Monday, October 25, 2010

Finding Yiddishkeit and Chassidus - Going Down the Rabbit Hole

I can explain why I originally became frum "while standing on one foot" (cf. Shabbos 31a) with just three words: "Torah is deep."

As a reform Jewish high schooler in a medium sized Jewish community in the South, I was not particularly seeking any new form of spirituality. I was moderately involved Jewishly and was even on the local chapter board of NFTY (the National Federation of Temple Youth). Based on my exposure at that point (aside from some semi-Jewish poetry in the back of our "Gates of Prayer" prayerbook), I took it for granted that Judaism is a fairly shallow enterprise.

For example, in sunday school growing up, every Sukkos we went out to the Temple's Sukkah and the rabbi explained the significance of waving the four species. He always said that "We wave them in all six directions to remind us that G-d is everywhere." It was the same explanation year after year, from the early grades through early high school. It was mostly the same with respect to the other aspects of Jewish practice they taught us about. But aside from the fact that I found these teachings boring, the superficiality did not really bother me very much. I just assumed that one-line pat explanations like this were what Judaism consisted of. And that was that.

Over Channukah my sophomore year in high school, however, I met a couple of orthodox kids at an inter-youth group event at the JCC. Because I fancied myself an open-minded person with respect to people of "other faiths," I interestedly asked them about orthodoxy. To my surprise, their answers to why they did this or that thing were not the kind of pat one-line answers I expected based on my own Jewish experience. There was depth, common sense, and thought-out explanations for each detail of what they did. This depth fascinated and attracted me and was the impetus for me to continue my friendship with them. This process led me to begin attending a Torah class for teenagers and eventually become observant myself.

Fast forward several years later, through post-high school yeshiva and eventually kollel: Over time, I learned how to learn Torah from the original sources, but there was something about the Gemara and Chumash that did not completely satisfy me. I often found Gemaras (sometimes Agadata and sometimes not) which screamed out to me that there was a deeper meaning to the text. As Rashi always says, "אין המקרא הזה אומר אלא דרשני." See, e.g. Rashi on Bereishis 1:1.

I searched through the perushim in the Gemara, the Ain Yaakov, and the seforim commenting on the Gemara found in most batei medrash. Maharal in Chiddushei Agados sometimes "hit the spot," but it was slim pickins'. It seemed that almost nothing went down beneath the surface of the Gemara's simple meaning. As for Chumash, when I had that feeling, I looked through all of the meforshim in the Mikra'os Gedolos and other seforim on the Chumash with similar results (although Kli Yakar and Ohr Hachaim were often very helpful). I eventually came to expect that maybe that deeper meaning and current relevance of the text either did not exist or was simply not accessable to regular people.

This perception began to change when I discovered a sefer that is sometimes found in more Litvish circles: Ohr Gedaliyahu, by Rav Gedalia Schorr, a Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vo'Daath. He was very connected to Gerer chassidus and I began to learn certain basic concepts of Chassidus from these seforim. I felt like I was finally starting to go down the rabbit hole just a little bit.

Part of the time I was learning in kollel, I worked in the evenings for a "kiruv follow-up" organization called Hashevaynu. Rabbi Zakutinsky, the founder and head of the organization, is close with Rav Moshe Weinberger, so he persuaded Rav Weinberger to come to their first few retreats, which I attended as part of the organization. Rav Weinberger is a Chassidish Rav who lives and teaches Torah in the modern orthodox community of Woodmere, in Long Island, New York.

Although I had heard Rav Weinberger speak at my then-fiancé's (now-wife's) suggestion, the Torah and Chassidus he taught at those retreats were so deep, so real, and so true, that it made me feel like I was discovering an aspect of Yiddishkeit that I had always felt must be there, but never experienced.

I subsequently got a job as part of a community kollel in the Midwest. When I got there, I quickly ordered over 100 of Rav Weinberger's tapes (that dates me, I know). I listened to these tapes as I traveled to various college campuses giving shiurim and they had a deep effect on me. When it was time for my family to move to a larger community for chinuch purposes, we moved to Woodmere in order to be closer to Rav Weinberger.

Over time I attended many of Rav Weinberger's shiurim and began learning more sifrei Chassidus like the Me'or Einayim, Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Tzidkas Hatzadik, and the Tanya. The clarity of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh seforim also allowed me to go even deeper down the rabbit hole to gain a greater perspective on Judaism, a practical road to achieving my purpose in life, and a deeper understanding of all reality. In this respect, Volume 5 of the Bilvavi series and his seforim on Chumash are especially powerful and perspective-changing.

