Hasidism: A New History

Here are some highlights from this 2017 book:

* ….the trajectory of history did not lead in a straight line from religion to secularism, “darkness” to “light”: religion is as much a part of the modern world as it was of the medieval. As much as religion typically claims to stand for tradition, even the most seemingly “orthodox” or “fundamentalist” forms of religion in the modern world are themselves products of their age. Just as secularism was incubated in the womb of religion, so religion since the eighteenth century is a product of its interaction with secularism.

The southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was certainly an improbable place for a “modern” religious movement to be born. Yet it was there, starting sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century, that small circles of Jewish pietists coalesced around rabbis who would come to be called, in Hebrew, tsaddikim (“righteous men”) or, in Yiddish, rebbes . From these modest beginnings emerged a movement that eventually named itself Hasidism (“piety”). The name referred not only to the traditional virtues of piety that the movement espoused but also to a new ethos of ecstatic joy and a new social structure, the court of the rebbe and his followers, his Hasidim , a word formerly meaning “pious men” but now also “disciples.” …could commune with the divine. They signified this relationship to God with such terms as devekut (“ecstatic union”), ha’alat nitzotzot (“raising of sparks”), and avodah be-gashmiyut (“worship through the material”). Focusing primarily on prayer rather than study, they developed new techniques for mastering mahshavot zarot (“alien thoughts,” or distractions, typically of a sexual nature). Rather than ascetic withdrawal, they emphasized simha (“joy”), seizing such thoughts and elevating them to pure spirituality. Above all, Hasidic theology emphasized divine immanence—that is, that God is present throughout the material world.

* It is not surprising that a new religious movement could take root in Poland. The Polish state of the eighteenth century was a “Commonwealth of Many Nations”—which meant also of many religions. Approximately 40 percent of its more than eleven million inhabitants in 1760 were ethnic Poles. The rest were Ukrainians (Ruthenians), Belarusians, Lithuanians, Letts, Estonians, Germans, Tatars, Armenians, Italians, Scots, and Jews, each with their own language, customs, and beliefs. Religions included Roman Catholicism, Eastern (“Greek”) and Armenian Orthodoxy, Ukrainian (“Greek”) Catholicism (the Uniate Church), several varieties of Protestantism, Islam, and Judaism. This religious and ethnic pluralism in fact led to a comparatively high degree of religious toleration in Poland, where there was never a war resulting from religious strife, no mass trials of dissidents or mass executions of “heretics.” As we shall see, Jews benefited greatly from this relative toleration.

* Up until the twentieth century, Hasidism was, in a profound sense, a men’s club. For some men, perhaps threatened by women’s growing role in Jewish culture, Hasidim’s virtual exclusion of women may have been one of the attractions of the new movement.

* The Besht’s dynamic, ecstatic experience, in which the mystic’s soul is merged with God, led to the concept of divine immanence, which he taught to his disciples and which became a hallmark of Hasidic thought. Having experienced union with God, the Besht realized that earthly existence was a mere illusion. In reality, “there is nowhere devoid of Him”—that is, God’s presence suffused all being. Everything offered a path to communion with the divinity. This fundamental insight was the source of other basic tenets of Hasidic doctrine, such as worship through corporality, rejection of asceticism, divine providence, and the positive role of evil in the world…God’s presence pervades everything: thoughts, actions, objects, events—all aspects of human experience. The obstacles and barriers separating our world from God are an illusion…

* The ultimate spiritual objective of achieving communion with God—devekut—does not require separation from the material world, but rather a profound engagement with it. Take evil, for example. One must recognize the appearance of evil in the world for what it really is. It should be perceived as a tool of God to perfect humans and their world by bringing them to adhere to God: “evil is the seat of good.” It is by experiencing evil that we learn to recognize and appreciate the good. Evil has a function but no independent, demonic existence.

* In the earliest years, Nahman demanded of would-be disciples that they confess all their sins to him. Later, this was replaced by a unique practice of daily hitbodedut , or “lonely meditation,” that involved verbal “conversations” with God, in which the disciple was to pour out his soul in longing and contrition.
The spiritual life of Bratslav is suffused with an awareness of God’s transcendence—that is, one’s distance from God. This theology contrasts sharply with the tradition of the Besht according to which God is immanent, present everywhere. In contrast to the Ba’al Shem Tov, Nahman experienced and modeled for his followers the painful struggle to attain the divine presence. At the same time, he recognized the paradox that the transcendent God is to be found everywhere, but His immanence remains out of reach.

* Both song and dance played an important part in Nahman’s own spiritual life and have remained a key part of his legacy. While the Hasid was to spend an hour each day in brokenhearted conversation with God, the rest of the day was spent making every effort to live in joy. Even foolishness was permitted, Nahman taught, if it led one to break through the clouds of melancholy.

* In a less psychological age, theology and psychology were only partially separable from one another. But Nahman explored his affective states intensively and drew profound religious lessons out of them. He learned to throw himself entirely upon God’s mercies, to cry out from a deep place of brokenheartedness, and thus to begin again, from within the heart of each crisis, to long for God and to come back into His presence. The unique character of Bratslav Hasidism is fully intertwined with these accounts of the master’s inner struggles, particularly in his youth. Whatever difficulties you may undergo, Bratslav teaches, the master has already suffered those and worse, overcoming them all. As you go through life, you can have confidence that the rebbe is always with you, supporting you in your struggles, ever prepared to pull you back from the edge of the abyss.

* that the chief subject of Nahman’s teachings is Nahman himself, the single true tsaddik of his generation. Indeed, according to Bratslav tradition, he is the final great tsaddik to appear in the world before the advent of the Messiah.

* The mystical core of Nahman’s teachings lies in a series of stirring evocations of the mind’s ability to transcend itself, rising ever higher until it reaches a state of oneness with the mind of God. Although on the face of it this seems similar to the Besht or the Maggid’s strivings for devekut, the process prescribed by Nahman is significantly different. He offers a series of dialectical exercises, the mind ever stretching out to embrace and comprehend mysteries that are beyond it. As each question is resolved, a new and higher one arises to take its place. This chain of challenges draws the mind ever upward, leading it into levels of truth or reality of which the ordinary mind is completely unaware. The discovery of the divine mind and absorption within it are the culmination of this great effort of stretching the human brain.

* Alongside this impassioned exercise of the mind, there is a strain within Nahman’s teachings that denies the value of intellectual quest altogether, longing for simple faith and unquestioning outcry to God. A single sigh, if offered from the heart, he taught, can be worth more than all the great edifices of intellectual construction. Although himself well-versed in the classics of Jewish philosophy, Nahman forbade them to his students, claiming that you could see in a person’s face whether he had ever studied Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed . Such philosophical approaches to Judaism were the work of the forces of evil. He sometimes spoke about the need to leave the rational mind behind altogether, to act like a fool or a madman in devotion to God.

* …as opposed to the doctrine of the tsaddik who goes up to heaven to bring down divine blessings, Nahman descends into the void to redeem those souls who have fallen there. Only he can confront the deepest paradoxes for which there are no answers. And since the void is the place where there is no language, Nahman developed a theory of wordless music—the Hasidic niggun —that can express what language cannot…

* The final years of Nahman’s life were beset by the tuberculosis that took his wife’s life in 1807 and his own three years later. He sought the advice of physicians, but then condemned them as mere agents of the angel of death.

* [Shneur Zalman] seems to have operated with the conviction that he was responsible for the entire Jewish population in Russia, thus setting the stage for Chabad’s later public activity, which culminated with the last rebbe whose influence spanned the entire Jewish world.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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