March 4, 2012
Dr. Phil & America’s Fascination with Chassidic Women
I was invited to attend the Dr. Phil show last week to offer commentary on their feature story about a young and beautiful woman who had a tale of unsettling circumstances in regard to her Chassidic background. As the Dr. Phil show unfolded, I listened intently to a young woman named Pearl Reich who, at the age of seventeen, was betrothed to a man for whom she was clearly unsuited, at her parents’ discretion and against her will. Pearl shared claims of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse by a husband who had never trusted or loved her. Pearl depicted herself as a desperate woman with four young children trying to escape an abusive and loveless marriage – distancing herself from the Chassidic community of her childhood in an attempt to seek her own path as an actress and a model. Pearl purported that her husband was so incensed by her path of self-discovery and self-actualization that he now refuses to give her a Jewish or legal divorce and is even threatening to take her children away if she does not abandon her acting and modeling career, a pursuit that her husband claims is against the moral values on which they based their marriage vows.As I listened to Pearl, I was struck by the great contrast between our experiences in the Chassidic Community. As my readership knows, I am a Chabad Chassidic woman who lives in the public eye as a writer, speaker, filmmaker and singer who has an incredibly supportive husband and community that champion my individuality and artistic pursuits. The idea that this woman had no choice in whom she married or that her own identity and self expression was at stake left me shocked and troubled. It is my understanding that Chassidic philosophy is meant to support one’s individuality and uniqueness. The very philosophical foundation of Chassidic mysticism, based on its founder Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov (1698 – 1760), is that each person is like a musical note in the symphony of life and that each individual possesses G-d given talents meant to be shared with the world. We have an obligation to seek out our own skills and talents and use them to reveal the majesty and G-dliness found even in the most mundane and corporeal parts of our existence and the world. When we actualize our talents for the purpose of elevating our surroundings we also reveal the holiness inside all of us.
Every time I get up to sing or speak, I am reminded of my own opportunity as a Jewish woman to reveal the gifts that I have been graciously given by the One Above. Obviously, Pearl’s unorthodox account of a troubling marriage that has threatened her spiritual quest in no way represents the Chassidic philosophy of how women should be treated or how husbands and wives should support each other in their individual spiritual journeys. Judaism supports romance and encourages women to seek out their own spouse. Chassidism encourages the personal quest for individuality as well as marriages that celebrate mutually beneficial and healthy spirituality. Abuse of any kind should never be tolerated or condoned.
I am also not naive and realize that people are people — human beings are fallible creatures capable of perverting the beautiful and deeply spiritual precepts taught by the Baal Shem Tov. The matter begs a serious conversation. How can one become enlightened and create a spiritual relationship with one’s Higher Power despite being cast away by those who promised to love and protect them? When any individual we look up to fails us so remarkably, how do we recover? How does a person ever rectify one’s own faith when corrupted personalities with bad principles cloaked in good ones take over? When our spirituality is tested, as Pearl’s was, how are we supposed to respond, and does Chassidic Philosophy really have those answers?
When I was a kid my father used to tell me, “Chava, remember, always place principles above personalities.” But one Shavuot (you know that holiday the Jews eat cheesecake and celebrate the giving of the Torah) many years ago, I can remember feeling deeply unmoved by my faith, for the personalities I relied on to guide me had let me down, and I had no idea how to come out of my deep dark cloud of disappointment. I began judging everyone I met and failed to remember the lessons of the Baal Shem Tov. Dr. Phil says he went through a similar experience. “I was raised Southern Baptist and I always said I loved the Lord, it was Christians I couldn’t stand,” he said, before going on to explain that he was 14-15 years old when he felt that way and has since changed his opinion. This fundamental human challenge is not a Chassidic issue, but rather a human one that humanity grapples with in every faith across the board.
The Baal Shem Tov used to say that when a person peers into a mirror and sees stains of soil on his own face, it is only because he has failed to wash himself, so too when someone sees imperfections in another, it is a sign that those imperfections may live inside him. Clearly I needed to have a shift; I had only disdain for those around me and could not muster the courage to see how that disdain blemished my own personal faith in myself, and in my own Higher Power as well.
