Ḥasidism and Individuality — The Seraph of Strilesk


The whole field of study of various “rungs”, “roots”, and “branches” of the soul which characterizes Kabbalah and Ḥasidism is nothing more than the recognition of individuality and the absolute right of each unique personality to live and develop according to their primary, higher, eminent nature.

The following essay by Hillel Zeitlin, a feature on the legendary Ḥasidic figure Rabbi Uri, the Seraph of Strilesk, appeared in the Hebrew weekly Ba’Derekh in 1934. Zeitlin wrote frequently for the paper, including many articles on renowned Jewish figures from the past. His work is characterized both by the vast scope of his knowledge, and his ability to portray the subject in a popular style appropriate for a broad readership.

Rabbi Uri of Strilesk (1757-1826) has a special place in the corpus of Ḥasidic lore. Aside from frequent appearances in Ḥasidic tales, references to him appear in the works of his descendent and namesake Uri Tzvi Greenberg, as well as Shai Agnon. His ascetic practices and sharp personality earned him the moniker “The Seraph”, and his strident insistence on truth can be seen as a precedent for the Kotzk-Przysucha school of Ḥasidut.

With his emphasis upon individuality and disregard for the pomp of establishment, it is not surprising that Hillel Zeitlin was drawn to the personality of Rabbi Uri. Zeitlin frequently expressed contempt and frustration towards the religious establishment of his day, particularly the Ḥasidic groups which dominated the Agudath Israel political party. He viewed these Ḥasidim, with their infighting and corruption, as degenerate and ignoble successors to the legecy of the Baal Shem Tov and his followers. Elsewhere, Zeitlin called for a return to the path of the Baal Shem Tov, seeking to form a neo-Ḥasidic movement which would embrace the values of individual integrity and religious authenticity espoused by Rabbi Uri.

The original Hebrew essay may be accessed here.

For more about Hillel Zeitlin and his life, click here.

The Seraph of Strilesk [1]

(A Ḥasidic Essay)

By Hillel Zeitlin

Translated by Sam Glauber

I do not come to tell the tale of Rabbi Uri of Strilesk, nor to speak of his miraculous deeds, nor to repeat the accounts of his admirers, nor to present his Hasidic doctrine. Instead, I shall describe the inner world of this wondrous tzaddik [righteous individual], as I have perceived him through his various sayings.

One who is interested in this tzaddik and his various miracles, deeds, and practices will find them in the book “Imrei Kadosh HaShalem”, recently published by Rabbi Reuven Margolies of Lviv. My objective in this essay is to highlight certain strands of Rabbi Uri’s spiritual makeup as revealed in a selection of his aphorisms; the very strands which are distorted by the popular maxims and Ḥasidic pheshtlakh [convoluted assertions] told by the masses.

The Ḥasidic aphorism, at once sharp and delicate, is the birthright of the elite — a select few rebbes. Amongst the rebbes there were great masters of this craft. Within their aphorisms one finds beauty and brilliance, remarkable restraint, whole theories of Kabbalah and divine wisdom contained in five or six lines, complete theological doctrines, pure ethical teachings, knowledge of the world and life, counsel and guidance for all matters both transcendent and mundane.

The greatest master of the Ḥasidic aphorism was undoubtably Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. However, we shall not deprive the other masters, amongst them Rabbi Uri of Strilesk, of their due reward. Although it goes without saying that Rabbi Nachman and the other rebbes had no intentions of adorning themselves with fine-wrought speech—just as they otherwise had no interest in excessively beautifying their words—they did seek for their words to take root in the hearts of their listeners, consequently leading to their beauty of expression, laconic style, and rich content. As for myself, as I call attention to certain aphorisms of Rabbi Uri of Strilesk [2] my primary objective is not to reveal their beauty and brilliance. My intention is rather to weave them together into an exalted inner picture of the man, dispelling those clouds of popular myth, which, more often than not, although desiring to praise, glorify, and elevate the tzaddik under discussion, inevitably denigrate and belittle him.

