The following is a “lost” introduction from a previous iteration of the Jews of Today project. It is much different in tone from the published work, but sheds light on the why and how of my art and research on Hasidism.
Hasidism is a revival movement within Judaism. Its chief intention is to restore and safeguard Jewish pride in all its dimensions, and creatively embraces mythical, linguistic, and cultural material from a wide array of sources to further this goal. Moreover, as much as it may appear a closed system of thought, Hasidism is and has always been a highly permeable ideology. As contexts and conditions change, Hasidism absorbs diverse doctrines from its surroundings that shape its internal structure as well as its external posture. As a result, Hasidism is dynamic and polyglot. It is not synonymous with the Jewish past, but like a fishing trawler gathers the detritus of history as it wanders in search of a living. The purpose of this project is to sort through the muck caught in the trawler’s net to give some accounting of those gems of its haul that have most sustained Hasidism up until now.
Many descriptions of Hasidism follow what Walter Benjamin might have called a historicist model. It reduces the history of the movement to a kind of flow-chart. In it, each stage of Hasidism’s development is subordinated to the scholar’s idea of immediate context, consisting of the active figures and important events of any given time, often very narrowly and arbitrarily conceived.
While this format is safe, resting as it does on the idea of historical progress, it risks missing important ways that Hasidism defies this model. Hasidism collapses time and place, miraculous and mundane. As it changes, as all movements do, it follows a messianic logic that should not be dismissed just because it can and often does mask realpolitik. Gilgul, the transmigration of souls, is a valued concept in Hasidism, negating a linear conception of time. The Kabbalah exhorts Hasidim to seek and recover nitzotz (divine sparks) scattered among the goyim, subverting purely endogenous theories of Hasidism’s development. Even the Jewish concept of family lineage, yihus, is so suffused with cult meaning in Hasidism that Mendelian heredity becomes an afterthought to the imaginative, often metaphorical interpretation of one’s descent within the biblical genealogical system.
Although it will take these concepts seriously insofar as they might structure Hasidic thought, this study will not take Hasidism at face value. It will make no attempt to conceal or mitigate embarrassing episodes, nor to patch up the fractiousness of the Hasidic system. What it will do is make use of the logic of hagiography to construct meaning out of mystery. This means permitting the unexplained to coexist with the reasonable.
R’Shlomo of Radomsk once said, “whoever believes all the miracle stories about the Baal Shem Tov recorded in the Shivei ha-Besht is a fool, but whoever denies that he could have done them is a heretic.” With this warning as a guide, this project will search Hasidic legends, the history of the Jews and the lands they have inhabited, and the utterances of Hasidic sages for ways to alert the reader’s imagination to a trove of possibilities, each of which in some big or small way reflects the truth of Hasidism. The result will be neither to flatter nor to smear the subject, but to disaggregate it from the familiar categories and associations that have somehow allowed such a vibrantly imaginative and deeply mysterious tradition to seem at all mundane.
Find out more about Michael Levin here.
Michael Levin is a Brooklyn-based artist and the author of Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress. Purchase a copy here.