It was eighteen years ago in Jerusalem that I had my first experience of Hasidism—flesh-and-blood Hasidism, that is, as opposed to its literary counterpart. The occasion was an observance by the Belzer Hasidim of the “Third Meal”—the weekly ritual marking the end of the Sabbath which, in Hasidic practice, serves as an occasion of communion between the Rebbe and his disciples. In order to prepare myself to attend, I had reread Martin Buber's description of the ritual. It is a time, says Buber, when the spiritual leader becomes the “focus of strength in which the blaze of the community-soul is gathered and from which this blaze is borne aloft fused with the flame of his own soul. On the Sabbath, when at the Third Meal, he expounds the Scriptures, reveals what is hidden, his teaching is directed toward them. They are the field of force in which his words make manifest the spirit in expanding circles like rings widening on water. . . .”
Thus instructed, I made my way one night to the court of Belz in Jerusalem, which turned out to be housed in a stone building whose porch and windows were badly in need of repair. Entering, I found myself in a large room empty of furniture except for a few benches and long tables upon which some books lay scattered. Several dozen men and boys were walking about and talking to one another in leisurely fashion, some of them wearing the full Hasidic costume—broad-brimmed, fur-trimmed hats, black or yellow-striped long silken coats (kapotes), and a black band (gartel) tied around the waist to separate the “lower” from the “higher” parts of the body. All had beards, except for the very young boys who made up for the lack of hair on their faces by cultivating ear-locks which, in some cases, reached down to their shoulders.
No one paid any attention to me, so I sat down on one of the benches and waited. It was already about eleven o'clock at night. Though most Third Meals take place at sunset, when the Sabbath ends, Belzer Hasidim follow a different time schedule. They start their Sabbath morning prayers late and do not conclude them until the end of the afternoon. The afternoon prayers then go on through the evening, so that the Sabbath is not brought to its official close until the early hours of the next day.
For a long while nothing seemed to be happening, but then, shortly after midnight, the atmosphere of indolence was abruptly shattered. As if impelled by an invisible charge, the Hasidim suddenly dashed to the sides of the room and strained their backs against the wall, as if trying to press themselves into it. I got up and stood with them. The silence became absolute. Then we heard the slow tapping of footsteps in the hallway and the Rebbe appeared, a short man with a long unkempt beard and fiery little eyes. Directly behind him, and carrying a chair that was covered with white satin, was a young man whose sidelocks fell in long curls down below his shoulders. The Hasidim, still pressed against the wall, watched their Rebbe with intent, frightened expressions. The Rebbe, for his part, did not look at them, but walked to a long table at the far end of the room which had been set for a meal. Placing his hands over a cloth-covered plate, he stood at the table for about five minutes, soundlessly mouthing the kavvanot—the special mystic “intentions” which precede the act of prayer or blessing. Then he took a few pieces of bread and put them in his mouth; some crumbs spilled over onto the straggly hairs of his beard. “Reb Chaim!” he called out sharply, and from a far corner of the room one of his disciples came running up to the Rebbe's table. Hastily, his back bent in gratitude, the Hasid took the crumbs of bread from the spoon proffered him by the Rebbe and ran back to his corner, chewing avidly as though he were ingesting the stuff of life itself. After three or four other Hasidim had been honored with a similar summons to partake of the shiraim (as the precious leftovers of what the Rebbe has eaten are called), the Rebbe took a morsel of fish from the same plate, ate it, and pushed the plate aside. Immediately, all was chaos. The Hasidim, who a moment before had been frozen against the wall, sprang toward the plate and struggled over it like a pack of famished animals. Having picked it clean, they went back to their positions against the wall. A second plate of food was then passed into the room by a woman stationed in the corridor and carried by one of the Hasidim to the Rebbe's table. Over and over, as plate after plate of food was reverently brought to the Rebbe's table, the same ceremony was repeated. Finally, a member of the group at the wall crossed to a table in another corner of the room and in a rapid, almost perfunctory manner began reciting the evening prayers that close the Sabbath. The Third Meal had come to an end.
