I am not a Chassid. A short reflection reveals certain profound differences in our religious outlooks. For instance, for the most part, chassidim have chosen to recede from the world, while the Torah enjoins us to engage in the world and be a leading example to our societies.
There is also a common anti-intellectual strain in much of chassidic thought. In contrast, the Rambam teaches us – and I take his word for it – that tzelem Elokim refers primarily to the intellect, and in the name of the Torah’s endorsement of a full humanity, we reject such anti-intellectualism.
There is also, in chassidic thought, a relatively common theology of the tzaddik, the person uniquely able to connect to G-d in each time and place. But to my perspective, each and every Jew can connect to and with G-d without an intermediary.
There are other divergences: we remain loyal to our traditional Ashkenazi customs and prayer and the chassidim have made many, many changes. People tend to think that to be chassidic or ultra-orthodox is to be traditional but, in many ways, this is belied by study of our tradition and the historical record. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves, periodically, that what many now call Modern Orthodoxy – not the compromise version, but the ideal version – is the dominant philosophical approach throughout the majority of our history. But we can save that idea for another time.
I note all of this as context to what I am about to write. The recent New York Times article making its way around the broader Jewish community (“In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Yeshivas Flush With Public Money”) details the incredible and very often sad failings of contemporary chassidic schools, mostly in New York. For now, I do not want to get into the article. I do not want to discuss its context, what it got right or wrong, or offer a defense of the schools and communities being scrutinized fairly or unfairly. I will leave that to you.
Rather, based on the Times article and listening to a wonderful chassidic educator named Eli Spitzer (who was recently interviewed on the Tikvah Podcast), I would like to take a lesson from the chassidim in question. Again, a qualification: my own ideological commitments led me and my wife to send our children to a school that pursues, as a matter of Torah commitment, excellence in both Jewish and general studies. But despite strong disagreements, there is something we must remind ourselves – something that if forgotten, we can learn or relearn from our chassidic brethren.
Why, Mr. Spitzer asks, do you think chassidim are sending their children to schools that do not offer them a basic education in math, science, literature, or other necessary social studies? Do they not love their children? Would they not draw nachas from seeing their children flourish and become doctors, lawyers, and engineers as our own children and graduates do? This question is only compounded by the fact that, in Mr. Spitzer’s experience (he is a headmaster of a chassidic school in London and an experienced educator who taught in many such institutions), many, many chassidic parents do express a desire for their children to learn English, to read and write and function properly and honorably in modern society. So why do they not arrange for this?
Because these are secondary goals to them. Their primary goal, above all else, is to raise future chassidim. This is what they want, it is what they seek, it shapes what they emphasize and what they do not, and it shapes the educational risks they are willing to take and those they are not. Their schools are cultural conduits – paths toward passing on their traditions.
I do not share their traditions. My job is to pass on my best understanding of what G-d teaches and commands and not what someone else thinks is true. Nonetheless, their goal and their resolute attitude in achieving it is a fabulous reminder of why we educate, why we go to shul, and why we attend or do not attend, celebrate or do not celebrate, certain events and occasions. And here the chassidim are right; the purpose of education is to raise people who will share our values. It is more than this, but it is not less than this. Whatever their failures – and an honest assessment must concede them – they are good at passing on their values. This is something to admire and emulate.
Our need to invest ourselves and all that we have in our continuity resonated for me in the long “Rebuke” (tochacha) in last week’s Torah reading, Parshat Ki Tavo. In it, there is one curse which is very unusual at first glance and, in my opinion, is arguably worse than all of the rest. If we do not adhere to our covenant, horrible things will happen. Our crops will fail; we will be afflicted with disease; we will be defeated by our enemies; our dreams will be crushed before our very eyes; we will turn on and attack our loved ones; we will go mad from what we have seen. Let us not list them all; it is depressing enough to read them once. But, we also read:
“And G-d will spread you out amongst the nations from one end of the world to the other; and you will worship other gods that you and your forefathers did not know, made of wood and stone” (Devarim 28:64).
This curse is painful in a different way. Yes, painful; it hurts when the next generation leaves our people and commits to a different religion or culture, with its different set of mores, values, and goals. It is a painful end when, despite our best efforts, we do not raise a new generation that lives by our values, our goals, our mores, habits, culture, and customs.
It is painful enough when this happens and it is beyond our control. After all, we do not control others and we do not control everything that happens to us and those around us. But when it happens after we have not put in our full effort, the pain truly stings.
It is clear what we must do: be chassid-like in making every possible effort to pass on all that we stand for to our children and students.
There is a jarring line in the Rebuke. In one of the explanations offered for why we will face so many curses, we read, “Because you did not worship Hashem, your L-rd, with joy and a happy heart, when you had everything” (28:47).
It is difficult to find the connecting line between most of these curses and not worshiping G-d joyfully. But the connection between dispirited avodat Hashem and an eventual betrayal of Judaism is clear. We say Shema with our children, bring them to shul, daven with them on weekends, ensure they learn Torah, spend time in environments that work toward our values, make blessings, act politely, help those in need – and these are things we do wholeheartedly and joyfully. Because only such joyful practice ensures our continuity.