The common denominator between my discovery of Yiddishkeit in general and my discovery of chassidus in particular, is that I found a deeper life path in both of them, compared to what I was exposed to before. I feel that it is the pure chessed of Hashem that he revealed the Torah to the world through Moshe Rebbeinu and chassidus to the world through the Baal Shem Tov. It seems like the majority of people, both in the outside world and within the frum community, are satisfied with a life of superficiality. So I am thankful for Yiddishkeit generally, and chassidus in particular. B'chasdei Hashem, they are there to offer a deeper path to those who seek it out.
May all of us find our path within Yiddishkeit to a truer and deeper relationship to Hashem!

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Shmuel said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing!

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Thanks Shmuel!

One footnote:

Above I wrote, "I searched through the perushim in the Gemara, the Ain Yaakov, and the seforim commenting on the Gemara found in most batei medrash. Maharal in Chiddushei Agados sometimes "hit the spot," but it was slim pickins'."

Lest anyone misunderstand, the depth and sharpness of the rebbeim I've known and the seforim of the gedolim are indescribably great. It goes without saying that my thinking and learning do not even comparable to theirs. But there are different kinds of depth.

Let me give an analogy. A mining company can mine the earth and dig channels much deeper than I personally every could. They can pierce thousands of feet underground. But they are still only going deep within the crust of the earth, its most external layer.

I was looking for someone who was digging past the earth's crust and into the various layers of the earth's core.

No one can get to the core without first plumbing the depth's of the outer crust first. But the ultimate goal of understanding the great depths within the surface layer of the earth is to ultimately go deeper.

Neil Harris said...

Great moshul and super-great posting (maybe I'll even write one of these "how it happened" posts).

There's also a certain "vitality" to many Chassidishe teachings that speaks to many.

"It was the same explanation year after year..." is often not only a chichuch practice related to our non-Orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters. That lack of "tishchadshis", newness, is something that plagues many.

tioa said...

Thanks for the great post. I was looking for depth, but even more I was looking for consistency. Someone who did what they said that we were supposed to do. I found that led me to became frum. its hard to respect a "Rabbi" who says that he doesnt fast on Yom Kippur so that he will have the stregth to lead the davening.

micha berger said...

In scientific theories, they look for "elegance". What's an elegant theory? This month's Scientific American defines it as one that is itself simple, but its implications are deep.

What makes Torah compelling is that that entire infinite depth is still constructed into a consistent system of thought that can be seen as coming from relatively few givens.


Bob Miller said...

Micha makes a very important point, because some people take the verbosity or opacity of a presentation to be an indicator of its depth.

Something with real depth sends us a message even on our present level, while encouraging us to improve our ability to explore its less accessible levels.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Micha and Bob,

I certainly agree with you. Neither complexity nor verbosity can replace true depth. And Rav Weinberger's ability to translate the personal meaning and application of the highest ideas into people's daily lives is a big part of his greatness.


You're also right that our not-yet-observant brethren definitely don't have a monopoly on superficiality.

Neil Harris said...

DY: I'm talking about MYSELF.

micha berger said...

Something I, who sometimes amaze myself with how Litvish I am after all, find amazing...

We can be caught on a problem in an issue of chameitz. Then someone recalls something R' Chaim Brisker said in a discussion of some piece of fiscal law WRT declaring an object hefqeir (ownerless). And in a way that in all likelihood Rav Chaim was unaware -- and certainly the student in whose notes we saw the thought was unaware -- the explanation addresses our problem as well!

Yes, we're miners only scratching the planet's surface. And yet, we can see how the core of the planet is causing similar phenomena in different places. We dig a new tunnel, and find hints of the familiar in new territory.

What else can better say that both were given by the same Hand?


L said...

"Rav Gedalia Schorr, a Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vo'Daath. He was a Gerer chossid"

He was not a Gerrer Hassid. His father in law was one I believe, and lihavdil, one of his sons is (but not the others). Just because he said over thoughts from the Sefas Emes at times, doesn't mean that he was a 'Gerrer Hassid'.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


"Just because he said over thoughts from the Sefas Emes at times, doesn't mean that he was a 'Gerrer Hassid'."

