Religion & Beliefs

Shul Hopping #3: Rolling With The Hasids

For this week’s shul hop, after the calm of the wilderness I sought out the controlled chaos of a Chasidic shul. Read More

By / July 27, 2011
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For this week’s shul hop, after the calm of the wilderness I sought out the controlled chaos of a Chasidic shul. Similarly, after the loneliness of private prayer I longed for the passionate communal experience I’ve felt amongst Chasidim. I knew which synagogue I wanted to daven in, but walking past countless shuls with devoted shouts emanating from their sanctuaries, I found it hard to choose. I stayed with my initial choice, Emunas Yisrael  (the Faith of Israel) for its reputation as a particularly passionate congregation, and for their leader, Rav Moshe Wolfson, a reputed righteous person of great kindness and wisdom.

As I walked into shul wearing a tight dark grey summer suit, skinny tie, and the kind of knit kippah usually worn by Israeli settlers, I realized my camouflage would work as well as serving in the army with a big bull’s-eye on my back. However, despite my internal insecurities, I received only smiles in return. As I walked to the back of the shul to hide, a kind older gentleman welcomed me silently with a slight wave of the hand, akin to the Miss America wave.  He then pointed me towards a seat and a shtender, a raised small desk-like item to place my siddur upon, and asked me quietly if I wanted a drink. Thinking he meant alcohol, I looked back at him in consternation.

“A drink?” I said.

To which he replied, “Nu, Coffee,” and pointed to the coffee section of the shul.

The sanctuary itself, gorgeous but not ornate, fills one large open rectangular room. The walls, made of faux-Jerusalem stone, match the austerity of the ark: mahogany wood, simple, but elegant, with the words, “May God be with me all the time,” decorating the outside. Inside the outer ark stands a bank vault with a circular lock that looks as if it protects the most valuable possessions in the world. Looking up, I noticed the ceiling of sheet-rock and I could only think how easily pencils would stick in it if I threw some up there. Women, in the layout of the shul, are sadly an afterthought at best. They stand behind white picketed fences with curtains so all I  see is the outline of what appears to look like a woman. Because this room also serves as a place for study, color-coordinated books line the back wall and instead of benches, the worshippers sit behind long tables.

Looking around at the devout followers of Rav Wolfson and God, I could find nothing external that united this eclectic group – some wore streimels, some with payes hanging down from their heads, some with payes curled around their ears; hats with brims up and hats with brims down, Hamburg hats, no hats, velvet yarmulkes, cloth kippahs, one pair of knee-high leather boots, and one knit kippah. I felt amazed at the possibility of such heterogeneity even amongst such homogeneity.

Curiously, no one spoke during the three and half hours of prayer, but that did not diminish the noise level in the synagogue. The loudest of the bunch, a young 13 year old Chasid with straight payes, dressed in a bekesha, danced back and forth, endlessly shouting with an awkward almost-pubescent voice. Though no one spoke, everyone moved around. It looked like a constant game of musical chairs. People walked to the back to pick up a sefer, or paced back and forth, deep in reverie and prayer. For the bulk of the service all the married men wore their prayer shawls on their heads, creating an entrancing undulating wave of white, black, and silver.

At the end of davening the children who had laughed at my inability to read the Yiddish bathroom sign came up to pray. They formed a semicircle around the ark, and responded to each line of the Kaddish with all the energy they could muster. Each child shouted, straining their lungs, “Amen, yehei shmei rabah mevorech l’olam u’le’olamei olmaya! Amen!” As the children screamed, some candy man doled out little candies with watermelon wrappings. I felt torn between a joy and a personal worry about the line between education and religious guidance.

