Hassidic realism

Rabbi Zvi Leshem's biblical commentary draws on the world of the exotic.

September 11, 2007 09:24
hassidic book 88 224

hassidic book 88 224. (photo credit: )

Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals By Rabbi Zvi Leshem Southern Hills Press 354 pages; $19.95/NIS 119 I have a confession to make. I have been pretending to be a woman for some years! That is to say, I have been receiving the weekly e-mails of Rabbi Zvi Leshem (Blobstein) addressed to the alumni of Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Higher Torah Studies for Women (www.nishmat.net). He is director of the Alisa Flatow Overseas Program and teaches Talmud, Jewish law and Jewish thought. This book is a compilation of some of these articles which discuss the weekly parsha (Torah reading) in a unique way. Leshem is an unashamed religious Zionist with love of the land who looks at the weekly Torah reading through the prism of Hassidism, but grounded in the reality of current events. From time to time he also refers to traditional and contemporary commentators. When I was a young man, English readers only had the option of reading the parsha commentary of Nechama Leibowitz, but now there must be hundreds of English commentaries. Some relate to only one famous commentator of yesteryear, but most are collations of various commentators - be they contemporary or traditional. Some have one theme, such as ethics, but this is the first book in English that emphasizes almost exclusively the hassidic masters. Long peyot, a gartel and prayer in the style of Shlomo Carlebach are becoming much more popular in the world of National Religious youth. Maybe this parallels the success of Harry Potter as a need to escape from the perceived staidness of the establishment and enter a higher world of the exotic. In the absence of an index, I did my own analysis of which authors appeared prominently. The main actors are the Izbitzher Rebbe (Mei Shiloah),the previous Slonimer Rebbe (Netivot Shalom) and the Piaseczner Rebbe (Aish Kodesh). Also flitting across the stage from time to time are the Sfat Emet, Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, Rav Yitzhak Ginsburg, Rav Zaddok, and from the non-hassidic world Rashi, Ramban, Samson Rafael Hirsch, Joseph Soloveitchik, Avraham Kook and the Maharal. It does not matter if one is not familiar with these famous personalities, as their comments stand alone. I would like to present a few examples to give you the flavor of this book. In Parshat Bo, the author waxes poetic on the concept of song which I doubt you would find in a non-hassidic work. Based on the Zohar, he writes that in Egypt we were unable to speak. "One cannot conduct a verbal debate with the heresy of Pharaoh. Victory can only come through the tune, through a silence, not for lack of words, but above words. Through tune and song to God, I redeem myself from the constricted consciousness of Egypt, from loneliness and depression." The Piaseczner Rebbe writes that "the tune is one of the keys to the soul, arousing it and its emotions... Accustom yourself to the song and tune of serving God... Take a tune, face the wall or simply close your eyes and imagine that you are standing in front of the throne of glory. You pour out your soul to God in song and tune from the depths of your heart. This is the way of the hassid. He cries sometimes during a happy song and while dancing, and he dances to the tune of Kol Nidrei." Incidentally, I recommend a visit to Ramat Beit Shemesh to daven with the present Piaseczner Rebbe, who is a warm, open, friendly personality. Some of the author's comments on the situation in Israel today are found in Parshat Balak when quoting Rashi's words that, in the desert, the tent openings faced away from each other to ensure maximum modesty and privacy for each family. "One modern example of this is Moshav Keshet in the Golan Heights, where the houses are designed with this principle in mind." He brings other views on what Balaam meant by praising the tents and dwelling places from Chizuki, Sforno, Rabeinu Bechaya and the Netziv, all in the space of one page. He concludes: "The tribes dwell together in peaceful unity, our most powerful weapon against adversity. Let us aspire to this sorely needed harmony today, both in the spiritual and political sense." "How to Stay in the Land" is the title of Leshem's essay on Parshat Aharei Mot. After noting that we are told that we will be vomited out of the land if we are sinners on sexual matters, he says: "Unfortunately our moral behavior in Eretz Yisrael today is in dire need of improvement. Certain leaders of secular Zionism articulated the goal of transforming Am Yisrael into a nation like all others. Unfortunately this misguided dream has been far too successful. Those who are committed to Torah values share a great responsibility to do everything in their power to bring all of the Jewish people to the realization that our continued existence in Eretz Yisrael is dependent upon our following the Torah and observance of the mitzvoth. We have already learnt the hard way that 'religious coercion' tends to backfire, and we need to find the proper balance between love and strength in dealing with the broader community, much of which is starved for spiritual meaning and guidance." The essay on "The Power of Joy" illustrates another particular but not exclusive hassidic idea. Commenting on the reunion between Jacob and Joseph, he brings the Sfat Emet who quotes the Maharal that Jacob reached a state of deveikut with God and therefore read the Shema. But Joseph was accustomed to serve God through everyday activities, so he did not need to say it. The Piaseczner explains that Jacob recited the Shema to declare that one can only serve God through joy: "We should all aspire to merit serving God through joy." Anyone who has attended the Friday night prayers of the Carlebach shul in Efrat where Leshem is the spiritual head knows that he practices what he preaches. I hope that there will be a second volume and that it will include a short biography of the main commentators, as well as a bibliography for further reading. Maybe this will include the doctoral thesis Leshem is now researching entitled "Between Prophecy and Messianism: The Hassidism of the Piaseczner Rebbe."

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