In the Court of the Bostoner Rebbe

Bostoner RebbeSoon after waking up on the Shabbos I had chosen for my visit to the Bostoner Rebbe’s court-the temple of Boston’s chief hasidic rabbi-I had to decide what sort of Jew I would be for the occasion. Would I regard the Sabbath with the laxity allowed by my liberal upbringing, or would I enter more fully into the visit, through the temporary adoption of orthodox custom? Practically speaking, would I drive or walk? Would I stick a ten dollar bill in my pocket, to buy a sandwich on the way home, or would I abjure mammon on the Sabbath day, as tradition demands? And what would I wear?

I decided to walk, and carry only a house key in my pocket. As for clothing, I put on the simple black pants and solid white shirt that I knew would ruffle no feathers. On my head I placed a black velvet yarmulke. As I set out, my orthodox appearance offset only by the light green windbreaker and pom-pomed ski-hat I wore against the cold, I couldn’t help wondering whether I was simply a Jew on the way to services, or an undercover agent.

The walk over to the Rebbe’s shul was a passage from one world to another. When I first passed a hasid, a few blocks onto Beacon street, I accepted his greeting of “Good Shabbos” as proof of my arrival. Only a few paces further on I found myself suddenly standing before the door of Beit Pinchos.

In the early 1900’s, Reb Pinchos Dovid Horowitz, the son of an illustrious hasidic family that had relocated to Jerusalem in the middle of the 19th century, was advised by his uncle, a seer, that his destiny lay in the United States. Unwilling to abandon the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael for the squalor of America, Reb Pinchos rejected his calling. Some years later he was sent to Europe, to represent the Jews of Jerusalem in an international legal dispute. But upon setting home he found the way blocked by the complications of World War One. In order to escape the hostile authorities of Salonika, Greece, the only destination available was America. He arrived in 1916. Submitting to the will of the hasidim then living in Boston, he established the first American hasidic court. In calling himself the Bostoner, Reb Pinchos cleverly distanced himself from the grandiose and myth-enshrouded courts of his ancestors. When a hasid questioned his advice, he would reply, “What can you expect from a Bostoner Rebbe?”

The figure of the Rebbe, a man who in his very being is a spiritual bridge between his followers and the Master of the Universe, is a unique creation of hasidism. Hasidic courts once abounded throughout the Jewish civilization of Eastern Europe, each centered on the charismatic personality of a Rebbe. Followers would go so far as to eat the leftover food off their Rebbe’s plate, to partake in his holiness. Though the Holocaust destroyed what remained of these dynasties, many had or have since relocated to America and Israel, where their practices continue.

The current Bostoner Rebbe is Levi Yitschok Horowitz, the son of Reb Pinchos. His court, known as Beit Pinchos (Hebrew for ‘the house of Pinchos’) now stands on Beacon street, in Brookline, Massachusetts. I grew up down the street and over the hill, in the wealthy suburb of Newton, and in the movement of American Judaism known as Conservative for its efforts to blend a modern American outlook with a solid and traditional Jewish core. In Jewish practice we were less rigorous than the hasidim, in moral opinion more permissive, and in our clothing and appearance absolutely in the American camp.

I had never actually been inside Beit Pichos before, though I had passed the beige facade with its inlaid relief sculpture of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the great ram’s horn of redemption, many times. Now I loitered for a few moments, reading the signboard that announced the times of service, the portion of the Torah being read that week, and the occurrence of special events and holidays, unsure if it was time to go in and join the second shift of Shacharit, the morning prayer. Then, seeing others enter, I passed through the exterior double door, into a narrow rectangular coatroom. It was dark and dusty, with bookshelves rising to the ceiling piled with chumashim (books containing the text of the Torah,) siddurim (prayer books,) and volumes of the Talmud and codifications of Jewish law-all in Hebrew or Aramaic. I sat on a chair in the corner, and taking a chumash in hand, began to read over the sidra (Torah portion) of the week.

A tall hasid with a wide red beard came through the door from the outside, and after hanging his coat, wrapping himself in a talis (prayer shawl,) and taking a siddur from the shelf, he turned and spoke to me.

“Are you new here? I haven’t seen you before.”

I told him that I was. He invited me to enter and sit with him. I took a siddur from the shelf, and walked behind him through the doorway into the sanctuary. On the way in I placed my hand on the mezuza and then to my lips.

Inside, my eye was immediately struck by the endless combinations of the colors black and white in the clothing and talisim of the men praying in the sanctuary. Many wore the long black coats and the black hats that are considered the emblems of ultra-orthodox Jewry. I saw a man walk past with a pair of white stockings rising above his calves to the cuffs of his black knickers, and another with a black cord tied around his white-shirted waist, signifying the separation of the upper body from the nether regions. A few large, impressive men wore shtreimels, the round, fur-trimmed hats that have always suggested to me the crown of a pagan forest king.