It was all a far cry from Buber's lyrical evocation. Only in one respect did there seem to be a correspondence between what I had read and what I had experienced—and that had to do with what Buber called “a community of faith.” Such a “community” was certainly in evidence that night in Jerusalem. Clearly, for example, if the Belzer Rebbe had told any of his followers that he, the follower, was about to become ill, the man would have felt ill; and conversely, if he had suggested that a Hasid who was ill was going to recover, all the psychic elements in the body of that Hasid would have been harnessed to a drive for health. But apart from this link between the Rebbe and his followers, I could find no connection between actual Hasidic practice and the eloquent spiritualized version of Hasidism that Buber had “brought into the world” through his writings. Over the years I have done a good deal of wandering in Hasidic courts, attempting to discover what possible meaning Hasidism can have—not for philosophers, sages, or mystics, but for “outsiders” like myself. In the course of doing so, I have over and over again come upon this disparity between the inner essence of Hasidism as formulated by the sages and philosophers, and its external forms—what could be called the mystery of the seed and the shell. Thus, Hasidism undoubtedly contains within itself the qualities of life-affirmation, of holy joy, of ethical and psychological insight which appear in the stories that Buber, among others, has familiarized us with, and which have drawn such favorable comment from so many modern Jews and Christians. But those qualities—the seed, so to speak—are covered by a husk so thick, and at times so unattractive, as to discourage any would-be “tasters.” To put the matter plainly, an encounter with Hasidism in our day (and it was no different in earlier days) often means an encounter with smelly little synagogues, with men and women who wear the clothes of 19th-century Eastern Europe, who believe in demons and the “evil eye,” who hold an attitude toward sex and the body very different in fact from the healthy, positive one which some modern interpreters of Hasidism have claimed for them, who believe also quite explicitly in the wonder-working powers of their Rebbe. In short, accepting the Hasidic reality involves coming to terms with such things as the startling, and even repellent, spectacle that I witnessed at the court of Belz.
Buber tried to make Hasidism palatable to the modern sensibility by stripping it of those crude elements which he felt would keep its inner wealth hidden from Western eyes. But the question to be asked of the Buberian version of Hasidism—and the one I have been asking myself since that day eighteen years ago—is whether the shell can be stripped from the seed without falsifying the reality. On the other hand, without philosophic intervention, how can one expect the Hasidic reality to appear as anything more than a bizarre religious phenomenon to modern eyes and minds?
That question was still in my mind when I decided last February, during a visit to Israel, to attend a much-heralded wedding of the children of two great Hasidic dynasties that was to take place in the town of B'nai Brak near Tel Aviv. Sorele, the granddaughter of the Vishnitzer Rebbe, was to marry Berele, the future Rebbe of Belz, and about thirty thousand guests were expected from all parts of the world—among them dozens of important Rebbes representing other Hasidic dynasties. Invitations, I was told, had even been sent to a hundred Rebbes who were already in the Heavenly Garden of Eden but who, presumably, would not mind interrupting their studies in that higher academy in order to attend the wedding—for according to Hasidic doctrine, the upper and the lower worlds are utterly dependent upon each other. The “quickening below” brings about the “quickening above,” is how the Zohar puts it.
About the Vishnitzer line of Hasidism I knew only that they prided themselves on a rich musical tradition, but I was somewhat better informed about the House of Belz. According to legend, the founder of that dynasty, a certain 19th-century Polish rabbi named Sholem (who was descended from the famous Rokeach family of Amsterdam) resolved one day to fast and stay awake for 1000 successive nights studying Torah in order that he might, as promised in Kabbalistic tradition, attain to a mystic communion with the prophet Elijah. With the help of his wife, who stayed up along with him, holding a candle so that he could see to study, he completed the ordeal, and on the thousand-and-first night, Elijah appeared to teach him mysteries of Torah. Though it was not given to Rabbi Sholem's wife to learn these secrets, she too was later permitted to hear Elijah's voice and she received from him the promise that one day her offspring would light up the world even as she had lit up the night for her husband.
After these beginnings, the House of Belz grew so rapidly that it was not unusual for five-thousand Hasidim to travel to Belz in order to spend the holidays with Rabbi Sholem. The oldest son of Rabbi Sholem was called Yehoshuele, and when he became the Belzer Rebbe after his father's death, the dynasty began to issue a weekly newspaper called “Strengtheners of Religion.” The third Belzer Rebbe, whose name was Yissachar Dov Rokeach, made trips to Hungary, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and other countries, adding thousands of Hasidim to the House of Belz with each trip.
