Tales of the Masters

By Jay Michaelson

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
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God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom From Hasidic Masters

Edited & Translated by Or Rose With Ebn D. Leader

Jewish Lights, 163 pages, $16.95.

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Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained

Translation and Annotation B y Rabbi Rami Shapiro

SkyLight Paths, 193 pages, $16.95.

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If you’ve seen “The Chosen,” or just tried to buy a digital camera on 47th Street in New York City, you know who Hasidim are: the black hats, the Yiddish accents, the “ultra-Orthodox” religious practice. Few, however, know that Hasidism was a radical movement originally, provoking outrage, bans, even book burnings because of its revolutionary teachings.

Founded in the late 18th century by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (literally, “Master of the Good Name,” a twist on the traditional title of a magical folk healer), Hasidism popularized and psychologized kabbalistic and other Jewish mystical wisdom. It taught that God can be experienced here, now, in our bodies and souls; that God is everywhere; and that the purpose of human life is to cleave to God in holy, joyous love.

Eventually, Hasidism became much more conservative, primarily in response to the threats of assimilation and reform. Although there remain important differences, Hasidim appear to outsiders as scarcely distinguishable from their once-bitter opponents. Now, they are the right wing.

Enter “neo-Hasidism,” a decentralized movement that has emerged from Jewish Renewal, the chavurah movement and other spiritual streams of Judaism that arose in the wake of the 1960s. If traditional Hasidim now stress strict Torah observance and separation from modern society, neo-Hasidim are the opposite: their Halachic observance varies widely ,and they embrace not just the technological but also the ideological innovations of modern and postmodern society, from feminism to the academic interpretations of sacred texts. Neo-Hasidim put on tefillin and vote pro-choice; we daven and we meditate (I learn and teach in various neo-Hasidic communities). While lineage is central to traditional Hasidim, neo-Hasidim do not pretend to be continuing an uninterrupted tradition; we wouldn’t want to do that anyway, and we know that much of what we do would terrify or infuriate many early Hasidic masters. So we willfully pick and choose among the tradition. The revival is about spiritual search, not historical re-creation.

To some critics, neo-Hasidism is nothing more than an appropriation of Hasidic literature and language atop a ‘spiritual’ lifestyle that has more in common with self-help and the 1960s than with traditional Judaism. In my own experience, however, the literary explorations pioneered by Martin Buber and the Orientalizing Romanticism of films like “The Chosen” have very little to do with how contemporary neo-Hasidim regard themselves and their religious practice. It’s not about, in the words of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of Jewish Renewal and perhaps the first neo-Hasidic rebbe, “meditating in a Tallis.” Rather, for Reb Zalman (as he is known by his followers), neo-Hasidism is a translation of the ethos of another time into the religious vocabulary and social mores of this one. “If you can understand what feminist Hasidism would really entail, in terms of ritual, community, and god-language,” he said at last year’s neo-Hasidic conference in New York, “that’s neo-Hasidism.”

Rabbi Arthur Green, one of the founders of the movement, has long called for the creation of a “neo-Hasidic bookshelf” that would translate, package and interpret the teachings of the Hasidic masters for a new generation. The bookshelf would have to recognize that many come to neo-Hasidism without the formal Jewish background essential for reading and understanding Hasidic texts. It would have to sort, distill, translate and explain.

Recently, two major steps have been taken toward fulfilling Green’s vision: Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s translation of “Hasidic Tales,” and Or Rose’s translation, with Ebn Leader, of Hasidic hanhagot, or spiritual practices, published as “God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom From Hasidic Masters.” The books, capably translated and thoughtfully presented, reflect both the strengths and the weaknesses in this emerging trend of Jewish spirituality.

The works have a common format: translation of the Hasidic source on left-hand pages, commentary and explication on facing pages. In Shapiro’s book of tales, the commentary takes the form primarily of a glossary, explaining terms as common as shofar and as esoteric as kli elohim (godly vessel). In Rose’s book of spiritual practices, the commentary is more freewheeling, consisting of Rose’s explications of the practices in their theological and cultural contexts, together with texts from other sources that illuminate the teachings inside.

This format is meant to make the teachings accessible to an audience unfamiliar with Hasidism — or even, in the case of Shapiro’s book, Judaism. The books both succeed and fail: They succeed for the contemporary spiritual seeker, fail for those concerned about historical fidelity.

