21 February 2018

The Cult of Personality

7 Adar 5778

Today is both the birthday and the yahrtzeit of the holiest and most humble man who ever lived - Moshe Rabeinu. This status is attested to by the very fact that no cult of personality ever developed around him. Baruch Hashem! HKB"H saw to that. Nothing would have grieved him more.

The most extreme examples of the cult of personality are, of course, Christianity and Islam, which became world religions built around the figures of Yeshu and Mohammed.

Unfortunately for us, we see quite a lot of this sort of thing in the Jewish world today. The lower the generation goes, the more cults seem to develop, r"l. The most well-known and visible examples of this in Judaism today are Chabad and Breslov. It would seem that Hasidism is particularly prone to developing cults of personality. But, perhaps that is because it started out as such, centered as it was around the person and teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov.

That is not at all to say that there are not good and valuable lessons to be learned from the Besht or other Hasidic teachers, but one must be aware and on guard against the negative side of it as well.
The Besht also taught that the Tzaddik (the religious leader of the Hasidim) should serve as a model of how to lead a religious life. However, he did not emphasize the doctrine of the Tzaddik nearly as much as some of his successors, particularly Dov Baer of Mezrich, who made it central to Hasidism. Dov Baer, the leader of the Hasidim after the Baal Shem Tov's death, taught that God revealed Himself through the Tzaddik's most trivial actions; one of Dov Baer's followers said, "I didn't go to him to learn Torah, but to see him unbuckle his shoes." Dov Baer taught that the ideal Tzaddik had a closer relationship to God than the average Jew, and could bestow blessings on people. In return, it was understood that the Hasidim must bring their Tzaddik gifts.
The belief in the power and greatness of the Tzaddik became one of Hasidism's strongest-and most controversial-ideas. Hasidism's opponents charged that the Tzaddikim (plural) often enriched themselves at the expense of their followers. In the generation after Dov Baer, numerous new Hasidic groups were formed, each with its own Tzaddik, referred to as a rebbe. These rebbes became a kind of Jewish royalty. When one died, he was succeeded by either his son or son-­in-­law. Those Hasidic groups that established eminent family dynasties became successful. Many Hasidic groups, however, went into decline when their rebbe died and left behind less capable successors.  (Source)
Hasidism only developed in the mid-18th century and was bitterly opposed by many of their fellow Jews from its inception, including leaders of the generation like the Vilna Gaon. The Hasids themselves came up with the term Mitnagdim (opposers) to describe those who objected to the new and controversial movement.
The first communal opposition to the Hasidic movement came from the Jewish community of Shklov in Belorussia during the winter of 1772. Rabbis and communal leaders communicated their concerns about the alleged heresies of the Hasidim, who were making rapid inroads into Belorussia, to the renowned Vilna Gaon, Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman. Although some scholars differ, a majority agree that it was the Gaon who in turn galvanized the leading Jewish communities of Lithuania and Belorussia, such as Vilna, Brisk, and Minsk—in addition to Brody in Galicia—into a major battle with Hasidism. This battle was initially engaged through rabbinical letters of excommunication forbidding the establishment of Hasidic prayer houses, ordering the public burning of Hasidic literature, encouraging the humiliation and even imprisonment of Hasidic leaders, and banning contact with them or their followers.
...A public letter from the Jewish community of Vilna, bearing the signature of the Vilna Gaon, is the first document included in Zemir ‘aritsim ve-Ḽarvot tsurim. It appeared shortly after the Passover festival of 1772, and accused Hasidim of a variety of religious offenses, focusing in particular on the allegedly phony and supercilious nature of their displays of piety—characterized by ecstatic prayers, recited in unsanctioned, breakaway synagogues, that included twirls and somersaults—along with their dancing, smoking, and drinking. Generally, the ban that was the subject of this letter condemned what was deemed as the Hasidim’s inappropriate, irreverently joyful demeanor in the service of God and their disregard for Torah study and disrespect for rabbinical scholars. All this stood in sharp contrast to the ascetic, dour, and severely scholarly demeanor of the Gaon and his disciples. The main reason that Hasidism ultimately made far fewer inroads into northeastern Europe—western and northern Lithuania in particular—was the enormous and enduring influence of the Vilna Gaon in that region, and the attribution to him of the fiercest opposition to the new movement.
The death of the Gaon in 1797 and the decision of the tsarist government in 1804 to legalize Hasidic prayer houses and severely restrict the anti-Hasidic measures of the Misnagdim had the combined effect of dashing the Misnagdim’s dreams of utterly destroying Hasidism. These setbacks initially led to even more vitriolic anti-Hasidic sentiments in the polemical literature, however, along with harsher, at times desperate, Misnagdic communal measures that continued well into the nineteenth century, both in Eastern Europe and in Palestine. (Source)
If you find yourself uncomfortable with much of Hasidic teaching or practice, you are not without a prominent leg to stand on. But, the best proof of my contention that it is based primarily on the cult of personality is the fact that no one is allowed to question any aspect of the movement and no criticism is allowed. To even suggest that one is opposed to anything about it results in being utterly and completely cut off with no further contact.

What is happening now with regard to Breslov Rabbi Eliezer Berland is another example of what I term the excesses of Hasidism related to the cult of personality. I have been urged by a few people to make some statement on this matter via my blog. As a response to this urging, I will enumerate my concerns.
  • The charges brought against this rabbi are extremely serious and they come from several women from within his community.
  • The rabbi is reportedly on tape confessing his crimes.
  • The rabbi ran all over the world to escape extradition when he was originally only wanted for questioning.
  • At the same time, I am unaware of any rabbi of standing speaking publicly against him.
Therefore, I take no position with regard to guilt. I'm not on a beit din and have not been made privy to the testimony of witnesses, so that's not my place. However, I have heard his defenders claim that he "falsely confessed' in order to preserve his life. I find two problems with that: 1) where is the great Tzadik's faith that his fate and his healing is ultimately in Hashem's hands, and 2) what about the halachah that one is obligated to give up his life rather than create a public desecration of God's name? Is it possible that a man on the exalted level that is claimed for this rabbi could really have been coerced into making a false confession? 

Thank God, I do not feel the need to answer these questions. I have rabbis whom I consult regarding questions which directly impact my life, but I have no need for a "Tzadik" to be my intercessor with HKB"H

I keep a distance from all things Hasidic in any case because of its history and because of what I see from its representatives. I didn't escape one cult just to fall in with another. 

It is my personal opinion that any benefits it might have had to offer are far outweighed by the problems it presents. One can be a Litvak and experience every bit as much joy and devekut with HKB"H without the controversial baggage. 

One thing I am certain of in my own mind. Mashiach will not be someone who runs all over the world to escape answering criminal charges that have been brought against him, deservedly or not. And I can't imagine what kind of Mashiach he would be if he falsely confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to obtain medical treatment.

I'll close this subject with a general warning which appears to be in order. Do not be impressed by miracle healings, miracle blessings and miracle results to prayers. ALL of these can be accomplished by fakers, because "...the Lord, your God, is testing you, to know whether you really love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul."

Ein od milevado.