The fourth Rebbe was Arele, a man of fragile health, who spent most of his time alone studying Torah. It was in the time of Reb Arele that the Nazi holocaust burst upon the Jewish world. The relatively passive Hasidim were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands. When the Nazis came to Poland, it was learned that at the head of the list, scheduled for deportation and murder, was Aaron Rokeach, the Rabbi of Belz. His followers hid him in a nearby village and one of them, who resembled Arele physically, volunteered to stay behind and wait in the Rebbe's house for the Germans. They came, seized the man, tortured and killed him—only to discover later that the real Belzer was still alive, whereupon a search was started. The Hasidim gathered a large sum of money, jewelry, and other objects of value. By bribing some German officers, they managed to smuggle their Rebbe over the border and into Budapest, where his younger brother joined him. The two brothers—both of whose wives and children were left behind and soon killed by the Nazis—resolved never to part from each other. Dressed as Rumanian peasants, their beards shaven, they were both smuggled across further borders and finally reached Syria, from whence they made their way to Palestine.
When the Palestinian followers of Belz heard that their Rebbe had arrived, a large group of them came to meet him, bringing with them the traditional silken black gown and fur shtreimel. At first, it is said, the Rebbe did not want to put them on, saying it was all “too late,” but he yielded finally to the pleas of his Hasidim and agreed to act as their Rebbe once more, though on condition that he take up residence in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. The Rebbe never remarried but his younger brother did, and in time a son, Yissachar Dov—called Berele—was born to him, thus making it likely that the Belzer line would not end with the death of Arele and his brother.1 But the joy in the court of Belz was short-lived, for the father of the infant died of a heart attack soon after the child's birth. The Hasidim then came to the child's mother and told her that he must be educated as one destined for Hasidic royalty. The mother resisted, not wanting to be separated from her son, and a compromise was eventually arranged whereby Berele would live at home with his mother but would study with the Hasidim. Thereafter the residents of Yehudah Halevi Street in Tel Aviv became accustomed to seeing a little boy wearing white stockings, with a gilded little hat on his head, walking through the streets to school, accompanied by an honor guard of Hasidim. After school, the child would return home, change his clothes, and play with the children of the neighborhood.
When Berele reached the age of eight, his uncle the Rebbe died, and the Hasidim would no longer be put off. The mother finally yielded and the child was sent to study at the Belzer Yeshivah in Jerusalem. The years passed, and Berele saw less and less of his mother. But the Hasidim rejoiced, for it was becoming clear that they had found in this boy a future Rebbe. They called him the Yanuka—a term used in mystical tradition for a child prodigy to whom even elder Hasidim would come in order to learn Torah and receive blessings. After Berele's bar-mitzvah, the Belzer Hasidim began talking about a marriage for him, many “offerings” having been made from other Hasidic dynasties. The Belzer elders remained noncommittal until word came from the Rabbi of Vishnitz that his granddaughter Sorele might be available for a shidduch ; negotiations then began in earnest. The mother of the Yanuka visited the bride and gave her approval. The next day the Yanuka visited the Court of Vishnitz in B'nai Brak and met with the grandfather of his future bride.
He did not, of course, meet the bride. That meeting took place three days before the wedding in the form of a brief encounter consisting of a traditional dance where bride and groom were momentarily “united” by a handkerchief. At the wedding itself the pair would again dance, this time the “Kosher Dance,” according to the custom of Belz. The bride would hold the edges of the bridegroom's long cloak and they would dance about for a few moments while the crowd clapped and sang.
The story was a dramatic one, yet I was not aware of any intellectual or spiritual “way” the House of Belz was trying to offer the world. Its strongest quality seemed to be its stubbornness in clinging to customs and folkways which would strike most outsiders as primitive and superstitious. Belzer Hasidim, for example, still made a great deal of fuss about magical talismans; they frankly looked upon their Rebbe as a “wonder-worker” and felt that much of his power derived from the fact of his descent from earlier Rebbes. In short, Belz would probably strike most observers as Hasidism on its most “external” and repellent level—just as it had struck me, as a matter of fact, eighteen years before. Perhaps this was the reason I suddenly wanted so badly to attend the wedding. If the seed-and-husk problem were ever to be solved, why not start where the husk was toughest?
So I found myself on the day of the wedding at the end of a long line waiting for the Eged bus which would take me from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv where I was to be joined by a companion ideally suited to the occasion. Shmuel ha-Cohen Avidor, the editor of an excellent religious journal, was both sufficiently at home in the Hasidic world and enough outside it to be a good guide. Apart from that, he weighed well over two-hundred pounds, a qualification of some importance for an event access to which, according to another Jerusalem friend, would depend upon one's skill at “the laws of pushing.”
