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?


A New Hasidism: Branch­es con­tains a num­ber of essays regard­ing impli­ca­tions and appli­ca­tions of var­i­ous aspects of Neo-Hasidism” by authors who rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent lev­els of for­mal Jew­ish obser­vance. Con­tri­bu­tions I find excep­tion­al­ly engag­ing include an essay by Nehemia Polen regard­ing spir­i­tu­al dimen­sions of Leviti­cus, Ariel Evan Mayse’s dis­cus­sion of the Halachic process from a Neo-Hasidic per­spec­tive, an overview of Shlo­mo Carlebach’s life and work by Shaul Magid, an inter­view with Havi­va Pedaya regard­ing par­al­lels and dif­fer­ences between Mizrachi and Ashke­nazi mys­ti­cism, and a cri de coeur by Elhanan Nir as to the state of spir­i­tu­al stud­ies in con­tem­po­rary Israeli post-sec­ondary yeshivot.

Two aspects of this book’s dis­cus­sion of Neo-Hasidism are par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing. First, a num­ber of con­trib­u­tors read­i­ly admit they have trans­lat­ed” Hasidism’s orig­i­nal assump­tions to present­ly con­sist of a devo­tion to the inner world, a life of the spir­it that is expressed through actions, but also through the inward glance.” In and of itself, such a renewed empha­sis upon inward­ness and reflec­tion is appro­pri­ate for all prac­ti­tion­ers of Judaism, includ­ing those who con­sid­er them­selves Ortho­dox in obser­vance. How­ev­er, these authors men­tion how they are care­ful to apply mind­ful­ness,” i.e., med­i­ta­tion, to their prac­tice, with James Jacob­son-Maisels stat­ing that his mind­ful­ness prac­tice … is pro­found­ly based on West­ern Bud­dhist [ital­ics added] mind­ful­ness prac­tice and the­o­ry.” While Jacob­son-Maisels attempts to demon­strate how such an approach can be jus­ti­fied by cit­ing var­i­ous Jew­ish sources, and I under­stand how ecu­meni­cal shar­ing and joint study of many reli­gious tra­di­tions can lead to bet­ter under­stand­ing and coop­er­a­tion among the adher­ents of these devo­tion­al groups, will such overt reli­gious syn­cretism inevitably change Judaism into some­thing that, while inspir­ing these par­tic­u­lar prac­ti­tion­ers, is a dis­ci­pline at odds with Jew­ish tra­di­tion in gen­er­al, and Hasidism in particular?

A sec­ond issue that left me with more ques­tions than answers con­cerns an essay by Or N. Rose, A Tex­tu­al Explo­ration and The­o­log­i­cal Response.” In this book’s volume’s com­pan­ion vol­ume, A New Hasidism: Roots, it is point­ed out numer­ous times that the Zohar’s and sem­i­nal Hasidic rab­bis’ neg­a­tive atti­tudes towards non-Jews was one of the rea­sons why present-day Jews felt that they had to for­sake Hasidism and inno­vate Neo-Hasidism. Rose sets out to demon­strate the legit­i­ma­cy of a point of view more favor­able to non-Jews in terms of tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish sources, but con­cludes that he could only point to Zal­man Shachter-Shalo­mi and Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel as demon­strat­ing that such a posi­tion was accept­able. Lean­ing too heav­i­ly on exam­ples of per­son­al phi­los­o­phy rather than text makes for a ten­u­ous argu­ment in light of the numer­ous ref­er­ences and even entire essays in this book devot­ed to the poten­tial dan­gers of the rebbe,” a charis­mat­ic indi­vid­ual who serves as the sin­gle cen­ter” of a devo­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty. Again, I am sym­pa­thet­ic to the idea that Judaism ought to be more wel­com­ing to non-Jews in prin­ci­ple, but am dis­ap­point­ed that more sol­id evi­dence to sup­port such a depar­ture from tra­di­tion­al prac­tice isn’t offered in this volume.

A New Hasidism: Branch­es presents a stim­u­lat­ing explo­ration of the many facets of the present-day evo­lu­tion of Neo-Hasidism in the Unit­ed States and Israel. It is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed to those inter­est­ed in Jew­ish the­ol­o­gy and con­tem­po­rary reli­gious developments.

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