I recently moved to a neighborhood in Montreal that’s a very odd combination of hipsters and Hasidic Jews.
Although different in important ways, the groups share a great many similarities in how they relate to others. Each is insular, with ostentatious outward markers like clothing and use of language demarcating the “in” from the “out” group. The hipsters have their designer brunch cafes and $25 t-shirt shops, while the Hasids stick to the kosher butchers and monochrome clothing stores. Each group has its own set of standards against which they evaluate those who don’t belong, who are either too uncool or happen to have been born to non-Jewish mothers.
While my intellectual curiosity inspires me to understand both groups, as a student of religion, I have to say that I’m more interested in knowing what drives the Hasidim. Walled off in their own schools, cuisine, and language, their way of life is very alien to outsiders.
There are times when I look at them with confusion, but there are other times when I think, hey, I have to respect the fact that at least they’re out there trying to bring forth the higher virtues outlined in their sacred texts. Flawed as the application may sometimes be, their efforts are dedicated to creating a relationship with God- which is more than I can say of the hipsters.
In a way, this is a process similar to an amphibious military campaign whose first task is to establish a beachhead. It’s impossible to directly confront an enemy entrenched on land, who has the advantage of fortified defenses and established supply lines. A general like Eisenhower knew that he had to consolodate a temporary landing first in order to bring in reinforcements before the land campaign could begin.
The prophet Isaiah instructs Jews to be a “light unto the nations.” In other words: set an example! Teach the rest of the world what it looks like when human beings devote themselves to doing sacred work on earth. The community becomes the beachhead by which God establishes His/Her presence in the world.
It seems to me that one needn’t be born Jewish to undertake this work. As the Buddha highlighted, it matters not what tribe you come from, but what you do : “Not by birth is one an outcast; not by birth is one a brahman [upper caste, priest]. By deed one becomes an outcast, by deed one becomes a brahman.”
Any group or individual can be chosen- if they choose themselves. The beachhead is established not through having been born in a particular group, but only in someone who has been “converted”, who has turned away from the things of “the world” toward higher goals of expanding and deepening consciousness.
In the Book of Genesis, God spent six days at work, and then he ceased. The seventh day of creation was left open for us for us to fill. God only takes things so far, then He hands the baton over to (Himself in the form of) man. Of all the myriad of lifeforms that have graced the surface of the earth over billions of years, there is only one who can make the choice to intentionally collaborate with the creative power that brings this universe forth in every moment.
To do this requires taming one’s unruly nature, which Plato likens to a poorly-trained horse. It’s much easier to summon the discipline, wisdom, and other virtues necessary for this when you are supported and nurtured by a community of like-minded people. The struggle is made easier when you have others to share it with.
When you go out on the street and see so many people posturing themselves to gain approval and attention, it’s difficult not to get sucked into the game. This is why I appreciate having the Hasidim around.
Even though they would never initiate any contact with me, just to walk by them every day is a little reminder that there is something more to life than the satisfaction of animal desires. I don’t resonate with the means they use, but I think our fundamental aim is very similar: to awaken consciousness to its true nature, to become aware that Being has given to Itself the power to create.
Make no mistake: this is a battle. Israel literally means struggle with God; the Quran reminds us that the real jihad is the struggle against our own rebellious nature. One who establishes a beachhead within themselves must be constantly on guard against the enemies of greed, hatred, and delusion, who will pounce on any opportunity to regain lost territory.