Neo-Chassidic Spirituality and Self-Focus – a Pothole to Avoid

Preface: Every derekh has its strengths and its weakness. The important thing is to be aware of the possible pitfalls that might be more likely for a given derekh, and to know to avoid them. One has to make an assessment of their own abilities and foibles to know whether this means a that derekh is a right fit for you. So, when I write about a pothole that is particularly likely with Neo-Chassidus, I don’t mean this as an attack on that trend. Just something to be alert for — whether to avoid the problem when one follows this derekh, or whether to decide that Neo-Chassidus may reinforce spiritual issues one already has.

A big problem, and perhaps The Big Problem, of the Orthodox community as it revived post-Shoah has been “Frumkeit“, as Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l defines the term. Doing mitzvos out of an instinct that I need to be holier, rather than out of a desire that Hashem’s Will be done. It is a self-centered and self-serving orientation, as are all instincts. Rav Dessler would say it is coming from one’s Will to Take rather than one’s Will to Give.

(There is also its more extreme cousin, turning the Torah into a system of segulos, working in order to get the desired personal outcome. Frumkeit is at least serving one’s need to feel holy. In some circles there is a lot of time being spent on serving one’s desires for more tangible “success” and happiness.)

Neo-Chassidus, with its focus on my relationship with G-d, doesn’t have many tools to fix that. Going to a kumzitz or a singing minyan to have an inspirational moment certainly don’t. All it offers is a hope that one internalizes one’s studies.

We should take the tragedy in Meron as a warning to neo-Chassidus’s weaknesses – and the adherent’s need to work to avoid them. And every Ism has weaknesses the adherent need to work to avoid.

The people who thought that their cutting corners on public safety was doing Hashem’s Will.

The many people who thought they were on a spiritual high singing at a bonfire who in a moment turn into a cattle-run for survival. How little the high lasted beyond the last note sung! When one abuses the neo-Chassidic Idea into a self-service (and again, the idea has little in place to prevent it), the shift was from one instinct to another, and one never really connected to a greater version of their Divine Image.

For that matter, how does a neighborhood minyan for Qabbalas Shabbos sing their way through a few hundred-year-old minhag and then rush through Maariv in order to make up time for the laudable concern that it not be at the expense of others? Can someone truly feeling being in Hashem’s Presence say Qeri’as Shema or the Amidah at a faster pace?

Mussar can also easily fall into the same hole. Working on one’s middos can quickly become a pursuit of one’s own holiness, rather than bringing the Creator and his ways of peace into the world.

But historically, Mussar was an activist’s movement. R Yisrael and his students served as nurses through a cholera epidemic. Novhardok was famous for fighting the spread of Communism among the youth and had a large community of exiles in Siberia to show for it.

We need an Other-Focused Orthodoxy, one in which inspiration comes from emulating and partnering with Hashem rather than focusing on a relationship with Him. Let the relationship flow on its own.

Middos can then be introduced as a part of that. And then there is room for the kumzitz. Once we have the orientation right, the the point of working on my self is to have more there when sharing Hashem’s Good with others, we won’t fall in to self-serving “Frumkeit“.

And if this isn’t the path for everyone, that is fine and proper. “Chanokh lenaar al pi darko… – teach the youth according to their own path, then they also won’t leave it as they age.” (Mishlei 22:6) But the community as a whole is suffering because we don’t have enough of this voice in our chorus.

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1 Response

  1. Neil Harris says:

    Micha, these are great points and actually some of this is addressed in the most recently publication from the Orthodox Forum. I greatly appreciate that you balanced the post in regard to the “hole” that mussar could fall into if not properly focused. I think the “other-focused Orthodoxy” is just simply Orthodoxy. Keep the modifiers for shidduch resumes.

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