Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Quest for Authenticity: On the Sheloshim of Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosen z”l

A Quest for Authenticity
On the sheloshim of Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosen z”l

by Tzvi Mauer

I confess that I am not very attracted to, and sometimes even repulsed by, some Hasidic practices. As a result, and in the spirit of full disclosure, it should be no surprise that Urim Publications, where I serve as publisher, has produced only two books over the past dozen years that may be characterized as Hasidic. Nonetheless, I admire the dedication and quest for spirituality that are hallmarks of hasidut and Hasidim (referring to the modern movement, as opposed to the midah of hasidut referred to in earlier sources, such as the Mishneh Torah).

Click here to read moreWhen the late Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosen – whom I heard always introduce himself as Mickey Rosen – called me several years ago to discuss his work on the hasidut of Przysucha (pronounced Pe-shis-kha) I was happy to sit down with him as I was a fan of his from afar. Though I had heard of Reb Simchah Bunim and Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, it was mainly through clever stories that were told in their names. What Rav Rosen revealed to me in an illuminating meeting was that this Hasidic faction was viewed as an aberration, and in the nineteenth century, the other hasidic streams nearly put them in herem. Once I learned how this group had been harassed by hasidim and litvaks alike, my curiosity was aroused. I believe that it can be instructive to explore cases of Jews fearing or arguing with other religious Jews, and can even lead to a greater appreciation of different, yet valid, perspectives of Jewish practice and thought. Such exploration and appreciation may result in greater tolerance and unity of our people, which is so splintered.

In Rav Rosen’s work, The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simchah Bunim, I learned of two aspects of Przysucha hasidut that separated them from all other Hasidic sects and enabled them to be such a driving force for change from within Judaism. First, Przysucha rejected the popularized hero-worship of the tzaddik, together with its associated claims of mystical intervention with God and the working of miracles. Second, Przysucha, unlike other Hasidic sects at that time and more like its litvak cousins, valued Talmud Torah and the expertise of Talmudic scholarship at the highest levels. (The leaders of Przysucha were also Talmudic scholars). It seemed to me that this combination of two modes of thought and practice modeled a relevant way of modern Jewish living that is worthy of emulation.

To summarize the book’s thesis as I understand it, Przysucha hassidim were intensely self-critical. They believed that since human beings are created in the image of God, the Divine is within our makeup and our innermost soul/self is a reflection of the divine. Thus, if we were to strip away all the layers of ego and self-deception, we would tap into our true inner selves, realize our divine paths and do what God really wants us to do. Then our actions and choices would become aligned with God’s and we would become holy beings, living our lives as God intends. Yet, if our motivations are diluted by pride or selfishness, then we corrupt our Godly selves and our divine mission in life. Przysucha hasidim were openly critical, on an individual as well as a communal level, in their efforts to strip away extraneous motivations.

What a marvelous and scary thing to do! While other ascetics would afflict themselves (or others) in order to drive demons away, Przysucha Hasidim would psychologically or figuratively whip themselves or others in order to break down the façade, knock down a prideful self and ego, and reach the divine essentials. (Perhaps I should have sent copies of this book to leaders of the New York financial industry when it was released a year ago.)

The Przysucha school opposed dynastic rebbes, so that only the most qualified individual who was widely agreed upon succeeded to the title (which makes a great deal of sense, though it was difficult to accomplish). While some hasidic groups are related to Przysucha, the group had no rebbe after Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, Przysucha hasidut died. Although its adherents despised the idea of the tzaddik-as-miracle-worker, they indeed saw their rebbe as a tzaddik – a model for each person to follow in order to achieve spiritual heights. Their rebbe was not an intermediary or cult personality, but an example. In this sense, I see Rav Rosen as the Przysucha Rebbe of the modern age.

To write such a book is to open oneself up to scrutiny and, very likely, to criticism. Although I am honored to have been involved with the publication of this book, I could not have written it. Rav Rosen not only wrote it over a decade, but studied it and tried to live it on a daily basis. Only someone who dedicates himself wholeheartedly to such ongoing and uncompromising introspection could pull it off. Rav Rosen – Rav Mickey Rosen – was such a person. I count myself among his students because I have read and learned from his book. I know little biographical information about him, even the bio he supplied for his book jacket was sparse, and so I hope that the many who learned with Rav Rosen in his shiurim, prayed with him at Yakar and spent time with him on a regular basis will share their memories of him. (Appended to the end of this article are web links to find out more about Rav Rosen, Yakar, and reviews written about his book.)

