A New Hasidism: Roots

Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse, eds.

  • Review
By – June 9, 2020

A com­ment by the Kotzk­er Rebbe quot­ed by Zal­man Schachter-Shalo­mi and referred to by oth­ers, can serve well as the com­mon denom­i­na­tor of the pre­sen­ta­tions by Hil­lel Zeitlin, Mar­tin Buber, Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, Sholo­mo Car­lebach, Schachter-Shalo­mi, and Arthur Green includ­ed in this collection:

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.

All of these men, due to their dis­tinc­tive per­son­al­i­ties as well as the vagaries of their per­son­al and com­mu­nal his­to­ries, broke away to var­i­ous extents from their pre­vi­ous lifestyles. They refused to take on the roles that were imposed upon them by oth­ers, includ­ing par­ents and men­tors, and instead became inno­va­tors and pio­neers in what the edi­tors refer to as neo-Hasidism.” Sev­er­al of these expo­si­tions have nev­er been pub­lished pre­vi­ous­ly, some are based upon pri­vate tran­scripts, and there­fore should hold spe­cial inter­est for schol­ars as well as casu­al readers.

Hasidism, at least at its incep­tion accord­ing to the teach­ings of Rab­bi Yis­rael ben Eliez­er, also known as Ba’al Shem Tov, is described by the edi­tors as a deeply rev­o­lu­tion­ary, enthu­si­as­tic, point­ed­ly inten­tion­al, ser­vice of the heart,” mys­ti­cal, reli­gious movement.

In eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe, where Hasidism orig­i­nat­ed and proved to be wild­ly pop­u­lar, the move­ment served as a response to what was per­ceived as the dry as dust” Judaism that had held sway for cen­turies. Anoth­er sim­i­lar sort of rev­o­lu­tion, like neo-Hasidism,” became nec­es­sary in the minds of some, when the Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence that had become dom­i­nant fol­low­ing the Holo­caust was sharply cri­tiqued for its increas­ing hyper-insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion and for­mal­i­ty of its syn­a­gogues” and its intel­lec­tu­al small-mind­ed­ness, its rote or per­func­to­ry approach to reli­gious ser­vice, and its fail­ure to rec­og­nize the para­mount impor­tance of the inner world.” Fur­ther­more, Arthur Green, the most con­tem­po­rary of the five thinkers includ­ed in this vol­ume, writes regard­ing tra­di­tion­al rit­u­al obser­vance: “…the image of mas­ter and ser­vant is as dead as that of father and child…Compulsive or legal­is­tic atti­tudes toward rit­u­al we will of course find repul­sive; rit­u­al must help us to be more free, not bind us.”

Men­tioned a num­ber of times through­out the book is the dis­com­fort of the lat­ter-day thought lead­ers of neo-Hasidism” with aspects of Judaism that, though are well rep­re­sent­ed in tra­di­tion­al texts, nev­er­the­less con­sti­tute marked dis­con­nects with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties, i.e., dis­crim­i­na­tion against women, dis­missal of mem­bers of the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty, the exclu­sion of non-Jews, a neg­a­tive atti­tude towards ecu­meni­cal ini­tia­tives that include oth­er reli­gious groups, and hos­til­i­ty towards mys­ti­cal, drug-induced, psy­che­del­ic expe­ri­ences. Fur­ther­more, read­ing these texts strong­ly imply that dis­agree­ments such as these have served as a spring­board and even jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of increas­ing rit­u­al non-obser­vance, and a rad­i­cal rede­f­i­n­i­tion of what God” means to the con­tem­po­rary reli­gious seek­er, com­pared to Hasidim of old.

While neo-Hasidism” may con­tin­ue the rev­o­lu­tion­ary tra­jec­to­ry that Ba’al Shem Tov intro­duced sev­er­al hun­dreds of years ago, upon read­ing these works, one might ask: at what point, if any, may a tip­ping point” be reached when refer­ring to what one believes as a form of Hasidism? When will it con­sti­tute as an instance of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion rather than a con­tin­u­ing his­tor­i­cal trend tak­ing on a fresh and rel­e­vant form?

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions