Retelling Hasidism for the Twenty-First Century

Gaon Books, 2011
by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yepez

A Hidden Light is the interesting experiment of an insider who stands outside a world he left but never abandoned. The work is neither critical nor apologetic, nor is it polemical. It is the loving, creative rendition of a devotee who has tried in his long career to separate Hasidism’s radical theology from its rigid and conventional sociological framework. For the Jewish Renewal reader, it offers a window into the Hasidic world that inspired Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s revision of Jewish spirituality. To the comparativist, it brings to life a Hasidic world of story and teaching that utilizes the nomenclature of global religiosity and the New Age.

To understand this book, one must first understand what was perhaps the first great scholarly debate in twentieth-century Jewish mysticism. This debate was between Gershom Scholem and his one-time mentor Martin Buber on the nature of Hasidism, a type of Judaism that is practiced in many of today’s ultra-Orthodox communities. In 1908, Buber’s The Legend of the Baal-Shem appeared in German, followed by his studies of the tales of Nahman of Bratslav and a volume on the tales of the Hasidim, later translated into English in two volumes as Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters and Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters in 1948. Buber argued throughout his career that Hasidic tales were the best way to view the innovative dimensions of Hasidic spirituality and devotion. Scholem argued that Buber, in focusing on Hasidic tales, was using Hasidism to further his own philosophical agenda and had neglected the history of Hasidic literature. Scholem’s position was perhaps best stated in his essay, “Martin Buber’s Interpretation of Hasidism,” which appeared in his The Messianic Idea in Judaism in 1971.

This dichotomy of tales versus homilies continued for the next few generations. It appears that in the academy Scholem has won the day, while outside the academy Buber may still be more influential. Buber believed that Hasidic life, its hallowing of the everyday, its imaginative portrayal of the possibilities of small miracles, its volkgeist (populist spirit) and devotional practices, are best illustrated through Hasidism’s fantastical tales. On Buber’s reading, this spirituality of transforming rather than transcending the world, born deep in the Pale of Settlement in the eighteenth century, was a precursor to what became existentialist thought in the twentieth century. Buber claimed that Hasidism was an illustration of a “Jewish Orientalism” on the European continent at a time when many of his romantic colleagues were looking for “authenticity” in Sanskrit texts and other writings from the Indian subcontinent.

The Hasidim were neither philosophers nor trained theologians. They were readers of Jewish texts and, more importantly, they were, among other things, practitioners of ecstatic devotion.

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