Romancing Hasidism

By Allan Nadler
Thursday, October 7, 2010

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.

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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