By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
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 south-west of Warsaw, resonate far beyond the confines of Hasidic lore or even Jewish theology.Simhah Bunim Bonhardt, referred to most often simply and with affection as Reb Bunim, was unlike any other Hasidic 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 Wodzisław 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 Hasidism, 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 Hasidism. 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.