Whitman Among the Hasidics

Credit: James Stewart

One morning, a Nigerian student came to my office and examined the bookcases.  On one of the shelves, in front of the books, was a shofar.  He picked it up and inquired about its meaning and origin.  I explained how I purchased it in Jerusalem.  “Are you Jewish?” he asked.  I said that I was, and he pointed to a postcard taped to the wall, a photograph of Whitman, the long white flowering beard, the slightly cocked-back hat, and asked: “Is he?”

Technically, of course, no.  At first glance, one would have a difficult time associating a poet who celebrates the body, nature, and, of course, the self, with a religion that emphasizes a law-driven, rather than a spontaneous, ethos; texts and commentary, rather than the natural world; the priority of history and ritual over the significance of the moment, and, finally, emphasizes God over one’s “self.”  It takes more than a beard and a hat to make a Jew.

Instead, in the anthology, Jewish American Poetry, Jonathan N. Barren states that in the tradition Whitman wrote, the American Romantic, poetry was distinctly “read either against or in a Christian context.” In other words, the poetry is dependent on a reading of humanity as “fallen.” “To the believing Jew,” he continues, “the American lyric poem, even when it is understood as leaves of grass, looks too much like a new idol, a new incarnation, a new testament…” because, primarily, “the idea that spirituality and the divine exist in nature, even the idea that god can be incarnate in people—is given foundational primacy” (236-7).

Whitman, in fact, goes out of his way to disassociate himself from any “organized” religion or institution, and insists that he himself is commensurate with God; his belief, stated again and again, is in the individual, as he says in his “Preface” of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “the poet…is a seer…he is an individual…he is complete in himself.” And the individual, in turn, is God: “Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah,” he contains “multitudes” as he accepts everything: “to Shastas and Vedas admirant, minding the Koran…accepting the Gospels, accepting him that was crucified, knowing assuredly that he is divine.”

Above all, Whitman’s emphasis is on the sensual, the worship of the body: “if I worship one thing more than another, it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it.” In traditional Judaism, of course, these sentiments have no place.  To believe God to reside in the body, or the individual as God, or that God can preside in nature, “in a spear of grass,” is thoroughly unkosher; it is, rather, Barran argues, in “words,” (my italics) “rather than the things of nature,” that contain holiness (248).  Can we claim as one of our own a poet who, in speaking about animals, writes, ‘They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God”? How would that sentiment go over in a 19th Century chedar, or even a contemporary discussion of the Talmud? It seems that we can call Whitman a pagan, a pantheist, an Antinomion, but not, it would seem, a Jew.

So what are we to make of the fact that the Yiddish group Di Junge, as early as before World War I, were drawn to Whitman, “not particularly for his meters or diction,” says Irving Howe, “but for his expansiveness of spirit and egalitarian values” (430), or that the Yiddish poet I.J. Schwartz translated Whitman’s “Salut au Monde” into Yiddish, and, even earlier, Morris Rosenfeld wrote an ode in honor of our American bard? Closer to our own time, what are we to make of the words of one of our premier American Jewish poets, Philip Levine, when he claims: “I don’t know that the Bible had a greater influence on me than Whitman’s “Song of Myself”…I don’t know that it’s been more useful to me than Whitman’s astonishing claim, “There is that lot of me and all so luscious, which has helped me define myself to myself” (quoted in Barron and Selinger, 104-05).

It is this expansiveness, of course, that poets of many ethnic backgrounds find appealing in Whitman: his inclusiveness, his celebration of self and others, his democratic vision. But which of Whitman’s “multitudes” touch particularly on the Jewish-American sensibility? Are contemporary Jewish American poets who are attracted to Whitman simply responding to the same Whitman that every other poet responds to, or do Whitman’s poems also reflect a sensibility that would resonate with specifically a Jewish experience and Jewish poets? Is there anything “Jewish” about Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California,” a poem in which he follows Whitman, who he calls ‘dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher”?  Or when Albert Goldbarth writes a poem entitled “The Poem of Praises,” in which he speaks from the voices of Whitman’s theoretical “six children,” then proceeds to have these said “children” sing praises to Whitman in a most Whitmanian manner? Or when we discover Whitman’s unmistakable influence on a poet like Gerald Stern, in lines such as: “I am lifting a blade of grass to my wet lips/for music/I am trying a dozen fruits and flowers/to get one sound/I am twisting my head around, I am slowly clapping/for harmony,/I am raising my eyes, I am listening to the worms/for song.”

