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.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Cleanliness is next to Chassidishkeit

Our shul recently marked the yahrzeit of Reb Nochum Zalman Gurewicz, on Tisha b'Av. Many people in the community have a diversity of memories about Reb Nochum, whether it was watching him say tehilim in almost every free moment, or his kadish and davening at the amud. In a great reflection, Isaac Balbin reminded us of a few of his attributes and lessons we can learn.

One that stuck out for me was that Reb Nochum was always impeccably dressed, with never a thread out of place. The same was true of a number of his peers, in particular my zeide Reb Zalman Serebryanski, and Reb Isser Kluwgant - they were all "dapper gentlemen". My zeide, in his role at Yeshivah Gedola, would insist that bochurim kept their lives neat and tidy - he used to say that if a boy's room at yeshivah is clean and organized, then one can be assured that his learning was also on track.

Was this manner of dress part of their identity as a chossid?

As a former talmid of Reb Nochum, I recall fondly many colourful incidents that too place when we were in class with him. While our class were generally a very conscientious group, many of us enjoyed stirring things up in Reb Nochum's class and watching him lose his temper. One day during class, a student from another class came in with something Reb Nochum had to sign: "Chuck your signature on this", he said as he plonked the documentation in front of Reb Nochum. Say no more! Reb Nochum flew into a rage: "What is 'chuck'? I do not 'chuck'! I am not an 'Aussie'!". On and on he went as we sat back and enjoyed the show.

Was this rejection of Australian coloqualism and culture part of his identity as a chossid?

The elter chassidim came from a different time, a different culture. Being transplanted as far away as possible from Russia, both physically and spiritually, would certainly have been a huge challenge for them. Part of their role was to represent Chabad in Melbourne to the outside world, often as fundraisers, so dressing well and looking clean and sharp was certainly necessary. But it's doubtful that they did this just for outsiders. They looked after their appearance because it was important to them. I don't know if this was chassidishkeit, or just menschlechkeit. To be sure, being a chossid did not mean they should not care about their appearance or look like a shloch. "A chossid as a soldat, a soldier", Reb Zalman would say. A soldier wears a uniform. The soldier metaphor is evident in the Tzivos Hashem campaign as well. A uniform is worn with pride. A uniform is kept immaculate. A farklempt, untucked shirt and a beaten-up hat that belongs in the bin is not a chassidish uniform.

From research I have done into other post-WW2 immigrants, the clash of cultures was very stark. Immigrants came with little or no money, and had to take whatever work was available. This exposed them to Australian co-workers, often from working-class backgrounds in factories. Whether they came from baalabatish families or were brought up from home with a strong work ethic, it was very clear to them that these local 'Aussies' were a different breed. The rejection of Australian culture and colloquialisms was likely a rejection of assimilation, and a need to retain and maintain the standards they were brought up with.

For our generation, this is far more difficult. While we may see a big difference between ourselves and beer-guzzling, foul-mouthed Aussies, many aspects of Australian culture are well embedded in our lifestyle. We drink beer and swear, so it's only a question of degree. We watch TV, we talk about sport, we go to the football and the cricket (indeed, part of the appeal of Rabbi Groner OBM back in the mid 1950s was that he could engage with younger people about sport). So as chassidim, to what extent should we reject the local culture? Indeed, to engage with the world around us, to be effective in outreach, we must be able to speak like a local. How easy is it to know all about Aussie culture, but not actually be a Aussie? Is it even possible?

I don't know the answer to this. Perhaps it is like an undercover police officer, who lives with drug dealers and users, and plays the part, but deep down knows that he doesn't belong.


  1. When I came to this country in 1993 I could barely speak English. I enrolled in YG. I remember Nochum Zalman taking me to some warehouse and bought me my first descent pair of shoes & a suit. That was one of my first encounters with him. He gave me what I needed begashmius. It's this simple act of kindness at that is worth much more then any chassidus he could have taught me. Because it is this act of kindness I remember the most, Dovid Trakhtman

  2. I too recall a chosid from my youth who spent all his free time engaged in either chazering mamorim or hosting guests in his house.
    The idea that a clean organized spotless surrounding was a part of being a lubavitcher chosid,was the antithesis of everything he was.
    I don't make this comment with any disrepect ,in fact I have nothing but the fondest memories of him .He was then, and still is today, to me an example of a chosid living in a chaotic world dedicating his life to chasidus and the Rebee
    I'm no expert on what constitutes chasidishe values ,I can however say that in all my time at many different farbrengans I was never privileged to hear a mashpia speak of the value of dressing well
    In my humble opinion how one dresses or keeps his home or room is more a reflection of his personal character than it is a part of his avoda
    By the way the chosid I speak of above is Chaim BEN zalmen Serabryansky

  3. There is a famous sichah on Parshas Sh'lach in which the Rebbe describes the sin of the Meraglim as being the fact that they wanted to preserve their Utopian existance in the Midbar. They had the Mon to feed them, Ananei Hakovod to protect them and they persued a spiritual existance of learning Torah from Moshe Rabbeinu all day. They chose this life and rejected what Hashem wanted for to go into the world of physicality. A world where we have to work hard (B'zeias apechoh toichal lechem) and deal with the mundane existance around us in a manner that not only we are not affected by it, but that we affect it by infusing Kedusha and Tahara into the world.

    Some have the approach of putting up "walls" to segragate themselves from the world around them, thus preserving their own (communal) "Utopia". I have always understood that the view of Chabad is to move beyond these walls and integrate with the world around. This is done with the intent of elevating it to Kedusha (Dirah B'tachtonim), NOT as an end of its own.

    Es Chatoai Ani Mazkir, I have been to plenty of Footy and Cricket matches in my time. Yet if I am to be totally honest with myself, I can't say that I went to too many of them with the Kavonoh of infusing Kedusha into the MCG. I think only a couple of times I took my Teffilin with the hope of putting them on someone...

    This is not to say that (Chas Vesholom) the Chabad approach is wrong. Just that perhaps(to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Groner z"l - "I'm talking about myself here!")we are falling for the same trick as the Meraglim did in seeing Olam Hazeh as an end of its own and therefore being either desirable or undesirable.

    Maybe we should make a bit of a Cheshbon Hanefesh and be brutally honest with ourselves about how much we are affecting the world around us as opposed to how much is it affecting us?

    I once saw a quote from the Frierdike Rebbe in which he said (I can't remember the precise wording):"Oihev es habrios umekorvon le'Torah - Bring them close to Torah, but don't shlepp the Torah down into the mud!"
    By all means be "into" sports, but with which Kavonoh?

    Sorry for rabbitting on a bit much, but I just love an online Farbrengen.....

  4. Remember the talk by the kinnus last year by Reb Aron Slonim about a shlaich who wanted to go to the games with the kavanah of... and the Rebbe told him whatever you decide remember that you are takign the Shver with you.