The turmoil of Shabbos Bechukosa – a spate of violence that erupted in four major Charedi cities – has long subsided. The majority of Charedi society, multitudes who heard of the sordid affair from friends, acquaintances, or digital media channels, continued to live their lives as usual. Some were certainly shocked by the anomalous events on the Charedi street, yet the moral indignation did not last long. “After all,” people told themselves, “these are internal affairs of a closed Chassidic court; it’s not our business.”
In the following lines, I wish to argue that there is much more at stake than an internal struggle within Gur. The struggle, in fact, is between two conflicting mindsets, two distinct visions of how Charedi society ought to look. It is relevant for us all, even those who are ostensibly far from the front lines of the Chassidic unrest.
The “Gur revolution” is a breakaway more than a revolution, and the violence, in contrast with the French revolution alluded to in the title, has been perpetrated by the old guard rather than the new. Yet, there remains something of a revolutionary spirit about it
The “Gur revolution” is a breakaway more than a revolution, and the violence, in contrast with the French revolution alluded to in the title, has been perpetrated by the old guard rather than the new. Yet, there remains something of a revolutionary spirit about it. Certainly, it is worthy of reflection.
Community Over Family
The recent commotion in the court of Gur is not merely a power struggle of the familiar Chassidic mold. A deeper issue divides the two rival Gerrer factions, which can be summed up by the following question, familiar perhaps from other contexts, concerning the relationship between the individual Chassid and his community: Does a Chassid serve the collective (by complying and strengthening community norms) or does the community serve the Chassid (by providing his spiritual and physical needs)?
To answer this question directly, it is notable that above and beyond any other feature, Gur is characterized by its far-reaching laws and restrictions in matters of the Jewish home – a set of enactments (takanos) dating back to the time of the Beis Yisroel (who rehabilitated the Chassidus after the war). These takanos relate directly to matters of sexual modesty, but it seems they also mold the character of the entire community: they weaken the centrality of the domestic setting and bolster the elevated status of the community. Gur, indeed, emphasizes a tribal kinship that supersedes familial ties. If the community comes before family, it surely comes far ahead of the individual.
For a Gerrer Chassid, the Shul is thus not merely a place in which to daven three times a day, learn with a Chavruta or hear a Daf Yomi shiur. The Shul is a shtibel, a “little house” that serves as an extension of the family home. It is a place where men spend much of their spare time, and, for Gur in particular (though I cannot compare with all other Chassidic groups), it becomes the virtual default not only for religious life but even for eating meals, taking a nap, and so on. Such worldly activities are not perceived as disrespectful to the Shul, but rather as religious devotion: even our mundane activities are performed in the holy shtibel.
Another central and long-standing institution in Gur is nesi’os – pilgrimages that Chassidim make to the Rebbe. In the past, these were made as personal and spontaneous visits; when a Chassid would need a spiritual boost he would visit his Rebbe to draw wisdom and inspiration. Over the past several decades, however, nesi’os became institutionalized and their collective timing set by higher authorities. Sometimes, such collective trips would apply to Yeshiva boys of one year or another, and sometimes to the entire Chassidus. It is true that other Chassidic groups also host collective trips for special, festive occasions, but there is no group that holds such frequent visits en masse to the Rebbe. Gerrer women are thus used to spending almost every fourth Shabbos, alongside many festival occasions, in the absence of both husbands and other male family members. And this is not a bug; it is absolutely a feature.
The home remains the default for run-of-the-mill, everyday living, but the absence of Gerrer males from the peaks of life, from the moments we live for, isolates the Chassid from his family
The arrangement noted above virtually empties out the family setting from Torah content, and, still more significantly, from men. The home remains the default for run-of-the-mill, everyday living, but the absence of Gerrer males from the peaks of life, from the moments we live for, isolates the Chassid from his family. As for Gerrer women, they are trained to be “combat support units” for the men. Their task is to “send their husbands” to collect sparks of holiness from the Rebbe at the exalted moments of life. Such messages are habitually transmitted to women via official phone messaging and at periodical conferences run by Heichalei Oneg (the Gur women’s organization).
The result is a wedge between Gerrer males, who are spiritual, elevated, and distant, and their families of women and children. This trend of “community over family” is exacerbated sevenfold by the Gur education system.
