The Quest for Authenticity Reviewed in The Jewish Star

The Quest for Authenticity

The Quest for Authenticity

by Alan J. Gerber

A rebbe who does not speak Yiddish; a rebbe who speaks a fluent German; a rebbe who dresses in the “modern” garb of his day; a rebbe who does not center his beliefs in Kabbalah; a rebbe whose main preoccupation is that of being a businessman. What kind of a rebbe is that?

With all the controversy over rebbes visiting our community the book under review this week should be a refreshing change in the tone of the discussion. Each and every consideration enumerated above describes a real Chassidic spiritual leader from almost two centuries ago who was to set the standard for honest and sincere belief for many in the Chassidic world.

Surprising, but true.

The book, The Quest for Authenticity [Urim, 2008] is the story of the legendary Reb Simhah Bunim of Przysucha (1765–1827), and is written by Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosen, of blessed memory, whose first yahrtzeit will be commemorated this week by his family and his many followers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

This review will deal both with the subject of this book as well as the life’s work of its late and beloved author. Both had so much in common and I thought that you would appreciate knowing more about them.

Reb Simhah assumed the helm of Przysucha chassidus after the passing of his rebbe, the Yehudi (1766–1814). Their version of Chassidic tradition was very different from others, just as their new rebbe was different from other rebbes.

Despite these differences, under Reb Simhah, this Chassidic tradition was to develop the future leaders of 19th century Polish chassidus: the rebbes of Warka [Vorki], Kotzk, Gur, Alexander and Izbitz. While not fitting the stereotypical image that we have today of a rebbe, Reb Simhah’s teachings and his personal path in the integrity of our faith was to leave an indelible mark upon all of Polish Chassidim.

Ideology aside, it was the persona of the rebbe that fascinated me and inspired me to consider reading this book and researching both the subject and the life’s work of its author. Given the greatness of its author, I chose this time, his first yahrtzeit, to give you a taste of a little known chapter of Jewish history for you to further explore.

Reb Simhah was opposed to allowing the rebbe to be the subject of hero worship. According to Rabbi Rosen, Reb Simhah strongly held to the opinion that “all a zaddik could do was to be a guide, a role model.”

“By his very presence, by his own spiritual integrity, the student could find his own integrity as well,” writes Rabbi Rosen. “The function of the rebbe was to help people become themselves and to serve G-d in their own truth. Vicarious redemption runs counter to the most basic values of Przysucha.”

Absent were the nonsensical ideas of a rebbe being some sort of Jewish witch doctor dispensing all sorts of spiritual potions and notions to gullible and mindless followers. How refreshing indeed this is and how urgently needed is this approach today, especially as witnessed by the acrimony that some in chassidus have, as they so brazenly comported themselves in our holy land and beyond these past few months.

This book continues with numerous other examples of the rebbe’s theology, thinking, and behavior that both demonstrate his uniqueness as a people’s rebbe, and as a spiritual leader in constant “quest” for the authentic interpretation of our faith.

The iconoclastic manner of Reb Simhah follows throughout, touching upon every aspect of his life’s journey.

And the author of this biography follows his subject.

Rabbi Dr. Michael [Mickey] Rosen z”l was a very special person. This book was his life’s work, which, according to his publisher Tzvi Mauer took over ten years to research and complete – ten years that would be the last of his 63.

According to his brother Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, Rabbi Michael Rosen was profoundly influenced by the charisma of his father, the illustrious Rav Kopul Rosen of London and a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania. Mickey, who was ordained in 1973 by Rav Unterman, fused the zeitgeist together with a strong passion for social justice. British born and bred, it wasn’t until he made aliya when Mickey’s rabbinate finally came into his own.

After establishing his own shul, YAKAR – the Center for Tradition and Creativity – in Jerusalem, he attracted many followers who were searching for a modern orthodox alternative to the establishment alternatives that were the only ones available till that time. According to one of Jerusalem’s leading theologians, Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo, Mickey was a “fantastic person, independent, a real yirei shamayim who was most influential on Jerusalem’s spiritual scene.”

At YAKAR, Mickey utilized the Carlebach musical mode of worship together with the strict orthodox liturgy. While modern in approach, Mickey never bought into any notion of compromise when it came to a woman’s role in the shul. The mechitzah was inviolable. Yet, he supported a woman’s right to the public recitation of kaddish and in the governance of the shul, something often frowned upon in more traditional worship settings. He was a spiritual leader who had his feet firmly planted in both the traditional and modern spiritual venues of our faith.

I choose to end this essay with the following note sent to me by Mickey’s brother, Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland who now resides in Jerusalem. It is a heartfelt dvar Torah [that relates to this very week’s parsha] that he attributes to one of his nephews:

“Appropriately, the parsha before his [Mickey’s] death was Vayeitzei – appropriate not just because of his having left this world at that time but especially because of an insight concerning Yaacov Avinu which seemed to me to be so appropriate for Mickey.

“At the end of the parsha, on his return to Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov comes across a group of angels and he said that this is a divine group. Rashi explains that Yaakov recognized them as the angels he had seen in the dream of the ladder. In his commentary, Rav Yaakov Duschinsky suggests that the Torah tells us this to reveal something very special about Yaakov; namely, that the vision that he had as a young man remained as vivid with him even more so a generation later and indeed throughout the rest of his life.

“More often than not, we start out life with all kinds of great visions and good intentions, but they all too often get tarnished if not jettisoned on the path of our ‘maturity.’ Yaakov did not allow life’s difficulties and vicissitudes to lessen his vision, passion and commitment.

“I think that this image is beautifully apposite of Mickey. He was a visionary as a young man and remained a visionary throughout his too short life, with passion and conviction and a remarkable talent to turn vision into concrete substance.”

Would that this might be so for all of us, our leaders, as well as for our spiritual guides.

(from The Jewish Star)

The text of the original review may be found here.


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