The letters of our thoughts are the ideas present in our mind before they come to realization . . . Thoughts that are, yet not felt . . . The words of the subconscious . . . of the soul . . .


Monday, January 17, 2011

Investigating 'Ahavas Yisroel Shul'

Dear Yael,

In your recent op-ed on the new Chevra Ahavas Yisroel synagogue, you ended with a request for "enlightenment." While I do not claim to be the sole proprietor of truth nor the arbiter of what is and isn't Chabad - I would like to discuss the matter, and hopefully, G-d willing, a clearer understanding of the situation may be reached by all.

Allow me to preface: This is not meant as a critique of your character - nor of anyone else mentioned in your op-ed. Rather it is an analysis of certain concepts and changes in the ethos of the Crown Heights community.

First of all, it is wonderful that you have found a shul in which you feel welcomed and comfortable. Yes, Lubavitch does indeed mean "city of love," and the Rebbe instilled a deep ahavas yisroel within Chabad Chassidim, many of whom have traveled great distances to establish Chabad Houses to warmly welcome all Jews.

Yet you continue to write that "This is a democratic country, and God is not owned by the zealots." You say that the "ultra Chassidic would not feel at home there, but that no one is forcing anyone to go." At this point, I would like to respectfully disagree with this premise - on which much of your article is based.

Judaism does not exist in a vacuum. Just as one cannot claim to understand the divine will of the Creator as written in the Five Books of Moses without the oral tradition that has been handed down from Moses on Sinai, so too our understanding of the application of Jewish law, the rhythm of Jewish life, custom and chasidic nuance are all part of a long tradition.

To view Judaism as sola scriptura - by merit of one's own interpretation - is to leave it devoid of its true meaning.

In the context of Chabad, this means that our understanding of what Chabad is - and isn't - is based on the words of the Rebbeim as understood and passed down from generation to generation of Chassidim. What is more, there is a certain aspect of Chassidic culture that cannot be given over in words. This - the Arum Fun Chassidus - the milieu of chassidic life - is key to understanding what is and isn't appropriate for a Lubavitcher Chossid.

As such, certain actions, like the choice of which songs we use in the shabbos liturgy, the ways in which we seek spiritual enlightenment, and the overall standards of our community, must all be viewed in the context of the over 200 years of Chabad. [As a parenthetical note - the assertion that "Chabad born composer[sic]" Shlomo Carlebach's music should be acceptable due to his supposed heritage is both historically inaccurate and specious.

Carlebach was never Chabad born - rather he was scion to a prominent German rabbinical dynasty. After coming to America and a stint in Lakewood he came to Lubavitch. Within a decade however, he moved on. In his words, later printed in Tikkun magazine Sept. 1997, he related that "the Rebbe said to me, "I cannot tell you to do it your way. But I can't tell you not to do it your way. So if you want to do it on your own, God be with you." So I split."

In any event, even if Carlebach had been a born Lubavitcher, his background would be meaningless - Solomon Schechter, a renowned scholar and theologian, whose theory of Catholic Israel has been the driving force of Conservative Judaism for over a century was indeed a "Chabad born" Jew - his Hebrew name was Schneur Zalman.]

If one truly wishes to understand Chabad, what it is and what it teaches, then it is not only important, but necessary to turn to Rabbonim, Mashpiem, and Roshei Yeshivah.

On Motzei-Shabbos Parshas Terumah, 2 Adar 5748, the Rebbe delivered a sicha that can called nothing short of his ethical will. Central the ideas discussed there was the need to listen to a Beis Din of Lubavitcher Rabbis [keep in mind here that the Rabbis discussed here are true rabbonim - not mere pulpit rabbis.]

Thus the individuals mentioned in your op-ed (please, however, see below) understand quite well when the love in Lubavitch is appropriate, and when it is not. They are aware of the Rebbe's dictum of bringing every Jew closer to his heritage with bonds of love.

They are also, however, aware that we are to bring others closer to the Torah - not the Torah closer to them. We love every Jew. We do not, however, love every Jew's shtick. If something is truly foreign and inappropriate to Chabad, then no matter how effective a tool it may be in spreading Yiddishkeit, it is a betrayal to everything the Rebbe, Chabad and Chassidus stand for.

