Thursday, February 19, 2015

Forum or Against 'Em?

As a Jewish educator, I am constantly aware of the various ways in which individuals relate to our religion. The individualistic approach is often most stark with high school students in the process of identity formation. Interacting with teenagers as they navigate the assimilation of religion into their personae can be at once fascinating, frustrating, disheartening, and inspiring. Above all, these experiences have solidified my appreciation of the need for various forms of Jewish expression.

For this reason, I am a bit wary of Yeshiva University’s choice of Neo-Chassidus for its latest Orthodox Forum. As a colleague of mine pointed out, phenomenology (the study of how people experience things) is a large part of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, and is therefore a very appropriate lens for Yeshiva University to use. If the goal of this forum is understanding the experience of Neo-Chassidus and using this understanding to gain a more nuanced view of religion, kol hakavod. Unfortunately, current trends lead me to be concerned that this may not be the case.

To be clear, I do not intend to project dubious intentions on those who chose the topic, nor is this directed at any of the writers. My concern is simply about the current social climate that made this topic a relevant choice.

In recent years, social media has broken down boundaries across the world, and in doing so has allowed public conversations to include millions of voices at once. No longer are any ideas immune from criticism or mockery. On the other hand, the global conversation has facilitated a tremendous amount of idea-sharing, allowing individuals to develop nuanced viewpoints on subjects they never would have access to in the past.

Global Jewish conversations have followed the same pattern. It has become in vogue for Jewish pundits, writers and experts (those deserving of the title and self-appointed ones) to place a large amount of energy into deconstructing the behaviors and customs of those who do differently. Besides creating animosity, this phenomenon has another result. Those able to positively impact their own communities through influential writing, public initiatives, and proactive leadership are not. Instead, they spend time criticizing others in the “defense of the truth.”

Bringing this back to Neo-Chassidus, the criticizers were in top form after the Jewish Action article chronicling Neo-Chassidus was published. One blogger felt the need to defend the faith by asking “Why not Neo-Hisnagdus?” as if there is a competition for the heart of the Orthodox world. An article in this paper two weeks ago discussed those who “worry out loud” about Neo-Chassidus as if it has destructive potential, and many people give Neo-Chassidus nothing more than a “at least it keeps some people frum” nod.

The practice of placing every idea and behavior under the microscope of authenticity has to stop. There is nothing wrong with respectful debate, even if emotions run a little high. This is all normal. But it should give one pause when Yeshiva University feels it so important to dedicate its one annual forum to deconstruct a phenomenon that brings joy, spirit, and depth of understanding to Judaism. Neo-Chassidus is not a threat, and it is not the “other.” It is simply one expression of a Torah meant to reach many. If we can’t appreciate the validity of various approaches, that is a problem.

Although we begin asking ourselves “how does this fit into my identity?” as teenagers, the process doesn’t end there. Thoughtful individuals are constantly assimilating certain ideas and behaviors while rejecting others. However, it is important for us to realize that what one rejects can become the identity of another. One approach is not necessarily right and the other wrong; the two are simply different. Live and let live; such a simple idea, yet so routinely ignored. Maybe we should hold a forum to discuss it.

Originally Published in Jewish Link of NJ and of Westchester Bronx & Connecticut (,

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