“We have selected those texts that we believe are both representative of the genre as a whole and resonant with contemporary spiritual sensibilities,” Rose wrote in his introduction. This means not only that Rose and Leader “have consciously omitted materials that are egregiously sexist, racist, or offensive in other respects,” but also that they chose sources illuminating those teachings that would resonate with a contemporary audience: seeing God in all things, embracing the value of every person and so on. Values that seem less appealing today (at least to Rose and Leader) are comparatively minimized. For example, there are few stories and hanhagot in the two collections regarding the authority of the tzaddik, even though the tzaddik –– the righteous rabbi who leads the Hasidic community on Earth and prays on its behalf in heaven –– is a fundamental pillar of traditional Hasidism.

For better or for worse, this is the difference between Hasidic scholarship and neo-Hasidism. Neither Shapiro nor Rose’s book is a representative sample of Hasidic literature. They are resources for those who wish to make some of that literature relevant today. Of course, relevance is subjective. A Satmar Hasid living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, would select the stories that emphasize the importance of scrupulously observing the commandments; a Chabad Lubavitch Hasid in Crown Heights would highlight stories of messianism; while I, a neo-Hasidic Jew living in Park Slope, might choose those emphasizing precisely the most subversive, enlightening truths of the Hasidic tradition: that this moment, with you reading these words, is filled with nothing but God, and that it is possible, with the right practices, to experience this Divine moment fully and clearly. The literature accommodates all three perspectives, and many more.

What, then, are these anthologies’ primary areas of focus? Largely, they are about living in day-to-day, here-and-now reality with an expanded consciousness of the Divine. Hasidism teaches that God is everywhere . In one story of Reb Elimelech of Lyzhansk translated by Shapiro, we are taught that “the whole universe is filled with God; wherever one eats, one eats in the Divine Presence.” But this does not mean that one should meditate on a mountaintop; quite the contrary, Hasidic teachings are very much grounded in this world. There are far more practices and tales in the two books about charity, humility and good health than there are about kabbalah or meditation. Most importantly, the warmth of the Hasidic masters seems to radiate from the pages of these books. There is a sense of real inspiration that has been well rendered by Shapiro and Rose, inspired teachers themselves.

This is why Hasidism was so successful, and why neo-Hasidism is so appealing, as well: They unite the spiritual search with the day-to-day business of living.

“Attach yourself to the blessed creator,” the Baal Shem Tov says, “and in that state of devekut [connection to God], pray for some household need…. Do this in order to train yourself to keep your mind connected to the blessed Creator, even when it comes to mundane matters.” Normally, we might pray for something (or someone) we desire, or deliverance from illness or misfortune and, if the wished-for comes to pass, suddenly we are filled with gratefulness, God-consciousness, you name it. But the Baal Shem Tov wants us to pray that our laundry gets done, or that we wash the dishes successfully.

Some of the teachings seem even more relevant today than, we imagine, they would have been 200 years ago. “We tend to make idols out of the easy and to worship convenience rather than truth,” says a rebbe in one tale, written two centuries before the Internet or McDonald’s. The Baal Shem Tov, 230 years before the fitness craze, said: “When your body is ailing, your soul is also weakened, and you are unable to serve God properly, even if you are free from sin. Therefore, guard the health of your body very carefully.”

Of course, any spiritual path has the danger of banality, and this one is no different. If there is one fault to be found with the excellent Jewish Lights/Skylights series, it is the insistence of the publisher to put pages of corny advertising at the back of each volume and to opt for cheap, “inspirational”-looking covers instead of the wonderful range of sophisticated Jewish mystical art, and typography, being produced today. In addition, some of Shapiro’s explanatory notes seem to cheapen rather than enliven the stories. “How do you handle the mud in your life?” has a clichéd, New Agey ring to it, especially compared with the tale itself. In it, a poor Hasid says to a rich one: “Because I travel with this horse, that cannot free this wagon if it becomes stuck in the mud, I am very careful to avoid the mud in the first place.”

Then again, other notes are quite useful. When Reb Aharon of Karlin says: “I gained the knowledge that I am nothing,” most readers need a scholar like Rami Shapiro to explain not only the wordplay — ani ayin, two words with the same letters, in different orders — but also the deeper cosmological truth.

Why does Hasidism, a popularized mysticism that began among the peasants of Eastern Europe, inspire a new generation of scholars and spiritual seekers? Because the Hasidim care. They are “on fire with love of God,” as one contemporary (non-neo-) Hasidic rabbi teaches. “Attach yourself to the Creator with complete love,” says the Maggid of Mezrich, translated in Rose’s book. “This love must surpass your love for any worldly good, because everything is rooted in the Divine.” The Hasidim operated in a world in which large numbers of Jews were leaving Judaism entirely, and many who remained were attached to a rigid path of pure obedience. They rediscovered, and half-invented, a Jewish way of experiencing the Divine love embracing us at every moment — one grounded simultaneously in a mystical theology and an affirmation of worldly, “down-to-earth” concerns. Are things so different today?






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