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{Originally posted to the author’s blog}

Are there really only two monolithic paths?  An article published in the Shavuos edition of Mishpacha magazine, Meeting the Baal Shem Tov in 2018, and an ensuing debate in response between Rav Noach Shafran of Ner Israel in Baltimore and Rav Moshe Weinberger of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, touched on themes that have been near and dear to my heart for virtually my entire adult life.


Briefly, the original article noted the growing attraction to Chassidus for thousands of people – even those who do not take on the external trappings of Chassidic dress and hairstyles – and sought to attribute it primarily to the spiritual emptiness many have felt with classic yeshiva experiences, shuls, and communities.  Rav Shafran protested, defending the “Litvishe” derech and its importance, and ascribed the lack of fulfilment felt there primarily to external factors such as technology, the desire to substitute an actual connection with Hashem through Torah, with “sugarcoated feelings toward Hashem”, which is “immensely easier to attain than ameilus in Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafos”. In a rejoinder, Rav Weinberger argued that Rav Shafran’s letter showed how “misunderstood and misinterpreted this spiritual uprising is”.   He went on to describe what Chassidus is really about, noting that blaming technology will not answer why Chassidus started in the first place in the time of the Baal Shem Tov.  Further, that true delving into Chassidic texts etc. requires no less ameilus than deep study of Talmud – the difference being the search for pnimiyus haTorah that speaks directly to the soul.  I have not done justice to any of these important essays, I merely wanted to very briefly recap them as an introduction to some thoughts I am moved to share.

I just spent two days learning intricacies and commentaries and questions and answers about . . . oxen goring cows.   WHO CARES ABOUT THAT ANYWAY??? 

I begin by remembering a watershed event in my life when I was about 19 years old.   Sitting by myself one evening after fairly successfully wrestling that day with a sugya in Baba Kama at my prestigious Yerushalayim yeshiva, when it occurred to me, “I just spent two days learning intricacies and commentaries and questions and answers about . . . oxen goring cows.   WHO CARES ABOUT THAT ANYWAY???   What possible difference will it make in my life, or anyone else’s, to know this stuff?   So what if the Rashba and the Ritva disagree on this or that detail?   The Ketzos came up with a brilliant way of viewing it – but . . . so what?  Why am I spending years of my life struggling with this, when there are so many more interesting – let alone practical – things I could be reading about and trying to master?  Furthermore, why is the yeshiva world seemingly determined to focus so much passion in the public and private sphere on issues that seem so small-minded and unimportant?   Why are there demonstrations and newspaper articles and endless discussions about minutiae of alleged halacha and hashkafa violations – where is Hashem in all this?”

Having formulated questions that had been gnawing at me for some time, I grew increasingly disinterested in my studies and looked for something more.  I had enough exposure to have a strong sense that there was more to be had, but I had no idea know where to go to find it.

I received an additional incentive when I subsequently served as an advisor on one of the early NCSY summer seminars.  I will never forget the first Erev Shabbos that we had.  There I was, urgently helping the new NCSYers to prepare for Shabbos, going through some Shabbos dos and don’ts for the non-observant kids, when they began to ask me “Why can’t we do X?  Why do we have to do Y?   Why do you think it is important to put on tefillin, and so on and so forth . . . and I realized that – other than because Halacha says so – I had NOTHING intelligible to offer them!  I shamefully realized that had never asked myself these questions, and never had heard anyone else ask them either.

I could write a book about my journey since then if space would permit. Suffice it to say that those experiences were life-changing.  Baruch Hashem, I had the very good fortune of meeting several wonderful Rabbonim and fellow Jews who inspired and continue to inspire me, by introducing me to the “spiritual side” of Torah, literally saving my spiritual life.  These Rabbonim included most notably Rav Nachman Bulman זצ”ל, and יבלחט”א Rav Michel Twerski שליט”א, with whom I was blessed to be able to develop a close relationship.  But for their loving teaching and personal attention, I fear that I would have been lost to Klal Yisroel, despite my fine family and yeshiva upbringing.

I wrote this to describe that I am very familiar with the spiritual malaise underlying the issues raised in the article; a condition shared by a great many, though they would never admit it publicly.   Given this background, I wanted to make several points that I do not feel were sufficiently addressed in these articles.

When one hears the term “spirituality,” one generally understands it to refer to a person who experiences a great and deep sense of feeling for the sacred, and for religious acts laden with great purpose and meaning . . . these “spiritual” activities are not emphasized by many of us

1) The Importance of Spirituality – In his essay Rav Shafran shared that:

“This new approach reminds me of a sign I recently saw. It was an advertisement, and it went something like this: ‘Spiritual but not religious? This class is for you.’ We all understand the fallacy of such an advertisement. Only the One we attempt to connect with can decide how that spiritual connection is made.” 

