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How Hasidism Bridges Boundary Between Christianity and Judaism

A Scholar Incarnate: In ‘Hasidism Incarnate,’ Shaul Magid demonstrates how boundaries have divided a birthright. Image by courtesy of shaul magid

Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism
By Shaul Magid
Stanford University Press, 288 pages, $65

In some ways, the boundary between Judaism and Christianity is a boundary about boundaries — specifically, what separates humanity from God, and whether it is ever possible to bridge the gap. Christianity, of course, has among its cardinal principles that God became man, and that Christ is both fully human and fully divine.

Mainstream Judaism holds that such a crossing of boundaries is impossible. Humans are mortal, flawed, frail; the Jewish God is omnipotent. The two cannot be reconciled.

Shaul Magid is one of several scholars of Judaism — Elliot Wolfson is another — who have disputed this particular boundary about boundaries. In his previous work, “From Metaphysics to Midrash,” he argued in the context of Lurianic Kabbalah that the “people of the Book” never quite believed their replacement of charismatic leader by literary text. Rabbinic and later forms of Judaism developed under the “Christian gaze,” and thus had to differentiate themselves from Christianity. But incarnation never really went away.

This view was bolstered by two subsequent books by Daniel Boyarin and Peter Schäfer, which showed that notions of an incarnated divine figure predated rabbinic Judaism, although the rabbis of the Talmud may have suppressed them precisely because of their similarity to Christianity. Judaism was as shaped by Christianity as Christianity was by Judaism.

Now, in “Hasidism Incarnate,” Magid takes the argument one step further. In Hasidism, he argues, the divine/human boundary was permeable, and sometimes crossed. In fact, he claims, in Hasidism we have the resurgence of the very incarnational theology that mainstream Judaism had rejected. In Hasidic thought, God and human are reunited.

In a sense, the quasi-Christological nature of Hasidism is already familiar to us. Both scholarly and popular responses to the messianism of Chabad, for example, have alleged that the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson has been deified. Clearly, there is something Christian-like about the notion of a messiah who will rise from the dead, and seems to have powers well beyond the human.

Magid, however, is not interested in the excesses of latter-day Chabad. His sources include Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, to name two. Magid views their conceptions of the tzaddik, the charismatic leader of the Hasidic sect who intercedes between humanity and God, as incarnational theology reborn.

For example, Magid says, where Jesus was said to be the word become flesh, Rabbi Nachman sees himself as a fleshly being who can speak the word of God. More broadly, the nexus between the divine and the human “suggests or at least invites an incarnationalist approach extending beyond what is found in rabbinic and even classical mystical literature.”

Why Hasidism? Magid notes several incarnationalist lines of thought within medieval Kabbalah. But, he says, “Hasidism has resurfaced theological tropes that since the institutionalization of Christianity have been deemed ‘Christian’ and thus ‘not Jewish.’ As a form of modern Judaism that developed outside the Christian gaze, Hasidism was more easily able to cultivate notions deeply embedded in the Kabbalistic tradition.”

This is a challenging argument. Hasidism, says Magid, is uniquely unconcerned with the “Christian gaze” and thus was free to endow the tzaddik with charisma and quasi-divine status, qualities that might otherwise have been judged as too Christian. But is it true that Hasidism was outside the Christian gaze? Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady was imprisoned by Russian authorities for having invented a new religion. Hasidic sects were routinely persecuted by their Jewish opponents for being too similar to Sabbateanism, the heretic messianic movement.

And, for that matter, were earlier kabbalists really that worried about seeming too Christian? Many systems of the 10 sefirot, for example, divided them up into three triads plus the 10th sefirah of Malchut, seemingly unconcerned with the obvious similarity to the Trinity. And as many scholars have noted, the Zohar itself makes a messianic hero of its protagonist, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

True, these were esoteric traditions, and Hasidism brought esotericism to the masses. But on the matter of the Christian gaze, the early hasidim hardly seem more blasé than their forebears. Nor did their innovations place them outside the bounds of normative Judaism, as was the case with the Sabbateans.

Nor are the instances of incarnation cited by Magid what most lay readers would generally associate with that term. Here, Moshe Idel has already taken issue with Magid and Wolfson, devoting much of his book “Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism” to explaining why incarnation is a bad way to represent the various constructions of divine-human relationship in the kabbalistic corpus. Incarnation is a Christian concept, of course, and stamps a single Christian theology onto a multiplicity of Jewish ones.

Magid, citing Wolfson, responds that “using such nomenclature better enables us not to be fooled by the Kabbalist’s denigration of Christianity while they appear to utilize some of its basic premises.” In other word, don’t take the bait: This is God in human form, despite protestations to the contrary.

Well, maybe. Actually, the definitions of “incarnation” that Magid adduces seem to say less than that. Magid quotes theologian Laurel Schneider, who states that incarnationalism is a “basic theological posture and starting place, an orientation toward reality that, in its attention to the mutability of bodies, undoes the logic of the One and its pretentions.” But is that what people really mean by “incarnation”? Just the “mutability of bodies” and a rejection of rationalist philosophy?

Magid himself has a similarly broad definition: “the disposition… of absorbing divinity [is] what I call incarnational thinking, allowing the divine to become so much a part of one’s being that one acts in the world as divine and subsequently treats the world as divine.”

This is a broader definition than one might expect. Yes, the disposition of absorbing divinity is found in many Hasidic texts, but especially in a nondualistic theology, this is less incarnation than expression of what is already within. Moreover, it is available to everyone, not merely the special individual. Treating the world as God may be enlightenment — but it seems different from how we generally understand incarnation.

Even if it isn’t, though, the recovery of immanence that it represents — to say nothing of the authority of the individual over the text — may indeed point to a less authoritarian mode of religious consciousness, perhaps linking “Hasidism Incarnate” with Magid’s other work on antinomianism, Jewish Renewal and other forms of Jewish boundary pushing and crossing.

In 2008, Boaz Huss, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, debated Magid in Zeek when I was an editor there, arguing that Christian categories such as “mysticism” should not be used to describe Jewish phenomena like Kabbalah. For Huss, to describe Kabbalah as “Jewish mysticism” assumes some common core between it and Christian mysticism, essentially a theological, rather than scholarly, claim.

Magid replied that even “Judaism” is a term foreign to Judaism, and that “mysticism,” while difficult to define precisely, still refers to a clearly cognizable set of phenomena — and as such, is a term worth salvaging.

The same principle seems to apply to Magid’s understanding of incarnation. Yes, it is not a Jewish term. And yes, the way Magid uses it is neither how Christians nor, I suspect, most educated readers would understand it. The question “Hasidism Incarnate” asks us, however, is at once broader and deeper. Is there an aspect of the religious life — even if we step down from the incarnational altar and simply call it the sense of divine inspiration, or the Holy Spirit — that exists in Judaism as well as in Christianity, and that was suppressed by Jewish sages seeking to draw a boundary between two highly porous communities?

If so — and I think it is so — then to whatever extent Hasidism reclaimed it, and for whatever reasons, Magid’s book is an important contribution, for it shines a light on where the drawing of boundaries has the effect of dividing a birthright.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor of the Forward.

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