Light in the Darkness (Ideas #3)

When I first studied in yeshiva in the early eighties, I had the good fortune of being situated close to the Bukharian area of Jerusalem. I often prayed at the quaint sephardic synagogues there and in surrounding neighborhoods and felt enriched by these experiences. By contrast, I now live in one of the newer neighborhoods of Jerusalem, where the synagogues remind me more of New York than of the Bukharian neighborhood I knew as a yeshiva student.


In my fourth year in Har Nof, I have noticed two relatively new minyanim distinguish themselves in our neighborhood. The first thing that distinguished them is their popularity - they are the only two minyanim I know of, that regularly draw crowds that are standing room only. The second thing that drew my attention is the very heterogeneous composition of the congregants. I also noted the fact that both are rooted in religiously marginal trends that have been looked upon very suspiciously by mainstream orthodoxy. The minyanim I speak about are the Breslov minyan and the R. Shlomo Carlebach minyan. I am interested to know what draws the great-grandson of a famous litvishe Rosh yeshiva, a Shas party stalwart and a star kollel man (all with their proper black hats) to regularly pray with the Breslavers.


While most of us do not consider Chassidut as relevant in form or content, there are core elements that carry a very powerful attraction to the late twentieth century Jew. One important truth seen by the Baal Shem Tov was that the common Jew could not be actualized by dry study and performance of mitzvot. The power of human emotion had to be tapped in order to make him appreciate the Divine.


Two overwhelming contemporary trends must be dealt with. The first is the relative affluence of the average Jew (and all people living in the developed countries of the world). Our average diet is something that would only be thinkable for aristocracy only two hundred years ago. Travel, culture and recreation are available to most individuals in quantities that would shock most of our predecessors. The second trend is the increasing specialization of our careers, and thus the education needed for attaining such careers. Our work, home life, schooling, place of worship are separated geographically as well as otherwise. This is an unfortunate outgrowth of the scientific and technological revolutions of the past two hundred years. We can make a wheel quicker and better than before, because we have divided its production into an infinite number of technical steps performed by experts at their particular task. The craftsman that once made it from start to finish is no longer with us - also gone is his holistic appreciation of the wheel or anything else. We look at tasks and activities in a fragmented fashion. This has been paralleled in the the world of halacha - further quantification and fragmentation so as to understand and perform each specific component in the best possible way. It is no coincidence that more and more voluminous works are coming out on narrower and narrower areas of halacha (i.e Yom Tov Sheni K'Hilchata). This continues to be the dominant trend in the yeshivot even as we lose the larger picture. It is this fragmentation that makes it difficult to think of physical pleasures as religious experiences. After all, recreation and the like are viewed as this-worldly rewards we achieve for doing necessary tasks. Beauty and harmony are just so many quantifiable consumer goods.


This brings us back to the first trend mentioned.On the one hand, affluence can give us the allusion of power and be used to serve ourselves. On the other hand, today's affluence can be more positive than in the past, in that it can enable experiences that allow us to regain our holistic perspective. Indeed, Chasidut embraced the physical world as a manifestation of G-d's goodness. Food and drink were to be used as a tool to enhance one's awareness and appreciation of G-d. Along these lines, we can be encouraged to pursue all the tastes that are available to us (especially with all the kosher products that have come about within the last decade). New experiences always bring a natural excitement and wonder with them - this is an obvious gateway to a religious experience, when one simply reflects upon the ultimate Source of all gifts. This is equally true of all the sights and sounds that we can experience as travel becomes a regular part of our lives. Concerts, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and the like can be the source of moving religious experiences. So it was that R. S.R.S. Hirsch was obsessed with visiting the Alps once in his lifetime.


Halacha, as we know it, was meant to serve as a tool to express and reinforce our appreciation of G-d. One wants to do for those we love, but love cannot be a purely intellectual pursuit. It draws upon our emotions, our appreciation of the romantic immeasurable side of life. Even as modernity quantifies and demystifies most of what we do and see, we will always have a dual nature. Our relationship with G-d must reflect that dual nature - halacha is productive when we are aware what makes us want to seek out details of the mitzvot, it must come from an enthusiasm for the Divine. From there we gain more enthusiasm as we act, thereby making us seek out the mystery that is G-d, with the full realization that this is a mystical unquantifiable experience. It is a beautiful and productive process. When, however, halacha is the beginning and the end, it feeds fragmented contemporary man's alienation from his Divine soul.


The essence of Galut is disconnection with G-d. In this sense, contemporary society is driving us to the extremities of Galut even as we are coming back to our homeland. It is no sin to try to bring an end to the Galut.The chassidic masters and their kabbalisitic predecessors were religious activists, specifically trying to bring the Divine light back to mankind. Whatever direction our activism, we must consciously seek out paths that will allow us to more greatly appreciate G-d.