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When a hassidic master dies and a new rebbe is appointed, the new leader must contend with the customs of his predecessor: Should he promote the same atmosphere to ensure continuity and stability or should he innovate to shape the community in his own image?
When Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk (1787-1859) died, he was largely succeeded by his prime disciple, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg (1799-1866). Rabbi Yitzhak Meir was already an accomplished scholar and he would later become famous as the founder of the Gur hassidic dynasty. Rabbi Yitzhak Meir is more commonly known by the title of his books Hiddushei Harim (“The Innovations of Harim”; harim means mountains but here is used as an acronym for the author’s name). In 1831 the Hiddushei Harim prudently changed his surname from Rotenberg to Alter, out of fear of Russian reprisal for his support of the failed Polish rebellion. Alter is the surname borne by the rebbe of Gur to this day.
The Hiddushei Harim’s leadership style was markedly different from his predecessors. Where the Kotsker Rebbe had been strict, the Hiddushei Harim effused love; where previous masters had emphasized the personal journey to God, the Hiddushei Harim called for a return to normative Halacha. The change in atmosphere was palpable and apparent to all. Some of the veteran hassidim found it challenging to adapt to the new mood.
The Hiddushei Harim, a master of Jewish law, drew on the image of Halacha in his reply: “The master of hassidim is like law; when a new rebbe arrives, the law follows him. Indeed, we must internalize well the old, for if we do not internalize the old, the new will not feel right.”
In the imagery of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir, the new master is like new law that establishes norms of behavior. But the new should not totally disregard the old; previous traditions should be considered and understood. The Hiddushei Harim was at once making a claim for continuity and for innovation: Innovation should be based on an understanding of the past.
One of the Hiddushei Harim’s most trusted hassidim was Rabbi Baruch
Shapira (ca. 1797-1877). Rabbi Baruch hailed from the Lithuanian town
of Stainai. He was of distinguished hassidic lineage: His grandmother
Hava had been the sister of Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786) and
Reb Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli (ca. 1718-1800). When he arrived in
Poland as a young boy, he joined the ranks of the hassidim, following
the leading masters of his day. In the final years of his life, he
accepted the mantle of leadership, first in his Lithuanian hometown and
later in the Polish town of Czyewo.
Earlier in his life he fell ill and the doctors advised him to drink
the waters from Carlsbad (today Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic).
Before heeding the doctors’ advice he went to the Kotsker Rebbe to seek
his counsel. The Kotsker Rebbe agreed with the doctors’ instructions,
R. Baruch drank the waters and recovered.
Not long after the Kotsker Rebbe died, R. Baruch got sick again. Again
he sought the advice of doctors, again they told him to drink the
Carlsbad waters and again R. Baruch sought the advice of the rebbe –
this time Rabbi Yitzhak Meir who had just been appointed partly due to
the urging of R. Baruch.
Rabbi Yitzhak Meir heard the story and told R. Baruch not to drink the
waters. R. Baruch reminded the Hiddushei Harim that his doctor was
among the finest in Warsaw. Moreover the Kotsker Rebbe had previously
advised him to drink the waters and he had indeed recovered.
The Hiddushei Harim was unperturbed and responded succinctly: Now I am
– the Polish word for “ruling the roost.”
For the founder of the Gur dynasty, leadership was not about
carbon-copying predecessors. It was for this reason that later in his
life the Hiddushei Harim would declare that with one exception, he did
not study the works of hassidic masters of previous generations, for
each master addressed the needs of his time. In the eyes of Rabbi
Yitzhak Meir, each leader had to respond to the challenges of his day.The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.