The Hassidic movement is famous for its warm approach to all, embracing even the
sinners among us and declaring that they, too, are connected to God, no matter
how tenuous that link may seem.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce
(1760-1827) suggested this approach when he expounded the verse “Jacob is the
lot of His inheritance” (Deuteronomy 32:9) – the word for “lot” – hevel – can
also be translated as “rope”: Jacob is the rope for His inheritance. Rav Naftali
explains: someone holding the end of an extremely long rope can still be felt at
the other end of the rope. As long as a Jew holds onto the rope, no matter how
far he is from the source, he is still connected through our forefather
According to Rav Naftali’s explanation, however, one needs to
minimally be holding the rope; Rabbi Yerahmiel Yisrael Yitzhak Dancyger of
Aleksander (Yismah Yisrael, 1853-1910) does not even require that. A Jew who had
totally distanced himself from Jewish tradition was once described as being
totally cut off. When the Yismah Yisrael heard this description he quickly
corrected the mistake: true the fellow might be distant from Judaism, but how
can we say that he is “totally cut off”? That is impossible! The Yismah Yisrael
explains that each person’s soul is connected by 36 mystical strands to the
Almighty. Corresponding to each one of these mystical connections is a sin that
carries the divine punishment of karet, a penalty that involves disconnecting
one of these strands. If a Jew – heaven forfend – commits a sin that carries the
karet sentence, a strand may be severed but he is still connected by the other
If person commits multiple karet-incurring sins, the
other strands still retain the connection to God. But what if a person was to
commit all 36 sins that bear the karet punishment? Would the link then be
But the Yismah Yisrael explains that in modern times
this is an impossible scenario, for two of the karet-incurring crimes are only
relevant when the Temple is standing.
Karet is the punishment for
offering up ketoret – the sacred incense that was an important part of the
Temple service – if the admixture offered is missing one of the 11 prescribed
spices (Exodus 30:34-38; B. Keritot 6). Karet is also incurred for an
unauthorized use of the shemen hamishha, the holy anointing oil prepared by
Moses in the desert and used to anoint the Temple, its vessels, priests and
kings (Ex. 30:22-33). Since neither of these karet crimes can be perpetrated
today, explains the Yismah Yisrael, even the most grievous sinners remain
connected to God.
A prominent contemporary of the Yismah Yisrael, Rabbi
Avraham Borenstein of Sochaczew (Avnei Nezer, 1839-1910) – concurs with his
approach, offering his own perspective as a legal authority. The Avnei Nezer
states that it is prohibited to say yimah shemo, “may his name be blotted out”
(as per Psalms 109:13), regarding a fellow Jews. He explains the halachic
underpinnings of his statement as follows: if a married person dies with no
children and only a brother, the widow is connected to the brother of the
deceased until yibbum (levirate marriage), or until halitza (the ceremony
whereby this link is renounced) (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). This law applies to all,
regardless of whether the deceased was righteous or wicked. Thus, even a
deceased sinner merits that his name not be wiped out in Israel (v.
How then, concludes the Avnei Nezer, could one Jew say about another
that his name should be blotted out? To be sure, not every hassidic leader has
adopted this open-armed approach. As early as the 19th century there were
hassidic masters who sought to distance themselves and their followers from
interaction with those who did not toe the religious line.
approach of acceptance may not have become a hassidic trademark, it did become a
feature of many hassidic masters and courts. Embracing the “other” is often
recalled and extolled in hassidic tales, vignettes and teachings.
approaches – the warm, welcoming attitude on the one hand and the insular,
excluding approach on the other – have spiritual descendants in today’s hassidic
milieu. It is up to the hassidic faithful today to choose who antecedents they
wish to follow.
The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of
Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.