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Romancing Hasidism

Zalman Schachter and Shlomo Carlebach, 1989.

Hasidism has a long history of concurrently repelling and enchanting modern Jews. Today, its distinguishing features—isolationism, religious fanaticism, and aggressive rejection of all things modern, including not only non-Orthodox Judaism but the very idea of secularity—are inexplicable, if not abhorrent, to much of world Jewry. In Israel, the astonishing demographic surge of the Hasidic population, which forms a major element in the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) world, is widely viewed as imperiling the country's democratic Zionist ethos, to say nothing of undermining its relationship with Diaspora Jews.

Relevant Links
Martin Buber's Hasidism  Gershom Scholem, Commentary. An analysis and critique of Buber’s “selective presentation” of the Hasidic movement, by the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism. (October 1961, PDF)  
The Izhbits-Radzin Way  Shaul Magid, YIVO Encyclopedia. A brief history of a radical Hasidic dynasty that never attracted a large following but, thanks mostly to Shlomo Carlebach, has deeply influenced contemporary Judaism. 

At the same time, classical Hasidic lore—its celebration of the divine presence in all things no matter how apparently mundane, its joyful music and dance, its enchanting stories that elevate the simple man over the talmudic scholar—has for well over a century attracted the admiration of some of the greatest Jewish writers and thinkers. Martin Buber's romantic collections of early Hasidic tales were a critical factor in popularizing this version of the movement's essence. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who unlike Buber was an authentic scion of a major Polish Hasidic dynasty, subsequently integrated the most elevated of Hasidic teachings into his existentialist philosophy of Judaism. 

But Buber and Heschel, like their predecessors I.L. Peretz and Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, were cherry-picking their evidence. Not only did they deliberately ignore the overtly alienating features that emerged in the movement's later history, but, as Gershom Scholem demonstrated, Buber's tales of the early masters were themselves heavily edited to excise those parts that might prove offensive to modern spiritual sensibilities.

Still, the elevation of Hasidism for contemporary purposes has continued to flourish. Many of today's appropriators are spiritual seekers associated with what is loosely termed the "Jewish Renewal" movement, inaugurated in the 1960s by a new genre of neo-Hasidic "rebbes." The most famous were "the singing rabbi," Shlomo Carlebach, and "the acid rebbe," Zalman Schachter. Both men dropped out of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to chart a "renewed" Hasidic path appropriate to the heady temper of the times. Alas, they were even more selective, and textually less judicious, than their predecessors. What they did find, however, scattered here and there amid Hasidism's vast literature, was a small handful of eccentric rebbes whose bizarre (and, within the Hasidic milieu itself, largely discredited) writings could be cited in support of their own agenda of freeing Jews from the constraints of established religious authority.

Thus, with help from a few "friends," did Hasidism meet the Age of Aquarius. Prominent among those friends was the psychologically tormented Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810), to whose latter-day followers I shall devote a future column. For now, let us turn to the other main Hasidic school whose teachings have formed a staple of New Age neo-Hasidism. This is the late-19th-century Polish dynasty of Izhbits-Radzin. While never among Hasidism's major branches, and almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust, Izhbits-Radzin has enjoyed a posthumous renaissance ever since Carlebach began invoking some passages by its rabbis that struck him as speaking to the countercultural spirit in which he was trying to re-direct Judaism.  

The founder of the dynasty was Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izhbits (1800-1854). A student for many years of the legendary Kotzker Rebbe, Mordechai Joseph broke away from his master for still-obscure reasons, leaving behind manuscripts that were regarded as subversive and dangerous by all the major Hasidic masters of the time. His son, Rabbi Jacob of Radzin (1828-1878), published those teachings and added significantly to them in his own work, most notably a commentary to the Torah. Until the neo-Hasidic renaissance of the 1960s, these various writings remained virtually unknown.

What was revolutionary about them? According to a classical Hasidic doctrine, nothing exists outside of God; in the words of the Baal Shem Tov, the movement's founder, "there is nothing but Him." Later masters, most notably Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, understood this even more radically as meaning that the physical world is nothing but an apparition, a series of veils obscuring the greater reality that God is everything and everywhere. That sweeping claim, dubbed "acosmism" by scholars, was then taken by the rabbis of Izhbits-Radzin to an unprecedentedly extreme and, in many respects, antithetical conclusion—namely, as sanctifying, rather than annihilating, corporeality. For them, every urge, every impulse, and indeed every action generated by the human senses is, in some hidden fashion, an expression of Divinity and a fulfillment of the divine will.

In early Hasidism, this sanctification of the physical (avodah b'gashmiyut) was considered something so extreme that its practice was limited to the rebbe and never entrusted to his followers. Clearly, it carries with it a number of perils (or, depending on one's predilections, attractions): as scholars like Joseph Weiss and Rivka Shatz have stressed, it enables an anarchic freedom from the fetters of moral restraint and religious guilt. More recent observers, focusing on the writings of Mordechai Joseph's grandson Gershon Henoch of Radzin, have gone so far as to depict the teaching as an "antinomian heresy" akin to a "soft form" of Sabbateanism. But they do not necessarily mean this in a pejorative sense.

