Reb Bunim: A master for our times

Reb Bunim: A master for our times

NEW YORK — There are two very distinct types of religious leaders: those who consider their particular ideologies and practices to be exclusive and sacrosanct, and those who seek to help others find their own respective truths, their own sources of strength, within themselves.
At a time when inflexible adherence to dogma increasingly clashes with autonomous (in the Kantian sense) moral imperatives, the early 19th century teachings of Reb Simhah Bunim of Pshyskhe, the Yiddish name of the Polish town of Prszysucha, some 100 kilometers southwest of Warsaw, resonate far beyond the confines of Chasidic lore or even Jewish theology.
Simhah Bunim Bonhardt, referred to most often simply and with affection as Reb Bunim, was unlike any other Chasidic master before or since in that he spoke numerous languages, including German and Polish, dressed in so-called western clothes, had been to trade fairs at Leipzig and Danzig, and enjoyed playing cards and chess with assimilated Jews.
He was born in Wodzislaw in southern Poland in 1765 or 1766, the son of a German-born Maggid, or preacher.  After studying at two Hungarian yeshivas, Reb Bunim married and went into business, first as a bookkeeper, then in the timber trade, and ultimately as a licensed pharmacist.  It was not until 1814 that he became a rebbe (a term that, in Chasidism, encompasses the roles of master, teacher and guide), and he died 13 years later in 1827. 
In the superb “The Quest for Authenticity, The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim,” the late Michael Rosen depicts an approach to spiritual leadership in which the rebbe partners with rather than dominates his followers.  As Elie Wiesel has observed, Reb Bunim embodied “the secret and strength of the true rebbe: to know how to inspire.”
Reb Bunim’s friend and disciple, the enigmatic, iconoclastic Menachem Mendl of Kotzk who is the central figure of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “A Passion for Truth,” looms as one of the dominating personalities of Chasidism.  The Kotzker Rebbe’s uncompromising insistence on authenticity is encapsulated in one of his most famous aphorisms: “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you.  But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.”
Gentler and less acerbic, Reb Bunim was every bit as compelling in his quest for truthfulness in every aspect of human behavior.  A person, he stressed, “should do everything for the sake of Heaven, without ulterior motive.”
To be genuine, Reb Bunim taught, all prayer, all worship of God had to emanate spontaneously from within.  “An idol is an image which is not real,” he said, “and if one’s service of God is done without the desired intention, it is a great abomination in the eyes of God, like the image used by an idol worshipper.”
For Reb Bunim, praying perfunctorily by rote was utterly inadequate if not meaningless.  “If keeping the Sabbath is simply a remembrance,” he observed, “namely that he remembers what he saw by his father; then even though he is called a Sabbath observer, he is not doing the will of God, for he is not thinking about that at all.”  
Hypocrisy was anathema to Reb Bunim.  He believed that the only sinners he could not reform were liars, and among the liars he included those who lied to themselves.  “ ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ” he declared, “always meant that you should not steal from yourself, just as you must not steal from anyone else.” 
In contrast to other Chasidic masters, Reb Bunim was more populist than elitist.  The personality cults that prevailed at other Chasidic courts were not for him.  A rebbe, he said, should “be one of the congregation, to mingle with them, and to take part in the political and social life of the Jewish community.”  Moreover, he told his disciples that “someone who has the quality of learning from everyone, even from simple people speaking about mundane matters, and who finds in them some wisdom that alludes to how to serve God — such a person does not need a master at all.”
 As far as Reb Bunim was concerned, “no Jew, however learned and pious, may consider himself an iota better than a fellow Jew, however ignorant or irreligious the latter may be.  This is confirmed by the law that if a learned and pious Jew were commanded to slay the ignorant or impious one, or be himself slain, he must accept death rather than kill the other.  No one can tell whose blood is redder, and whose life is more important in the eyes of God.  If a man in this crucial moment has no right to deem himself superior to another, what right can he possibly have to do so on less critical occasions?”
Reb Bunim understood that self-confidence must always be balanced by humility.  “A person” he said, “should have two pieces of paper, one in each pocket, to be used as necessary.  On one of them [is written] ‘The world was created for me,’ and on the other, ‘I am dust and ashes.’ ”
He also seemed to sense that the future was precarious.  Almost as if he had a window into our own age, Reb Bunim prophesied:  “Before the Messiah will come, there will be rabbis without Torah, Chasidim without Chasidism, rich men without riches, summers without heat, winters without cold, and grain stalks without grain.”
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, a distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)