Scholarship and Provocation: A Response to Arthur Green’s Review of Hasidism Incarnate


Arthur Green recently published a review of my recent book Hasidism Incarnate in Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations. The review raises some important issues in regards to the study of Hasidism and Hasidic literature more generally, and the nature of comparison in the study of religion. It also gestures toward the complex relationship between scholarship and theology that many of us, both in Jewish Studies more generally, and Jewish mysticism in particular, traverse in our work. I begin my discussion of the larger questions raised in the review with Green’s claim of omission. In his review Green notes that it is surprising that I chose not to invoke Psalm 90:1 A prayer to Moses, man of God (ish ha- Elohim) in my study as it would ostensibly support my basic contention about incarnational thinking. He is certainly correct that this verse stands out as significant to my argument. In fact, on page 18 in the first chapter I invoke this very verse, and a comment on it by the pre-Hasidic pietist Yaakov Koppel of Mezritch (d. 1786) to introduce the entire project. Whether or not Green’s comment about the absence of Psalm 90:1 was an oversight, I think the way he may understand the verse, and the way in which I discuss it using Koppel’s comment, illustrates  the differences between us, both in our reading of Hasidism and in our theological vision more generally.

Midrash Tehillim to Psalm 90:1 offers various readings of calling Moses “a man of God.” One such reading is as follows: “If he is a man he is not God, and if he is God, then he is not a man…When Moses went up on high he was a man. In the presence of God, how bright is a candle? How bright is even a Torah in the presence of God? When a mortal goes up to the Holy One, blessed be He, who is pure fire, and whose ministers are fire – and Moses did go up to God – he is a man, But after he comes down, he is called ’God’”. Yaakov Koppel reads Moses as a “man of God” quite differently. He writes, “If he is a man he is not God, and if he is God, then he is not a man? Rather, above he is called God (Elohim) and below he is called man (ish). Koppel (intentionally, I assume) reverses the order of the midrash. The midrash states that the divine status of Moses is only on earth, that is, in his vocation as a lawgiver. It is a divinely granted divine status not unlike an emissary of a king who speaks for the monarch. It does nothing to compromise the absolute transcendence of God. Koppel, however, suggests that the status of Moses as divine is precisely when he is in the presence of God. It is not a God-granted status as much as a state of being. One can understand the difference between Midrash Tehillim and Yaakov Koppel as a move from non-incarnational to incarnational thinking. The midrash explains Moses’s divine status as a vocation while protecting divine transcendence. Koppel problematizes that by granting Moses’ divine status with, or in the very presence of, God. When Moses comes back down to earth he is a man (ish) but a man who already is a God (Elohim). This is the precise reason I introduce Hasidism’s incarnational thinking with Koppel’s comment; I suggest Koppel introduces an incarnational motif that becomes indicative of Hasidism. Green may prefer the midrashic reading whereby Moses’ divine status is as a lawgiver, a much more conventional notion. This may also speak to Green’s insistence that we retain categorical boundaries between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism is the religion that retains the utter transcendence of God (the midrashic position) whereas Christianity deconstructs that transcendence through the incarnation (gesturing toward Koppel’s position). Green articulates this in his claim that the incarnational component of Christianity may be imported from Hellenism rather than endemic to Judaism.

I found Green assessment of the early arc of Christianity, especially given that his review appears in a journal of Jewish-Christian relations as somewhat outdated. Green writes,

Jesus’ original band of hasidim was deeply impressed, even transformed, by that message. But once Paul preached Jesus to the Gentiles, that little group of Galilean fishermen was quickly overwhelmed by Romans and others who fell in love with the messenger more than with the message, trans-forming him into a Hellenistic deity whose body was to be regularly ingested in a new mystery rite.

