Run Chassidim, Run
Say the word Chassid and an image of a bearded, black-hatted coreligionist is conjured up. The word Chassid however has a secondary meaning as well. A Chassid is a devout follower of a personage upon whom the Chassid has accorded bigger than life status. In contemporary English, it is fair to say that a Chassid is a groupie. And while the Surgeon General has been mute on the topic, please believe me when I say that being a Chassid can be injurious to your health.
This past Shabbos, I came across two very different articles in two very different newspapers about two dynamic, charismatic religious leaders. One was about a priest on the West coast; the other was about a rabbi on the East Coast. The commonality that they share is that they seem to attract very uncommon people. In the case of the former, the priest has personally prepared Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, the Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and the renowned columnist Robert Novak for conversion to Catholicism; in the case of the latter, the rabbi most recently took Governor “Chris” Christie of New Jersey to meet Elie Wiesel for advice and guidance, in that Elie Wiesel has been transformed from lugubrious author to sagacious guru. Both the priest on the West coast and the rabbi on the East Coast are leaders who have more than their fair share of Chassidim. Therein lies the danger.
Chassidim run the risk of being in breach of the second commandment, where we are warned: You shall have no other G-d’s before me. Chassidim take as gospel everything their “rebbes” or leaders say. If their “rebbes” or leaders tell their followers to vote for political candidate X, you can be sure that their adherents will vote en masse for political candidate X. Chassidim will not leave an old job or accept a new one, without first conferring with their rebbe and receiving their rebbe’s blessing. With their hero worship knowing few bounds if any, the only thing Chassidim don’t do is pray to their rebbe. At best, they’ll ask that their rebbe pray for them, in that by virtue of being a rebbe, the rebbe’s prayers must by definition be more efficacious.
Chassidim, unless they are “true” Chassidim such as Vishnitz, Stopkover, Rizhiner …and others, run the risk of disappointment and disillusionment. As difficult as it may be for Chassidim to accept, dynamic, charismatic leaders have clay feet. Sooner or later, these “infallible” leaders are going to fall from the pedestals on which they’ve been placed. Worse yet, because leaders enjoy such great status and such blind admiration, the temptation that lurks at their doors is far greater and much more tantalizing than the temptation that beckons an average, every day person. Our rabbinic sages were unsurprisingly extremely prescient when they taught the greater the individual, the greater the yetzer hara or evil inclination.
And because of this, Chassidim run the risk of transgressing the commandment “Lifnei Iveir lo titein michshol”, do not place a stumbling block before the blind. Leaders, including rabbis, priests, imams and ministers will in all likelihood sooner or later find it difficult, if not impossible to live up to the unrealistic expectations of his or her Chassidim. On the other hand, the last thing the leader wishes to do is to disappoint his Chassidim or let his Chassidim down. Moreover, as difficult as it may be to believe, leaders have egos, which are at times dangerously huge. If Bernie Madoff could fall prey to promising his people unbelievable results, then leaders, religious leaders, priests and rabbis lehavdil (pardon the comparison) can fall prey to the very same self-deception.
Our rabbinic sages of the Talmud were absolutely brilliant when they taught that if love is contingent upon a specific object or person, then once that object or person is no longer present, the love is no longer present. If rabbis and other leaders can set aside their egos for a brief moment to transmit this teaching to their Chassidim, if rabbis and other leaders can impress upon their Chassidim the need to commit themselves to this teaching, then religion, whether it be Judaism, Christianity or Islam will be become much healthier and all the more viable.