I arrived at Shmuel Avidor's home late in the afternoon and we sat for a time while he drew from a seemingly bottomless reservoir of anecdotes and insights about the House of Belz. He showed me the words of a song the Hasidim would sing at dawn on the following day; the song, he claimed, had erotic implications, though no one could be sure about the original meanings of many Belzer customs. We talked, too, about the unusually strong role women had always played in the House of Belz. The daughter of the original Belzer Rebbe had, after her father's death, shown herself to be a remarkably powerful personality, more powerful than the son who was destined to be the new Rebbe. She had even begun to act as a Rebbe, giving advice and blessings. Most of the Hasidim were scandalized, but they were unable to stop her. Finally they took her to a Rebbe who exorcised her dybbuk, from which moment on she ceased to speak altogether and would see no one. She did, however, request that a violinist come and play for her every week at the conclusion of the Sabbath. One of the songs she liked to hear was a melody from Mahler called the “Gazelle Hunt,” which, people said, symbolized to her the persecution she had endured at the hands of the Belzer Hasidim.
I also learned from Shmuel Avidor the reason for some of the strange Belzer ways I had observed years before in Jerusalem, among them the custom of deliberately ignoring the properly constituted times for reciting the Sabbath prayer. The custom was related, it turned out, to the mystic idea that the Sabbath is a foretaste of the world to come, where the kind of distinctions which prevail on earth—including the distinctions of time—disappear. The rapid and perfunctory style of Belzer prayers, for example, was an outgrowth of the feeling that “preparations” for a holy act are in a certain sense more important than its actual consummation. Furthermore, as the saying had it, “If a train goes rapidly, a shegetz [meaning in this case any outsider, Jewish or Gentile] couldn't jump on board.” Other customs had equally interesting explanations which made them appear less “husk-like” than they had seemed on the occasion of that Third Meal. It was, therefore, in a more hospitable frame of mind than before that I rode with Shmuel Avidor in the taxi to B'nai Brak, while we talked about the stress which Hasidism places on both the heredity and the intellectual training of future Rebbes.
Orthodox Judaism has always stressed the importance of genealogy in marriage arrangements. Hasidim in particular have always been very much concerned with the physical connection between a Rebbe and his forebears. As a Hasidic friend once explained to me “If, l'havdil—to make a thousand distinctions—we can breed animals to obtain a certain character and type, why then should we not assume that genetics can also affect the spiritual and intellectual qualities of human beings?”
There is, for example, such a thing as a natural inclination toward mysticism, which Hasidim believe can be strengthened, along with other desirable characteristics, by “breeding.” Hence, the rejoicing in B'nai Brak over a marriage which would produce children who were likely to inherit the “virtues of the father” in a spiritual as well as physical sense. There was no guarantee, of course, that this would happen, so the disciples of a future Rabbi would, perforce, be watching carefully to see if the proper traits were emerging as a result of the special education which a future Rebbe receives. Thus, three more years would pass, Shmuel Avidor told me, before the Yanuka was “crowned,” for once he became Rebbe, his Hasidim would subject their lives totally to his command. In the meantime, it was difficult to be without a Rebbe—by definition, a Hasid is one who has a Rebbe—and the younger Hasidim were already infringing the rules by asking the Yanuka for his blessing. In fact, the Yanuka had before him these days hundreds of kvitlech—requests for special prayers—though this, too, was technically an infringement.
The taxi arrived at the outskirts of B'nai Brak, where elaborate arrangements had been made to handle the crowds streaming toward the field in which the ceremony was to be held. A Belzer Hasid who was also a chaplain in the Israeli army, had been placed in charge of these arrangements and had apparently foreseen every possible contingency. Traffic was shunted aside while all those entering walked up a long street past dozens of ushers wearing fur-trimmed hats and kaftans made of silk, with bands marked Sadran (arranger) on their sleeves. There were also female “arrangers” whose numbers were supplemented by a crew of young policewomen in attractive blue and white uniforms, a necessary detail since pious women could not be expected to ask directions of strange men. We also passed no fewer than six ambulances ready for any emergencies.