The notion that the doctrinal dimensions of Christianity were the product of Hellenistic influence and not the result of theological ideas more endemic to late antique Judaism is an idea that has, to my mind, long been discredited. The idea may have been most popularly propagated by Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920) in his Kyrios Christos. A succinct rendering can be found in Arnold Toynbee’s Hellenism: The History of Civilization (1959)

For the Jews, this revolutionary Christian doctrine of God’s incarnation was a blasphemous importation into Judaism of a myth that was one of the most damnable of all the errors in hellenistic paganism. This was a betrayal of everything Judaism had achieved in a long and arduous struggle to purify and elevate man’s vision of God’s nature, and no orthodox Jew would have been capable of it.

Toynbee, of course, was no lover of the Jews and there are other instances among Christian theologians where the idea that Christian doctrine is the result of Hellenistic influence and not endemic to Judaism is deployed to categorically separate all Jewish influence from Christianity. In other words, it is an argument that is often made for anti-Judaic ends.

More recently, scholars of early Christianity such as Larry Hurdato, John J. and Adela Yarbo Collins, and Richard Baukham, as well as and scholars of rabbinic Judaism including Peter Schafer and Daniel Boyarin have all rejected this theory. Whatever one makes of my thesis regarding Hasidism, the notion that many of the doctrinal dimensions of early Christianity are products of early Judaism or even ancient Israelite, although surely interpreted and in some cases transformed (Hurdato suggests the term “mutated”) is not controversial at all. In fact it is quite normative. Given that point, to speak about incarnational thinking in Hasidism born from earlier medieval and even rabbinic sources is far less radical than if we assume, as Green seems to suggest, that the very notion of incarnation is foreign to ancient Israelite religion or Judaism.

On the point of zaddikim, or the notion that the rebbe is oftentimes more than the best among equals, Green notes, “But it is most often every Jewish soul, or the souls of all the righteous, that contain the divine presence, rather than a single human incarnation. Yes, the rebbe is the channel of blessing to the community, surely an intercessor and even a divine / human intermediary, but is he truly a unique incarnation of God? One needs to push the point to find this, and Magid does indeed push.” I never referred to any Hasidic text as suggesting the zaddik, or rebbe, is the “unique incarnation of God.” Throughout the book I make the distinction that when we speak of Hasidism we are speaking of “incarnational thinking” as opposed to the one time Christ-event that became emblematic of Christianity. I use the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis which posits that the Christ-event is so significant precisely because through it humans are able to experience the divine presence within themselves; they are able through the sacraments to “become divine.” Eastern Orthodoxy suggests that the incarnation, while a unique event, creates the possibility for a lesser form in the adept. In Hasidism the zaddik is never a Christ, but he is also often more than a channel.

Hasidism Incarnate is an exercise in comparative thinking, one that, influenced by J.Z. Smith and others seeks to articulate difference through sameness. Green seems to understand comparison as the collapsing or erasing of distinctions when he notes, “This attempt to show that the lines between Judaism and Christianity are arbitrary and somewhat erasable appears to be part of Magid’s larger project.” This point actually touches on a discussion in my American Post-Judaism that I will address below. Regarding Hasidism, though, I spend quite a bit of time in the introduction of Hasidism Incarnate parsing the way I understand comparison in order to articulate how, in fact, the similitude I suggest between incarnation in Christianity and incarnational thinking in Hasidism is not intended to erase distinctions but precisely to reveal and understand them. Comparisons are not meant to collapse distinctions but rather highlight difference in and through similitude. Incarnational thinking in Hasidism is never equated with Christianity nor does it suggest the differences between these two religions are either arbitrary or erased. Rather, I argue that when categorical distinctions are maintained between two things as complex, and as proximate, as Christianity and Judaism, as Green seems to prefer, one loses the very fructifying elements of Hasidic radicalism which makes it such a continuously curious phenomenon in the study of religion. Without the comparison, Hasidism looks far more normative that I believe it was, or perhaps can be.

