The Hassidic movement is famous for its warm approach to all, embracing even the sinners among us.The Hassidic movement is famous for its warm approach to all, embracing even the sinners among us and declaring that they, too, are connected to God, no matter how tenuous that link may seem.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760-1827) suggested this approach when he expounded the verse “Jacob is the lot of His inheritance” (Deuteronomy 32:9) – the word for “lot” – hevel – can also be translated as “rope”: Jacob is the rope for His inheritance. Rav Naftali explains: someone holding the end of an extremely long rope can still be felt at the other end of the rope. As long as a Jew holds onto the rope, no matter how far he is from the source, he is still connected through our forefather Jacob.
According to Rav Naftali’s explanation, however, one needs to minimally be holding the rope; Rabbi Yerahmiel Yisrael Yitzhak Dancyger of Aleksander (Yismah Yisrael, 1853-1910) does not even require that. A Jew who had totally distanced himself from Jewish tradition was once described as being totally cut off. When the Yismah Yisrael heard this description he quickly corrected the mistake: true the fellow might be distant from Judaism, but how can we say that he is “totally cut off”? That is impossible! The Yismah Yisrael explains that each person’s soul is connected by 36 mystical strands to the Almighty. Corresponding to each one of these mystical connections is a sin that carries the divine punishment of karet, a penalty that involves disconnecting one of these strands. If a Jew – heaven forfend – commits a sin that carries the karet sentence, a strand may be severed but he is still connected by the other mystical strands.
If person commits multiple karet-incurring sins, the other strands still retain the connection to God. But what if a person was to commit all 36 sins that bear the karet punishment? Would the link then be severed? Perhaps.
But the Yismah Yisrael explains that in modern times this is an impossible scenario, for two of the karet-incurring crimes are only relevant when the Temple is standing.
Karet is the punishment for offering up ketoret – the sacred incense that was an important part of the Temple service – if the admixture offered is missing one of the 11 prescribed spices (Exodus 30:34-38; B. Keritot 6). Karet is also incurred for an unauthorized use of the shemen hamishha, the holy anointing oil prepared by Moses in the desert and used to anoint the Temple, its vessels, priests and kings (Ex. 30:22-33). Since neither of these karet crimes can be perpetrated today, explains the Yismah Yisrael, even the most grievous sinners remain connected to God.
A prominent contemporary of the Yismah Yisrael, Rabbi Avraham Borenstein of Sochaczew (Avnei Nezer, 1839-1910) – concurs with his approach, offering his own perspective as a legal authority. The Avnei Nezer states that it is prohibited to say yimah shemo, “may his name be blotted out” (as per Psalms 109:13), regarding a fellow Jews. He explains the halachic underpinnings of his statement as follows: if a married person dies with no children and only a brother, the widow is connected to the brother of the deceased until yibbum (levirate marriage), or until halitza (the ceremony whereby this link is renounced) (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). This law applies to all, regardless of whether the deceased was righteous or wicked. Thus, even a deceased sinner merits that his name not be wiped out in Israel (v. 6).
How then, concludes the Avnei Nezer, could one Jew say about another that his name should be blotted out? To be sure, not every hassidic leader has adopted this open-armed approach. As early as the 19th century there were hassidic masters who sought to distance themselves and their followers from interaction with those who did not toe the religious line.
While an approach of acceptance may not have become a hassidic trademark, it did become a feature of many hassidic masters and courts. Embracing the “other” is often recalled and extolled in hassidic tales, vignettes and teachings.
Both approaches – the warm, welcoming attitude on the one hand and the insular, excluding approach on the other – have spiritual descendants in today’s hassidic milieu. It is up to the hassidic faithful today to choose who antecedents they wish to follow.