The field where the wedding was to take place was enclosed by a fence, around which several thousand people were already crowded. Strict segregation of the sexes was, needless to say, enforced, with the women standing on one side of the field and the men on the other. All eyes were upon a little hill in the center of the field, upon which the wedding canopy had been erected. Below the canopy was an arbor decorated with cedar and myrtle branches, and signs bearing such Biblical quotations as “This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous2 shall enter therein.” A loudspeaker system was relaying the music of a uniformed brass band stationed on the roof of a house within the fenced-off section. Apparently the roof was the center of operations, for now and then the music would be interrupted by announcements directing traffic and ordering special squadrons to handle various problems that were arising.
“Pluga Beth—the second squadron of Yankele Vishnitz,” a voice on the loudspeaker called out in Yiddish, “go immediately to the women's side of the field. They are pushing too hard against the fence.” A moment later, a similar order was issued to a “Moshe Leib” squadron. Shmuel Avidor listened for a moment, puzzled, then his face lit up. “They're using code names,” he said with a smile. “Moshe Leib means the Belzer Hasidim, Yankel Vishnitz are the Vishnitzer. There will be blows yet,” he added happily.
Dodging the hands stretched out on all sides asking for donations for yeshivahs, poor brides, and a dozen other causes, we headed toward the main synagogue where the Yanuka was to be received before the ceremony. Here we met our first obstacle. The entrance to the synagogue was closed off by a temporary fence beyond which, on a platform, several official “arrangers” were standing; down below, in front of the fence, thirty or so Hasidim were pushing one another about—in no particular direction, so far as I could make out. Shmuel Avidor caught the eye of one “arranger” and received a go-ahead signal. “Hold on!” he shouted, grabbing my hand, and we plunged together into the crowd. I followed in his wake and we got as far as the fence, only to be stopped by one of the “arrangers,” who did not want to let me into the synagogue.
“Without him I don't go!” shouted Shmuel Avidor, but it was too late. We had hesitated, lost momentum, and a moment later we were back on the outer edges of the milling crowd.
Shmuel then pointed to an open gate with a sign above it marked: “For Rabbis, Newsmen, and Foreign Visitors,” and we headed in that direction while I fumbled in my pockets for a no-longer valid press card I had received the year before, on the occasion of Pope Paul's visit to the Holy Land. A few minutes later we were inside the synagogue, together with more than a thousand other people. On one side, various groups were engaged in different stages of the evening prayer service; on the other, bright-eyed, bearded Hasidim were standing on a platform, passing out cake, wine, and liquor. Along the East wall, several dozen elderly men were sitting around a long table, and in a corner to the side of the Ark sat the most distinguished guests of the evening—about a dozen white-bearded Rebbes with their attendants.
I wandered about the room trying to collect my impressions, which had to do mainly with how the various groups of Hasidim differed from one another physically. One had only to look at the broad shoulders and ruddy faces of the Belzer Hasidim, for instance, to see evidence of healthy peasant stock, and to understand why they were called “Cossacks” by more effete Jewish neighbors. But, in fact, there was something besides earthiness in these Belzer faces, something in the eyes and smile which Hasidim would call evidence of hizdakkut—the process whereby matter is refined and transmuted by spirit. That, precisely, had been the original aim of Hasidism—not to despise or to leave the body, but to so refine it that an inner light could show through.
I made some other notes also. Most of the Rebbes seemed to average about five feet in height, and I wondered whether this was a result of breeding or of days and nights enclosed in the yeshivah. The future Belzer Rebbe was also short and delicate in appearance, though his bride-to-be, judging from her newspaper photograph at least, seemed to have the makings of the proverbial “woman of valor.” She was broad of body and face, and even had, I had been told, the hint of a mustache above her upper lip—a good omen, since strong women are part of the Belzer tradition.
In the course of wandering about the synagogue, I gathered other data. No less than ten thousand chickens, one observer estimated, had lost their lives in honor of this wedding. Another statistician told me that the size of the crowd outside was between seven and ten thousand. As to the actual numbers of Belzer and Vishnitzer Hasidim, there were today probably not more than five thousand in each house. Before the war, of course, the numbers of those two dynasties had run into the hundreds of thousands, but these were the Jews who had proven most defenseless before the Nazi scythe. Interestingly, though, the Belzer house had recently been growing both in numbers and in institutions, mainly because of the absolute abhorrence of birth control they had felt ever since the death of their last Rebbe.