Today, for better or for worse, we are pulled by the dialectical tensions of the dual culture in which we live. We must walk a fine line if we wish to stay true to Torah and chassidus whilst enjoying the benefits of a 'modern' life.

With that said, there are certain beliefs and ideas that are completely foreign to Judaism. In America, there has been a deterioration of the idea of the community and trust in authority since the middle of the previous century. The axiom that 'it's a free country,' besides very likely being at most a vast over simplification and ignorance of what first amendment rights truly represent, is most definitely an anathema to traditional Judaism.

If a shul were to enact certain things that are truly damaging to the standards of the community as a whole, then as part of the community there is an obligation to address their actions.

This is in regards to the general question of change and tradition within Chabad.

* * *

Pertaining to the so-called Ahavas Yisrael Affair, it would seem that your well intentioned effort to defend your new-found shul of choice may in fact have brought about the opposite result.

In order to better understand the situation, I was asked by to spend some time with R' Chezzi Denebeimdiscussing the various claims.

Of the rumours recounted in your op-ed, you claimed senior rabbis demanded that Chezzi extend the mechitzah. Chezzi explained to me that on their first Shabbos, they were expecting around 30 people. They set up 15 chairs for men and 15 for women with a sufficient mechitzah in between. However, when upwards of 80 people filed into CAY- the facility was simply not prepared - leaving the the mechitzah's length insufficient. When preparing for the following week, Chezzi extended the mechitzah on his own accord.

While I don't think you recounted these spurious claims against CAY with any ill intent, I do highlight them to point out the dangers on publicizing rumors and unsubstantiated information.

Among the other issues:

1. It would seem that a number of the rabbis mentioned did not in fact speak to R' Chezzi Denebeim.

2. After hearing that certain important individuals within the community did wish to speak to him, Chezzi Denebeim willingly approached said parties. Any questions as to purpose and conduct of the shul were addressed.

3. There has never been any issue with mixed seating. Shiurim are not mixed. Shabbos meals were initially separate, but without a mechitza. Based on suggestions from others, they are now done with a mechitza. [In regards to your question about mixed shiurim, I might add that while there were certain instances where the Rebbe allowed mixed Torah classes - they were based on the specific conditions and needs of the community - and not a general rule of conduct.]

4. The Mimulo flowershop does not have any connection to CAY other than renting them the space for Shabbos.

As Lubavitchers we ought to be aware of the priceless traditions we posses. The deep insight of Chassidus, the geshmak of a nigun, the power of hours of davening - these things are our legacy to the world and our source of pride.

While I am by no means endorsing the shul - I have neither the authority nor an intimate knowledge of the shul to do so - I do not see this shul as coming to replace any of those things we hold sacred.

Sadly there is a segment of the population that is alienated from these traditions. The fact that a niggun or vart from Shlomo Carlebach, Breslov or Karlin attracts people over niggun ha'aruch of Reb Hillel Partischer or a Ma'amor in Somech Vov is more a testament of our own failings as a community. If people, born within, and currently associated with, the Chabad tradition do not treasure what the rebbeim have given us - then we must find a way to make it meaningful and relevant to their lives.

I see this shul as a grounds-up attempt to enfranchise a segment of the population no longer enamoured and perhaps alienated from the community as whole. This is an attempt to end the apathy and indifference that is eating at the heart of our community.

If someone has a better way of addressing the issue, then by all means it should be done. In the mean time, however, it would be cynical to attack the shul without providing a viable substitution.

As long as those in charge of the shul continue to consult with rabbonim, listen to the honest feedback of concerned members of the community, and direct their members in the right direction - it ought to remain a viable entity in Crown Heights.

I welcome all feedback on the situation from both you as well as others. Yael, if you in any way wish to discuss things further, please contact the editors of the site for my info - my wife and I would gladly extend a shabbos invitation to talk further on the matter.


e said...

COLlive sent blogger Mottel to speak with R' Chezzi Denebeim and write his impressions.

any truth to this line?

Mottel said...

No. I'm actually annoyed with it... I approached them with the article.

e said...