With all due respect, the fallacy, in my humble opinion, is in Rav Shafran’s thinking.  There is a great deal of “spiritual seeking” in the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, which (at least on the surface) has little or nothing to do with Torah.

In my first major effort as a writer, published in  September 1996 in the (Mishpacha predecessor) Jewish Observer, I wrote in part:

I had trouble recognizing spirituality in the yeshiva world as I experienced it. I certainly saw abundant love of Torah learning, great care taken in mitzvah observance, and considerable effort to pray well . . . But yet, the wonder and beauty of experiencing Shabbos through the eyes of a newcomer; the delving into those parts of the Torah that made not just the what, when and how, but the why of mitzvah observance come alive; the examination not just of the obligations of our souls, but of their essence . . . these “spiritual” activities are not emphasized by many of us.

When one hears the term “spirituality,” one generally understands it to refer to a person who experiences a great and deep sense of feeling for the sacred, and for religious acts laden with great purpose and meaning. A spiritual person is usually understood to be one who strives for inner peace resulting from a profound understanding that the belief system and set of actions that he or she subscribes to are in fact greatly moving and meaningful. It is a person who is not satisfied with doing things by rote or ritual, but constantly seeks to infuse those actions with deeply personal meaning.

While I find a great appreciation and love for Torah in most of my frum brothers and sisters, I find little evidence of effort to delve into the implication of mitzvos for one’s personal growth, to look for what this or that mitzva means to the self. . .  what is generally referred to as “spirituality” usually means a derech in which people seek to instill in their actions, life, and thoughts a deep sense of the inspiring, the moving, and the sacred; and often this is not what is emphasized in parts of our communities.

With all due respect, the spiritual seeking of those who are currently not finding it purely in yeshiva type learning is to be respected and encouraged.   Hopefully, they will someday find a closeness to Hashem in learning.  But again, as I wrote then:

There is a “deep sense of spirituality that is out there in the form of a “Hunger, not for bread, nor for water, rather to hear (understand) the word of Hashem.” Perhaps it would not be too bold for me to suggest that these neshamos are not yet ready for “lachma shel Torah” (the bread of Torah), meaning the basic world of halachic learning and observance. They first need to deeply “hear” the word of Hashem, to sense that Hashem is speaking to them in a way that they can relate to as being meaningful.

2) It should be obvious that those who find their spiritual path in Chassidus are among the fortunate ones.

Unfortunately, there is a far greater number that have taken their dissatisfied souls to another place – the one we call “Off the Derech”.   This is so pervasive a phenomenon that there has been much written about it; I need not discuss it here.  I mention it only to note that (a) those defending the Litvishe Derech surely ought to acknowledge that for many people it is not working, and much thought must be given to how to adapt it so that it works better for all.  Furthermore, (b) all is not well in the Chassidic world either.  Taking nothing away from the beautiful descriptions (in the original Mishpacha article) of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere and Ashreinu in Seattle – and I admire and am very personally familiar with both – it would be disingenuous to ignore the all-too-many in the Chassidic world who are just going through the motions, “Orthopraxic” (keeping up external appearances while dying inside spiritually), and moreover the great many who have dropped out of Chassidic communities altogether.  Recognizing that neither the Litvish or Chassidic approaches fully solve the problem brings me to my main point.

3) It is crucial to recognize that there is no “one size fits all” path for all spiritual seekers to achieve greater spiritual meaning.   I daresay Rav Weinberger would readily agree that Chassidus is not for everyone.  In fact, he has devoted a great deal of his efforts in teaching classic “Litvish” learning, as well as non-Chassidic spiritual sources, particularly the beautiful Torah of Rav Kook זצ”ל.  There are those who are drawn by the emotional/spiritual/mystical/ pull of Chassidus, while there are some who are “allergic” to it and are completely unmoved by its practice and teachings.  Even within Chassidus there are many different schools of thought, practice, and flavor. . . a person may be drawn to one and totally uninspired by the other.

Chazal taught us that the twelve tribes differed not only genealogically, but that each had its individual flavor and approach.  Hashem was teaching us, from the beginning – that within the boundaries of Halachah there are many valid spiritual paths, and they all should be respected as appropriate for different personalities.

