Chasidism Without Romanticism

Originally published in the Forward March 31, 2000.

As the packed houses for the recent Israeli film “Kadosh” testify, the Chasidim these days are a big draw and an even bigger drag. The dark world and mysterious culture of the chasidim simultaneously fascinate and repel modern Jews. Unfortunately, both the fascination and repulsion are often rooted in a deep ignorance of chasidic doctrine and life. “Kadosh” — an uninformed cinematic screed against Israel’s fervently Orthodox Jews — distorts their religion and culture virtually beyond recognition, but this comes as no surprise. Chasidism’s many secular Jewish detractors — both here and in Israel — seem to be interested only in the alleged threat that the fervently Orthodox pose to Jewish pluralism and Israeli democracy. Very rarely do they bother to arrive at an understanding of the profound mystical faith that underlies the polarizing politics of contemporary chasidic life. At the other end of the spectrum, many contemporary Jewish spiritual seekers, invoking the teachings of the chasidic masters, have found “Jewish renewal” in an equally distorted new-age neo-chasidism that has precious little to do with the movement’s original theology.

To be fair, the chasidim are not easy to understand. Chasidic mystical theology is extremely difficult to master. Moreover, aside from the Lubavitch sect, chasidic society is almost hermetically sealed, and chasidic writings — composed in an arcane rabbinic Hebrew, laced with talmudic Aramaic and obscure kabbalistic references — are comprehensible only to serious students of both rabbinic literature and the kabbala. If only for these reasons, Rabbi Norman Lamm’s new English anthology of chasidic texts is a truly important contribution to Jewish learning.

“The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary” is a massive collection of texts, culled from the vast Hebrew literature produced by the first two generations of chasidic masters, the tsadikim. This literature spans roughly a 40-year period, beginning with the publication in 1772 of the first chasidic book, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoe’s “Toldos Ya’akov Yosef” and ending with the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812. Despite this chronological restriction, which limits the span of the book to chasidism’s very early history, Rabbi Lamm has produced the most important, lucid and comprehensive English introduction to chasidic theology and literature to date. Earlier collections of chasidic sources — such as Louis Newman’s “Hasidic Anthology” and Louis Jacobs’s “Hasidic Thought” — while helpful, presented only brief citations from a limited number of chasidic sources.

Rabbi Lamm’s reader, by contrast, organizes many hundreds of substantial selections from chasidic literature into major thematic sections, each devoted to central theological issues such as “God and Providence,” “Faith,” “Worship,” “Torah Study” and “Evil and Suffering.” Each of these sections is prefaced by Rabbi Lamm’s clear and helpful introductions elucidating key aspects of chasidism’s mystical and theological doctrine. Finally, the difficult and arcane language of the primary texts has been rendered into felicitous English, which is in turn greatly enhanced by Rabbi Lamm’s discursive footnotes. The product is a truly impressive textbook that will be beneficial to the casual reader interested in learning more about one of Judaism’s major and most mysterious religious movements, as well as to the serious student of religion. As one who teaches Jewish mysticism and chasidism at the university level, I can testify that Rabbi Lamm’s book is precisely what has until now been most missing from my course syllabi. That he has managed to complete this major project while serving so effectively as the president of Yeshiva University renders his achievement all the more remarkable.

Perhaps the most important contribution of this new sourcebook is that it effectively counters the earlier romantic distortion of chasidism produced by such famous Jewish writers as I.L. Peretz, Micha Yosef Berditchevsky and Martin Buber. That distortion, portraying chasidism as a liberating grass-roots mystical revolution against the legalistic and austere rabbinic Judaism, has long enjoyed particular popularity among English readers, largely because of the widespread distribution of Buber’s — and more recently Elie Wiesel’s — anthologies of chasidic tales. These idealized stories about the leading chasidic masters all too often tend to romanticize their lives, portraying them as modern religious reformers, or enlightened existential philosophers. There has long been a debate among Judaic scholars about the representative value and accuracy of these tales, particularly since Gershom Scholem’s severe critique of Buber’s use of them to portray chasidic theology as a precursor to his own existentialist Jewish philosophy. This new anthology wisely makes scant use of the tales. Rabbi Lamm relies almost entirely — and to good effect — on material taken from the more difficult and substantive chasidic theological literature, rather than the often facile and exaggerated hagiographies of the chasidic “saints.” His introduction to the section on “Love and Fear” (of God) is illustrative of Rabbi Lamm’s judiciously corrective approach:

Here, as in many places throughout this fine work, Rabbi Lamm manages with a single stroke to contest both chasidism’s secular detractors as well as its new-born enthusiasts. He also emphasizes the complex continuity between apparently novel chasidic doctrines and earlier rabbinic and kabbalistic teachings. While Rabbi Lamm at times overstates the religious conservatism of classic chasidic doctrine, the book usually sets the balance between tradition and innovation in chasidism just right. Among many examples of Rabbi Lamm’s approach to this complex problem, one is his careful tracing of the evolution of the central chasidic doctrine of devekut — mystical union with the Shekhina (divine presence), beginning with the term’s initial use in the Talmud right up to its radical re-formulation by chasidism’s founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Lamm carefully highlights the points of continuity while never dismissing the essentially radical doctrinal innovation that lies at the center of the chasidic teachings on this subject.

Always respectful of chasidism’s integrity and essential conformity with Jewish tradition, Rabbi Lamm still does not shy away entirely from criticism. At the end of his introduction to the section on worship, for example, he acknowledges the unfortunate consequences of chasidism’s neglect of the statutory rabbinic time regulations for the daily services:

Though never expressing himself polemically, Rabbi Lamm, the president of an Orthodox university whose very raison d’être is to fuse traditional Judaism with higher secular learning, clearly looks askance at this and other deeply obscurantist aspects of chasidic life and practice. Still, the dominant tenor of this book is respectful of chasidism, emphasizing over and again its intellectual integrity and theological sophistication. This approach is nowhere more evident than in the introduction to the section on faith, whose texts angrily attack Jewish rational philosophy, the haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) and virtually all secular study, presenting them equally as threats to simple Jewish faith and piety. While neither sugarcoating not justifying the intensely anti-intellectual and anti-modernist tendencies of the classic chasidic masters, Rabbi Lamm does them a measure of justice by explaining them soberly:

Thanks to Rabbi Lamm’s achievement, English readers finally have access to a major and well-organized sampling of chasidic literature. But, remarkably enough considering the explosion of Judaica scholarship in recent years, there is still no general history of the movement in English. And it is precisely in the area of history that Rabbi Lamm’s book is most wanting. His general introduction to the volume is disappointingly brief and fails to provide even a skeletal historical framework for the considerable textual riches that follow. It is also surprisingly outdated, not taking into account the many major works on the history and theology of chasidism of the past decade. The most recent landmark studies of chasidism by scholars such as David Assaf, Rachel Elior, Emanuel Etkes, Moshe Idel, Moshe Rosman and Ada Rapaport-Albert, among others, are nowhere mentioned. In fairness, this latter weakness is no doubt largely a result of this work’s understandably long period of gestation, and it will detract only minimally from its usefulness as a popular sourcebook. Still, one is left hoping that, when his career allows him the time, Rabbi Lamm might dedicate his considerable knowledge and skill to writing a companion book on the history of chasidism.

Written by

Allan Nadler

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