I followed my red-bearded guide a few benches into the small rectangular hall, with the bimah (platform from which the service is led) and the aron (cabinet where the Torah is kept) fit in along the right-hand wall, and sat down beside him. All around the room, the men were swaying in prayer. At the other end of the room, stood a barrier of a kind of cloudy mirroring material (I later learned that these were some of the original one-way mirror panels that had popped out of Boston’s poorly-built John Hancock building in the 1970s). The women of the congregation were sitting on the other side, separated in prayer from the men by the strictures of tradition.

My hasid had begun his prayers, standing and swaying with his face up against the wall to avoid distraction, but now he turned to me and asked, “Do you need some help?” “No, thank you,” I said, and dove into the text, eager to prove that I knew my own way. How inaccessible Jewish prayer, known familiarly by the hybrid Yiddish-English word davening, must seem to the uninitiated. Here among the Hasidim chaos reigned, each individual making his own way at a muttering, breakneck pace through the intimately familiar liturgy. The congregation was the sum total of individual voices. All would suddenly synchronize at the few appointed moments of unison prayer.

I have heard this kind of davening before. Each time, when I close my eyes to the sound, I imagine ocean waves or the tuning of a symphony orchestra, the evocative discord of each instrument finding its own tone, until all burst together into the harmonic confluence of the music. Now, in the first swelling of feeling, I dissolved the Hebrew words of prayer in the motives of Jewish melody that came spontaneously to my throat, and felt in the company of the Hasidim the sudden freedom to improvise my emotions in song. And when all voices flowed together in common prayer, in a melody that I recognized, I sang loudly and clearly, in easy fellowship with the others.

The Grammatical “You”

There is a tendency among a certain kind of modern rabbi to equate davening with eastern meditation. I have even heard some rabbis speak of the health benefits of davening as including the lowering of blood-pressure and an increased sense of well-being. But I consider the two as distinct disciplines. Though davening may involve a descent into the interior of one’s soul, it has a liturgy that is far more complex than the invested syllable of the mantra. The primary source of the liturgy is the biblical book of Psalms, the collection of hymns described by some commentators as a catalogue of every possible emotion. As I davened that morning, I realized that I was attempting to gather myself up into the language of the liturgy; to become a heightened being; so that I might speak the fullness of myself to the grammatical “you” that is the recognized audience of the prayers-God.

During the lapses in my prayer I glanced around the room. I saw an old man in a shtreimel, slouched in an armchair, reading with a weary and serious face from his siddur. His white beard was thin and wispy, and there was a triangle of liver spots beside his right temple. A young boy approached him, took the old man’s right hand in his little hands, and kissed it, while the old man looked down at him through affectionate eyes. This was the Bostoner Rebbe.

Much of what I know about Grand Rabbi Levi Yitschok Horowitz I learned from his website. In a sermon on teshuvah, often translated as the process of repenting of sin, the Rebbe offers a redefinition. “We might better understand the issue by recognizing that the actual translation of teshuvah is not ‘repentance,'” he writes, “but ‘return.'” He compares the situation to that of a person returning from a long trip to a foreign country: “The moment he begins his drive to the airport, he is a ‘returnee’; he begins the process of return. The fact that he is still on some island in the Pacific, that his plane is still on the ground, that thousands of miles separate him from his family, does not change his status as a ‘returnee.’ The spiritual ‘return’ of teshuvah is much the same; it, too, is a process, one made up of numerous, and sometimes tiny, steps.”

Impressed as I was by the emotional sensitivity of his writings, there are aspects of his work that give a liberal reader pause. A man with AIDS requested that the Rebbe make a healing prayer on his behalf. The Rebbe accepted the plea and made the prayer. But then he counseled the dying man to set up a fund for brides in Israel-to help forge the sanctified marriages that his lifestyle had flouted.

Then there’s his position on the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” as expressed in a letter he sent to the editor of the Jerusalem Post in the fall of 1998, claiming the Israeli government had “unconditionally abandoned its ideological commitment to the territorial integrity of the totality of the land of Eretz Yisrael.” He argued that “even when faced with a real and actual threat to the lives of the citizens it was elected to protect, this government will set aside nothing in its heady desire to make deals with our enemies.”

It is with a shudder that I read elsewhere in his writings his unwavering assurance that the Holy Temple will once again stand on its hotly disputed mount.

But in the first throes of my davening in his court that morning, I was not concerned with the contradictory impressions that the Bostoner Rebbe’s writings brought to mind. Instead I was captivated by the davening itself and by the mythos of the hasidic court.

Halfway through the service, the flow of personal prayer was interrupted as the aron was opened and a Torah scroll hastily removed for the weekly reading. The Torah was carried among the rows as the men sang and expressed their devotion to the holy law that it embodies by kissing it, either putting their lips to the fringes of their talisim and then touching these fringes to the scroll, or, under the sway of a greater passion, kissing the embroidered cloth cover of the scroll directly with their lips. Then the Torah was carried up the one short step to the bimah and undressed, and the naked yellowish-white parchment was laid down on the lectern.

