An increasing number of non-Chassidim are discovering an inborn capacity for spiritual growth through the writings of the Rebbe of Slonim.
By Steve Schlam
A Taste of Slonim
(excerpts translated by Rabbi Mayer Schiller)
Emunah [faith] which is pure gives the Jew a unique perspective on all of creation. He sees the Creator, may He be blessed, in all of existence. From the heights of Heaven to the depths of the earth he perceives the presence of the Creator in His creation. He feels the power of God in all that surrounds him. By the light of emunah he listens to the song of life which emanates from every creature.
Emunah…bestows upon a Jew a sense of vision and purpose in life. It enables him to realize his own unique task in life and the higher mission which is upon him to fulfill. With the exalted strength of emunah a Jew is capable of withstanding all the trials of life.
Seventy years after the Great Depression, Western society enjoys an historically unparalleled prosperity. Seemingly, this material well-being should infuse good people everywhere with a sense of serenity and contentment. Yet, paradoxically, discontent and general disillusionment run rampant. Medical journals and the popular press inundate us with reports suggesting that high percentages of the general population are afflicted with various levels of stress, anxiety and depression disorders. Some have even taken to referring to baby boomers as “the Prozac generation.”
In short, despite our comfort and affluence, modern man besieged by his own technological handiwork, in full possession of his cell phone, beeper and laptop, yet dispossessed of that all-elusive tranquility of soul, seeks respite.
Concurrent with society’s growing sense of aimlessness and purposelessness, a snap-back effect — first whisperings and now murmurings for spiritual rediscovery — is beginning to be heard. In the Jewish world, our own mainstream communal organizations, for whom “continuity” used to be the operative buzzword, now readily employ catch phrases such as “spiritual awareness” and “spiritual development.” Perhaps most remarkably, non-Orthodox Jewish movements have in recent years begun to talk of spirituality, both for its own sake and to a much lesser degree, as an antidote to the existential despair of our times. These pleas for a renewed spiritual focus have been emanating from various corners of the Orthodox community for some time as well.
Seeking a Chassidic Approach
Human beings, by their very complex nature, defy any singular approach to achieving spirituality. For most modern people, the very notion of adopting any of the external trappings of Chassidic life is anathema. Nonetheless, in recent years, more and more non-Chassidim have turned to the written works of various Chassidic schools of thought as their primary source of inspiration. Recent adaptations into English of some of these works have dramatically eased the road.
Among the most readily found Chassidic works, although not yet translated into English, are the works of the current Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Sholom Noach Brozovsky of Jerusalem. The Rebbe, nearly 88 years old and in weakened health, represents the fifth generation of a Chassidic dynasty which began with the Rebbes of Lechovitz and Kobrin (White Russia) nearly 200 years ago.
The Rebbe’s written works leave virtually no area of Jewish thought unexplored. His Nesivos Shalom consists of a commentary on Chumash and a volume of his insights on Shabbos, the Yomim Noraim and the major festivals. A separate volume is dedicated to Torah, Chassidus and service of God. In Zichron Kodesh, the Rebbe bravely attempts an approach to the destruction of European Jewry. Additionally, an important essay entitled “The Paths of Education” (Nesivei Hachinuch) is essential reading for Torah education professionals as well as parents. All these works are accessible, to a large degree, to anyone who is conversant in Hebrew and has a solid familiarity with the basic texts of Chumash. They are all written in a fluid style and are relatively free of the sort of esoteric concepts and cryptic language that make many other Chassidic works intimidating to the uninitiated.
Of course, the logistical constraints that impede our accessibility to the Rebbe, as well as the obvious cultural barriers which preclude our living in a Chassidic community, mean that we are effectively outside of the twin pillars which are the foundations of Chassidic life. What does remain might be viewed as a sort of bare-bones, poor man’s Chassidus. However, we can take more than a little solace in having the Rebbe’s writings at our ready disposal. In the tradition of his forebears, the Rebbe’s teachings are never primarily motivated by a desire to reconcile difficulties within the Torah narrative or the with the words of Chazal, but rather to arouse the hearts of his followers to draw closer to God. In the course of doing so, but only as a by-product of his desire to uplift and inspire, the Rebbe often illuminates and instructs in the most difficult areas of Torah.