The radiant illuminating aphorism of the true tzaddik, if properly understood and explained, is a flaming spark which consumes and scorches all that stands in its wake.

The words of Rabbi Uri are few and brief, but how mighty is the soul which rises out from them.

Rabbi Uri was renowned for being a tzaddik. But fame distressed him greatly. What desire did he have for the worthless aggrandizement and prattle of the masses?

If only he could be a simple ḥasid, one of the humble laborers who no one knows, no one recognizes, no one speaks about, no one praises or glorifies!

As his heart soured he remarked: “It is better for one to throw themselves into a burning furnace than to be a renowned tzaddik.”

The style resembles that of the Talmudic statement: “It is preferable that one throw themselves into a burning furnace rather than embarrass their fellow in public.” [3]

How might this be? “A renowned tzaddik”, and “one who embarrasses their fellow in public”? Rabbi Uri both knew and sensed that the tzaddik who admonishes the public is, at times, even against his own will, also “one who embarrasses their fellow in public”…

Even if the tzaddik does not chastise the masses, behold his public acts of piety serve as an open and spirited rebuke to all. His good deeds are a put-down to each and every person: “See how great I am, and how small you are!”

The tzaddik lowers but also uplifts. To the degree that he lowers with open and passive rebuke, with the glance of his eyes and every which movement — he raises up the person and enables them to receives bounty from on high. To the degree that he subdues the physicality of a person, he elevates their spirituality.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, teacher of Rabbi Uri, resembled all of these traits, as the latter recounted of him:

“My teacher Rabbi Shlomo could lift up the most lowly of souls, those sunk deeply into the physical, and raise them up to the heavens.”

But not every tzaddik has the mighty power of Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin…

Rabbi Uri once responded to Rabbi Shlomo: “You lower people, you reveal their very nothingness. You deprive them of their pride and dignity. What do you give them in return?”

In the eyes of some tzaddikim, being humiliated is good in and of its own right. It is good for one’s self-worth to be shattered.

Rabbi Uri did not think so. He desired not to lower people, but to raise them up. He did not want to repress the personality, but rather desired that the individual’s holy visage be made great.

Accordingly — Rabbi Uri responded to Rabbi Shlomo — “If you chastise a person, you must subdue their coarseness and the rebellion and ill-will in their heart. But at that very moment you must also call attention to the divine spark within them.”

If you do not do so — you are only hurting and depriving the person. “Do not rob the wretched, for wretched is he.” [4] And you have robbed the wretched. You have taken from him his only lamb… [5]

Accordingly, Rabbi Uri said:

“One who kills a beast shall make restitution” [6] — One who comes to rebuke their fellow, to disgrace them in order to subdue their beastly spirit, must first confirm that they can “make restitution”, that is, to bestow upon them a new spirit of holiness. But if they do not have the ability to do so, it is forbidden to degrade them even to the slightest degree.”

This is the primary strength of the inspiring tzaddik: To raise up and only to raise up. With his word, a tzaddik of this type can elevate a person from the lowest depths up to the heavenly heights — cling to him!

“One should travel,” said Rabbi Uri, “to a true tzaddik, even if the  journey is many thousands of parsangs, negating their study and prayer along the way. All this even to hear but a single word of truth from the true tzaddik.”

Absolute truth — this is the tool of the repairer of souls, who inspires and uplifts.

Truth and falsehood are not found in speech and deed alone, but in every which thought. And not just in every thought, but in every movement, every motion of the hand, every flicker of the eye.

“Keep afar from falsehood”. [7] Rabbi Uri explained: If a person makes even one false movement, they are thus distanced from God.

Since all must be truth and nothing but truth, pure truth free of all traces of personal interest, without any sort of trickery — one must conceal all of their good deeds to such an extreme degree that no shred of flattery, arrogance, or false praise could be mixed in with them.