There were good reasons why Hasidism evoked such controversy when it emerged in the Pale of Settlement in the late eighteenth century. Some of those reasons were certainly social, educational, some political, and some even economic. But some were theological and metaphysical. Those protests were not made from whole cloth, nor were they erroneous. My intervention in Hasidism Incarnate is one way of examining Hasidism in light of, and not despite, the discomfort Hasidism brought to those normative Jewish communities. That is, implied in my work is that many who opposed Hasidism did so for legitimate theological reasons. They saw something metaphysically troubling, oftentimes it was more intuitive than concrete. This point has often been lost in the wake of Hasidism’s subsequent success, both in the traditional world and in scholarship.  I wanted to explore more deeply what may have made those oppositional forces so invested in Hasidism’s demise and also to critique the opposition as misunderstanding the extent to which “incarnational thinking” is endemic to certain strains of mystical Judaism. I do so not as an apologia and not purely as a critique but rather as a way to approach the material “without banisters” (to borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt). I am not an insider nor am I totally an outsider. And I fully acknowledge that place has its occupational hazards, one being that insiders consider me outside and outsiders consider me inside. And both are correct.

I found it curious that Green points to Elliot Wolfson’s work on incarnation as a counter to my approach. Although a fair assessment of Wolfson’s work on this matter is beyond the scope of this short exercise, a few short remarks may suffice. Green suggests that in my final chapter where I treat Wolfson’s work, “he [Magid] shows how in Judaism the person assimilates to the word of God through the medium of Torah, in which God has made Himself fully present.” Invoking Wolfson, Green argues that this stands in opposition to the fleshy incarnation of Christianity. Before getting to Wolfson one need not go further than John 1:1-14 where Word (Logos) and flesh interact. And recent scholarship suggests that John was likely written by Jewish-Christians vying for a place in the bustling and transitioning Jewish world of the early second century C.E. In regards to Wolfson, his entire approach in this matter is to complicate the very notion of the categorical distinction between language and flesh. In fact, in what I take to be one of the most incisive interventions by Wolfson on this question in his Language, Eros, Being the chapter is aptly titled, “Flesh becomes Word: Textual Embodiment and Poetic Incarnation.” To draw the sharp distinction between the langue and carne (the Latin would be caro), word and flesh, is precisely what Wolfson seeks to annihilate. So when Green asks, “where is the carne?” in Hasidism my answer is “almost everywhere,” especially when one strips away the categorical distinction between language and flesh done so well by Nahman of Bratslav who, I posit, far from being an “outlier” as Green suggests, is one of the most popular, and powerful, Hasidic voices to have survived modernity. In this regard Green’s alternative neologism “inverbation” to describe Hasidism misses the point in my view in part because it serves to maintain the categorical distinction between Christianity and Judaism that I am trying to complicate. It is not just language because language is not just language. The fleshiness of language is not John’s innovation but an idea deeply embedded in ancient Judaism that continues in the kabbalistic tradition. In their work on incarnation and Rabbinic Judaism both Jacob Neusner and Daniel Boyarin distinguish between rabbinic Logos Theology and Christian incarnationalism but as Wolfson rightly shows, the kabbalists undo much of that distinction.



I want to turn now to what I think is the most significant point raised in Green’s review. There appears to me to be an unspoken distinction in Green’s analysis between scholarship and theology. Yizhak Lowry (whom I do not know personally) made what I took to be a very astute comment on my Facebook page is response to this very point. Lowry wrote, “I wonder what the essential matter here is though. Is Green arguing that there isn’t a good enough source for the carnal or is he arguing there shouldn’t be?” In some way this captures my sentiment exactly and also may speak to Green’s point about provocation.

On the one hand, all good scholarship is provocation, one great example being Green’s own book on Nahman of Bratslav, Tormented Master. Scholarship as I understand it is to provoke and cause us to re-examine accepted theories or readings of the past or present. Great works of scholarship, as well as great works of literature and art, often begin as provocations. It is certainly true that there is good provocation and bad provocation, or provocation that can sustain a close reading of the sources and one that cannot. Alternatively, perhaps good, or great, provocation is precisely the misprision, mis-reading or strong reading that Harold Bloom spent his career developing. In any event, I will leave it to the readers of Hasidism Incarnate to decide where it falls along that spectrum of provocation.