A Path of Simple Faith
It is not a complex task to break all the teachings of Lechovitz/Slonim down to a singular concept — emunah; simple, unadulterated faith. Whether discussing prayer, giving charity or any other of the myriad parts that constitute the whole of Torah, all roads lead back to a path of simple faith. Time and again, the Rebbe refers to the well-known proclamation of the Baal Shem Tov: “I would forsake all my understanding in the depths of Torah and mitzvos and grab hold of a simple faith.”
In Slonim, this simple faith was never considered a logical starting point for beginning the journey to a more sophisticated, intellectualized faith. Rather, it was viewed as “the goods itself.” This uncomplicated, direct faith was part and parcel of the self-abrogation that was and remains so central to their service of God. Real faith, the sort that is not restrained by the mind’s limited ability to conceptualize, leads directly to an overwhelming awareness of God the Creator, and just as critically, to an integration at the deepest level of one’s being that all that occurs in life is a direct result of a loving, caring and involved God. The full attainment of such lofty levels, historically associated with a tzaddik, would seem to require a sort of mental makeover beyond the grasp of most ordinary people. Nonetheless, Slonim teaches that a worthwhile aspiration in its own right is the mere cognizance that the ability to believe is embedded in each of us. The recognition and acceptance that life’s end results are not the arbitrary outcomes of our own handiwork might go a long way in redeeming contemporary man from the enslavement of destructive thought patterns.
Shabbos as a Vehicle to Faith
In the Slonimer approach, Shabbos is the particular vehicle by which all obstacles are surmounted and through which faith becomes an achievable reality. The Chofetz Chaim, in his famous introduction to the laws of Shabbos, states unequivocally that it would be nearly impossible for a person lacking the requisite knowledge of the laws of Shabbos to observe the day faithfully. So too, a person oblivious to the inner essence of Shabbos would be severely disadvantaged in relating to the “spirit” of Shabbos. For such a person, it would seem, exposure to and integration of at least some of the Slonimer’s teachings regarding Shabbos becomes a sacred undertaking. Not insignificantly, this learning might serve to emancipate one from the emptiness of a Shabbos that is viewed as overly restrictive and revolves around little more than fine dining and the social interaction that a synagogue setting provides.
In Slonim, Shabbos took on a sublime, almost other-worldly air. Great care and caution were exercised so that no mundane matter might infiltrate and disrupt the sanctity of the day. The pervasive attitude of the Slonimer Chassidim was “milachticha asuya — your work is done.” Friday has passed, Sunday has not yet arrived, and the only goal is to be enveloped by the spirituality of the Shabbos.
This concept extended to such a degree that not only were worry and concern over one’s material needs off limits, but even the otherwise commendable acts of assessing and rectifying the negative aspects of one’s spiritual state were discouraged as well. In the King’s Palace on the Holy Day of Shabbos, the only issues to be addressed were those of Shabbos itself.
Chassidus teaches that through divine guidance, each of the students of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid found his way to a particular locale where his unique approach was most needed and most likely to resonate in the hearts and minds of his fellow Jews. Albeit anecdotal, it seems that a significant number of our non-Chassidic co-religionists are increasingly drawn to the inspiring works of the Rebbe of Slonim. This development, which has been brought to the Rebbe’s attention, brings him immense joy at the increase in avodas Hashem, according to those closest to him. While the Slonimer has no immediate plans to physically relocate to our environs, no doubt his teachings will continue to find an ever-increasing audience among many whose minds and souls seek spiritual enrichment.
Steve Schlam lives in Lawrence, New York. He is managing partner of North River Capital Holdings, NYC.