Saturday, December 15, 2012


Around the year 1740, in the Ukrainian town of Mezhebuzh, a Rabbi named Yisroel Ben Eliezer began attracting disciples.  Yisroel claimed to have received revelations from G-d while taking long walks in the woods.  His unorthodox inspiration, stressing an ecstatic emotional communion with G-d, led to the founding of Judaism's most "orthodox" movement: Hasidism.

Yisroel Ben Eliezer is better known as the BESHT or Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name).  The early Hassidic movement met with a great deal of resistance from mainstream rabbis, often oriented toward large assimilated communities in Germany.  Many considered Hassidism a severe break with Judaism itself.  In oppostion to assimilated, wealthy German Jews in the West, Hassidism appealed to poor, uneducated Jewish famers in the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania.  Like Pentecostal Christianity and the Second Great Awakening sweeping across rural America at nearly the same moment, Hassidism promised followers a direct religious experience unencumbered by scholastic interdiction.

Today, most of us associate Hassidism (and ironically enough, "Orthodox" Jewish practice) with Chabad, one of several divergent Hassidic movements in existence and the largest Jewish religious organization in the world, with over a thousand congregations in cities around the globe.  In contradiction to many of the movement's early beliefs, Chabad stresses mind over emotions, commanding a rigid separation of the sexes, with men often confined to a scholastic life centered around the midrash or religious school (think madrasa for Jews).  Unlike most other Jewish religious organizations, Chabad also actively proselytizes (other Jews).  Comparisons with fundamentalist Islam don't stop there.  As with the Persian chador, burka and hijab, many Hassidic women conceal their actual hair with wigs to ensure modesty.

Many followers of Chabad believe a former leader who died in 1994, the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the promised Messiah.  As time goes by, hope in the Rebbe Schneerson's eventual resurrection loses favor.

If you have a giant menorah in your home town, like mine in Baltimore, it's likely the property of your local Chabad chapter.  As the last night of Hanukah approached, I decided to hop on the free Circulator bus to the Inner Harbor to watch the sunset lighting ceremony (and grab some Chipotle).  To my great pleasure, I encountered a caravan of Chabad-House Hanukah-mobiles along the way, each decked out with an electric menorah on the roof.

Colby's ultimate ride: a minivan big enough to take dumpster diving with an extra set of headlights on the roof.  If only I were kosher enough to take the wheel.            

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