For those who may be unfamiliar with Yakar, the Center for Tradition and Creativity, which Rav Rosen founded, guided and expanded to other cities, together with his wife, Gila – a scholar and educator in her own right – and their sons, it is a central meeting point for prayer, study, and Jewish cultural lectures and discussions. I think of Yakar as a dynamic religious Jewish Community Center, a safe space for advancing in study and introspection.)

From Rav Rosen’s writings I learned that more important than the terminology and classification of “traditional,” “modern Orthodox” or “haredi” Jews – or anywhere in between – is our mission to strive to be authentic with our divinely-created selves as human beings and as Jews. Rav Rosen laid out a modern guidebook for this essential pursuit.

I used to think that our generation is sadly lacking in great leaders in Torah scholarship and in conduct, but I realized over time that my opinion on this was incorrect and misguided. We do hear about such people, but often only after they pass away. Why do we not appreciate and hear more about some of these spiritual giants who live among us while they are still alive and accessible? The answer appears to me that they are marginalized – either by themselves, sometimes because they prefer to avoid too much publicity, or by those who are in the public eye and who may feel threatened in some way – and work and live in relative obscurity, or only in local fame. (And, while Rav Rosen was a well-known figure in the anglo-Israeli and UK worlds, I have heard students point out that he was not fully appreciated and understood even in the circles where he was known.) Why this is the case, and how to widen their circle of influence while they are alive, is unclear, but it would certainly be instructive to contemplate. These yehidei segula (unique individuals for each generation), scholars and personalities who think outside the box, should be encouraged and supported, and not shunned. Their works should be studied and appreciated, not marginalized or ignored. They should be honored, visited and heeded as leaders. These are the people whom we desperately need, even if – and perhaps because – they break the mold.

On a related point, I believe that it is not our role to figure out the identity of the greatest talmid hakham/tzaddik (or, similarly, who has pure kavana). That is for God to know – or, as often happens, for us to find out from their colleagues after a person passes away. But it is our role to search out and find “gedolim” of mind and spirit who embody certain values and ideals and who can serve as models and teachers from whom we can learn, rather than just praise or make the objects of our hero-worship. This distinction is not the same as the division that is traditionally made between the gadol ha-dor (the greatest Torah scholar/posek of a generation) and the tzaddik ha-dor (the most righteous of a generation). The distinction is closer to the truism that one benefits more from studying with the greatest teacher-scholar rather than with the one who is believed to be the smartest or most clever, though in some cases they can be one and the same.

A further related point upon which we may reflect is why we are less forgiving of those who are not encased in the haredi world. What I mean is that it seems to me that everyone has some unusual aspect to them or to their perspective, which makes then unique in their humanity and in their Judaism, and in great people where such things can be more pronounced, it sometimes appears as a quirk or even a blind spot. Sometimes this results in certain unusual humrot (like wearing multiple tzitzit garments) or colors their perspective on certain topics (like issues related to the modern State of Israel). When we find such a thing with a haredi leader, we are forgiving, and even if we are not forgiving of that aspect specifically, we do not dismiss this person as treif, but rather acknowledge greatness even as we forgive the slight eccentricity. In contrast, if a Rav has a more encompassing or sympathetic perspective of modernity, he finds himself out of bounds. The tzaddik or talmid hakham has traditionally been the one whom we judge the most stringently, but today we see that this is applied most assiduously to those generally referred to as modern Orthodox – but, I suspect, not for this reason.)

On December 16, 2007, approximately two hundred people filled the Yakar beit midrash in Jerusalem to attend a panel discussion in which Rav Rosen, a musmakh of Rav Unterman, discussed topics related to Przysucha hasidut at the book’s early launching in Israel (see accompanying photo). On one side of him sat Professor Moshe Idel, a leading Jewish scholar of philosophy and Hasidut, and on his other side sat Professor Moshe Rosman, a leading scholar of Hasidut and Jewish history. It was a fascinating evening of analysis of Hasidic prayer, the reliability of Hasidic sources, and focus upon the legacy of the Przysucha Hasidim – a true merging of academic and spiritual concerns. Less than a year later, on December 7, 2008, Rabbi Mickey Rosen passed away. Yehi zikhro barukh.

See these links for further information about Rav Rosen:

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