin.
What he didn’t understand was that it had nothing to do with self piety. It was done in obedience to a campaign spearheaded by my Rebbe that boys 13 and older should wear two pairs of tefillin.
So if you are questioning your self-worthiness before committing to add to your spiritual arsenal, it is important to understand that it isn’t about us or our piety. It is about completing the job that we were put here for.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.