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VCU Menorah Review Winter 2004
Number 60
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Hasidic Parables, Hasidic Polemics

The Hasidic Parable: An Anthology with Commentary by Aryeh Wineman
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society
The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference by David Berger
Oxford, England: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

A Review Essay by Matthew Schwartz

Dr. Aryeh Wineman’s The Hasidic Parable is modest in size and gentle in tone, but it offers an excellent introduction to the treasure house of Hasidic thought. It is also a study of parables as part of world literature, inviting comparison to other genre of parable like the Sufi and the Gnostic. Dr. Wineman’s feeling for his subject is tangible as he discovers its “inwardness and depth.” The book consists of an anthology of parables drawn mostly from the early Hasidic masters and augmented by Wineman’s own commentary. He delves into the deeper meaning and avoids being caught up in polemic or technicality. The use of parables is, of course, very ancient but parables are particularly suited to oral teaching, which was so important in the early generations of Hasidism. The purpose of the Hasidic parable is to challenge accepted ways of looking at things, to offer deeper insight and ultimately to metamorphose both one’s understanding and behavior. Where the unadorned truth is often hard to accept, parable lends truth its beautiful multi-colored garments till truth finds favor, said one rabbi (p. XVII). R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said that a parable helps bring closer to the human mind what is born in the kiss of the divine word (p. XX). The great Maggid of Mezeritch compared a parable to tsimtsum, the kabbalistic notion of God limiting Himself so that there is room for other things to exist. God contracts and restricts His thought so that He can teach people, just as a highly learned adult restricts himself so that he can teach a child. Parable and tsimtsum are a single process. Dr. Wineman feels that parables speak well to the spiritual quest of modern people and especially to the contemporary Jew. The Hasidic parable introduces us into a world view in which what matters is man’s relationship to God. It is in this search that he finds spiritual education and fulfillment. Not that the physical world is unimportant. Hasidism is not monkish or ascetic but it has sought the higher joy of closeness to God.

Even in relating to God, parables can be very helpful. The Maggid of Mezeritch told the parable of a king who decided to scrutinize the deeds of his subjects. Greatly distressed, the people sent a man who could act like a clown to appear before the king with praise, humor and parables. The clown gave the king great joy, and the people came through the judgment successfully. The Maggid told this parable in the context of a homily about Rosh Hashana, teaching that God’s judgment of man is actually a mask disguising God’s love and compassion as well as expressing the joy of redemption. This parable also underlines the value of human song and joy.

Another parable of the Maggid sees prayer as a transcendence of the self. Man has a body and therefore tends to see himself as distant from God, but the Maggid teaches the body is a house of God that can lead man to Him. Another parable about a song without words is used by the Maggid to show that although words are very much a part of prayer, it is more important for prayer to activate a deeper level of the self.

There is something wonderfully positive about the wisdom of these parables as well as their simple but profound way of expressing that wisdom. God is always present, and things that can seem threatening or harmful can in fact be deeply beneficial. Fear, displeasure, love and happiness can all be ways God uses to awaken a person spiritually. Even alien thoughts disrupting one’s concentration during prayer can serve a purpose. A parable entitled “Transforming Sadness” teaches that sadness and guilt can involve a preoccupation with the self. Joy must capture and convert sadness. One Hassidic master taught that some remorse is unavoidable but it should be limited to one hour a day.

A true perspective is taught in the Maggid’s parable of a king’s young child who built himself a little house of sticks. A man came along and smashed the house. The child went to his royal father, complaining and crying, and the king laughed, knowing the loss was insignficant in comparison with the beautiful palace he was planning to build his son. The parable points to the difference between divine and human perspectives. Sometimes the prayers of a righteous person seem at the moment to go unheeded. This can be a mark of God’s affection, for all the concerns of this world cannot compare with the good awaiting people in the world to come.

Another parable comes from the Berditchever. A king ordered his servant to learn how to shoot a gun. During practice, no fire is placed in the gun for there is no need for fire. Later when the servant actually goes to war, he is easily defeated for he still tries to shoot without any fire. The Berditchever explained the Torah was given to man as black fire on white fire so that it could fight against the evil inclination. When people perform a commandment with enthusiasm, they can go to the core of that commandment, which is fire. If people perform the commandments without enthusiasm, they are like the servant who has no fire in his gun. A good deed performed without hitlahavut (from lahav/flame) holds no fervor, love or awe and is a failed deed (pp. 142-43).

One parable expresses the need of the holy man for his followers. A bird is perched high on a tree. If someone wants to reach the bird, he must stand on the shoulders of others. The holy man can attain his goals in spiritual leadership only with the help and support of the community.