Gur Eduction: Appropriating Individuals
The Gur education system runs tens of educational institutions for boys and girls in ten different Israeli cities. In the past decades, the operation of all institutions was transferred to the central Gur administration, which ensures a uniform set of studies for all. Even teachers do not test their own classes; everything is standardized, to the point that children will have the same educational experience and messaging irrespective of geographical location and specific institution. When the time arrives for the Gur schoolboy to move on to Yeshiva, he and his parents will choose three out of a range of Gur Yeshivas, but the ultimate decision of where he will study is vested in the central committee appointed for this purpose.
It is important to note that this institutional stronghold over children is the infrastructure that enabled the violent confrontations we witnessed in past weeks: instructions of Gur’s central committee are met with instant and wholesale compliance
The upshot is a total appropriation of responsibility for children’s education from the nuclear family to the educational institutions under Gur leadership. The institutions do not see themselves as service providers for Gerrer families, assisting them in discharging the duties of child-rearing, but rather to relieve them of the duty altogether. It is important to note that this institutional stronghold over children is the infrastructure that enabled the violent confrontations we witnessed in past weeks: instructions of Gur’s central committee are met with instant and wholesale compliance. Parents whose heart is elsewhere have virtually no influence on their children. Gerrer youth are trained to prefer community over family, to the degree that it becomes second nature. No active choice needs to be made.
Moreover, the task of Gur institutions is not limited to children’s education; their role is far broader, including responsibility for controlling parents’ behavior. Parents are thus required to meet strict rules and regulations, under threat of their children’s expulsion from the relevant school. These regulations include behavior patterns outside the home: it is forbidden to visit hotels or to meet with extended family in a manner deemed appropriate for the close family alone, and it is similarly forbidden to work in a workplace that is not approved by the relevant committee. But they also include domestic behavior, not merely at home but even in the most intimate domestic setting.
This is without a doubt the farthest-reaching and most unique of Gur control mechanisms (known internally as the reidnerim). The takanos of Gur – enactments relating to areas of marital intimacy – were crafted by the Beis Yisroel in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but applied initially to an elite group of Chassidim who chose to accept the stringencies upon themselves. But as the community grew numerically, the takanos became an integral part of belonging to Gur, and the desire to reach universal compliance required the formation of control mechanisms that regulate individuals far beyond the completion of their formal schooling. Thus developed the institution of reidnerim – counselors responsible for disseminating the takanos and ensuring compliance via an elaborate system of policing (known internally as “ministers” – ministers of thousands, of hundreds, of tens). The reidnerim institution is probably the most significant control infrastructure in Gur. Every household is under its watchful eye, subject to its constant oversight.
These social norms demonstrate the Gerrer process of appropriating individual autonomy on behalf of the greater community. The extension of norms initially intended as voluntary strictures for those wishing to live the ascetic life to compulsory practice for all community members results in a structure reminiscent of Catherine MacKinnon’s theory, articulated in the feminist context, whereby control of somebody’s most intimate drives enables the wielding of total power in the broadest of senses. Gur is a case in point: centralized interference in the private enables control over all areas of life.
The education toward annulment of the individual through total commitment to the community is manifest even in the character of Torah study. For 160 years, Gur was considered to be an intellectually agile Chassidus, keen, penetrating, and sharp. This tradition has been replaced in recent years by a new system of Torah study that emphasizes quantity over quality, breadth over depth. What started with a trend of “covering more ground” (beki’ut) has developed into the total cancellation of in-depth (iyyun) learning.
These steps led to the closure of the historic Sefas Emes Yeshiva under the leadership of Rav Shaul Alter (appointed by his father, the Pnei Menachem), a move that was far from merely political. Rather than in-depth study, today’s Gerrer students are encouraged to memorize Gemara summary sheets (termed mezumanim, “cash”). Once again, the primary victim is the individual, this time in his faculty of critical thought, sacrificed on the same altar of communal conformity and uniformity.
The power of community, especially vested in children, is realized not only in mobilizing active soldiers against perceived enemies. First and foremost, it provides a highly effective deterrent against unwanted practices and voicing of opinions. Leaving the community becomes an excruciating process, sometimes involving a choice between belief and family, including one’s own children who will remain loyal to the community even when this entails detachment from their parents. Over thirty children belonging to the “Ya’asfeini” organization (the name derives from the verse “my father and mother have abandoned me, yet Hashem shall gather me”) prove that this is no idle threat.
The price tag for moving between Gur communities today – from the old Gur to Rav Shaul Alter’s seceding community – is potential estrangement from one’s own children and the disbanding of the family unit
The price tag for moving between Gur communities today – from the old Gur to Rav Shaul Alter’s seceding community – is potential estrangement from one’s own children and the disbanding of the family unit. There is no stronger weapon than the threat of losing one’s own family, and this ultimate deterrent against potential desertion has created an internal phenomenon of “anusim” – Chassidim who wish to leave for the seceding community, yet are unable to do so for fear of dire consequences.