No need to fret. Putting aside your minimization ("at times") of Rav Schorr's consistent connection to chassidus, I read somewhere recently that he was a "Gerer Chassid" and that was what I based the statement on. I did some follow up research now and that was probably not the most correct charactarization. I updated the post to reflect that.

Notwithstanding the tone, thank you for pointing out that legitimate correction.

L said...

DY - I'm glad that you corrected it, at least somewhat.

Rav Schorr was a complex person. On his Hassidic side, he was 'into' Sefas Emes, but also Reb Zadok and other Hassidic sources. So when I wrote "at times", what was meant that he didn't always quote from the same sefer or same dynasty. Rather he was eclectic. Like your Rebbe there in Woodmere.

And Rav Schorr also had a Litvishe side. he travelled to Europe right after his marriage to learn in Kletzk with Rav Aharon Kotler.

Since we are touching things up here, might as well go for another one too. ;-)

You wrote "a sefer that is sometimes found in more Litvish circles: Ohr Gedaliyahu". Not sure exactly what you meant by that. I don't think it is found much in hard-core Litvish circles. I would guess it is found more in Torah Vodaath type circles. Also, did you mean with that to say that Ohr Gedaliahu is not found among Hassidim? As an aside, are you aware that a grandson of Rav Schorr z"l has been a featured speaker at your congregation more than once?

I know something about what I speak....

micha berger said...

Speaking of sefarim found in more Litvisher circles... Do non-Izhbitz / Radiner chassidim quote R' Tzadoq, or is almost every copy owned by Litvaks looking for a chassidishe viewpoint?


DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Regarding Ohr Gedaliyahu, I meant that in the yeshivahs I went to in Israel and the U.S., I saw Ohr Gedaliyahu on the shelves or on people's tables. I did not mean that it's not found in the chassidic community.

If you mean Rav Avrohom Schorr speaking at Aish, absolutely. B"H, I've even been zoche to speak to him a couple of times. One of those times was referred to here:


I'm not sure of the answer to your question but I forwarded it to three people who are more "inside" knowledge of the mainstream chassidish community. We'll see.

L said...

L -

No, I didn't mean R. Avrohom Schorr shlit"a, his son, I meant grandson, as I stated.

I guess you don't know, so I will tell you. And you will see that a Litvak can know more than you think they do....

R. Zvi Meir is a grandson of R. Gedalia Schorr z"l.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

I didn't know Reb Tzvi Mayer was a grandson of Rav Gedalia Schorr. Toda!

Rabbi Tal Zwecker said...


While I can only comment for myself personally, I own and do enjoy Rav Tzadok's sefarim, I cant say that I have any seder in them as I am currently personally focused on Talmidei HaMaggid MiMezritch, however I have learned tzidkas hatzadik and enjoyed some of those insights as well as looking in some of the other seforim.

I have always been surprised that the Litvish world is so accepting of certai Chassidishe seforim such as Sefas Emes, Shem MiShmuel, Rav Tzadok and Nesivos while others are shunned or ignored...

Anonymous Chosid said...

R' Micha: To best of my knowledge, there is a set of Pri Tzaddik (at least,) in many chasdisher shuls.
It is precisely because Rav Tzaddok wrote at such great length that many chasidim do not learn it much. They don't want to give the time necessary to learn through Pri Tzaddok, or his other works.
You must understand, that, unlike Chabad, many chasidim don't spend that much time learning chasidus (a lot learn Mussar every day and Chasidus only a couple of times a week.) They often prefer shorter works on the parsha, Tanya and the like, since these can be completed in a year by devoting a relatively short time to them, daily or weekly.
Rabbi Zwecker: I have never been surprised that the Litvisher world like Shem M'Shmuel and Rav Tzaddok, even though much of what they say has largely been said before in earlier works. These sets are written as a tapestry of proofs and sources, Unlike most earlier works which are either too esoteric to be understood easily (Toldos etc,) or largely explain an inspiring concept in a pasuk or Chazal in an apparently arbitrary way. This is also why many Litvisher like Nesivos Shalom, even though he almost always repeats what was said in earlier Sifrei Slonim. He explains the process, bringing Rishoinim to support their Torah and good questions which he explains based on the earlier works with clear proofs. No wonder many find these works so compelling.

micha berger said...

Anonymous Chassid: That makes sense.

Chassidus is at its core an experience, a lifestyle, not a limud.


Anonymous said...

I'm a new user of Blogger. And I'm converting to judaism. I loved your post and I linked in my post. I hope you could read it.

I agree with you: Torah is Deep.