Photo Credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90
Photo Credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90
Photo Credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

Someone close to me read the recent Jewish Action feature on the “neo-Chassidus” movement, and asked if this is what I am, a neo-Chassid?

It’s an interesting question. So I read the article, then wrote my response to them, copied it then to the Jewish Action staff, and now I thought that the public could benefit as well.
First it should be mentioned that the “neo-Chassid” terminology, as used in the article, refers to fully observant individuals. In previous decades this was not the case as the addition of the prefix “neo” often meant that some manner of traditional observance was compromised. But now we have a new, a neo rendering of neo, that still fastly adheres to observant life. So this is a good progression in the evolution of the term “neo-Chassid.”

My initial reaction, however, was that there is no need for the prefix to begin with. While it is wonderful that Jewish youth and adults are interested in learning Chassidus, there is a distinction between being a Chassid and someone who learns Chassidus. Whichever side of the camp you see yourself today, there is no need to mix the two. You can be into modern things and learn Chassidus—this is most encouraged and welcomed. But to be a Chassid takes adherence to the directive and path of a rebbe, the leader of a Chassidic movement.

Let’s first see why the neo prefix was added to begin with.
The first is that young people like to learn what interests and inspires them. Perhaps today it will be something from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, tomorrow the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and so forth. But to ascribe to only one group, one specific tradition seems limiting.

The second is the view that Chassidic life eschews the modern world. So as Chassidim generally don’t go to university, for instance, maybe a prefix is needed to differentiate those that are more open to exploring the modern world, and those that are not.

Some of what I am about to say was written in an article entitled “Modernizing Modern Orthodoxy,” but for this present piece, I wanted to reiterate the main points as straight-forward as possible.
The approach comes from observing Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and his students over the years. And while I am writing this piece at my own behest, not as a representative of Rabbi Ginsburgh, I will try to convey the approach as best I can.
First, to be a Chassid means to have a Rebbe.

Admittedly this is a constraint. That to be a Chassid of one group means not to be a Chassid of another. But along with this constraint comes a greater openness. That from the mindspace, perspective or consciousness of one specific Chassidic paths, from this vantage point, once a firm foundation in a specific path is established, then all other good and holy paths can and should be learned as well.

Rabbi Ginsburgh, a Chabad Chassid, encourages his students to learn the works other tzaddikim (righteous persons). So while Rabbi Ginsburgh delivers classes and farbrengens (Chassidic gatherings) according to the Chabad approach, occasionally a class spanning over a few hours will be devoted to explaining a few lines from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s Likkutei Moharan. Thus as a Chabad Chassid is encouraged to learn Likkutei Moharan and other holy works according to the Chabad approach, a Breslov Chassid is encouraged to learn Tanya, the central work of Chabad Chassidus, authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Second, Chassidic life eschews the modern world.

As mentioned above, there are two possibilities. Either a person is into modern things but likes to learn Chassidus or they are a Chassid. But unlike what appears to be established fact, being a Chassid doesn’t mean that you have to eschew the modern world. If you are interested in modern things, you can also be a full-fledged Chassid. What is required is to view the world through the lens of Chassidus. To perceive whatever interests you through the lens of your Chassidic tradition.

by Yonatan Gordon

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