For the great majority of Chassidim, however, no such deterrent is required. The Gur education system stands strong, and thousands volunteer themselves for active duty in the struggle against Rav Shaul Alter’s community. The total dedication of individuals to the community has enabled the amassment of an impressive army of followers ready to follow their leadership through fire and water, up to and including the violent scenes we witnessed lately.
What’s the Struggle About?
The struggle within Gur, based on the foregoing analysis, is not just about power and who gets to wield it. It runs deeper. Were it personal, this author would not be writing on the subject at all, out of respect for the venerable Gerrer Rebbe, shlita. But it isn’t. the struggle, rather, is over the very essence of the Chassidus, over what it means to be a Gerrer Chassid.
The primary threat posed by the seceding community is the empowerment of the individual and granting him the gift of choice. The very option of leaving for a new community embodies a radical departure from the individually constricting experience of Gur, for it involves making a weighty personal decision – a step that in itself threatens the Gerrer ethos of total loyalty to community and annulment of the individual by the collective. This departure is only reinforced by the nature of the seceding community, which is founded on principles that are altogether different from the original Gur community.
The status of the individual is thus a fundamental difference between the two communities, and this is manifest in myriad ways
Rav Shaul Alter’s community is less than three years old, and much about it remains to be seen, yet a clearly dominant feature is the dearth of collective instruction. Rav Shaul Alter leads his followers with personal instruction. In the many Torah lessons (shmizen) he has delivered over the years, a recurring theme is an emphasis on a person’s individual and internal service before Hashem, expressed frequently not only in matters between man and God but also between man and his fellow. A word that he uses frequently and unabashedly is “love.” The status of the individual is thus a fundamental difference between the two communities, and this is manifest in myriad ways: an emphasis on fear over love and vice versa, a plethora of rules and regulations versus individual yearning for internal Divine service, and uncompromising fealty to community versus individual empowerment.
It would be disingenuous to define the struggle as good against evil, light against dark. Many thousands cling to the original Chassidus for the good life it provides. Gur, as a strong and well-networked group, supplies a dense safety net for any Chassid. Dropout rates from Gur are minuscule, internal welfare institutions are caring, generous, and truly impressive, interest-free loans are readily available, and cheap housing options are accessible – and these are only some of the benefits that belonging to Gur procures. Rav Shaul Alter himself once raised the imagery of the Chassidus as the best Kupat Holilm (an analogy to Israel’s fairly robust healthcare providers) in town.
But the good life does not end with material comforts. Rather, perhaps the most comforting element of Gur is the spiritual comfort of others taking responsibility for your religious wellbeing. The individual in Gur need not worry about the “big questions” of life. Others, more experienced and more intelligent than he, will make the communal and even the familial decisions on his behalf. The individual will have less autonomy – this is built into the system – but is that necessarily a bad thing? Certainly, it is a comfort to lose one’s autonomy for the sake of the collective. It is an arrangement of convenience that many, generally unexposed to the liberal spirit of the day, readily accede to.
However, I believe that this convenience needs to be balanced by a yet more important value, that of “you shall do the good and the just in the eyes of Hashem, your God” (Devarim 6:18). The good and the just are not always aligned with the convenient, and we are duty-bound to follow the word of God and not to outsource our personal responsibility to the collective. While the community has a strong presence in the Jewish tradition, it does not supplant the individual or replace his own service to Hashem. “Obeying orders” is not a legitimate response to the questions that we will face, personally, upon reaching the Divine tribunal: “Did you deal faithfully in commerce?” “Did you set times for Torah study?” “Did you beget children?” “Did you anticipate redemption?” (Shabbos 31a) We must answer these, and other tough questions, individually rather than collectively.
The total dedication to the collective runs the risk of appropriating our personal service to Hashem, leaving nothing to the individual. Outsourcing personal responsibility might feel warm and comforting, but it ultimately rings hollow; it prevents us from confronting the basic questions that a God-fearing person must ask himself. Moreover, the same dedication can also be used for purposes that do not bring us closer, but, Heaven forbid, distance us from our service before Hashem. This point raises a deeply moral dimension of belonging to Gur. The Torah obligates us, even Gerrer Chassidim, with the instruction: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God require of you, but to fear Hashem your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Devarim 10:12). Our fear and our love must be first and foremost before Hashem and not before a community structure.