Shmuel Avidor came to inform me that the wedding would soon be starting, for the band had already played the march which traditionally announces the arrival of the bridegroom. We went out to the steps of the synagogue where, standing next to a contingent of high-ranking army officers who had been invited to the wedding, we had an excellent view of the path by which the bridegroom would be approaching. Near us, a dozen “arrangers” linked arms to prevent pushing. There was, in fact, plenty of room and no need to push, but the arrangers, it seemed, were taking no chances. A moment later, from the other side of the courtyard in front of us, a small whirling crowd of men with fur shtreimlach on their heads suddenly came into view, and the “arrangers” immediately stiffened their linked arms. The tornado-like point of the crowd came closer and closer until it reached the stairs, at which point, unexpectedly, the entire line of “arrangers” collapsed, so that all that could be seen was a whirling mass of fur hats and black kapotes—with the Yanuka somewhere underneath it all. The army officers exchanged grins—the “arrangers” had succeeded in breaking up their own arrangements. Now they were past us, and we heard them banging violently at one of the doors of the synagogue, while ignoring completely the special side door which had been left open for the Yanuka's entrance. Finally, the Hasidim succeeded in getting the Yanuka inside the synagogue.
Shmuel and I were heading toward the wedding canopy to prepare our positions for the next phase of the wedding, when he caught sight of a gate leading to the roof from which the entire operation was being directed. Pulling me along, he waved to a bearded man wearing an army uniform, who turned out to be an affable major in the Air Force, and the “chief arranger.” Word was given for the gate to be opened and soon we were on the roof of the Vishnitzer Rebbe's house, from which we had a perfect view of the entire wedding. It was, however, a bit noisy, for directly in back of us was the Hasidic band, led by a tall, thin Vishnitzer Hasid with a pointed beard and a huge white handkerchief flowing out of the pocket of his kapote. Each time a song was played, he would give the people about him a short resumé of its history and place in the tradition. At one point, he led the band in a song which he himself had composed in honor of the wedding. Also on the roof were several young soldiers who were operating walkie-talkie radios connecting them with units on the tar side of the crowd. Their job was merely routine, however; the special commands were handled by the major, whose high voice, transmitted by an electric amplifier, was heard every few minutes. “Pluga Glmel, Moshe Leib!” his voice would ring out over the field. “Go immediately to the north gate and clear the way for the bridegroom. The pushing there is terrible, terrible.” Immediately below us we could see Pluga Glmel—the third shock squadron of Belzer Hasidim—arrange themselves in snake formation and head toward the north gate. A few minutes later, another call would issue forth. “Yankel Vishnitzer, Squadron B, rush over to the women and quiet them down. It's sakanos nefashos [mortal danger] there.” A shock squadron of Vishnitzer Hasidim would immediately depart to carry out his orders.
Neither the noise of the band nor the blare of the loudspeaker discouraged a running conversation going on between Shmuel Avidor and an army general, who had brought two young soldiers, one of them his son, to see the wedding. They were talking about Hasidism, and snatches of the conversation would occasionally come my way. At one point I heard one of the young men with the general ask a whispered question which clearly had something to do with the connubial union that was to take place early the next morning. At issue, it seemed, was the plight of the bridegroom. He had been fasting since the evening before; apart from that he was only sixteen years old and had been reared in an atmosphere of utter holiness and purity. Could not some difficulties be expected? Shmuel reassured him: it was the bride in these circumstances who is told about such matters, and it is she who is the active one.
Detecting the young man's line of interest, Shmuel regaled him with further items of folklore about the intricacies of a Hasidic wedding night. Since, according to Hasidic doctrine, every earthly conjugal union has repercussions in the heavenly spheres, and since the secrets of connubial union are linked with divine mysteries, the students of the wise have always been curious about the behavior of their teachers in the privacy of the bedchamber. The Talmud records, for example, questions that the disciples of Rabbi Akiba asked his wife about the behavior of the great sage during sexual intercourse. Among Hasidim, this curiosity was on occasion known to have become so intense as to have made it necessary for the bridal chamber to be inspected on a Rebbe's wedding night, to make sure no avid student of these mysteries had hidden himself there.
