Netivot Shalom: A Mixed Blessing?

Netivot Shalom: A Mixed Blessing?

Zvi Leshem

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In recent years, the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky zt”l, and especially his work the Netivot Shalom, has become massively popular in a wide range of contexts within and even outside Orthodoxy. Indeed, not only is Netivot Shalom studied at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, but when a friend of mine served as a neighborhood rabbi in Netanya, he taught it in a weekly habura for secular residents. In fact, a case can be made that Netivot Shalom is increasingly becoming the face of the Hasidic tradition throughout much of the Jewish world today. And it is precisely due to that burgeoning popularity that those of us who feel deeply connected and indebted to Hasidism should ask ourselves a difficult and perhaps painful question: Is Netivot Shalom the sefer that we want to represent us to the rest of Am Yisrael? Or, to put it more bluntly, is the massive popularity of Netivot Shalom really an unmitigated blessing?

Before sharing my reservations, I want it to be clear that I think the work constitutes an important contribution in that it presents Hasidic concepts to the wider public in a clear, straightforward, and accessible manner, something the Piaseczner Rebbe called for some 80 years ago (Mevo Ha-She’arim 54b). A key factor in that is its composition in clear, modern Hebrew. Additionally, in contrast to most Hasidic works, Netivot Shalom elucidates basic Kabbalistic-Hasidic concepts without assuming prior knowledge, obviously adding to its accessibility. In this regard, the first volume, which deals with concepts, is very valuable. The second volume, on the holidays, represents (together with pamphlets on Purim and Hanukkah), some of the Rebbe’s finest work. As one yeshiva head remarked to me, “With this book I can actually teach my students how you are supposed to feel when sitting in the Sukkah.” The five volumes on the weekly Torah portion also have an important feature: the Rebbe often ends a discourse with a section that is “al derech ha-avoda,” spelling out in practical terms how one should apply the theoretical teaching to his or her own divine service. When teaching Humash, I would often close with these sections.

One should note, too, that the Rebbe’s important writings on the Holocaust (Zichron Kedoshim and Ha-haruga Alecha) are significant in their open treatment of the Shoah as a singular event, in contrast with the tendency of many Haredi writers to view it as but one in a series of anti-Semitic persecutions through history. In addition, Netivot Shalom contains beautiful sections regarding the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe’s deep connection to the goings-on in the State of Israel is evident from the posthumously published Ma’amarei Hizuk, which includes sermons that he delivered on occasions such as the Yom Kippur War, the first Intifada, and the Gulf War. His pamphlet Netivei Hinukh also deserves mention, although it is worth noting that, in contradistinction to the Piaseczner’s Hovat Ha-talmidim, which addresses the student directly in a quasi-egalitarian fashion, Netivei Hinukh, while showing some signs of modernity, is still addressed to the educator in a typically hierarchical yeshiva setting.

Yet, none of the above mitigates the fact that Netivot Shalom, while quoting a wealth of sources, also leaves out much of the Hasidic tradition. While the Baal Shem Tov is frequently mentioned, the quotes are generally not referenced, and as one Hasidic rebbe who wished to remain anonymous told me, “There is not really any connection between Netivot Shalom and the Baal Shem Tov.” He added that the various quotes ascribed to the Besht are not based upon actual sources. (We won’t enter here into the complex question of the authenticity of traditions in the name of the Besht.) Thus, the crucial question is, what is the Hasidism that Netivot Shalom is teaching, and is it the authentic Hasidism that we, as Hasidim, wish to see propagated? I am certainly aware of the great variety within the many streams of Hasidism and do not wish to blur the distinctions. However, I believe that a crucial component of the Hasidism of the Besht and other early rebbes is in fact diametrically opposed to certain doctrines propagated in Netivot Shalom.

My main objection to Netivot Shalom is to its highly ascetic view of Hasidism, one which to my mind marks a stark departure from the teachings of the Besht. According to the Piaseczner Rebbe, the main hiddush of the Besht over earlier Kabbalists was that of Avodah Be-gashmiut (service through corporeality), which, in the Piaseczner’s view is applicable to all Jews, even today. I am, of course, well aware that in later generations of Hasidism this path was often watered down or even suppressed (or limited to the Zaddik alone), but it seems to me that Netivot Shalom goes much further, painting asceticism and the shunning of all worldly pleasure as the pinnacle of Hasidic practice. As we shall see, this wasn’t limited to his theoretical writing; he attempted to apply his theory in practice within the Slonimer community.

For example, the Rebbe brings a story of Rabbi Shlomo Karliner, who as a small child was spotted weeping bitterly while holding a roll. Asked why he was crying, he responded that he was very hungry. As for the obvious question of why he didn’t simply eat the roll, he answered emphatically, “I have received the tradition that whatever one desires is forbidden, and therefore I may not eat it!” (Netivot Shalom vol. 1, p. 262). The Slonimer loves this story and presents it as a model to be emulated. He states, “Through this type of behaviour, doing the opposite of what you desire, you ascetically causes your physicality to become submissive.” But classical Hasidism espouses a view that physically pleasurable activities, such as eating, do not necessarily distance one from God, but rather can serve as a powerful vehicle for connecting with His presence in the real world and transforming every act into divine service. The Slonimer’s perspective is more reminiscent of the following anecdote about Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler: “In Kelm, character-training was in the very air you breathed. Rabbi Dessler used to say that the relative with whom he stayed used to serve him day after day for years the same dish of nourishing but tasteless oatmeal; this was to train him to do without tasty food.”

As for the realm of marriage and intimacy, one who studies the Rebbe’s published manual for young men before marriage, Kuntres Be-hokhma Yibaneh Bayit (Jerusalem, 1998), will immediately be struck by the fact that women in general, and the bride specifically, are almost never mentioned, the exception being a few instances of the phrase “A kosher woman does her husband’s bidding.” The impression one gets is that the goal of preparing for marriage has very little to do with learning how to communicate or to get along with one’s wife. Rather, the focus is on how a man must “strengthen” himself before the wedding so that his wife won’t be able to distract him from continuing the life of Torah study that he led as a bachelor. That, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, and once again we find severe exhortations to the groom to avoid any worldly or physical pleasure when married. While sexual intimacy is, naturally, not discussed or even overtly hinted at, it is clear from the context of the book that that is in fact the subject of such statements as “Any physical pleasures, even if kosher and permissible, are the aspect of nargan mafrid aluf, which separates the Jew from God … and the definition of a hasid is one who battles against all matters of the world.”

The Slonimer’s perspective on marital intimacy has been explored by Benjamin Brown, who, after discussing the Rebbe’s focus on kedushah in Netivot Shalom, turns to two unpublished letters that he sent in 1956-7, when he was the head of the Slonimer Yeshiva but not yet the Rebbe. In 1956 he sent “The Wedding Day Letter,” and, in 1957, “The Three Months Letter,” to Hasidim who had already been married for three months. In the latter letter he confronts the young husband with his perilous situation: “Now that you are a married man … once again, you stand alone, engaged in a raging battle that is even fiercer than the previous one. For in that [first battle, i.e., before marriage], it was prohibited, while in this [second battle, i.e., within marriage], it is permitted.”

Paradoxically, as Brown points out, we find here a complete reversal of the normal understanding: marriage does not serve to alleviate sexual tensions and struggles by providing a permissible outlet for them (indeed a mitzvah), but rather creates a worse situation than bachelorhood, since the young man must now struggle against the physical pleasure of permissible sex. The Rebbe goes on to speak (as in his published booklet) in militaristic terms regarding the conquest and subjugation of the evil inclination. He even goes so far as to assert that a husband whose sexual desire drives him to have permissible intimacy with his wife is labeled an adulterer, stating that “[Physical] contact that is not required [for fulfilling the mitzvah of conjugal relations] falls under the prohibition of ‘thou shalt not approach’” (Leviticus 18:6). In his view, “the early Hasidim … struggled more to resist a commandment that pleasures the body than [to resist] a transgression that gives the body no pleasure at all.”

What are the practical ramifications of this attitude? “Some of them would weep copiously every leil tevilah. They would repent for the required sexual act just as one repents for a grave sin, lest their bodies experience physical pleasure.” What effect all of the above had upon the young wives of these men is apparently of little interest. In order to apply the Rebbe’s advice, the young Hasid is urged to not quarrel with his wife lest they make up and have relations! When one has no choice but to fulfill the mitzvah, he should do it “as if compelled by a demon” (Nedarim 20b) and should avoid thinking about his wife during the day. He should even resist being compassionate to his wife when she desires intimacy, but rather “become cruel to himself and to members of his household,” for that is the attitude that will help him persist in prayer and study.

While it is not possible to determine the frequency of relations for all couples, the husband should restrict himself through the construction of “fences” and not speak to his wife during coitus. In general, he should avoid her company in everyday life. Regarding relations on Shabbat, enjoined by the Sages for Torah scholars, Brown informs us: “The only rule has been to refrain from sexual intercourse on Shabbat ... In Slonim it is forbidden, as if the crude physical act of intercourse would defile the spirituality of the holy day. There is even a Slonimer saying that a man who has sexual intercourse on Friday night is not allowed to recite ‘Nishmas’ in the Shabbat Morning Prayer.” Brown even surmises—as did Noga Bing in an August 9, 2017 lecture at the World Congress of Jewish Studies—that the lengthy tischen that the Slonimers have on Friday nights are geared toward keeping men away from home at a “vulnerable” time.

This is all a radical departure from the Baal Shem Tov’s positive view of God’s world and of our physical activities. In quotes both from him and from other early Hasidic masters, a completely different picture emerges than the one painted by the Slonimer, in relation to both eating and sexuality, and it is very often clear that their attitude is inspired by a Kabbalistic worldview. A great many examples can be adduced, but in this framework we will limit ourselves to just a few.

Rabbi Aharon of Zelichov, in his Ohr Ha-ganuz La-tzaddikim, Vayehi s.v. Ve-zehu states: “When a Jew feels pleasure, it gives pleasure to [God] blessed be He.” And in Bo s.v. Et: “When a person eats and feels pleasure, and intends that it be as though he is having pleasure from the Shekhinah, and he uplifts his pleasure to God … then he is maltreating his evil inclination.” Similarly the Besht’s grandson Rabbi Moshe Haim Ephraim of Sudilkov, writes in his Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, Re’eh, s.v. Ve-hu: “In whatever you desire … there [you should] perform a unification, and [you should] understand that there is where the Shekhinah asks that you fulfill her obligation.”

Regarding sexuality, the Besht is quoted in the Toldot Yaakov Yosef (Baal Shem Tov On the Torah, Bereshit 58): “When one has perfect faith in the creator, [he understands that] the trait of Yesod is to have pleasure in divine service, for ‘from my flesh I see God,’ and sex is the ultimate pleasure, for it is the unity of male and female. And from the physical [pleasure], he can comprehend spiritual pleasure, wherein he cleaves to God’s unity, which is the source of all pleasure.” Similarly, Rabbi Yitzhak of Radvil writes in his Ohr Yitzhak (Terumah s.v. Ve-asita): “Everything that exists in the world is an aspect of the holy unification, such as heaven and earth, which are unified via rain. Similarly, regarding the physical human, there is man and woman … ‘from my flesh I see God,’ from my actual flesh. This refers to the woman who is called ‘flesh.’ And this is ‘from my flesh I see God,’ which is the holy unification, for man and woman are an allegory for the upper worlds.”

Our final example is from the words of Rabbi Barukh of Kossov, a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch, in his Amud Ha-avoda 33a: “I once heard from a modest individual that he was pained that according to human nature, sexual intercourse leads to physical pleasure and it would be better if there was no physical pleasure, so that one would be able to perform it only for the sake of the mitzvah ... Based upon his words I explained the words of the Sages that one should sanctify himself at the time of sexual intercourse … that this sanctification is to remove from his thoughts any feeling of physical pleasure and to feel pain that this pleasure is embedded in human nature … Eventually God bestowed upon me compassion, and I merited to understand the truth of the matter of sanctifying oneself during intercourse: the true matter of sanctity is drawn down by the feeling of physical pleasure, and this is a wondrous, deep and awesome secret.”

Returning to the Netivot Shalom, it is worth noting an important historical fact, which is that his appointment as Rebbe was not accepted by all of the Slonimer Hasidim. In fact, a significant minority faction broke away and accepted the authority of Rabbi Avraham of Slonim, who established his court in Bnei Brak, as pointed out by both Brown and Bing. According to Brown, whereas the Netivot Shalom branch is considered more liberal than the Bnei Brak group, “their liberal approach is mostly confined to their attitude to modernity and Zionism, but regarding matters of sanctity the … [Netivot Shalom group] is perhaps even stricter.” Regarding the split, the previously quoted anonymous Rebbe remarked wryly, “Why would Hasidim want to accept a Litvak as their rebbe?”

In an article published last year in The Lehrhaus about Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Tzvi Sinesky admiringly quoted Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein as stating, “The Slonimer Rebbe took mussar and turned it into chassidus.” This, then, is the crux of the matter: Did the Slonimer turn mussar into Hasidut, or did he perhaps turn Hasidut into mussar? It seems to me that the latter is closer to the truth. I would put it this way: Netivot Shalom dresses mussar in Hasidic garb and language. This is the heart of the problem. When I want to learn mussar, I have Mesilat Yesharim and a host of other works from which to choose. However, when I want to learn Hasidut, I want to learn Hasidut, not mussar, since I believe that they represent two fundamentally different worldviews and paths in the service of God.

Ultimately, while Rabbis Adlerstein and Sinesky celebrate the “Slonimer sensation,” I am left questioning whether that is the flavor of Hasidut that we want to present to the world. To my mind, the answer is either no or, at the very least, “not only.” Rather than a “Hasidism” that presents the world as negative and our life as an endless battle against it, I prefer to present the life-affirming Hasidut of the Besht, who believes in a compassionate God who put us in a world that can be beautiful, and Who wants us to be happy and enjoy the permissible pleasures that He has provided for us.

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