After reading in the news about the Crown Heights Hasidic Jewish Tours last week, I decided to embark myself. Advertised as a three-hour tour, get ready for something more like a jam-packed five hours, as knowledgeable and generous rabbi guides lead you through a world ancient and Mittel-European.
In an uncertain time, especially, this tour through Hasidic Crown Heights can be grounding. You enter another country, where the people are thinking and behaving differently, beyond the vagaries of the economy and the allure of conspicuous consumption. To take this tour is to step outside of your life for a day and to see another way.
First we got a history lesson in the Rebbes Library, a room filled with antique books and documents belonging to the Rebbes of Lubavitch, and received a frank discussion of marital relations in the women's mikvah, where wives go at night to cleanse and purify after their menstrual cycle. But the most impressive moments were spent at Congregation Lubavitch, the community's synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway.
The women in our group went upstairs and the men went down into the main room of the shul, a hive of activity, filled with men and boys in study and prayer. Books littered the tables. Congregants wrapped their arms and heads in the leather straps of Tefillin, a leather box that holds a holy scroll.
If you are a Jewish man on this tour, someone will be happy to wrap the Tefillin to your arm and head, as Rabbi Schneerson said, "once a Jew wears Tefillin on his head--even one time in his life--he falls into a different category as a Jew." Or, as our tour guide Rabbi Epstein told us, to put on the Tefillin is to mainline a Jewish "booster shot."
The Tefillin are created at the neighborhood Hasofer. Here, in a room smelling strongly of leather and black paint, we saw how the boxes are made from kosher hides and filled with handwritten parchment scrolls. Our guide held in his hand miniature Tefillin that were made small enough to be smuggled into Nazi concentration camps so that Jewish prisoners could stay better connected to their God.
Also at the Hasofer we watched a scribe at work repairing a 100-year-old Torah scroll. Words and their letters are of extreme importance in Judaism. If one letter in the Torah is broken, it cannot be uttered. The scribe, with black ink, went line by line along the parchment, filling in the broken spaces. There are over 300,000 letters he must inspect.
Whatever your personal feelings about organized religion, you cannot deny the poignancy of spending a day in the presence of deeply devout people. Everything they do, every thought they think, is directed to one place. And all of it is done with intention. This word came up frequently in the tour. The scribe's mind must be filled with intention throughout every stroke of his pen. If a scroll is not written with intention (each word must be looked at, spoken, written, and looked at again) it will not be imbued with holy power.
This intention acts like a walking meditation. The mind is controlled and energy is channelled upwards. The animal side of man is bound in leather straps. Love and fear keep him on the path. Call it repression, obsession, an omnipotent fantasy, but you cannot be left unimpressed with the depth and passion of this way of living.
Whose life could not benefit from a little more mindful intention?
Tomorrow: The Matzoh Bakery