This interesting discourse was broken up by music announcing that the actual wedding ceremony was imminent. The “arrangers” took their place alongside the two paths leading to the canopy—the one coming from the synagogue, the other from the house on whose roof we were standing. As the band played, honored guests and family, including women, came down the paths, climbed the small hill, and grouped themselves around the wedding canopy. The band struck up another march and from the direction of the synagogue, the swirling fur-hatted group of men I had seen an hour earlier came rushing down the path, with the bridegroom presumably in their midst. Now, from the house beneath us, the bride emerged—accompanied by her mother and sisters. She was dressed in white and wearing a white hood so thick that she had to lift it up in order to see where she was stepping. The last to walk up the path was the Vishnitzer Rebbe, an old man who had left his sick-bed in order to pronounce the seven traditional blessings over the couple. Behind him walked a young boy carrying a garden chair. At the bottom of the hill the old man sat in the chair and rested for a few minutes, then he got up and continued to the wedding canopy. The band stopped playing, the crowd remained hushed. Though we could hear nothing, everyone understood that the old Rebbe was reciting the wedding blessings.
Behind me, Shmuel Avidor was whispering to the general. “If I close my eyes now,” he said, “I can see behind this moment so much illness, suffering—a world gone, shattered.”
Then it was over. We could see the young couple descending, surrounded by their attendants, and walking separately toward our house. In the crowd below, a few of the young Hasidim formed a circle and began to sing and dance. People shook hands and exchanged congratulations. Not far from where I was standing, I saw one of the bearded “arrangers” clench his fists and look skyward with shining eyes. “At last, what an achievement,” I heard him murmur.
Was he referring to the wedding arrangements or was he, too, thinking of the men who had sacrificed themselves to the Nazis in place of the Belzer Rebbe; of all the martyrdom that had been necessary to ensure that the “chain” would continue; of the fathers and mothers who had gone to the death chambers assuring their little children that all God's ways were good though mysterious?
The bride and bridegroom had entered into the house below us through separate doors, and there was nothing more to see. We turned to Shmuel for a description of what would be happening within. The bride and groom, he told us, would be led, for a few moments, into a room and there left alone—for the first time—in symbolic yichud (unification). Then the men and women would sit down at separate tables for a meal whose menu would include, among other things, doves as a symbol of peace and purity. The meal would continue for several hours, after which the bride and groom would go to a platform in a large community hall where the thousands of guests could pass by and wish them “mazel tov.” Nothing much would be happening after that for the public to see, and it was doubtful whether we could get into the dining hall of the Rebbe's house, where the singing and dancing would continue. He suggested that we return to Tel Aviv and come back later in the morning.
Back in Tel Aviv I went off alone to have a cup of coffee in one of the small cafes still open on Yehudah Halevi Street and let my mind wander over the events of the evening. Two pretty girls came in together and sat down at a nearby table. Their faces were elaborately made up and they wore the black leather coats and black stockings which are the mode these days in Tel Aviv. There was no use, I decided, trying to build a “bridge of reflection” between them and the kind of women I had just glimpsed in B'nai Brak; they were simply too far apart. Who outside strictly pious Orthodox circles could today tolerate the phenomenon of arranged marriages; wedding ceremonies where bride and groom see each other for the first time three days before the wedding; strict segregation of the sexes? And these difficulties were symptomatic of so many others: did Hasidism really have something to offer those not brought up in its tradition?
It has been said that frishkeit—a constant striving for freshness of feeling, ideas, life—is what lies at the very core of Hasidism and constitutes its great gift to the world. But could one, after observing the stubbornness with which Belz clings to its old customs, say that freshness was the essence of the Hasidic way? Every detail of the wedding—even the composition of the menu—had been carried out under the supervision of elders who remembered what they had seen in their youth at the Belzer court in Poland. And indeed, Hasidism, once persecuted for its heresies by Orthodox rabbis, now represented the most conservative and unbending element in Jewish Orthodoxy. No—it was something other than “freshness” that lay at the core of Hasidism. But what?
Early the next morning, before leaving for Jerusalem, I called on Shmuel to say goodbye and thank him for his help. I found him red-eyed, his hair uncombed, his shirt crumpled; yet he was strangely elated. Motioning me into his study where a few books tracing the genealogy of Belz lay open on his desk, he told me that he hadn't yet been to bed, having decided at three o'clock in the morning to return to the wedding. For an hour or so he had wandered around outside the building where the bride and groom were having their wedding feast. Thousands of people were still standing at the fence, though there was nothing to see. He had been on the point of returning home again when he discovered an open window in the Rebbe's house, where the festivities were continuing. Squeezing through it, he had found himself directly in back of the Yanuka's chair.
“What I saw there,” he told me, “made the whole evening worthwhile.” Still moved by his experience, Shmuel described the scene to me. Using the books on his desk, he made a model of the hall, which had been divided in the center by a semi-translucent glass partition. On one side of the partition, he said, almost a thousand Hasidim were crowded around the large table at which the Yanuka sat together with some of the honored guests. On the other side were the women. Since there was a certain degree of visibility through the partition, the bride sat with her back to the groom and the other men.
