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?