Rebbe Without Walls: The Slonimer Sensation

Rebbe Without Walls: The Slonimer Sensation

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Tzvi Sinensky

Netivot Shalom, R. Shalom Noah Berezovsky’s Hasidic work, has achieved a stunning degree of popularity in contemporary Orthodoxy. A google search for “Netivot Shalom chaburah,” for instance, yields exponentially more hits (56,600) than the classics Mesilat Yesharim (4,710) and Alei Shur (1,660). In the words of Yitzchok Adlerstein, “The Nesivos Shalom is a sefer which enjoys enormous popularity in every nook and cranny of the Orthodox world – Litvish, Yeshivish, Right-wing, Centrist, Shtreimel and Kippah Serugah.”

 

And it’s not just in the Orthodox community that R. Shalom Noah’s writings are in high demand. A class entitled “Advanced Modern Text: Netivot Shalom” appears on a list of the present semester’s course offerings at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Indeed, a friend who teaches at RRC confirms that Netivot Shalom is the most commonly-taught Hasidic text at the rabbinical school.

Moreover, R. Berezovsky has not only become popular but appears to be especially beloved among his readership as well. Many affectionately refer to the work’s author as “The Slonimer,” referring to the Belarussian town from which his Hasidic group hails. While it is not uncommon to refer to Hasidic rebbes by the name of their sect’s birthplace, the moniker “Slonimer” instead of “Slonimer Rebbe” conveys a degree of affinity rivaled by only a few other Rebbes, such as the Berditchever and Piaseczner.

What, then, is the key to his immense popularity? What accounts for the Slonimer sensation?

 

The answer begins, I believe, with his life story. Shalom Noah Berezovsky was born in 1911 near Slonim. His maternal great-great uncle served as the Slonimer Rebbe. The young Shalom Noah studied in the local yeshiva. The school’s head, Rabbi Avrohom Shmuel Hirshovitz, was a grandson of the famed R. Eliezer Gordon of Telz, a student of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, and a champion of musar. The mashgiah (religious supervisor), Rabbi Moshe Midner, was the grandson of a Slonimer Rebbe and student of the brilliant Talmudist R. Chaim Soloveitchik. The school’s eclectic leadership is perhaps the first hint to the source of the Slonimer’s uniqueness. That early exposure gave him the tools to develop as an outstanding lamdan and to develop a unique blend of Hasidut and musar.[1]

 

In 1936, R. Shalom Noah moved to Mandatory Palestine and married the daughter of a scion of the Slonimer dynasty, accepting a position in a Lubavitch yeshiva in Tel Aviv for a brief period of time. Here, too, his eclecticism is evident: although there were few yeshivot anywhere in Palestine at the time, it was highly unusual for a Hasid of one sect, especially one with outstanding lineage, to teach at a school belonging to a different sect.[2] The decision to step into this role appears to reflect - and possibly reinforced - the Slonimer’s variegated set of influences.

 

Following the decimation of the Slonimer's community at the hands of the Nazis, R. Shalom Noah founded the Slonimer yeshiva Beit Avraham in 1941. He remained deeply involved in the life of his Hasidim throughout his life, delivering lectures in advanced Talmud and Hasidut for five decades, and serving as Rebbe from 1981 until his death in 2000. At the same time, beyond his tenure at the yeshiva, the Slonimer mentored Jews from all walks of Jewish life.

 

R. Shalom Noah proved to be not only a dynamic Rosh Yeshiva and Rebbe, but also a prolific author, committing to writing many of the discourses of previous Slonimer Rebbes, as well as his own. He penned works on Humash, the holidays, additional volumes on Purim and Hanukkah, Pirkei Avot, education, and a gripping theological treatise on the Holocaust entitled Kuntres ha-Harugah Alekha. The Slonimer’s prolific output is fairly unique among Hasidic Rebbes: most published Hasidic commentaries are mere summaries of the Rebbe’s discourses which typically were delivered on Shabbat.

 

This brief biographical sketch of the Slonimer enables us to better appreciate why his writings have proven so attractive to contemporary Jews. A number of features distinguish Netivot Shalom from other Hasidic works. The Slonimer’s language, a mix of Modern Hebrew and straightforward classical rabbinic idiom, is highly accessible, consistent with a writer who has spent a lifetime honing his craft. His concepts are easily digested and readily repeated as, for instance, a Shabbat table Devar Torah. In addition, as a bird’s eye view of his organizational scheme makes clear, Netivot Shalom on Humash is neatly laid out in order of the weekly Torah portion. (Contrast this structure with that of Sefat Emet, which presents the Gerrer Rebbe’s end of Shabbat homilies by the year in which they were delivered rather than in the order of the weekly Torah portion.)

 

Counterbalancing its accessibility, Netivot Shalom manages to retain a distinct flavor of authenticity, drawing on its author’s deep Slonimer roots. R. Shalom Noah’s canon includes classic sources such as Zohar, Ba’al Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezeritch, and previous Rebbes of the Slonimer dynasty and surrounding towns in Belarus. He cites heavily from midrashic literature, Rashi’s commentary to the Torah and Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, periodically sprinkling in other writings such as Ramban on the Torah and the sermons of R. Nissim of Gerona. He utilizes classic Hasidic categories such as devekut (clinging to God), gadlut ha-mohin (times of religious inspiration, lit. large minds), and katnut ha-mohin (times of religious discouragement, lit. small minds). His use of traditional Hasidic terminology is especially ingenious. Despite the language’s apparently technical nature, the meaning of these concepts is easily discernable from the context without a technical background in Hasidic theology. This ensures that Netivot Shalom feels authentic, crucial to the modern reader seeking traditional meaning, even as the Slonimer’s thought is easily understood.

 

Beyond being straightforward and deeply traditional, the Slonimer is interested first in the individual and then in the community. Rarely does he accentuate the national dimension of Jewish living; instead, he is almost singularly focused on shaping and inspiring the individual Jew. This emphasis has found a receptive ear in our individualistic age.

 

Moreover, far more than most Hasidic works and consistent with his musar background, the Slonimer directly addresses the seeking Jew with practical recommendations for better religious living. To cite Adlerstein again, “the Slonimer Rebbe took mussar and turned it into chassidus.”

 

Finally and most importantly, the Slonimer shines a light on God’s presence in times of darkness, possibly drawing on his indirect encounter with the Holocaust. For instance, after reviewing God’s punishment of the Jewish people, Parshat Va-Yelekh records that the next generation will state, “Is it not because God does not dwell in my midst that these ills have befallen me” (Devarim 31:17). Surprisingly, following this partial confession, the Jews are punished: “And I shall surely hide My face on that day due to all the evil [the Jewish nation] has performed” (31:18). The Slonimer is bothered: Why were the Jews punished a second time? Had they not confessed by admitting that they had pushed away the presence of God by worshipping idols? Certainly they should be rewarded for this admission rather than punished!? He answers: God punished the Jews a second time not due to their first sin, but on account of their having given up hope of restoring God’s ongoing presence in their lives. The primal sin lies not in transgression but in despairing of a connection with the Divine.

 

The Slonimer’s writings, then, are distinguished by a unique fusion highly influenced by his life experience. He blends accessibility and authenticity, emphasis on individual growth, practicality, and an honest yet unending optimism in the face of personal religious struggle. In our era, focused as it is on authenticity and self-help, the Slonimer’s almost postmodern remixing of these disparate elements has found fertile ground in which to take root and blossom.

 

Bearing in mind R. Shalom Noah’s remarkably broad appeal, a new paradigm emerges for thinking about the nature of his leadership - and our own. During the earliest generations of Hasidut, Hasidic Rebbes spread out across major swaths of Eastern Europe, aggressively disseminating the Ba’al Shem Tov’s novel ideas. In subsequent generations, however, Rebbes tended to focus on ministering to the needs of their local communities. Following the dislocation of Eastern European communities in World War II, things changed. While the vast majority of Rebbes focused exclusively on reestablishing their courts in new locations such as Israel, Western Europe, and North America, others came to lead not just their immediate Hasidic groups, but broader, geographically-diverse constituencies.[3]

 

Owing in large part due to his aliyah and the decimation of the Slonimer community, R. Shalom Noah may be said to embody the latter model: he rebuilt his community from the ashes while simultaneously developing a post-geographical model of Hasidic leadership. Perhaps his greatest legacy is that he developed a fresh religious language that resonated with both his own Hasidim and a global Jewish community of seekers.

 

Of course, the Slonimer is not entirely unique in his global success; other thinkers have swept the Jewish world by storm. Still, he is unusual in the way he fused four disparate elements: (a) His life successfully balanced his own learning and mentoring of others, enabling him to bring profound Jewish insight to his students’ deepest spiritual needs. (b) He led a fairly small community, affording him the time to focus on his writing and connect with an even broader range of people. (c) His background and experiences enabled him to successfully develop a religious language that resonates with the modern Jew. (d) The ever-increasing proliferation of published books in the late twentieth century enabled his work to become widespread in a way that surpassed previous generations.

As the Slonimer’s broad reception makes plain, the geographic dislocations of modern Jewish communities, not to mention the flattening of the globe due to technological advances, has fundamentally altered crucial aspects of religious leadership. Like many post-War rabbis, the modern religious leader is faced with a fundamental question: Ought he or she focus attention predominantly on those within one’s local community or attempt to project a voice to a far wider, geographically diverse population? A similar question obtains for community members: To what extent should they choose to identify first and foremost with the local community and religious leadership or with a wider community bound together by a common ideology and, in some instances, an alternative religious leadership? Of course, these are by no means binary questions, and there is no one right answer. R. Shalom Noah himself clearly answered yes to both, suggesting that we would do well to utilize our teacher-student relationships as a portal to developing insight into society’s deepest spiritual needs.

 

In short, the Slonimer’s rousing success raises crucial questions about the nature of leadership and followership today, providing a model for a broad-minded, psychologically astute local and global leadership. Contemporary religious leaders and communities would do well to carefully consider the Slonimer’s model when crafting their own visions for a vibrant Jewish future.

 

 

 


[1] The fusion of Hasidic piety and Lithuanian intellectualism was also characteristic of R. Shalom Noah’s ancestors. See: http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Lakhovits-kobrin-slonim_Hasidic_Dynasty.

[2] This is especially noteworthy given the highly publicized difference of opinion between the leadership of Slonim and Chabad regarding the popularization of esoteric kabbalistic teachings. See Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 46.

[3] The Lubavitcher Rebbe is the most prominent example, but there are others as well. See Jacques Gutwirth, The Rebirth of Hasidism: 1945 to the Present Day (London: Free Association Press, 2005).

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