Reb Zalman’s Ah-ha Hasidism

A Heart Sutra for Pashute Yidden

By Alan Brill

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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Ahron’s Heart: The Prayers, Teachings and Letters of Ahrele Roth, a Hasidic Reformer
By Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Yair Hillel Goelman
Ben Yehudah Press, 150 pages, $14.95.

A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters
By Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yepez
The Jewish Publication Society, 384 pages, $45.00.

The future looks Bright: Zalman Schachter-Shalomi making Hasidism more widely relevant to the Jewish com-munity.
The future looks Bright: Zalman Schachter-Shalomi making Hasidism more widely relevant to the Jewish com-munity.

Contemporary American religion is filled with quests for inner happiness, a direct sense of presence and charismatic gifts. The quest ranges from spontaneous drum circles to the Dalai Lama’s Westernized talks on happiness, and from Eckhart Tolle’s New Age wisdom to Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal exorcisms. In this landscape of emotive spirituality, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi serves as one of the major guides for contemporary Jews who seek the path of the heart.

Schachter-Shalomi, called Reb Zalman by most, is the cherished teacher of the Jewish Renewal movement, which seeks to create a trans-denominational neo-Hasidic spirituality.

In two new books, we can taste this neo-Hasidic spirituality. “Ahron’s Heart” is a short adaptive translation of texts, a fierce work still connected to the cloister of Meah Shearim. I enjoyed it, since the work allows the reader to see the scaffolding and construction involved in the renewal. In contrast, “A Heart Afire” offers a popular vision for the demands of the pulpit, beautifully edited both in content and organization. It offers an enchanting introduction to Reb Zalman’s teachings.

Reb Zalman diagnoses that contemporary Jews “feel too little” and need a religion with feeling. The problem with American Jewry, according to Reb Zalman, is not a lack of God or indifference to religion, but too much intellect and bondage to uninspired institutions.

Reb Zalman’s own teacher, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe in the 1920s and ’30s, wove stories of how simple Jews in their emotional piety burn with stronger yearnings than scholarly Jews. Reb Zalman applies his teacher’s wisdom to the present and comments about today’s simple Jews.

“The pashute Yid is not an unlettered peasant or an unsophisticated person, but a Jew who has a simple, heart-centered approach to Judaism, unclouded by complex questions of theology and the minutiae of halakhah,” he writes. To these simple Jews, “synagogues are not accommodating” since they offer only a “limited mindset” where most people “gossip or engage in congregational politics.”

To reach these Jews, Reb Zalman has, for a half-century, used Hasidism as his springboard and toolkit. Now that he has passed his 85th birthday, we are witnessing a rush to get his classes about Hasidism into print for posterity.

“Ahron’s Heart” seeks to capture the message of the late rabbi Aharon Roth (he died in 1946), who, known as Reb Ahraleh, was the founding leader of the reclusive Toldot Aharon community in Meah Shearim. Reb Zalman states that “the creative tension that guides” his translation work is between the “ultra-Orthodox view” of the texts he teaches and the current audience he hopes to reach, which “demands accessibility of content.”

So how does one take a book that states one should have nothing to do with secular Jews and reinterpret it to support a universal Judaism?

How does one take an ascetic, anti-modern, xenophobic, nonegalitarian, anti-Zionist book and use it to find universal spiritual truths for “New Age book shops with sayings of Kahlil Gibran… and the Dalai Lama?”

Reb Zalman transmutes the simple faith of Meah Shearim into advice to his American reader to avoid the distractions of modern life and to fight the vanity fair of money, fame and power. As positive spiritual practices, he culls out from Reb Ahraleh the importance of prolonged prayer, thinking about God, bodily expressions of devotion and public display of spiritual arousal.

The self-negating Hasidic imperative of “nullification of the self” in Reb Zalman’s hands becomes transmuted into the need to avoid false images of ourselves and to be open and flexible in life in order to attain transparency to the spiritual light. One hears trans-personal psychology and Sufism in this new definition, yet Reb Zalman has internalized the old and the new, to a point, into an integrated doctrine.

“A Heart Afire” contains short teachings and excerpts of Hasidic stories about the Baal Shem Tov and his circle of students, together with a smaller amount on the Maggid of Mezeritch. But this is not your standard volume of Hasidic stories, rather a kaleidoscope of a commentary with alternating gems of Hasidic texts between the glimmers of Reb Zalman’s fascinating autobiography, observations on spirituality and integration with other religions.

Here, the Baal Shem Tov becomes, alternately, a shaman, a God wrestler, a bearer of hidden traditions, a teacher of crazy beatnik wisdom, a seeker of integral wholeness and a Buddha figure. In Reb Zalman’s commentary, the founder of Hasidism rubs shoulders with the counterculture classics of Kurt Vonnegut, Carlos Castaneda, Frank Herbert, Werner Erhard and Joseph Campbell, among others.

The innovative usages of the Hasidic teachings keep this book fascinating. For example, where a reader already familiar with Hasidic doctrines expects a discussion of the Maggid of Mezeritch’s concept of mystical nothingness, we are treated to a discourse on how “God is an atheist: God does not have a God.”

The Hasidic concept of yihud, where one imagines that one is engaged in a unification in the higher realm, becomes transmuted by Reb Zalman into what he calls an “ah-ha moment.” An “ah-ha moment” offers flashes of psychological insight when we seem to reconcile two apparent opposites in our lives. Reb Zalman portrays the Besht as bringing life into focus for others — giving them “ah-ha moments” that transcend their ordinary left-brain process.

Here we watch a crucial part of Reb Zalman’s teachings and the creation of an American spirituality; if a unification is an “ah-ha moment,” then Reb Zalman teaches his readers that one can reverse the process. Anything that gives us an “ah-ha moment” can be considered a Hasidic unification. Since drum circles, journeys to the American Southwest, inventive lifecycle rituals, journal writing and healing services all offer moments of insight, then they are the true meaning of the Baal Shem Tov’s spirituality.

We now have a charismatic Judaism, emotional, ecstatic, musical, participatory and therapeutic. Judaism is about seeking the “ah-ha moment” in the narratives of our contemporary lives, in which each biblical verse, each prayer and each ritual applies to one’s own personal narrative.

If Hasidism treasures the mitzvah as a point of connection to God, charismatic Judaism can turn it around to consider any point of connection as a mitzvah. The Judaism of the heart offers creative suggestions to connect to God that sometimes go way out of the comfort zone of mainstream denominations.

Martin Buber portrayed Hasidic tales as teaching about God’s presence in our everyday actions in the here and now. Elie Wiesel’s Hasidim foreshadow the Holocaust and quote snippets of Albert Camus. But neither Buber nor Wiesel claimed to start a new Hasidism; they romantically looked backward. In contrast, Reb Zalman looks to create a new Hasidism.

Buber, the aforementioned famed presenter of Hasidic tales, argued that 18th-century Hasidism was an original outburst of religious renewal. For him, the Hasidim still used kabbalistic language to express their new teaching because that was the resource they knew. But their Hasidic novelty burst the limits of the old kabbalistic language. In a similar manner, we have witnessed the bursting of the vestigial language of Hasidism, as Reb Zalman’s works have become part of contemporary American spirituality.

Alan Brill is the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering, Seton Hall University.

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