Thoughts on the challenges of being a chossid (or trying) in a modern world.
Fellow Lubs are most welcome to read and share and comment. Chabad-haters and agitators, please find another place to troll.

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Aspirational Chossid

The genesis for this blog was at dinner with some friends. We looked around the restaurant and observed groups of young people in the community, and the discussion moved to what Chabad means to these people and how they express (or don't express) their Chabad identity.

This led to a story about a wonderful farbrengen, which was told to my friend first hand by Reb Mendel Futerfas OBM.

The farbrengen took place when Reb Mendel was in his youth (probably shortly after he was married). It was yud tes kislev, but his mashpiah was away. The young melamdim decided to hold a farbrengen in honour of the day, but no-one felt qualified to farbreng without their mashpiah present.

It started at around 10 PM, and in the absence of anyone speaking, it consisted of nigunim and alcohol.

At around 1 AM, one person finally got up and asked the group: "Yidden, what are we? Chassidim? Certainly not! Reb Binyomin Kletsker was a chossid; Reb Zalman Zesmer was a chossid, but we are certainly not chassidim!" And then he sat down, and the farbrengen continued.

At around 3 AM he stood up again: "Yidden, what are we? Chassidim? Certainly not! Are we then misnagdim? Chas veshalom! Did the Alter Rebbe have misaras nefesh so that we should be misnagdim? No way!" And then he sat down again.

At around 6 AM, he asked the question again: "Yidden, what are we? Chassidim? Certainly not! Misagdim? Chas veshalom! What are we then? Mir villen zein chassidimwe are those who want to be chassidim." And with that the all-night farbrengen ended.

Reb Mendel told my friend that this is our generation. We are not chassidim. Chas veshalom to say that we are misnagdim. We are aspirational chassidim.

When I mentioned this to another friend (so that means I have at least two) in shul on Shabbos, he commented on the similarities with the beinoni of Tanya. Do you know any beinonim? It's hard to say, especially because we don't know the very private battle between good and evil that goes on inside the mind and soul of another person. Although generally, the madreiga of beinoni is considered aspirational rather than achievable, certainly in recent generations.

And that's OK. It's OK to live life with aspirational goals that are never attained. Indeed, the beinoni could be considered an aspirational tzadik - always living life on the edge, in constant battle with his/her yetzer hora, and always just staying on top. This is consistent with the Rambam's statement that we should consider ourselves, and the entire world, to be half meritorious and half guilty.

The big challenge is the yeridas hadoros. Reb Mendel looked at the Reb Binyomins and Reb Zalmans who were a model of what a chossid was. Some of us were fortunate enough to be able to engage with and observe the elter chassidim of our generation - the Reb Mendels and others - and look to them as a model of what a chossid is/was. But sadly, that generation is dwindling away. As I look around shul, the people who represent the closest thing we have to elter chassidim are not people I aspire to be like. What then for the younger generation? And don't even get me started on our relationship with the Rebbe (will deal with that topic further in other posts).

Perhaps then, this blog is a hemshech of Reb Mendel's farbrengen, in a new form, for a new generation. A place where we can talk candidly about the challenges of being an aspirational chossid in a modern world, and hopefully find inspiration to drive us in such uncertain times.


  1. Nice concept for the blog and excellent article.
    Kol Hakavod!

  2. The following was recently published via Bais Shmuel Synagogue in Crown Heights:

    "Once while Dr. David Weiss was in yechidus with the Rebbe, he asked him if he could consider himself a chassid. "I am attracted to the chassidic way of life," he explained, "but can never see myself donning a black hat or chassidic garb. Does this disqualify me?"

    The Rebbe responded, "When a Jew endeavours to take a step forward in the service of G-d and the love of his fellow man every day, I am happy to consider him my chassid."

  3. From Rabbi Manis Freidman:

    "The question of who is a chasid has to be asked and viewed from the Rebbe's perspective, if we could ask the rebbe today who are his Chasidim, would he point to you?......If the Rebbe thinks that you are a chasid then you are a chasid, if the Rebbe takes responsibility for you then you are his chasid"

  4. The issue is not if the Rebbe would have considered you his chasid or not... I am not even sure of the purpose of that discussion. One may think that since I am taking "a step forward" the Rebbe would consider me a chosid so that is good enough - many misngadim take steps forward and dont care for the title of Chosid.

    It is likely the Rebbe was telling Dr Weiss something he needed to hear. We have a much higher aspirations to be considered a chosid.

    Many of the young people today who don't act very chasidish are probably taking steps forward in their service of G-d and the Rebbe would consider them a Chosid. But is that the end game or is being a Chosid more about doing everything the Rebbeim wanted in you personal and public life? Or at least aspiring to do what they wanted?

  5. David,

    Nice article and a very powerful story. It says a lot about what it means to be a Chabad chasid. Self-awareness, self-criticism, and realism, combined with optimism and aspiration, conducive to action.

    In response to Anonymous (14 August 2012 17:17):

    I am very skeptical of the notion that a chasid is someone who does "EVERYTHING the Rebbeim wanted in you personal and public life." That may be the result of being a chasid (and may even be a definition of the ideal poilishe chasid), but it does not define what a CHABAD chasid is.

    A chabad chasid is someone who aspires and assiduously attempts to assimilate the teachings of chabad chasidus and live his life accordingly. It implies the cultivation of a world view and a way of life rather than unquestioning adhesion to a formulaic set of rituals or observances.