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!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • 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.