“Even for me it was weird,” Shmuel said, evoking the crowded room in which the Hasidim, with scarcely enough space to move, shuffled and chanted for hours with faces contorted in ecstasy, while the badchan (wedding jester) stood on a table wearing a Mexican sombrero, donning and taking off a false nose, entertaining the guests with rhymes parodying modern Hasidic life. Afterward, holding a large sack in one hand, he announced the gifts which the newly married couple was receiving. “And the Rebbe from Boston gives a silver snuff box,” Shmuel Avidor called out, mimicking him. The silver box was thrown into the sack which soon contained gold-headed canes, silver goblets, menorahs, and bundles of cash. All this time, in one corner of the room, a reporter from Time magazine, his hand wrapped in a handkerchief because he had cut it while entering through another window, lay on the floor drinking a bottle of beer.
But the strangest thing of all was the performance of an orchestra made up of seven or eight instruments, among them a violin, a cello, a trumpet, a saxophone, and a drum. What was strange about this orchestra was that the instruments were all wooden dummies carefully constructed to look like the real thing. Shmuel imitated the Hasidim blowing on the saxophone, playing the violin, beating the drum—all without a sound.
Later that week, I asked some Belzer Hasidim, including one who had worked for weeks fashioning the dummy instruments, about the origin of this custom, but they only shrugged. It was a joke, they said, for fun, it was an old tradition in the house of Belz, nothing more.
I still do not know if there is any deeper mystical meaning to the strange custom of a silent orchestra at a Belzer wedding. I do know that when Shmuel told me about it, I felt as though I had stumbled on something essential about the Hasidic way. It is more than the smells and the superstitions—the “shell”—that Martin Buber and other modern interpreters have strained out of the Hasidism they have “brought into the world.” It is also the childlike, silly, and grotesque aspects of the movement which they have censored. And it is precisely these elements—more than any system of ideas—which give flesh-and-blood Hasidism its characteristic flavor. Surely these elements, rather than alleged heresies, were what so outraged the Misnagdim, the 18th- and 19th-century opponents of the movement. They were appalled by people who literally turned somersaults in the synagogue during their devotions in order to fulfill the Psalmist's phrase: “All my bones shall praise the Lord.” It was childish, they thought, for people to enlist trees and flowers in their prayers, or to worship God by playing melodies on flutes and clapping hands in song. It was silly of a Hasidic Rebbe to take out his watch and put it on the table before him when he said the Sh'ma, because he wanted a tangible reminder of this time-bound world to pull him back from the timeless realms into which his proclamations of God's unity would lead him. It was grotesque and undignified for grown-up pious Jews of East European villages to greet their Rebbe by riding backward on their horses, their beards tucked in their blouses, pretending they were Cossacks. It was childish of Belzer Hasidim to walk about with their shirts partly unbuttoned because they wanted “to leave the heart exposed.” And it was ridiculous for good Jews to believe what Hasidim believed about their wonder-working Rebbes.
Above all, the Hasidic claim that one must everywhere dance and sing and rejoice because God is everywhere, even in the midst of evil and pollution: was this not carrying faith to an absurd extreme? Of course, the Talmud asserts that “no place is empty of Him.” Men must “worship their God with joy,” and God's mercies are “over all His works”—His Divine Providence extending even to the “eggs of lice.” This is all good Jewish doctrine, but to take it so literally must have seemed tantamount to carrying Judaism to a point where it became utterly fantastic.
But then, is not Judaism in its heart of hearts committed to a dream equally fantastic: the claim that victory will come not to the powerful and rich but to the weak and persecuted; the belief that this angry, war-swept world will someday be transformed into a realm where lions will lie down with lambs and children will safely stick their fingers into hornets' nests; that tears will someday be wiped from all cheeks and death be swallowed up forever?
Shall we, then, call Hasidism an exercise in absurdity, but an absurdity that draws its power from the heart of the Jewish faith? Hasidism takes the most extreme claims of this faith, along with its most childlike, dreamlike, most fantastic elements, and acts them out in a kind of pantomime—like a silent orchestra playing music that only the heart can hear.
1 Succession in the House of Belz is not necessarily automatic.
2 Hasidic Rebbes are also called Txaddikim—righteous ones.