Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Tale of the Hasidim

Yesterday I was invited to join "Epherika" and her class to go to the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The Lubavitch is one of many Hasidic (alt.sp. Chassidic) Jewish communities. We had an absolutely fantastic time. Two rabbis led us around, taking us to a very active and wonderfully noisy synagogue with people praying and arguing about this or that point in the Talmud. We stopped at "770." We checked out a little Judaica store with just shelves full of books, shofarim, fantastic children's toys (such as Hebrew blocks, Hebrew mats, and even Hebrew balls), and music (I almost bought a Matisyahu album--I think Matisyahu comes from Crown Heights, but I could be mistaken). We saw some rare books and scrolls that they have in their library. We went to the mikveh, where they separated the men from the women and gave us separate talks and tours. Interestingly, the women had a convert while we had one of the rabbis. And, finally, they took us to a very good kosher deli.

That was the itinerary, but the interest only begins there. Throughout the tour, the students in the class and the rest of us gave a flurry of questions, which, I think, they handled rather well. We pressed them on difficult issues, such as the division of mens and womens roles in the community; the formation, role, and importance of the family in the community--everything is about the family (an interesting side note: at the synagogue, the question was asked why the women were up in the gallery and the men on the floor, and the answer was the synagogue was not as important as the home where the woman rules); birth control; the possibilities, legal process, and social ramifications of divorce; with the emphasis on family, what happened if someone did not get married; and, with that, their view of homosexuality (by the way, check out the movie, Trembling before G-d, which is not solely about homosexuality and hasidic Jews, but a lot of the same issues are there). They believe everything revolves around the family (and their deceased Rebbe of course), and so, interestingly enough, they believe a man has a duty to get married (in fact, it is a commandment), and so, therefore, if he has an "inclination" or "yetzer" for other men, he still must get married to a woman and have children.

Although we did not agree with everything they said, there is an attractiveness to that way of life. Many of us appreciated that they did often say what they truly believed and did not dissemble even though they knew their answer would not be popular. On some issues they did have an almost enjoyable way of dodging a question: basically by doing what Hasidic Jews do--tell stories. They would tell us stories somewhat related to the question, but never answering the question (you had to really press them at times by repeating the question and showing how their story did not quite answer the question). The other way was almost Talmudic. For example, in the issue of divorce, by discussing the general case, and then bringing up so many exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions that one lost track of what the original question was.

One other fascinating aspect of the community is how they revere their late Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who as the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. He died in 1994, but they believe his spirit still guides them, and so do not have another Rebbe. They view him as a prophet, as the transmitter of the continuing revelation of God that began at Sinai, even after his death. Today, if you have a question for the late REbbe, you can write a letter to him with the question, and then you put in a book of his writings, and the answer will lie hidden on that page (this almost seems like the Homeric Oracle, in some ways, but in others it is like "inspired" exegesis in which the exegesis of scripture or, here, inspired writings is a source of new inspired revelation). You can also go to a website that has all of his writings, post your question, and see if there is an answer in his digitized writings. They refer to him as "His Majesty King Messiah." And the way they revere him reminds me of the way that Christians revere saints. HIs picture is everywhere in the community. IN the deli where we ate, they had a television constantly replaying his speeches and gatherings.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. I highly recommend it to anyone. And the two rabbis were very patient with us, accommodating, kind, honest, and, in Epherika's words, absolutely lovely.


EWD said...

By the way, one of my students started their journal for the day you spoke about soteriology with the word "AWESOME!!" You are a soteriological rock-star.


Liam said...

That was very interesting. Can anyone take that tour?

I saw "Trembling Before G-d" at the Sundance festival. A powerful movie with a great soundtrack.

Jared Calaway said...

Hi Liam,

Yes, anyone can take a tour, but you have to call ahead and make a reservation. Here is the info:
Phone: (718) 953-5244
Address: 305 Kingston Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11213


Amos said...

Did they actually refer to him as a "prophet"?

Matisyahu is not originally from Crown Heights, but he joined Chabad in his late teenage years or early 20s, as far as I know.

Jared Calaway said...


One of our guides claimed that the Rebbe was a source of new divine revelations and directly compared these to the revelation at Sinai, although he was quick to point out that the new revelations would never contradict tradition (or their interpretations of tradition). I cannot at the moment recall if the exact word "prophet" was used or not, but he surely seemed to function as such. I almost expected that, but what caught me off-guard was the posthumous interpretation of his writings in almost an oracular manner as a source of continuing revelation.

Btw, of those I spoke to there, an admittedly tiny sample, it seemed that many in their community joined it later in life, often during or after college. But, considering their extremely high birth rate, I doubt converts could ever maintain a very large overall percentage.