For spiritual seekers desirous of a version of Judaism that will throw a cloak of "tradition" over the freedom to do one's own thing, Izhbits-Radzin has been nothing short of an elixir. But the problem both with the recent scholarly assessments and with their New Age abuses is that, in a manner not unlike the earlier work of Berdichevsky, Buber, and Heschel, they rely on fragmentary and selective passages culled from a complex body of mystical teachings that, studied as a whole, are neither anarchic, nor antinomian, nor heretical.

All the more reason, then, to welcome the appearance of a new book that has begun to set the record straight. Ora Wiskind-Elper's Wisdom of the Heart offers a judicious and contextual reading of many of the teachings of Izhbits-Radzin as seen in the commentaries on the book of Genesis by Rabbi Mordechai Joseph's son, Jacob.

In focusing on the lives of the biblical patriarchs, Jacob offers a panoramic view of their trials and tribulations, and most strikingly of their detours into sin—as in the sale of Joseph into slavery by his brothers and, even more centrally, Tamar's seduction of her father-in-law Judah. These Jacob sees as part of a divinely willed grand scheme whose full meaning will be revealed only in messianic times, and even then only when justified by the complete repentance of Judah's descendants—namely, the Jewish people. Until then, the degree to which everything done by Jews, whether virtuous or sinful, reflects the divine scheme will by necessity remain concealed.

The great merit of Wisdom of the Heart lies in its implicit repudiation of non-contextual citations of the sort favored by Carlebach, Schachter, and some scholars of Hasidism. This practice, Wiskind-Elper compellingly argues, creates an atomized and seriously distorted impression of Izhbits-Radzin writings, up to the point of suggesting that the masters of this Hasidic school sacralized sin in a manner akin to the Sabbateans and Frankists. Not only is there no historical evidence of any Izhbits Hasidim ever engaging in antinomian behavior, but their doctrines, fully understood, never advocate it.

A well-known rabbinic dictum holds that "all is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven." An aphorism favored by Mordechai Joseph of Izhbits offered a dazzling twist on this saying: "all is in the hands of heaven, including the fear of heaven." His deterministic-sounding formulation might well appear to free man of all moral and religious responsibility. But, as Wiskind-Elper makes clear, that was not its intent. Fortified by a powerful faith in the all-encompassing presence of the Divine, Mordechai Joseph was instead expressing his confidence that, in the end of days, when the fullness of the divine scheme has been revealed, we will come retroactively to understand the role that even our former transgressions played in God's plan. This confidence is hardly a mandate, however, let alone any kind of antinomian advocacy, for violating the norms of Torah.

Despite their often shocking formulations, in other words, it might be argued that the Izhbits-Radzin Hasidim adhered to a fervently pious, highly conservative, and markedly passive acceptance of the pervasive role played by divine providence in all human affairs. This, in turn, reinforces the essential (if idiosyncratic) continuum between Izhbits-Radzin and mainstream Hasidism, not to mention rabbinical Judaism as a whole. And it may also go some way toward reconciling the apparent contradiction with which we began: the contradiction, that is, between Hasidism's "retrograde" (i.e., unacceptably conservative) practice and its "admirable" (i.e., appealingly countercultural) teachings. Teaching and practice in Hasidism turn out to be internally much more consistent than its latter-day romancers would have us believe.

 Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.

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Jeff Amshalem on October 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm (Reply)
Maybe I'm naive, but I have to object to including Shlomo Carlebach with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and the Renewal movement. Everyone mentioned in this article necessarily "cherry-picked" their sources, because they were speaking to largely uneducated Jews who were not about to sit down and learn all of Mei Hashiloach. The difference, to me, is to what end that selectivity was aimed. Carlebach maintained the integrity of halakhic Judaism, and there are countless Jews living lives of Torah and mitzvos because of him. Schachter-Shalomi (and I don't think he would take this negatively) seems to consider his movement to be the spiritual heirs of hasidism while abandoning halakhah. Without saying which approach is right, we can surely differentiate between the two, no? I'm looking forward to checking out the book but in the meantime I'd be interested to hear if you disagree.
the author on October 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm (Reply)
Mr. Amshalem makes a fair distinction between Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter, insofar as their respective halakhic integrity is concerned. But the Orthodox credentials of the various romancers of Hasidism was not the subject of my article. And Carlebach was intimately connected with Schachter for many years, and on many levels. At the same time, there is no doubt that Carlebach did influence very many Jews in the direction of traditional Jewish life and observance. "Koved zayn ondenk!"
Moshe Neuer on October 7, 2010 at 3:17 pm (Reply)
It is always a treat to read Allan Nadler's reviews.
Ehr ken gut shreibn.

