|n his first visit to the US, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn of Lubavitch reportedly hired men to walk the streets of New York City while reciting chapters of Mishna, ‘to purify the air.’.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hassidism is thriving in the United States of America. This should not surprise us: No other place in the entire Diaspora affords comparable economic conditions, sympathetic sensitivities, legal rights and freedoms, and has a critical population mass of hassidim who can take advantage of these opportunities. Hassidism in America is flourishing.
Yet hassidic masters have not always been so enamored with “the land of the free.”
Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira of Munkatch (1871-1937) was one of the most outspoken anti-American hassidic masters.
He chastised those who traveled to America for financial reasons, in particular people who took their families to America.
The Munkatcher Rebbe declared that it was impossible to raise God-fearing children in America, because even most of the teachers and so-called rabbis were heretics who do not believe in the coming of the messiah. Given his penchant for harsh language, the rebbe did not hold back in describing America as the land of impurity and the most spiritually desolate place on the face of the Earth. Perforce, opined the rebbe, those who lived there would come to deny the very existence of the Almighty. This, he suggested, was the greatest challenge in the pre-messianic era.
The Munkatcher Rebbe cited the sages of the Talmud who declared that there are three openings to hell: one in the desert, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem (B. Eruvin 19a). Exegetical virtuoso that he was, the hassidic master of Munkatch identified the three places: The opening to hell located in Jerusalem must be referring to the Zionist enterprise.
The opening located in the desert refers to the Communist regime in Soviet Russia who declared all property to be ownerless – just like property in a desert. The reference to the sea refers to that place across the ocean – America – where almost all people do not observe Shabbat. America was a gate to hell! Commenting on the financial promise of the Stars and Stripes, the Munkatcher Rebbe noted that not everyone enjoyed the great American dream, and even those who worked on Shabbat were not guaranteed a better and richer and fuller life. Alas, the economic immigrants were then left with nothing: no financial security and no Shabbat.
Those who decided to return to their country of origin, came back destitute – financially and spiritually – and it was difficult for them to once again observe Shabbat.
The Munkatcher Rebbe knew that there were hassidic masters who had immigrated to America and who were determined to observe Shabbat and preserve hassidic life. Yet the rebbe viewed their course harshly, suggesting that there was no chance that the saintly immigrants’ children would be God-fearing, and that these religious leaders were even complicit in the sins of other Jews in America.
The Munkatcher Rebbe was not a lone voice: In the interwar years, there were food shortages in Eastern Europe.
As part of their relief efforts, the American government generously sent sacks of flour to the hungry masses. Yet when this flour reached Rabbi Avraham Weinberg of Slonim (the second, 1884-1933), who was living in Baranowicze, he refused to eat food baked from the American flour. The Slonimer Rebbe explained that because of its origins the product could make the person worldlier and less spiritually inclined. We do not know what this rebbe thought of his two brothers-in-law who moved to America – one in 1931 and the other in 1934 – where they served as hassidic masters.
When Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Rayatz, 1880-1950) first visited America after the Great War, he reportedly hired young men to walk the streets of New York City while reciting chapters of Mishna. Through this, Rayatz hoped to purify the air of America so that he would be able to live there and spiritually survive. Despite the fact that his local followers begged him to stay in America, he declined, explaining that in America even rabbis had shaved off their beards! Rayatz returned to Europe, where he lived until World War II. In miraculous circumstances, he managed to escape Nazi-occupied Poland and made his way to… America! Rayatz arrived in New York City on March 19, 1940 where he was warmly received by Lubavitcher hassidism of America.
Lest we think that hassidic life never changes, as hassidic life in America continues to flourish, there is no significant anti-American vitriol from the hassidim. Indeed, with a twist of historical irony, both Munkatch and Lubavitch have their headquarters in “The Land of Opportunity.” The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a Kreitman post-doctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of the recently released Relics for the Present: Contemporary Reflections on the Talmud, Vol. 2.