Michael Levin is a Brook­lyn-based artist and the author of Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

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.