Directed by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky
At the beginning of this fascinating documentary, Leonard Nimoy (who shares the narration with Sarah Jessica Parker) notes, “Hasidim are a minority within a minority. They arouse controversy among other Jews, no less than among gentiles.” The film explores some of that controversy, though filmmakers Daum (who lives in Crown Heights, home to the Lubavitch Hasidim) and Rudavsky paint a mostly loving portrait of this distinctive branch of Judaism.
The Baal Shem Tov founded Hasidism around 1740 in what is now Ukraine. Whereas traditional Judaism teaching had stressed scholarship and a somber observance of the Law, the Hasidim emphasized a relationship with God, prayer, joy and charity. Hasidism rejected asceticism and instead taught that every aspect of life was an opportunity for a spiritual experience.
In 1779 the Gaon of Vilna, perhaps the most influential Jewish leader in modern history, rejected the Hasidim as apostates. Nevertheless, Hasidism became the predominant form of Judaism in Eastern Europe. In the twentieth century, the secularization of Jewish society began to take its toll on Hasidism, as did World War I and the creation of the Soviet regime.
Four out of every five Hasidim were killed in the Holocaust, which tested the faith of those who remained. The first survivors arrived in the United States in 1946. By the 1950s, large enclaves had been established in Brooklyn. They came in search of a place where they could worship as they always had. In the film, Professor Arthur Hertzberg calls them “the urban Puritans.”
They built schools where they could teach their children (boys separate from girls) the Torah. They eschewed secular education, deciding that their children would not attend college, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of relativism, compromise and sexual temptation. In doing so, they realized they would not be raising many doctors, lawyers or MBAs.
Girls are trained to be good Jewish mothers. Large families are encouraged; most Hasidic couples have ten children or more! To support their families, many men must work in the secular business world, in jewelry, electronics, and other fields that don’t require college degrees. We see these Hasidic businessmen doing some things with which they must be uncomfortable, such as speaking with female customers dressed in modern, sometimes provocative attire.
But the glue that keeps the Hasidic community intact are those who function in the role of rebbe. Hasidim make no major decision without the rebbe’s input. They believe the rebbe is in a constant transcendent state of cleaving to God, called devekut, based on Deuteronomy 11:22: “to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to cleave to him.” Although each Hasid seeks devekut, they believe their rebbe is always in union with God.
What struck me most are the parallels between the Hasidim and devoted followers of Jesus. If that seems strange, consider the Hasidim’s belief in the authority of the Scriptures, their dedication to their children’s spiritual education, their efforts to keep themselves uncontaminated by the world (there are no television sets in Hasidic homes), and their emphasis on a personal relationship with the living God.
The main difference (and a critical one) is the Hasidim’s dependence upon the rebbe. Although Christians certainly look to their pastor as an example and, at times, for counsel, they ultimately rely on Yeshua (Jesus), who through his substitutionary death for their sins, has opened up an avenue for them to communicate directly with God. Yes, the Hasidim also seek a personal relationship with God, but the problem of how to deal with sin remains. Without the Temple, without a sacrifice, where is the assurance of sins forgiven, the only basis on which we can enter into the presence of a holy and just God?
A Life Apart played to packed movie houses in New York City when it opened in 1997. Since that time, it has been made available on DVD. And it is now also available online at the SundanceNow Doc Club.*
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