As a reader chanted the sidra from the ornate letters scratched in black ink on the parchment, rendering the traditional melody sharply and accurately, we followed the drift of the text in our chumashim. The portion was “Ki Tavo,” toward the end of the book of Deuteronomy:

“And thou shalt come into the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him: ‘I profess this day unto the Lord thy God, that I am come unto the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us.” (26:3) “And Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying : ‘Keep all the commandments which I command you this day. ‘” (27:1) “But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee.” (28:15) “The Lord will smite thee with the boil of Egypt, and with the hemorrhoids, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed. The Lord will smite thee with madness, and with blindness, and with astonishment of the heart.”(28:27-8)

I felt the elation and mystery of my davening collapsing under the rude force of these words. Here was the promise of the sovereign territory of Israel in exchange for allegiance and adherence to the desert God. Here was the God who commanded obedience and who smote deviance with plagues of the body, mind, and soul. Here was the strict Judaism of the Bible.

At this very moment I suffered a sudden crisis of faith. Was it to this God that I had been speaking myself in prayer, this absurd, petty and territorial deity that I did not even believe in?

Was I fooling myself, confusing the buzz of an inhabited fantasy with the voice of a soul? And what was I doing in this congregation of hasidim, who pledged their orthodox devotion to this law in fervent kisses? How could I ever have considered the narrowness and prejudice of this life in any way superior to the freedom of the “real world”?

I resolved to leave as soon as the Torah service ended. But my plans were changed when a man sat down on the bench to my left, turned and spoke to me.

“Are you new here? What’s your name?”

I told him my name, and he told me his, and then he said, “Do you know much about this congregation?”

“A little,” I answered.

“If you’d like,” he said, “I can introduce you to the Rebbe after the service.” He gestured toward the old man in the chair. “You know that that’s the Bostoner Rebbe?”

Just then, a man who had been shuttling back and forth among the rows throughout the service approached me and asked, “Do you want gleela?”

“All right,” I answered. He was asking if I would like the honor of wrapping the Torah scroll back up in its cloth after the reading was through. My new friend nodded his approval, and I followed the honor-giver up to the bimah. I became preoccupied with getting the task done right, and forgot about leaving. I didn’t want to seem a clumsy heretic in front of these hasidim. As I fumbled with the material, I heard the other men on the bimah chatting and laughing among themselves. It was not at my expense; they were simply using the excuse of this slight pause to relax and enjoy each other’s company. As I covered up the white parchment, listening to their voices, I felt as if I were perceiving the mundane stitches in what I had taken to be a purely ethereal fabric.

After the service, the congregation thronged down to a basement room for kiddush, the blessing of wine and light snack that follows prayers on Shabbos. Here the women were visible, though they sat apart from the men, and the boys and girls ran among the chairs and tables, playing games. The Rebbe sat at the head table, flanked by his son and another impressive looking hasid. When all were assembled, the Rebbe rose and muttered the blessings in an energetic, high-pitched tone, and we all dug into the cake, kugel, and whiskey arrayed at our tables.

The Rebbe rose again to make a short speech, praising the generosity of the man who had sponsored the kiddush and then led the room in a zemira (Shabbos song.) The hasidim, even his own son, seemed to greet his efforts with a kind of indulgence. I did see someone pick up the Rebbe’s abandoned plate of kugel and distribute it among a select group of hasidim, and I wondered if this practice, once an expression of fervent devotion, had not devolved into a habitual custom. Still, I was excited when I was told it was time to make my introductions.

I first met the Rebbe’s son, the active leader of Beit Pinchos, who shook my hand with quick indifference and went on about his business. Then I was taken over to the Rebbe, who was still seated beside his table. The weary look I had seen on his face upstairs was gone, and replaced by a relaxed expression of ease and pleasure. He looked up at me pleasantly, and shook my hand as my host informed him I was a young man visiting for the first time.

“What’s your name?” he asked me. He spoke quickly in a round, bubbly voice, and his accent was distinctly Judeo-American. I told him my name.

“We have a man by that name on the board. How do you spell it?”

I told him how I spelled my last name.

“You spell it wrong,” he said to me, with a deep smile spreading across his face. As I looked at his loose, black-clothed form, his white beard, his shtreimel, and the smile on his face and in his eyes, I felt a kind of giddiness rising up inside of me. I felt like I was being tickled.

“You are welcome here today,” he said, “and you are welcome to come back anytime.”

“If he comes back again, it will be a chazzak, and we can announce him from the bimah,” said my introducer, suggesting with the Hebrew word meaning “strengthening” that a further visit would symbolize my increasing engagement with the community.

The Rebbe gestured toward his own heart, and said, “That he is here today, that itself is a chazzak,” and with that we said our good-byes.

And as I walked home, the old question still echoed in my mind, “What can you expect from a Bostoner Rebbe?”

Micah Gil is a freelance translator and archival researcher.