The more pertinent question is: to what does this provocation intend or, as Green puts it, “Just what statement is Magid trying to make, therefore, in his Hasidism Incarnate?” I take this to mean, what is the purpose of this theological provocation and not what scholarly argument is being proffered since it is the former that seems more important to Green than the latter. I would like to address this important question by rehearsing my reading of an 2007 essay Green and Schachter-Shalomi co-authored called, “Thinking Through the Metaphors of Deep Ecumenism: Dialogue (see my American Post-Judaism, 100-101). That essay exhibits a disagreement between Green and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on the question of pantheism and panentheism. Schachter-Shalomi’s organistic pantheism is described by him as follows: “So when I look at the organismic understanding of things, it is better to me than the flat-democracy, with no distinction and hierarchy. Some people say ‘everything is the same’: but it isn’t. With the organism we have distinction and dependence.” Schachter-Shalomi’s non-dualism is not a Hasidic “alle iz Gut!” (all is God) but rather states that God is a divine body that functions like a living organism. Schachter-Shalomi continues, “When a community creates a religious system, that system too is part of the living divine body. These multiple expressions of divinity are all part of the divine organism.” Green sees things differently. For him, the One is a transcendent undifferentiated being. The differentiation comes from the myriad expression of the “inner call” of the self. Green suggests, correctly I believe, that for Schachter-Shalomi the organistic model deems differentiation as “essential revelations” (which would divide the One) rather than human responses. Green panentheistic monism would not allow for that division and thus differentiation comes only through the self, the “inner call” of each individual.

I think this disagreement between Schachter-Shalomi and Green can be a lens to examine the intention of my theological “provocation” in Hasidism Incarnate. In “Thinking through the Metaphors,” Schachter-Shalomi and Green offer two distinct visions of Hasidism. Green views Hasidism as a panentheistic pietism where the radically transcendent One remains intact and access to that One comes through the “inner call” of the practitioner who is drawn toward this One and experiences it through devekut (divine communion). On this model, incarnational thinking has no place because it would threaten the unity of the One which in kabbalistic terms can only be differentiated in itself, that is, in the cosmos. And even here that differentiation must be attenuated. For this reason, I think, Green prefers the account of the mystic’s access of divine energy (shefa) found in the work of Moses Cordiovero (1522-1570) to Isaac Luria’s (1534-1572) theory of the divine contraction (zimzum) and the rupture of the Godhead (shevirah) in which holiness exists in the world regardless of any call spoken to any practitioner.  That is, on Luria’s model, one need not have any “inner call” for the divine to be present. For Luria, God is all about differentiation, eyn sof, or the undifferentiated One, is the placeholder for divine multiplicity. It is not an accident that Christian Kabbalah was more attracted to the Lurianic theory than to Cordovero.

Schachter-Shalomi offers what I call an organistic pantheism which begins with the premise of God as a “divine body” where multiplicity and differentiation is not an expression of the self toward the undifferentiated God but part of God. This does not deny the One (thus I call his theology post-monotheistic) but the One is not the only place where the divine resides. Thus for Schachter-Shalomi the operative model is zimzum (divine contraction) and rupture (the infinite differentiation of the Godhead through the fallen sparks) the centerpiece of Lurianic metaphysics. For Green differentiation is relegated solely to human experience (the “inner call”), for Schachter-Shalomi it is part of his pantheistic view of creation.