That Shavuot I had decided to challenge a friend and Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson, with a letter sharing my great pain highlighting my inner conflict. When Rabbi Jacobson came to town that Shavuot to address the entire community, as was the local tradition each year, I never really thought he would have customized his speech to directly answer my letter. I didn’t really expect any answer. The only reason I had gone to the speech that year was to prove my point that religion is uninspiring, and no one could prove to me otherwise. The truth was I got more spirituality from my Al-Anon meetings (AA meetings for friends & family of Alcoholics) than from going to Synagogue. In Al-Anon I felt understood. In Synagogue I felt like a phony. I just didn’t fit. My resentment towards my world and myself began to creep up on me. Something had to give. I found myself able to live with the outfit but without the heart. I hated my hypocrisy.
Rabbi Jacobson approached the pulpit. He stood there wearing black and white. I expected a black and white speech. What emerged instead was a fresh and empowering message. And his voice boomed (I am paraphrasing of course) -
“Moses was the greatest man in history. He was a man who was known for his humility. What made Moses so humble? What was the inspiration that created his ultimate humility? Moses was the leader of a great generation. It was a generation that witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea, ten plagues, clouds of glory, Manna from heaven. They had seen G-d in full “exposure,” with all His miracles. Yet they were not a generation who were able to bring great change in the world. However, Moses looked into the future. And through the future he saw the last generation who would usher in the world’s utopian vision, a world of peace and prosperity where G-d’s living presence and the inherent unity of mankind would be revealed. This generation would not have miracles to count on. They would be a generation born out of the ashes of Auschwitz and the flames of 9/11. Unlike previous generations, they would not have great Kings, dazzling prophets, or holy men and women to lead them. They might even come to observe leaders who are corrupt, and trendsetters who are unethical and unscrupulous. And yet, they would still have the ability of seeing the leaders as humans, humans who are flawed and who may make grave mistakes. And they will become people who make the decision to become leaders in their own right and change the world despite itself. It’s time we take the responsibility of leading our generation into goodness on our own. Moses saw that our generation had this exceptional quality – the quality that small, ordinary people would become their own leaders, living extraordinary lives and creating dignity out of doom. Become your own leader, become your own leader.”
I expected tolerance. I received acceptance. I expected a party line. I received out of the box. For the first time, I understood that I had no one to blame for my lack of faith but myself. I had to start to trust my own instincts. I had to become the person that I assumed and expected others were supposed to be for me.
I decided to take that moment only to judge myself. I had to ask myself a difficult question. Was I being all that I could be? Or was I truly living with resentment and rage that had hindered my own spiritual growth? Was I projecting my own insecurities on others, blaming them for not taking responsibility for my life? Was I tolerating myself or accepting myself with all my weaknesses and accepting others with all of their shortcomings? Tolerance is not Chassidic. Acceptance is Chassidic. Living inspired by our own struggles and challenges rather than in spite of them is Chassidic. Morphing into leadership by example and trail blazing through a complicated world that uses pain and suffering in its narrative to illuminate important life lessons rather than using them as an excuse to be trapped into victimhood, is Chassidic. Making a mental and emotional accounting of one’s humility, kindness, personal discipline, exposing the world’s beauty, ambitiously living with joy, bonding with our creator and the world around us, and taking the time to judge less and examine more is Chassidic.
So many times we look to others as our role models for Jewish values before adopting them as our own. When the others fail to prove those values by example we are deeply disappointed. Man was created to be challenged, and at times fails, giving him the opportunity to climb that ladder of personal growth with new perspective and courage. Unfortunately, many of us don’t have the fortitude or resolution to recognize our faults or that our ladder of personal growth is no longer upright, but has fallen flat – becoming a bridge to the extramundane and sacrilegious. Putting too much stock into the infallibility of human beings creates huge disappointment and challenges our inner compass. Many people spend a lifetime without ever getting on the ladder and most of us get on only to climb and fall and climb and fall. In truth, we must never stop climbing, and as we learn to accept our human condition and challenges, they afford us the great wisdom that ancient books write about. Human beings are created as material creatures infused with spiritual longing. We must be careful not to allow our own flawed whims to take over our sleeping spirits.
I truly empathize with Pearl and I am so sorry for the pain she has endured and continues to endure. My heart goes out to this wonderful lady and her children and I pray for her well-being and full happiness and serenity. I wish Pearl the good fortune to, in time, have the perspective to see her journey from a new and a fresh vantage point. To realize the very beauty she possesses is also a product of the pain and suffering she has endured. That the heavy weight on her shoulders currently pinning her to the ground can become the wings on her back lifting her ever higher. Together, maybe we can fight for faith, acceptance, and personal leadership, and finally bring about the world’s utopian vision of peace and prosperity where authentic and genuine spirituality is finally revealed.
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