P.J. Solomon-Maccabee on October 7, 2010 at 9:01 pm (Reply)
Interesting review! I look forward to more interesting pieces by Mr. Nadler. Particularly a mentioned upcoming piece on Rebbe Nachman.
joe green on October 9, 2010 at 7:43 pm (Reply)
I think I see Mr. Amshalem's objection. The orthodox credentials aren't the subject of the piece, but you pair Rabbi Carlebach with Rabbi Shalomi in sharing "their own agenda of freeing Jews from the constraints of established religious authority," including them in the "spiritual seekers desirous of a version of Judaism that will throw a cloak of "tradition" over the freedom to do one's own thing." You imply that Rabbi Carlebach's selectivity did a disservice to Izhbits, but I think this does a disservice to Rabbi Carlebach. I've met many young people (and may not so young, now that I think of it) who specifically chose established religious authority because of Carlebach.
David Aharon Lindsay on October 9, 2010 at 11:22 pm (Reply)
As one of the few who met Reb Shlomo Carlebach I can tell you that he touched our neshamas in a unique way. Who can ever forget his song Eisa Eynai, the epitome of emunah, or his Barchi Nafshi song .. or yisbarech Shimcha ...
He taught those who were in my time [the Peace Now talking about the war of Vietnam] about the true meaning of SHALOM ...
And those who heard him has sung his songs to next generation who also pass it down at the Shabos table

There is a saying in our tradition Tzaddikim Afilu bmitasom Kruyim Chaim
The Righteous even though they are dead in the physical sense are alive spiritually.
David Sternlight on October 12, 2010 at 12:58 pm (Reply)
Nadler reveals his vicious anti-Chasidic prejudice at the outset with: "Today, its distinguishing features—isolationism, religious fanaticism, and aggressive rejection of all things modern, including not only non-Orthodox Judaism but the very idea of secularity—are inexplicable, if not abhorrent, to much of world Jewry. In Israel, the astonishing demographic surge of the Hasidic population, which forms a major element in the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) world, is widely viewed as imperiling the country's democratic Zionist ethos, to say nothing of undermining its relationship with Diaspora Jews."

This straw man is false on its face. Chabad Chasidism, for example, is a strong outreach movement with many non-sectarian social services, about as far from "isolationist" as one can get. It pioneered in the use of modern technology and the Internet, far earlier than other religious groups, Jewish and non-Jewish. Rather than being rejectionist, it embraces people "where they are" though it believes one can always do better--a belief common to many philosophical movements, Jewish and non-Jewish. Far from being abhorrent to world Jewry, Chabad is heavily supported by many non-Haredi philanthropists, most of whom are deeply embedded in secular success.

Nadler caricatures Chasidism by tarring all of it with the brush of a few extreme sects. Might as well argue that Naturei Karta represents the Jewish people's view of Israel.

As an academic, Nadler should be ashamed of himself; he fails to distinguish between a small minority and the bulk of Chassidic Jews, and pseudospeciates in order to make his prejudicial case. While attempting to clothe himself in academic language, he reveals instead that he has no clothes.

David Sternlight, Ph.D.
Los Angeles
Kim Opperman on May 3, 2013 at 9:50 pm (Reply)
A7734. For those unfamiliar to this search. Two twins were separated at Auschwitz in 1945. They were 4 years old. Elias {Elijah? spelling?} Gottesman is looking for his long lost twin that may or may not remember his family of orgin. However the twin brother, Jeno {Jolli} Gottesman would not ever be able to get away from the tattoo on his arm- A7734. If you have any information on a Jewish holocaust survivor born in 1940 ish...from Hungary, please contact me, or the researcher in charge of this search. They have been apart for 67 years. Any leads, however small will be greatly appreciated.If you do not have any helpful information, please post this announcement in your community of friends and family.
Nancy Weisman on May 13, 2013 at 8:36 am (Reply)
"Today, its distinguishing features - isolationism, religious fanaticism and aggressive rejection of all things modern... - are inexplicable, if not abhorrent..."

A broad brush, Mr. Nadler. A sweeping condemnation, no?

I am now Orthodox, raised reform, educated in very liberal institutions. A "survivor" of the confused spiritual seeking of the late sixties, early seventies.

My experience with various Hasidic communities has lead me to admire these communities - comprised of every kind and stripe of individual with every kind and stripe of challenge. They take care of and embrace those with physical disabilites, disabling and disfiguring diseases, mental illness, mental and physical limitations.

I have found them to be most welcoming and open-minded and more, much more than that - they not only talk the talk, they walk the walk.

It is not an easy life they had chosen - and each person ultimately CHOOSES -to live even a received tradition or leave it. They dedicate their lives and their wealth to raising the next generation as well as caring for and honoring the previous generation.

They have my deep admiration as well as my gratitude. The rest of the world could learn much from their example. It would be a better place to live if we did.

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