Hasidic Tales and Prayer-Poems

Two Contrasting Spiritual Traditions Brought Back Into Light

Hearts on Fire: In Hasidic thought, prayer is emphasized over study.
MELANIE EINZIG/WWW.EINZIGPHOTOS.COM
Hearts on Fire: In Hasidic thought, prayer is emphasized over study.

By Rachel Barenblat

Published June 13, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

A Hidden Light: Stories and Teachings of Early HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism
By Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Netanel Miles-Yepez
Gaon Books, 490 pages, $31.95

All Breathing Life Adores Your Name: At the Interface Between Poetry and Prayer
By Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Gaon Books, 212, pages, $18.95

In her introduction to “A Hidden Light,” Susannah Heschel notes that Hasidism offers “teachings, texts, and stories… as guides” to the inner journey of transformation. This book, by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (sometimes called the zayde, or grandfather, of Jewish Renewal) along with student-collaborator-amanuensis Netanel Miles-Yepez, seeks to place those guides in every reader’s hand.

“A Hidden Light” is the sequel to Schachter-Shalomi’s 2009 “A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters,” which collected and contextualized stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, among others. This volume focuses on the figures, tales and teachings of HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism.

A tremendous amount of knowledge is distilled into these pages. The sheer number of names, rebbes, dynasties and towns may overwhelm readers. To Schachter-Shalomi, each of these is an intimate friend.

The authors interweave the life stories of Nachman of Bratzlav and of Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founders, respectively, of Bratzlav Hasidism and of HaBaD (also known as Chabad; in the HaBaD spelling, the capitalized letters represent a Hebrew acronym for three different aspects of God), with their parables and teachings. In one anecdote, Zalman tells his son that as a young man, he had the choice of studying with the Vilna Gaon or with the Maggid of Mezritch: “In Vilna, they teach you how to study, and in Mezritch, they teach you how to pray.” Of course, the binarism is overstated, but Zalman’s choice — and Schachter-Shalomi’s — is clear.

HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism differ in numerous ways, but Schachter-Shalomi and Miles-Yepez find areas of common ground: between, for example, Nachman’s writing about “running and returning” and Zalman’s writing about how a tzaddik, a righteous person, falls and rises again.

Here, as in “A Heart Afire,” Schachter-Shalomi and Miles-Yepez note correlations with teachings from other traditions — for instance, comparing Jewish mussar, or ethical teaching and practice, with the Melami Sufi path of living a moral and sincere life “for the sake of God alone.” The result is a sense of commonality between the mystics of different traditions, for whom connection with divinity trumps the outward divisions between one spiritual path and another.

Of particular interest is Schachter-Shalomi’s translation of Reb Nahman’s “Bo el Paroh” (“Go to Pharaoh”) teaching, which Schachter-Shalomi calls “Torah of the Void.” In an attempt to slow down the reader, he renders this prose text as poetry. Here is how he renders Nahman’s description of tzimtzum, God’s withdrawal in order to manifest creation.

This Void was needed

For the world’s sake,

So that it could be put into

a place.

Don’t strain to understand the

Void!

It is a Mystery not to be realized

Until the future is the now…

At times, Shachter-Shalomi’s sentiment verges on sentimentality (which I know would make my Master of Fine Arts professors wince). But this poem works for me both as a poem (because of its linguistic sparseness) and as a Hasidic teaching. And I always admire the impulse to render a dense mystical text in a manner that preserves its allusions and invites the reader in. Enter “All Breathing Life Adores Your Name: At the Interface Between Poetry and Prayer.”

The poems in “All Breathing Life” are not translations; they are, rather, “free verse evocations of themes and imagery inspired by our liturgy and collective psyche.” Schachter-Shalomi wants to give us the experience of reading and praying these texts as he does, even though we may not have his hypertextual awareness of references, quotations and implications.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Yeshiva University's lawyer wanted to know why the dozens of former schoolboys now suing over a sexual abuse cover-up didn't sue decades ago. Read the judge's striking response here.
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.