In the fourth of his regular dispatches from from Montreal’s faith-rich Outremont district, Gideon Strauss brings us deeper into the concerns of the Hasidic community of Outremont.
“Happiness itself is your service of God," taught the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism.
“Joy is one of the keys to attaining spiritual elevation,” Cheskie Weiss of the blog Outremont Hasid tells me. “There is a saying of the Ari [Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi] – one of the greatest propagators of Jewish mysticism in the last millennium – that everything he attained spiritually was because of the joy he had.”
Weiss moved to Montreal from Brooklyn when he married in the late 1990s.
“In the Hasidic community, you usually move to where the wife’s family lives.”
About three-quarters of the Hasidic men in Montreal are from similar communities elsewhere: Brooklyn and Israel, London in England and Melbourne in Australia. They are drawn to the renowned warmth of the Montreal Hasidic community: a warmth that Weiss ascribes in part to the reality that Montreal has the coldest weather of any place in the world where Hasidim live.
“Hasidism basically takes Jewish mysticism and brings it alive in daily life. Everything we do involves Kabbalah [that is, the mystical interpretation of the Jewish Bible]. Everything. Hasidism makes the practice of Jewish mysticism available to everybody. The founder of the Hasidic movement wanted to spiritually elevate even the simplest people. Every person has a mission in this world. Nobody is without worth. If you try to serve God with all your heart, this has major, major power in the heavens.”
The study of the Jewish scriptures and their interpretation is not only of intellectual or ethical value to the Hasidic Jews of Outremont. For them such study has a powerful mystical significance. On the one hand, the person studying is, by the means of studying, effecting positive change in the very structure of reality. On the other hand, the act of study effects an infusion of the divine into the very person of the student, elevating that person spiritually.
“When I grew up, in my home, even though my father was in business, in manufacturing, it was always in the air: he expected us to grow up Torah scholars, to study as much as possible. I try to pass that along to my children. It’s not easy: Talmud study is very, very challenging! But once you get the hang of it, you enjoy it immensely! And you’re bringing godliness into yourself.”
It’s not something the Quebec government easily understands.
“They require many hours of our children for secular studies and they don’t understand why we cannot just take hours away from Talmudic studies. But it is important for us, not only as a means to gain knowledge: we believe that the more time you delve into the Talmud, the more you develop as a person, spiritually. And so my son is 12 years old and he is in school 12 hours every day.
“He leaves the house at 6:45 in the morning and he heads home at seven in the evening. Half of that time is Jewish studies, half of it secular studies. He knows French, English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic.”
For Weiss, the relationship between the Hasidic community and its Outremont neighbours became acrimonious only about 10 years ago. The conflict instigated, he says, in large part by individuals who began heaping calumny in blogs. The rancour he perceived in the online attacks on his community prompted him to start the blog Outremont Hasid, writing: “We hope this dialogue will increase our respect of one another.”
The outcome of the November 2016 borough referendum on new places of worship along Outremont’s Bernard Avenue left Weiss shocked.
“We did not expect that our own neighbours would come out in such numbers against us. Politicians come and go. But our neighbours are here to stay. We have to find a way to live together.”
“Shape up and reach out,” is the response Weiss would like to see from Outremont’s Hasidic community to the referendum outcome.
“There might be people who have flaunted regulations or violated permits,” he says.
The individuals don’t represent the Hassidic community yet they damage its reputation.
And the community must do more to distance itself from such behaviour, he says.
“There’s this notion: we are separate and we have to preserve our culture. We can’t preserve our culture if we mix, if we assimilate. But there is a very fine line: we must be separate, but still respect our surroundings. It’s a social skill. It’s a very tough social skill. But we have to figure it out.”
Gideon Strauss is Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He lives in Outremont, Quebec, and Stellenbosch, South Africa.