Although I am not sure I was quite aware of it when I wrote Hasidism Incarnate, after reading Green’s review I think my intervention into Hasidism in regards to incarnational thinking may indeed be an expression of Schachter-Shalomi’s metaphysics as I understand it. That is, the Hasidic masters in question absorbed the Lurianic model of a differentiated Godhead and thus were open to a non-dual yet differentiated notion of God not only through the experience of devekut but also as part of the life of the divine. This created the possibility of incarnational thinking, that the divine can incarnate in different forms while remaining intact as the infinite eyn sof. While such incarnational thinking may resemble High Christology it does not replicate it nor does Hasidism come to incarnational thinking as an imitation of Christianity. I make this quite explicit throughout the book. This similitude should come as little surprise as High Christology itself, as recent scholars have noted, is born from trends already endemic to late antique Judaism that, as Yehuda Liebes and Elliot Wolfson have argued, may have been preserved in Kabbalah in various forms, or re-articulated anew, and in some cases used by kabbalists in their medieval polemic against Christianity. Gershom Scholem’s view that Kabbalah is, at least to some degree, an expression of a Freudean “return of the repressed” fits very well into this theory once we acknowledge that Hasidism develops its thinking outside the “Christian gaze” of western and central Europe.

In this sense Hasidism Incarnate is indeed a provocation largely against those who prefer to interpret Hasidism through its own self-fashioning or to see it as a confirmation of normative metaphysical premises that I believe are subverted at least from the Zohar onward. To reinstate Hasidic radicalism as I tried to do in a different way in my earlier work Hasidism on the Margin, for me Hasidism Incarnate is intended to engage in a Benjaminean “reading against the grain” which resists the Hasidic white-washing in which Hasidism emerges as the purest expression of a timeless Jewish core that sometimes even occurs in the academy. It is a provocation to think differently, not only about Hasidism but just as much, or more, about the way we use it to cultivate new forms of spirituality and religiosity.

Finally, I have often wondered at the turn toward Buddhism in recent expressions of Hasidic spirituality, as if the non-dualistic reading of Hasidism is somehow reflected in Buddhist teaching. While this may indeed be the case to some degree, metaphysically Buddhism is so far removed from the Hasidic orbit that the comparisons are, in my view, limited. What’s more, many of these scholarly interventions all but ignore what is hiding in plain sight: Christianity. While Hasidim didn’t likely know much about Christianity, they certainly knew more about it than they did Buddhism. And the medieval texts they were reading, particularly the Zohar, indeed knew much more about Christianity than is conventionally thought, as Green himself articulates in his essay about the shekinah and Mariology in medieval Kabbalah. I fully understand that there are cultural reasons why Christianity has not played a larger role in exploring parallels with Hasidism and why Buddhism is an easier sell. But perhaps the time has come for scholars, and Jewish theologians, the push through some of those cultural barriers. Martin Buber’s work on Hasidism and his 1945 book on the affinity of Judaism and Christianity, Two Types of Faith begins some of that work. And the authors of Christianity in Jewish Terms (2002), a volume devoted to a re-assessment of Jewish attitudes toward Christianity in the wake of The Second Vatican Council continues this work. I envision Hasidism Incarnate as yet another contribution in this direction. If I am reading Green correctly he remains wed to categorical distinctions between Judaism, even Hasidism, and Christianity. I think those categorical distinctions are in large part the product of a bygone era, at least in scholarship. I am committed, in Hasidism Incarnate as well as my other work, to explore the vistas that lay beyond those distinctions without any investment in collapsing them into any way.

Green’s review raises some important questions and, most importantly, enabled me to articulate some of what I was trying to do in writing Hasidism Incarnate, not only as a work of scholarship but as a contribution to contemporary Jewish theological thinking. In addition, it enabled me to present the ways in which my reading of Hasidism differs from his as an illustration of how we have different theological visions.  I remain wed to comparative thinking, not only as a method but also as a theological, and even spiritual, exercise.

Comparisons are difficult, and subtle, and are often and easily misread. They require a careful hand, and a close reader, to insure that distinctions, and similarities, are made in ways that both create the possibility of examining similitude as well as properly locating difference, hopefully the former giving birth to the latter.

Shaul Magid is Tikkun Magazine’s Editor for Jewish Thought and Culture, and Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue. He is presently the NEH Senior Research Fellow at The Center for Jewish History in New York City, working on a book about Meir Kahane’s critique of American Judaism.​
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