Moshe Ben-Chaim
Dr. Lamm once spoke about his views on Chassidism. He discussed how Chassidim distorted halacha, how they actually performed cartwheels during prayer, and how they incorrectly prayed at times not sanctioned by halacha. He mentioned how followers would go to the 'rebbes' for guidance. Dr. Lamm mentioned that in cases where the rebbe's advice was successful, these stories alone were circulated, while stories of the rebbe's failures were not circulated. He also discussed how the Gra was completely against the Baal Shem Tov (Besht) and the entire Chassidic movement.
Oddly, in the same speech, Dr. Lamm suggested we embrace Chassidism. He also made note of supposed miracles performed by the Besht, specifically a case where he ignited icicles as candles because the Besht liked light.
A rabbi raised a difficulty with Dr. Lamm's approach: "Would Dr. Lamm also suggest we embrace Conservatism, and Reform Judaism? These practices also alter the accepted Judaic codes, just like Chassidism does. What would Dr. Lamm's barometer be for accepting Chassidism, while not accepting Reform and Conservatism?"
I find the Gra, the gedolim of the Gra's generation, including Rav Yaakov Emden, and Nodah b'Yehuda, and many others with a strong argument against Chassidism. In so far as Chassidus deviates from Judaism' tenets, I see no difference between Conservatism, Reform, and Chassidism. Once a group distorts the Torah and has the audacity to establish such deviations as "religious", even if only one item, it is no longer the Torah, and must be viewed as an alien practice. This is why God established the command of not adding or subtracting from the Torah. God knows perfectly what man needs for his perfection, for ALL generations. God therefore created a system which must remain unchanged throughout all generations, as the Torah outlines. For Chassidus to say we need the concepts of Chassidus now, and that Chassidism brings "emotional expression" (as Dr. Lamm put it) is equal to saying that God overlooked a need of man for our generation. As King Solomon stated, how can "those who come after the King" suggest a wiser path for man than what God, the King already delineated?
One seeking honestly after te truth must ask himself, "Why does God include in the Torah the command not to add?" Is it not because God saw that His system was perfect, and that any deviation would corrupt the perfection of the Torah? Should we allow Chassidus to claim their system is in fact God's desired Torah, we must allow Reform or Conservative to make the same claim.
I ask, "Were Moshe Rabbeinu, Dovid Hamelech, Shlomo Hamelech and all other great people lacking anything without Chassidus?"
They did not follow Chassidus - as it exists only 300 years - yet God stated that none will ever compare to Moshe Rabbeinu. If this is so, then the Torah - devoid of the Chassidic movement - created these perfected people. Additionally, if the Chassidic movement wants to argue that Chassidus was already in the Torah, and Moshe rabbeinu had it, it is not in Chassidism's favor that God is remiss in portraying Moshe and every other accepted great leader as purely following anything but the commands, and Torah involvement? The absence of Chassidism in the lives of the great Jewish leaders is an inherent contradiction to their claim.
We should note that we do not find a Chassidus movement, or any other movement sanctioned by any pasuk in all of the Torah, Neveim, Ksuvim, or by any sage in the Talmud. We have a Mesora that all that is essential to man's perfection is to be found in the Torah. Again, we do not find 'movements' of any kind in the Torah. The Torah is complete.
When there were problems in certain generations, the prophets did not start movements, but merely outlined the people's flaw, and redirected them back to God's word - the Torah.
No new books were written, and no new movements were formed by these people who spoke with God. The prophets knew very well that all that is necessary for man's perfection had already been addressed by the Creator. The prophets did not start any new movements, and they were faced with the same types of issues we have. The prophets were wiser than us, therefore I ask, who today feels they have better answers than the prophets? The answer is no one. Therefore, we must follow the prophets, and agree that if the prophets admonished the Jews to adhere to Torah without writing new works or starting new movements, we must follow this path, as God desires the prophets writings to be a lesson for all generations.
Additionally, the Creator of all generations was not ignorant of problems to face man in the future. If the prophets saw no need for movements, I do not think anyone since the cessation of the prophets has grounds to overstep their approach-that being the adherence to God's word with no alteration, no addition, and no deletion.
