Friday, March 02, 2012
I was invited to attend the Dr. Phil show last week to offer commentary on their feature story about a young and beautiful woman who had a tale of unsettling circumstances in regard to her Hasidic background. As the Dr. Phil show unfolded, I listened intently to a young woman named Pearlperry Reich (aka Pearl) who, at the age of 17, was betrothed to a man for whom she was clearly unsuited at her parents' discretion and against her will. Pearl shared claims of sexual, emotional and physical abuse by a husband who had never trusted or loved her. Pearl depicted herself as a desperate woman with four young children trying to escape an abusive and loveless marriage -- distancing herself from the Hasidic community of her childhood in an attempt to seek her own path as an actress and a model. Pearl purported that her husband was so incensed by her path of self-discovery and self-actualization that he now refuses to give her a Jewish or legal divorce and is even threatening to take her children away if she does not abandon her acting and modeling career, a pursuit that her husband claims is against the moral values on which they based their marriage vows.
As I listened to Pearl, I was struck by the great contrast between our experiences in the Hasidic community. As my readership knows, I am a Chabad Hasidic woman who lives in the public eye as a writer, speaker, filmmaker and singer who has an incredibly supportive husband and community that champions my individuality and artistic pursuits. The idea that this woman had no choice in whom she married or that her own identity and self expression was at stake left me shocked and troubled. It is my understanding that Hasidic philosophy is meant to support one's individuality and uniqueness. The very philosophical foundation of Hasidic mysticism, based on its founder Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), is that each person is like a musical note in the symphony of life and that each individual possesses G-d given talents meant to be shared with the world. We have an obligation to seek out our own skills and talents and use them to reveal the majesty and G-dliness found even in the most mundane and corporeal parts of our existence and the world. When we actualize our talents for the purpose of elevating our surroundings we also reveal the holiness inside all of us.
Every time I get up to sing or speak, I am reminded of my own opportunity as a Jewish woman to reveal the gifts that I have been graciously given by the One Above. Obviously, Pearl's unorthodox account of a troubling marriage that has threatened her spiritual quest in no way represents the Hasidic philosophy of how women should be treated or how husbands and wives should support each other in their individual spiritual journeys. Judaism supports romance and encourages women to seek out their own spouse. Hasidism encourages the personal quest for individuality as well as marriages that celebrate mutually beneficial and healthy spirituality. Abuse of any kind should never be tolerated or condoned.
I am also not naive and realize that people are people -- human beings are fallible creatures capable of perverting the beautiful and deeply spiritual precepts taught by the Baal Shem Tov. The matter begs a serious conversation: How can one become enlightened and create a spiritual relationship with one's Higher Power despite being cast away by those who promised to love and protect them? When any individual we look up to fails us so remarkably, how do we recover? How does a person ever rectify one's own faith when corrupted personalities with bad principles cloaked in good ones take over? When our spirituality is tested, as Pearl's was, how are we supposed to respond, and does Hasidic philosophy really have those answers?
When I was a kid my father used to tell me, "Chava, remember, always place principles above personalities." But one Shavuot (you know, that holiday when Jews eat cheesecake and celebrate the giving of the Torah) many years ago, I can remember feeling deeply unmoved by my faith, for the personalities I relied on to guide me had let me down, and I had no idea how to come out of my deep dark cloud of disappointment. I began judging everyone I met and failed to remember the lessons of the Baal Shem Tov.
Dr. Phil says, "I was raised Southern Baptist and I always said I loved the Lord, it was Christians couldn't stand," before going on to explain that he was 14-15 years old when he felt that way and has since changed his opinion. This fundamental human challenge is not a Hasidic issue, but a human one that humanity grapples with in every faith across the board.
The Baal Shem Tov used to say that when a person peers into a mirror and sees stains of soil on his own face, it is only because he has failed to wash himself. So too, when someone sees imperfections in another, it is a sign that those imperfections may live inside him. Clearly, I needed to have a shift; I had only disdain for those around me and could not muster the courage to see how that disdain blemished my own personal faith in myself, and in my own Higher Power as well.
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