When the Convenient Becomes Inconvenient
Gur is the largest and most politically powerful Chassidus in Israel. Its development was related both to immigration from Poland and the establishment of Gur institutions before the war, encouraged by the Imrei Emes, and to survivors and their families who joined under the leadership of the Beis Yisroel. Gur was fortunate to have a good opening position, and it was able to capitalize on its initial assets by means of robust and stable leadership. In a certain sense, post-war Gur was able to offer Chassidim what Israel offered Jews generally: the comfort of power. Notwithstanding the Torah reprimand, in those years perhaps we all needed a consolation dose of “my strength and the might of my hands.”
Power is doubtless an important element of survival, and internal strength promises durability in the face of external turbulence and threats. Yet, power has a tendency to corrupt, unless it is balanced by a set of righteous laws that is no less authoritative. Communal power must be employed only in accordance with just rules of engagement and a commitment to fairness. Absent an effective system of checks and balances, community power can be a terribly destructive force – a fact we know from sad experience with numerous communities that warped into dangerous cults.
[S]trong children are often those who distrust the world, and the reliance on power breeds a consciousness of fear of the world and a sense that nobody outside can be relied upon
Gur has successfully translated its power into impressive political representation, strong social institutions, consumer power, welfare organizations, a huge set of schools, and so on. But strong children are often those who distrust the world, and the reliance on power breeds a consciousness of fear of the world and a sense that nobody outside can be relied upon. Internal pride can be a source of empowerment, and over many years this was the case for Gur. Alas, today it seems that rather than empowerment, community power has turned to oppression.
It is convenient to annul oneself to a collective. But when failure to do so results in punishment and censure, the sense of convenience is tinged with acute pain. Individual suffering can seem legitimate for the sake of collective wellbeing, which is why many Gerrer Chassidim perceive the use of power against disloyalty as natural and almost obvious. The levels of monetary donations to “Yaasfeni,” the aforementioned organization that “gathers in” the children of parents who dare to cross the lines, proves the point, as do the numbers of Chassidim who participated, even gleefully, in the Shabbos rampage against the seceding community. They did so out of total belief in the righteousness of their actions.
On that fateful Shabbos, this author witnessed over a dozen lynches of passers-by whose only sin was belonging to (or some closeness to) Rav Shaul Alter’s community. Some of the victims tried to escape, a futile effort in the face of numerical disadvantage. Others tried to protect themselves or attack the assailants, but this only infuriated them more. But one scene, witnessed on Shabbos afternoon, shines out among the troubled set of memories. A young, bearded man was walking innocently from Shul when a group of young, unrestrained thugs – I have no better words to describe them – began to attack him. His strategy was to walk on, upright, eyes facing the heavens. He was cursed, spat upon, and stripped of his external clothing – his shtreimel, his long coat, his yarmulke – yet he walked on upright, leaving the hoodlums confused and confounded.
In the eye of my mind, the scene is an exaggerated illustration of the internal strength that Rav Shaul Alter’s community calls for, in contrast with the violence sanctioned by Gur. Ever since the violence broke out, Rav Shaul Alter has called for looking inwardly as a response to the turbulence outside. As I have tried to explain, this modus operandi is a precise reflection of the nature of the dispute between the two sides.
As noted at the outset, the Gur revolution is far from the French revolution, which was drenched in the blood of an unrestrained revolutionary spirit. Its spirit might be revolutionary, in the sense described above, yet it is one of Torah: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are Shalom” (Mishlei 3:17).
We hope and pray that all sides will ultimately find peace.
One might think that the events that this article has discussed belong to an internal rift within Gur. Yet, the truth of the matter is that they are relevant to all of Charedi society. Charedi society might be different from Gur, but the differences are mainly superficial. In recent years we have seen similar, parallel trends of growing communities and the concentration of power in the hands of a small leadership. Inflation in strictures, especially in matters of modesty, is common in many communities, and all Charedim are familiar with increasing degrees of oversight by means of schools and community institutions. Gur takes such trends to an extreme, but nobody is exempt from their manifestation to one degree or another.
The earthquake that we are witnessing within Gur might be a precursor to a broader turnaround; at the very least, it should trigger deep communal thought. The search for fear of Heaven and for internal, sincere service to God is challenging the power bases of all communities. In this sense, the events we have witnessed in recent weeks are a wake-up call for a Charedi-wide internal reckoning. Perhaps they might even point us in the right direction.