Spiritual paths include those of the Sefardic world, with its deep and moving teachings of the Ben Ish Chai and so many other greats – and in the teachings of the Zohar and Kabbalah – which require great Ameilus to master.  Others find that the teachings of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and the path of Torah Im Derech Eretz opens many beautiful vistas on pnimiyus Hatorah, making some otherwise stale subjects – in particular, the Korbonos and Bais Hamikdosh – come alive with deep, personal meaning.  And then there are those who love the study of non-Chassidic seforim like the Meshech Chochmah and many works of Jewish Philosophy such as the Ramchal, Maharal, Kuzari, and so many others that can inspire many to deeper thinking, having nothing to do with Chassidus.   Of course, Mussar as developed by Rav Yisroel Salanter and many greats of the Mussar movement, including contemporaries such as Rav Shlomo Wolbe זצ”ל provides a deeply spiritual practice that, presented properly, (as opposed to too many Mussar shmuesen that leave the listeners feeling guilty and inadequate) can inspire adherents to great and noble spiritual heights, while again, having little or nothing to do with Chassidus.

And last but not least, the straight and narrow litvishe approach, which focuses on Gemara and Halacha as the spiritual path to Hashem, and which appeals to many who are not inspired by any of the above, can and should be taught in ways that don’t leave 19-year-old bachurim wondering why they are “wasting their time” on this irrelevant stuff.  It is not difficult, with just a bit of effort, to translate oxen goring cows into traffic accidents; shtaros into mortgages and deeds, and to bring the sugyos into real life Halacha L’Maaseh.  After all, the main point of so many sugyos is not the “Heicha timtza” of the case at hand, but rather the sensitivities Chazal are working with while discussing how human frailties and idiosyncrasies can be respected and transformed by applying proper Halachic principles.  Talmidim can be shown how Chazal are training us to think and apply Halachic principles and sharpening our minds to be able to properly know how to question, analyze, and gain insights into Pnimiyus HaTorah.

Furthermore, as Rav Joseph B Soloveichik writes so beautifully in Halachic Man, the quest for Halachic perfection and exactitude is exciting if we properly understand the context.  It is about how we – pitiful, puny humans – seek to discover and perform the wishes of the great Master of the Universe, who has given lowly us the incredible privilege of serving Him who, incredibly, is concerned with our actions.  That alone is reason enough to want to learn and do the mitzvos as perfectly as possible and transforms it into a deeply compelling spiritual quest.

The path arrived at may be exclusively in one direction.  It might also turn out to be an amalgam.

So how does one sort this all out?  I only have one answer.  There is a need for an educational system that will expose talmidim to a variety of approaches, and for spiritual guides to help them find that to which their neshama is drawn, cognizant of many different valid approaches.

One educator who did this in an amazingly successful way was Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz זצ”ל.  He embodied and taught many different derachim, being a student of Chassidus, Rav Hirsch, Rav Meir Shapira, Chasam Sofer, and the litvishe yeshivos.  He made sure that his yeshiva, Torah VoDaas had many different influences, allowing talmidim to find their own way, and encouraging them to be serious about their quest, wherever it led them.  I believe that with proper exposure to many derachim, coupled with a wise guide who could help people find their own “spiritual aptitude” a great many more souls would find their way to the place they belong.

The path arrived at may be exclusively in one direction.  It might also turn out to be an amalgam.  I was privileged to be present when Rav Bulman was the keynote speaker at KAJ in Washington Heights on the 100th Yahrzeit of Rav SR Hirsch.  He began his remarks by saying, “Here I stand, having been brought up in the Gerrer Shteible, learned in Yeshiva University under Litvishe Rabbonim, about to lecture to Yekkes about Rav Hirsch.”  He was, in fact, a beautiful amalgam of all of those approaches, a path I have sought to emulate.  In some areas, Rav Hirsch is my guiding light.  In others, the teachings of Chassidus has brought so much beauty into my life.  I treasure as well the rigor of Litvishe learning to which I was exposed, and take much pleasure in learning works of Jewish philosophy. This approach works for me; it is important for everyone to find their own path for their unique neshama.

In summary, the problem of too many people being uninspired in their Torah lives, even within the great yeshiva systems, is a very real and painful one.   Chassidus may be in vogue, but it not for everyone.   Baruch Hashem there are many other approaches available for those who seek.   Rav Soloveichik spoke often about how the Torah tells us:

וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּ֥ם מִשָּׁ֛ם אֶת־הֹ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּמָצָ֑אתָ כִּ֣י תִדְרְשֶׁ֔נּוּ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ

And you will seek from there Hashem your G-d and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and soul.  (Devarim 4:29)

We were born with a soul that presses us to search for Him.   How to do that search?   Which direction to go?   The only direction that we are given is to do it with all our heart and soul.  Which is different for each of us.