Hasidic Com­men­tary on the Torah

Ora Wiskind – Elper

December 18, 2018

Hasidism, a move­ment of reli­gious awak­en­ing and social reform, orig­i­nat­ed in the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. After two and a half cen­turies of cri­sis, upheaval, and renew­al, it remains a vibrant way of life and a com­pelling aspect of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. This book explores the pro­found intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious issues that the hasidic mas­ters raised in their Torah com­men­tary, and brings to the fore the liv­ing qual­i­ties of their ser­mons (derashot). 

Ora Wiskind-Elper address­es a spec­trum of top­ics: cre­ation, rev­e­la­tion, and redemp­tion; hermeneu­tics, epis­te­mol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, Roman­ti­cism, poet­ry and poet­ics, art his­to­ry, Hebrew fic­tion, cul­tur­al his­to­ry, and tropes of Jew­ish suf­fer­ing and hope. Ful­ly engaged in the texts and their spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, she brings them to bear on post­mod­ernist chal­lenges to tra­di­tion­al spir­i­tu­al and reli­gious sensibilities. 

This is a com­pre­hen­sive study, unique in ped­a­gogy, clar­i­ty, and orig­i­nal­i­ty. It uses the full range of crit­i­cal schol­ar­ship on hasidism as a social and ide­o­log­i­cal move­ment. At the same time, it main­tains a strong focus on hasidic Torah com­men­tary as a con­vey­or of the­ol­o­gy and val­ue. Each of its chap­ters presents a fun­da­men­tal­ly new approach. Wiskind-Elper’s trans­la­tions are in them­selves an inno­v­a­tive moment in the tra­di­tion and spir­i­tu­al his­to­ry of the pas­sages she offers.

Discussion Questions

In Hasidic Com­men­tary on the Torah, Ora Wiskind-Elper brings her lit­er­ary skills to bear on Hasidic Torah from the inside.” There are many col­lec­tions of Hasidic Torah com­men­tary, but Pro­fes­sor Wiskind-Elper exam­ines how this type of com­men­tary works, and why it stays alive after near­ly two hun­dred years. This book is not a com­pendi­um of Hasidic his­to­ry or lore or cul­ture; rather, it seeks to deter­mine why Hasidic spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, as evi­denced by its Torah inter­pre­ta­tion, still speaks to all Jews today. Tra­di­tion­al Torah com­men­tary had, of course, many tools avail­able to it. The pri­ma­ry ones were peshat (the plain or sim­ple mean­ing of the text) and derash (the root word mean­ing to seek out”). While the Hasidic mas­ters used these tools, their pri­ma­ry con­cerns were homilet­i­cal. They wove togeth­er derashot from many sources, includ­ing Kab­bal­ah and midrash, in order to bring the Torah to bear on the expe­ri­ences of their fol­low­ers. Pro­fes­sor Wiskind-Elper uses mod­ern lit­er­ary appa­ra­tus in her analy­ses. For exam­ple, she notes the use of irony, humor, and ten­sion to illus­trate the per­son­al voice; the choice of motif and theme unique to each mas­ter; the roles of metaphor, poet­ry and imag­i­na­tion; and the effects of his­tor­i­cal aware­ness on foun­da­tion­al top­ics. What results is the unique sense of pres­ence of the Hasidic mas­ters and how they sought to influ­ence the Jews of their time.