Why did not King David, King Solomon or Moses suggest to the people to begin movements? Because they understood the system of the Torah to be complete - prior to the Chassidic movement. More essentially, these giants understood that the word of God is perfect, nothing is to be added or subtracted. Any change at all would cause distortion and ruin the Torah.
Chassidism's Notions Oppose Judaism's Tenets
Dr. Lamm may - if he chooses - to disagree with the Gra and those gedolim who joined the Gra's letters of banishment. But let us understand what the Gra held as the core problems with Chassidus, it was two points:
1) God permeates all physical matter, is embraced by Chassidus. Equally embraced and corrupt, Chassidism maintains "there is good in everything, even sin and evil contain some good." Based on this error, Chassidism prmotes the next error:
2) Chassidus promotes dissension into sin by a tzaddik in order to facilitate "ascension",
Unless these two grave errors are abandoned from Chassidus, the Gra and the leaders of that era would today still enforce the same banishment. Rambam states if one believes God to have parts, or be connected to the physical in any way, he has no share in the world to come. We must refer to the kiddisha to respond to this: "M'lo kol haaretz kvodo", "the entire earth is filled with His glory". This teaches that God's glory (evidence of His exostence) is what permeates the world. God Himself has no relation to physical matter, and it is herecy to suggest otherwise.
The Gra was adamant about preserving Judaism. The new uprising of Chassidism was a distortion and a cancer on the pure system of Torah passed down unadulterated throughout the generations. Conversely, Chassidic followers today who have abandoned the ways of their originators would not be condemned by the bans of the Gra.
Is it Dr. Lamm's belief that miracles were actually performed by the Besht?
We have at the core of Judaism, the reality of the miraculous events at Mt. Sinai. This event is believed only due to the numbers of witnesses which were present, and due to this event, the world at large today accepts these miracles as an historic truth. God had orchestrated this event to have all the Jews present, "Hakhel lee es haAm", "assemble for Me the people". God made sure that the event would be told over throughout the generations as factual. God desired that Judaism have a distinction from other religions, that is, that Judaism be provable, and not follow a blind faith approach. This is why God created the event at Sinai, so that we accept only that which is provable.
This proof is iterated by Rambam, the Kuzari and is undeniable. It is based on the fact that we should not accept miracles without mass corroboration. Mass conspiracy is not a possibility. Ipso facto, we are taught by these greats that we should not believe a Jesus or any one else who merely has stories of miracles.
The question then arises, why should one believe stories of the Besht, or anyone else performing miracles? Additionally, the Torah teaches us not to follow a Navi Sheker, a "false prophet", even if he gives signs. The Torah clearly teaches that miracles alone are no proof to the validity of one's status as a true messenger of God's word. The Torah teaches that the words must come true if we wish to validate one as a prophet of the True God. Hence, signs alone are of no consequence. Therefore, those who follow people merely based on assumed miracles performed, are not in line with the Torah.
We must make a very clear distinction between individuals believing the Besht's miracles, and between masses seeing the Event of Sinai. (Keep in mind also that Saadia Gaon said openly, "man has no control over the elements.")
We have no story where the Besht performed miracles in front of masses. All we have are stories of individuals who claim he had performed such miracles. So one can either believe the story or not. There is no proof. But that which is witnessed by millions, I mean Mt. Sinai, one cannot deny the veracity of such an event. Additionally, if the Besht performed miracles, and possessed the correct philosophy, why did the Gra oppose his ideology? Conversely, why was not the Gra banished? Doesn't this prove that the other rabbis found the Gra sound in his arguments, and found the Besht and his movement flawed? There wasn't even a split decision.
We do not have to look far to see that followers of personalities will project impossible abilities onto their deified leaders. The Lubavitch movement today has numerous followers who will swear to miracles performed by the Rebbe, although no group will testify as having 'seen' them performed themselves. They go so far as to suggest he has not even died. A complete distortion of reality. Such I believe is the case with the Besht. His devoted followers concocted stories to make him into a legend. But in reality, he was ridiculed by the greatest mind of that time, the Gra, and many other gedolim. If one has trouble with this statement, ask yourself why the Gra singled out the Besht's movement for banishment. The Gra - a genius by anyone's standards - does not simply take shots at innocent victims. He saw a distortion of Judaism and acted to preserve God's Torah.
Even Moses did not perform miracles
Moshe rabbeinu, (Moses) the greatest man ever to live, had to pray to God to stop the plagues in Egypt. Moshe alone had no powers. How then can people today place someone else on a higher level than Moshe? Even King David and King Solomon were not known as having performed miracles. Is Dr. Lamm suggesting that the Besht outweighs these greats, or even comes close? Or does Dr. Lamm hold that people of lower stature can out-perform those of higher stature. And to this, where is this claim found in the Torah? Either possibility is impossible. I have heard "miraculous" stories about the Besht which simply cannot true. He could not be on a higher level than Moshe Rabbeinu, so therefore, as Moshe didn't perform miracles himself (God did it) hence, the Besht did not, and those stories Dr. lamm quotes about the besht igniting icicles for candles are complete lies. Against Chassidic opinion, the Besht also could not read minds. Moshe didn't read minds, so to say the Besht did actually denies the level of stature the Torah speak in regards to Moshe, and makes Moshe less than the Besht, another impossibility. It is also interesting that no one after Moshe Rabbeinu's death made such stories that Moshe read minds, that he did miracles, or was mystical in anyway. Nor did the people argue whether Moshe was actually dead or is the moshiach.
Because they followed the Torah correctly back then. The mere fact that there are discussions whether the Rebbe is dead or not, or if he is Moshiach or not, or that he was able to tell the future or not, or that the Besht did miracles, is a clear indicator that Chassidic followers today are not in line with Torah ideology. More clearly, people today want to follow a "man", they are attached to a personality. Back then, the Torah's view, is that people should not follow man, but follow God, and therefore they were able to detach themselves from a man - even Moshe - once he died.
God desired that we follow that which is provable, and thus created the event at Mt. Sinai incorporating millions of witnesses, as masses is what God desires we seek for proof. God desires that we use our minds to determine what is provable, and what is not. That which is provable is to be followed, that which is not, should be abandoned.
In summary, I do not claim that Chassidus today maintains all tenets of what the originators followed. This has to be examined, as any ideology does. They, as many other Jews, may hold of both truth and fallacy. Anything 'true' is designed from old by God. But the Chassidic movement of old, the Gra held, was not an acceptable practice. Any deviation from the teachings of the doctors of the talmud and the prophets is a grave crime, and renders such a movement alien to Judaism. Additionally, we are to follow our minds in all areas, (see R. Bachaya's introduction to the Duties of the Heart). We are not to accept movements, no matter the number of followers or the presumed stature of its leaders. If what we hear conforms to Toras Moshe, the gemara and Shulchan Aruch, then we adhere to it.
When we hear such stories as a movement of people doing cartwheels during prayer, who are involved in sexual promiscuity, overindulgence in the appetitive drive, deviation from halacha, and prishus min hatzibur, a 'yellow flag' should go up in our minds alerting us to that which is not part of a rational and pleasant system designed by a Perfect Creator.
If todays sects of Chassidim are not adhering to the wrongdoings of the original Chassidim, then the bans of the Gra would not apply. I still however ask why they go by the same name "Chassidim"? Is it not because they still identify with those original Chassidim - condoning their original actions? If one does not condone their behavior, they should not identify themselves as Chassidim. If they do wish to be called Chassidim, then one must assume that they identify with Chassidic originators, and condone those acts which the Gra and the gedolim of that era were outraged about.
Do not confuse misnagdism with my attempt to discern truth. I talk strongly at times when I write, when I feel a point must be made clear. It is all in my attempt to display truth as I see it, which has been the plight of all the great rabbis. They argued amongst themselves vehemently, thereby teaching us that they didn't respect each other's view based on reputation. That's why Ramban may have held Maimonides as a truly great rabbi, but this opinion of him didn't prevent Ramban from arguing on Maimonides. He sought truth. I do the same - without bias. Two rabbis can't be right if they argue on each other - they saw their views were in fact mutually exclusive. They didn't suggest "maybe we are both right in some relative way". That is a ridiculous position. They demonstrated by their arguments that their views are mutually exclusive. We too must use our own minds to determine who we feel makes sense to us. They used their minds to develop their own opinions, and as the Chovas HaLevavos says, we must do the same.
I hope to share in the rabbi's attempt to present the Torah in a rational and pleasant light.
To see sources documented, see "The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna", written by Elijah Judah Schochet, Jason Aaronson Publishers.

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