A very interesting chapter is devoted to parables using certain universal motifs, like a wedding feast or an exiled prince, and how the Hasidic teachers adapted these to their own purposes. Some of the exiled prince parables resemble the powerful ancient Gnostic “Hymn of the Pearl.” In one of the many Hasidic adaptations, the Rabbi of Tzanz told of a prince who sinned against his father and was sent away from the palace. As long as he stayed near the palace people treated him well but as he wandered farther away he became less and less like a prince. Finally, he completely forgot his origin and worked as a simple shepherd. One day, the people of the area heard that the king was coming and prepared notes for him with various requests, as was the custom. The erstwhile prince requested some straw for his hut. The king recognized his son’s writing and was distressed the prince had so forgotten who he was that he could feel the lack only of a little straw. The rabbi explained — we can forget that each one of us is a prince and we can forget to ask for what we really could have. The stories raise the question to what degree shall one identify with his transitory needs and to what degree with the deeper aspects of his being.

The final parable in the book is the famous and profound story about a man from Cracow who was told in a dream to find a hidden treasure in Prague. This story too offers a variety of interpretations at several levels and has parallels in non-Jewish folk literature as well.

Yet some find that not everything in Hasidism is beautiful. In a very different sort of book Professor David Berger, an ordained Centrist Orthodox rabbi and a well established expert on the Jewish-Christian polemics of the Middle Ages, has penned a polemic of his own. The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference is a memoir of Professor Berger’s personal crusade against Lubavitch messianism during the last several years and also of his frustration at the lack of support he has received in the Orthodox community. His charges are serious and expressed in strong words. Probably only time will tell how right or wrong he may be or whether his method of approach is useful. Let us first summarize Professor Berger’s main ideas, then offer a response.

Dr. Berger informs us from page one that this is not his usual dispassionate historical study but a very emotional book — “an indictment, a lament and an appeal.” He strongly accuses Lubavitch Hasidism of making a messiah of its rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994 without leaving a successor. Some hasidim believe he is still living and a few even believe the rebbe to possess some sort of deity. This has brought Lubavitch into an area of belief close to Christian concepts of Jesus or to certain Jewish sectarian movements like Sabbatianism. Dr. Berger sees great danger to core beliefs of Judaism, in particular to the Jewish belief in a messiah and certainly there has been, until now, almost no trace in Judaism of the idea of a resurrected messiah. Lubavitcher messianism threatens many areas of Jewish life, as messianists occupy key positions in Jewish communities as synagogue rabbis, teachers, ritual slaughterers and administrators. A Montreal Lubavitcher messianist was appointed the head of the city’s rabbinical court shortly after signing a statement that Jewish law requires all Jews to accept the messiahship of the rebbe.

Professor Berger calls himself a tolerant man and a longtime admirer of Lubavitch’s many real achievements. However, a new messianism threatens the very essence of the faith. “It is an earthquake in the history of Judaism” (p. 3). In fact, assertions of the rebbe’s messiahship began to appear some years before the rebbe’s passing, although no statement by the rebbe seems to have been very specific on the issue. Yet, it may well be that the rebbe did not discourage the ascription of messiahship to himself. In Orthodox circles, both R. Aaron Kotler and R. Eliezer Schach had years ago openly criticized these tendencies. Dr. Berger began to be deeply disturbed by a number of Lubavitch practices such as some who pray in the presence of a picture of the rebbe and those who mention the rebbe’s name during certain religious ceremonies or prayers.

Greatly disturbed by the growing messianism in Lubavitch, especially after the rebbe’s death, Dr. Berger began to publish articles and write to Orthodox leaders, expressing his concerns but was astonished and deeply disappointed to find that people reacted slowly, unwilling to believe all this was really happening. Dr. Berger reports receiving some private or even indirect statements of support, notably from R. Chaim Keller of Telshe Yeshivah in Chicago and from R. Yaacov Weinberg of Ner Israel Yeshivah in Baltimore. However, the leading Orthodox institutions have not gone on the warpath against Lubavitch, even after a few Lubavitch writers expressed a belief in the actual divinity of the rebbe (this is not widely accepted even among the messianists).

Dr. Berger would like to see the messianists blacklisted. Not one of them should hold a rabbinic pulpit or a teaching position; no money should be given to their institutions; people should not eat from their ritual slaugherers; they should not be allowed to serve as witnesses; one should not pray in a messianist synagogue. Professor Berger is deeply concerned not only about the future of Judasim but even about the damage already done. He reaches a crescendo of emotion and melodrama with a page headed “Epitaph” — “As we observe the death throes of a fundamental Jewish belief, let us not deceive ourselves as to the identity of its executioners. They are not the messianists … The messianists may have launched the assault, but Orthodox Jewry writ large has administered the fatal blow … If so let this book serve as a eulogy.”

The issue raised in this book, The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, is certainly important. However, Dr. Berger’s cases both against Lubavitch and the Orthodox leadership fall short of being entirely convincing. How much does any of this go beyond the “lunatic fringe” percentage that must be expected with any large social or religious movement? Has Judaism indeed reached a point where it must suppress Lubavitch or else face total failure? As an alert to the possible growth of a canker within Lubavitch, Dr. Berger’s book has made its point. However, the reader will remain unsure whether this problem is ephemeral and not widespread, or if it is as threatening as Dr. Berger argues.

Matthew Schwartz is a Professor in the history department of Wayne State University, and a contributing editor.

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