This practice has endless degrees of application. Not everyone is able to so completely conceal their good deeds. You might imagine to yourself that you have succeeded in freeing yourself from all arrogance, from all self-interest, from all love of honor and desire for fame. At that moment you catch sight of a great person, better than you, with their virtuous practices and pure humility without a trace of misrepresentation, and behold you feel with all of your being that you have not even approached this person’s ankles.

“In the future, every tzaddik will rise above the canopy of their fellow.” Rabbi Uri explained, “They will be higher than they appear, for their fellow makes a canopy to conceal all of their good deeds, covertly serving God more than the other.”

Within every deed the light of the soul must appear, and nothing but the light of the soul. Rabbi Uri would invert the words of the curse, “And your paths shall be deserted [nashmu]” [8] into a blessing — that the light of the soul [neshama] should illuminate all of your paths. And since it is incumbent upon one to conceal all of their good deeds, to zealously guard them from any self-interest and ostentatiousness, Rabbi Uri had no regard for the exchanges and tales told amongst the hasidim. For they could not be without some trace of embellishment or slight falsification of thought or emotion.

Accordingly, we find that Rabbi Uri’s students told the following:

“It is said, that when he was with Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin he would distance himself from all of the ḥasidim, as he had a special chamber where he would isolate himself. For of what good is it to tell of hidden matters before all of the ḥasidim?”

One time, Rabbi Uri said, “The Torah is made up of 600,000 letters, and Israel is comprised of 600,000 souls. The question arises: It is known that it is of primary importance that all of Israel be gathered together in unity, without any divisions. If so, why is it forbidden for any of the letters of the Torah scroll to touch each other? This is what is meant: It is very good for all of Israel to be gathered together in unity, but nevertheless it would be detrimental for that to always be the case. Every person needs time to themselves, to meditate alone before God.”

Rabbi Uri knew well that every person has their own unique manner of growth, their own unique way of development. If so, every single person needs individual mentorship, ethical instruction, and even their own manner of critical free thinking.

“A person,” Rabbi Uri said, “is like a tree. If one desires to stand under a tree, fixing their gaze upon it in perpetuity in order to monitor its growth, they certainly won’t observe a thing. Rather, a person must inspect it periodically, removing sickly branches or other harmful things as they appear, and with the passage of time the tree will flourish. So too with a person — they need only inspect themselves, doing away with those things which lead them away from the proper path. Through this process with the passage of time, they shall flourish along the proper path.”

Rabbi Uri had a clear perception of what we call nowadays “individuality”, and “individualized education”.

Broadly speaking, Ḥasidism takes a positive approach towards individuality. For in its eyes the individual is a complete world — and not just this world before us, but all of the worlds in their entirety. The whole field of study of various “rungs”, “roots”, and “branches” of the soul which characterizes Kabbalah and Ḥasidism is nothing more than the recognition of individuality and the absolute right of each unique personality to live and develop according to their primary, higher, eminent nature.

However, this perspective was most tangibly expressed in Rabbi Uri’s aphorisms which were transmitted by his students:

“He once said that his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, had within him the soul of Abel. However, there are those who bear within them the positive aspects of the soul of Cain, and they are greatly acclaimed.”

Another time he said:

“Before a king ruled in Israel, in the days of the judges, ‘everyone did as they pleased’ [9], and subsequently the kingdom of Israel was revealed. So too, before the coming of the Messiah, everyone shall do as they please, and subsequently the kingdom of the Messiah shall be revealed.”

[1] The tzaddik Rabbi Uri of Strilesk, student of Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, was called “The Seraph” for the Seer of Lublin said that he contained all four angels of the heavenly chariot.

[2] Died in Strilesk in 5586 (1826). Born in Galicia in a village near Yanov. His year of birth is not known with certainty.

[3] [Talmud Bavli, Berachot 43b]

[4] [Proverbs 22:22)

[5] [A reference to 2 Samuel 12:3]

[6] [Leviticus 24:17]

[7] [Exodus 23:7]

[8] Leviticus 26:22

[9] [Judges 21:25, et al]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s