This difference deserves an aside. As Americans, our foundational value is freedom, freedom to live any lifestyle that does not cause harm to other people. Religious education often clashes with this American ideal. In the American educational system, we instill the value of choice and attempt to bestow the analytic tools and experiences to help students make a choice about truth and about the proper lifestyle. Religious education assumes it knows the answer to these lofty questions. Therefore, it provides but one path to follow: the Path of God. Now, granted, all education entails imparting values without the student’s choice on some level, what some might refer to as shades of indoctrination. But giving over the value of choosing your own value, and teaching the skills to make their own educated choice differ greatly from providing but one correct path at life. The latter disrespects human complexity and dignity. The essence of our dignity rests with our freedom to choose, because even if we choose to worship God we will have made that choice. As Americans we often opt for the freedom to choose over stability and happiness. In other words, freedom overshadows the conversation of happiness; it is the ground upon which happiness grows. For Chasidism, God’s will is valued over freedom of choice. Our job, they believe, rests in protecting the next generation; not in enslaving ourselves to freedom, but to God’s desire.

Now, despite the foreignness of the environment, I felt at home. In the darker rooms of my mind, in those unenlightened chambers of thought, I still harbor the idea that the Right Wing world signifies a purer form of Judaism, a more direct line to the unadulterated form of worship of our ancestors. I chose not to live that lifestyle, even though many of my friends took to it, because I valued complexity over simplicity. Now, don’t get me wrong. Simplicity does not equal ease in life, or a life empty of challenges. In fact, a Chasid’s life might entail the harder challenge of maintaining purity, of sacrificing comfort for devotion. You try to daven with that much outward passion, or learn for 12 hours a day and you will feel how difficult that kind of lifestyle is.  But you will also see its simplicity. Rather, instead of ease, simplicity signifies a life with a smaller field of choice, a life in which you need only follow the path set out for you to attain salvation, whereas for most modern people, with our eyes open to the variability of life, we must search for the proper means and goals towards fulfillment.

When I was younger, Modern Orthodoxy, that semi-elitist experiment to overcome the paradoxical challenge of melding modernity and tradition, drew me in with its ambitious call to live in the best of both worlds, to not cower from the challenges and opportunities of modernity while embracing the beauty of a malleable living, tradition. Still, I always felt insecure around right-wing people, and still do on some level (I don’t think we shed our insecurities, we just grow more secure with them) because I had believed that my choice not to live their lifestyle grew from weakness.

Their single-minded devotion to purity challenged my devotion to Modern Orthodoxy. It turned my ambition into a rationalization to hide my weakness. Consequently, in any adventure into their foreign world, I used armor and shields to assert my superiority. But now, shorn of any need to defend my choice of religious lifestyle, I could enjoy the comforts of simplicity, of single-minded devotion, of passion, without cynicism. Not only did I partake in the passion of prayer, but what I felt bordered on religious ecstasy, something I’ve only felt a number of times in my life. Caught up in their contagious screams and shouts, I began to pray from deep inside my being.

Then, my intellect returned. What just happened? Where did I go? Could this experience be enough, do we need more than that, could I sustain this religious high in the cloistered halls of this shul? Is experience not its own form of truth? At this shul, I definitely experienced something. That must contain some meaning, no?

Besides the non-cynical experience of passionate prayer, the draw of the Rebbe captured my mind. We chafe at the idea of a charismatic leader, but living in a time without leaders we fully trust, we forget the joy of following. Part of our range of emotions, whether that part is childish or not, enjoys following a charismatic figure. The figure provides vision, allows us to feel safe, comfortable, taken care of, and stable in this precarious world. In essence, this demagogue concretizes aspects of the relationship with the Divine. One need not see the leader as a conduit of sorts, but more structurally: the way we relate to a figure allows us to practice and access those emotions needed for worship.

Walking out of Borough Park, I realized that my time in Emunas Yisrael provided the hope that somewhere in my personality, no matter how buried I believe it to be, lives a spark of intense religiosity. However, despite the religious ecstasy, I can’t emotionally connect to a lifestyle that willingly chooses insularity over the enormity of experience. It betrays my desire to live a life of truth, not simply a life of spiritual satiation. I understand it. I respect it, but I still view it as foreign. In some ways, this shul experience felt like going to an amusement park: you wait seemingly forever for that one ecstatic moment, and get so caught up in that moment that the line between this world and the “real” world blurs. Ultimately though, even with that huge panda doll prize, you want to go to your home life, one full of complexities and ambiguities, because that’s who you truly are. Besides, the panda never fits in your room.