Within יהדות there are probably four major groups:
Each of these groups are broad and have sub-groups with their own nuanced approach.
Originally, Chassidism was an approach that courageously and creatively enfranchised the high numbers of uneducated and simple folk through a growing set of charismatic, often brilliant leaders, who had ostensibly embraced a more metaphysical understanding of תורה and מצוות laced with שמחה. The hierarchical strata existent in other groups, was disposed of. There was only a binary system: the Rebbe and Chassidim. Chassidim were guided by their Rebbe and he acted as a chosen mediator between them and הקדוש ברוך הוא on matters of grave importance and direction. Within Chassidism there were different approaches: from the uplifting שמחה of Breslav, to the admirable concentration on חסד from Satmar, the focus on תפילה by a range of groups, to the intellectual, inclusivist and non judgemental approach of חבד.
Probably an outgrowth of Ashkenazi ascetic Chassidim (not to be confused with commonly understood Chassidim) this group focussed on the study of Ethical texts (מוסר). There are many approaches within this group ranging from the ‘you are just a nothing’ to ‘the world was created just for you’ psychology. The texts are supported by Torah verses and sayings of חז”ל. The percentage of מוסר studied during a day depended on the sub-group. Led by charismatic mentors, the Mussar Shmuess became an important session where chosen students were cajoled into refining their moral and ethical behaviour. Unlike Chassidism, this group was mainly located amongst the intellectual élite, although its Charismatic leaders had a wider universal impact.
They share at least one common element with Chassidim in that they were greatly influenced by the Zohar, Kabbala and the Ari. The so-called man in the street wasn’t necessarily a Talmudic Scholar but knew much more Torah than his or her common Ashkenazi counterpart: they could often recite Nach by heart. Reverence for the Chacham (Chief Rabbi) was, and remains, indelibly strong. With a proud heritage of luminaries such as the Rambam, they are a dignified group who have now embraced Western Society, for better and, sometimes, for worse.
This is a group which had roots in German Orthodoxy where Torah and the modern western world were not seen as antithetical. It has been called Torah Im Derech Eretz or Torah uMaddah. Having a stronger link with more rationalist approaches to Judaism, this group were not aligned with Kabbala or Mussar. Ostensibly they was ready to face the changing requirements of the world front on through Torah and Halacha without viewing the world as an evil force that is to be distanced from at all times. It is perhaps the most free of the groups in that individualism and personal choice is not contraindicated. As such, it also presents perhaps the most risk. Adherents can sometimes become over-influenced by non Halachic values and as a result other groups triumphally decry this approach as too dangerous.
Being a Mentch
Whatever approach is taken, ultimately they all endeavour to grow people in the צלם אלוקים. A person for whom שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד is more than a fleeting moment, is motivated and empowered to act like a Mentch. Theologically, and consonant with the human psyche, most groups tend to not only follow their path but also delegitimise the approach of other groups. This notion presents a constant challenge to Jewish unity. It can be constructive and sometimes destructive.
My mantra has always been “nobody has a mortgage on the truth”. Call it שבעים פנים לתורה or י’ב שערים. I have always felt that we ought to learn from each group. At the same time, especially over the last 20 years, I’m probably most aligned with Centrist Orthodoxy, as reflected particularly through the Brisker cum Halachic Man tinge of the Rav ז’ל.
Yet despite the differences in syllabi amongst each group, and their insistence that this syllabus or approach will transform people into Mentchen, we find that within each group whilst there are many who are fulfilling the syllabus, yet they are far from being considered Mentchen. How can this be? We could conclude that only the real adherents of a given approach are reflective of the efficacy of that approach. While this may be true, for an approach to יהדות to be considered as effective, my point in this post is that at least today, there is something over-arching and even more important than the nuanced differences of the various approaches loosely outlined above. In a word, that is the דוגמה חיה, the living personification of any of the above approaches. We need, yes each of us, to strive to become the personification of imitatio dei, a concept whose roots are in the מצווה of והלכת בדרכיו and something the Rav stressed over and over. It is why the חסיד who has a Rebbe, a Rebbe they respect not for social for familial reasons, but for genuine spiritual reasons, is inspired to be a better person—a mentch—a צלם דמות תבניתו. It is this, in my opinion, which precedes and is the motivating factor before a syllabus or weltanschauung. It is why the מתנגד who may say they reject the potentially antinomian tendencies displayed by some Chassidim, now also attach themselves to the ’פוסק הדור’ or the ‘זקן ראשי הישיבות’ or to their ראש כולל. It is why the Sefardim revered the Baba Sali and other מקובלים and drank every spoken and unspoken word. It is why many Centrists, after the passing of the Rav, are searching and seeking senior figures after whom they can model their lives. In my life, on a more personal level, Rav Abaranok ז’ל was a person I could only describe by the abstraction that ‘the שכינה reflected from his forehead’ in a way that we know Moshe Rabbenu appeared after he came down from Har Sinai.
We lead busy lives. We have incessant interruption. It’s harder to know what our children do and what they don’t do without proverbially locking them up. The cocoon is not a long-term or viable approach for many of us. What we can do, is seek out the real Mentchen, be inspired by them, whether they are female or male, and try to harness that inspiration so that we can also become Mentchen.
Use your particular syllabus or pathway by all means. My main contention is that the particular syllabus is not as important as the true and real motivation behind its manifestation in how we play out our lives, and that motivation must only be והלכת בדרכיו, to go in His ways.