Article by Rabbi Eli Friedman: In recent days there has been a campaign to show how Chassidim are “normal” just like everyone else. But let’s be honest: we are not normal. We are crazy. Not dangerous, but crazy. And we couldn’t be happier being our own kind of crazy.
By Rabbi Eli Friedman – Chabad of Calabasas
When my grandfather (pictured) had his draft meeting in the 1940’s, the interviewing officer took one look at this serious-looking, suit-wearing, bearded teenager sporting a Dick Tracy hat, and immediately set about ascertaining the boy’s sanity.
“Boy, do you date?”
“Do you go to the movies?”
The officer scribbled furiously in his notes.
“What are you writing about me?” my grandfather asked.
“I’m describing you as crazy but not dangerous.”
And for the rest of his life, my grandfather would laugh, “Don’t worry, I’m crazy, but not dangerous!”
Someone said something on TV recently about the Chasidic Jewish community, something less than complimentary; something about backwardness and the need for progressiveness. In response, there has been a tidal wave of pushback, with people from the community protesting the stereotyping and describing the fulfillment and happiness they feel from living in the Chasidic community.
But along with the pride and joy, there is a shade of defensiveness; an effort to prove how “normal” we are. You might think we’re backwards – we are not. Whether it’s a medical degree, or musical skills, or skateboarding moves, people from the Chasidic community are proving their “normalcy” to their detractors.
Defensiveness is never good. If you are wrong, don’t defend your mistakes. And if you are right, you have no need to get defensive.
So instead of trying to prove how normal we are, let’s be honest: we are not normal. We are crazy. Not dangerous, but crazy. And we couldn’t be happier being our own kind of crazy.
We find meaning in turning chickens in circles over our heads on the morning before Yom Kippur. We cover our kitchens in so much tin foil for Passover one might think we’re trying to go to space. We don’t just build a Sukkah – we eat full meals in it regardless of rain, snow or sleet. We don’t just wrap Tefillin; we wrap two pairs, just to be sure. And we’re happy to pay $1,200 for a pair of Tefillin and $100 for a single Mezuzah. But they can be gotten for much cheaper? Yes, but perhaps you forgot: we’re crazy!
Many of us think the periodic table is what you take out when extra guests show up for Shabbat. Our children couldn’t name the major TV networks.
A Chasidic man is perfectly content to have never had a girlfriend and had his first date at age 22, and for the express purpose of finding his wife, and a Chasidic woman is perfectly content to have a gaggle of children and no career other than a lifetime of trying to raise her boys and girls to care. (Talk about a lifetime achievement award.) How many guys have rolled their eyes at me and seriously doubted those assertions? Ah, but that’s because they forget that we’re crazy!
I could go on and on, but the point is already clear: the Chasidics are crazy, and furthermore, they’re proud of it
Because it’s not so much about how crazy they are, but rather what it is that they’re crazy about. Societal trends and sensibilities mean less (not because Chasidics are trying to be anti-establishment, but) because being Jewish means more.
Yesterday was the Yartzeit of the Rebbe’s father, Reb Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. This gentle, saintly man was murdered by the Soviets for being uncooperative in their rancid revolution. They sought to erase faith in G-d from the earth, and he wanted the opposite.
Once, in the early, very dangerous days of the Soviets, they announced a new upcoming census. Reb Levi Yitzchak overheard people in his congregation advising each other to avoid all kinds of trouble by identifying as “no religion” when asked. On the next Shabbat, from the pulpit, he informed the community that denying one’s Jewish identity is a cardinal sin. Shortly, he was summoned to the local Soviet authorities who demanded to know why he was encouraging religion when they were working so hard to do away with it. He replied, “Aren’t you all about the truth, pravda? I wanted to make sure my people wouldn’t lie.” They arrested him, exiled him, and eventually starved him to death.
Why didn’t he just go with the flow like all the other rabbis of that time and place? Why did he stand up to them? Why put himself in mortal danger? Isn’t that crazy?
For that matter, why did Moses stand up to Pharaoh? Why did Queen Esther stand up to Haman? Why did Rabbi Akiva stand up to the mighty Roman empire? Why did the Maccabees go to war against the world’s mightiest military and not just assimilate like most of the Jews of their time? Why did the Jews repeatedly wage a lopsided war against all the Arabs instead of just moving to Colorado? Why did they fly to Entebbe and snatch back their fellow Jews when they all could have gotten massacred? Why not just negotiate? Why did Daniel Pearl declare himself Jewish and get himself executed? Isn’t it all crazy? Couldn’t they all just be normal?
Chasidic Jews shouldn’t apologize to their fellow Jews for being crazy any more than the Jewish People should apologize to the world at large for being crazy.
It is not our place to be normal. It is our place to be crazy. Crazy about G-d, His Torah, and the Mitzvot. Where the rest of the world sees an ancient text, we crazies see a vibrant, euphoria-inducing love-letter from G-d. While the world endlessly ponders the world’s origins, we crazies party EVERY SINGLE Friday night to celebrate that it was created by G-d. While the “normal” world puzzles over chronic unhappiness, the crazy Chasidic women joyfully enjoy their boisterous broods of crazy children. While the “normal” world rages over the outrages of harassment and unwanted closeness, and scratches their collective heads trying to solve this chronic problem, crazy Chasidic women thank G-d, His Torah, and the modest, crazy Chasidic men for the fact that they’ve never, ever experienced any of it, ever. Never. Not even an off-color joke. Isn’t that crazy?
When G-d asked us to be a “light unto the nations,” did He mean simply that we should be the best doctors, songwriters, skateboarders, lawyers, gymnasts, and scientists? Nothing wrong with any of that but is that the light G-d was asking for? He was asking that we be HIS light unto the nations; that we utilize our Divine souls to reflect G-dly light to the world – that we “love G-d with all your heart, all your soul, and all you might.”
So really now, is there any way to be that and not be thought of as a little crazy? That Jews are crazy and Judaism is outdated is legit the oldest story in the world. It is surely the most unoriginal thought currently available. We’re old. What else is new. We’re crazy. Nu, what’s your point?
If we’d be normal, we’d be extinct. ‘Tis far better to be thought the craziest people around than to not be around altogether. It is high time the critics of Chasidic life admit that they measure their own normalcy by the unbending, timeless lifestyle of those crazy Chasidics.
L’Chaim my fellow Jews. We’ll never win the coveted Most Normal Nation award. So we might as well enjoy what we really are and what we are really good at: being Jewish. And if people think we’re crazy, well then, we might as well all become Chasidics – no one enjoy life more than them.
Wishing you all a “crazy, but not dangerous” Shabbat!