Though it seems true that Whitman’s transcendentalist gestures of imagining God to be present in every individual and object of nature would be opposed to traditional rabbinic Judaism’s insistence on a God that is interpreted through Torah and Talmud, as we all know, traditional rabbinic Judaism is not the only Judaism. As Martin Buber pointed out almost a century ago, the eastern European movement of Hasidism embodied a more eastern idea of “boundlessness and of holy unity,” which Buber, in fact, feels is “the primal process within the Jew, the process manifested in their personal lives with all the forcefulness of their Asiatic genius by those great Jews in whom the most profound Judaism came alive (Hassidism and Modern Man 8). Buber’s retelling of the tales of the Baal-Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman, and the other Hasidic masters reveal a Judaism that is much more aligned to an Emersonian consciousness, which also looked to the east as an alternative to Christianity’s dictum of sin and salvation. In both movements, emphasis is placed on individual expressions of ecstasy, the attempt to create an “enlightened” community, the notion of the hallowing of each action and word, and the primacy of the moment. And though Buber’s interpretations of Hasidism has been critiqued, most famously by Gershon Scholom, as having more literary than historical value, it’s clear that to generations of Jewish readers, some of them American poets, his versions have exerted a profound influence. That 19th Century Hasidism, as it emerged out of the pogrom-torn shtetls of eastern Europe, helped shaped the sensibilities of modern American Ashkenazi Jews is abundantly clear, perhaps for the very reason that it is so close to the American spirit of individualism. Whether Buber’s Hasidism is accurate or not, as literature it has its appeal. American poets have looked to Whitman as an embodiment of that spirit. For American Jewish poets, Buber’s Hasidism can allow them to do so and be Jewish about it at the same time. I would argue that, even though there’s no evidence, as far as I know, of Whitman’s interacting with a Hasidic community, there is an extraordinarily strong resemblance of sensibilities between the eastern European Hasidic movement, as it has been interpreted for us by Martin Buber, and what we discover when we read a work like “Song of Myself.”  

In fact, when it comes to western religion, Whitman may in fact be more of a Jew than a Christian. He grew up in a family that was critical of Christianity, his family revered freethinkers, feminists, and reformers of all stripes. Later, he considered becoming a Quaker, but put the notion aside, saying “I was never made to live inside a fence” (Kaplan 70). As Malcolm Lowery put it, Whitman “cannot be called a Christian heretic, for the simple reason that he was not a Christian at any stage in his career, early or late” (xiv). At the same time he was joining his father in attacking Christianity and “growing up unscathed by the conviction of sin and damnation that oppressed so many of his contemporaries.” However, he was attending St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, “duly instructed in scripture and catechism” (Kaplan 70) where he received the most profound influence on his life and poetry—the Bible, which as every reader of Whitman knows, became perhaps the primary model of his Leaves of Grass in its unmistakable rhythms and imagery.

Indeed, he often said, in poetry and in speech, that he intended Leaves of Grass to be a “new Bible.” As his biographer Justin Kaplan explained, Whitman “was attracted to becoming a Poet Prophet, a characteristic he absorbed from the original template and then brought into his own poetry” (172). Whitman quoted one De Sola Mendes on the subject of Hebrew poetry: “‘rhyming is not a characteristic of Hebrew poetry at all…Meter was not necessarily a mark of poetry.’” He continued: “‘Great poets discarded [rhyme]; the early Jewish poets knew it not’” (“The Bible as Poetry” 381). Whitman’s quoting an authority on biblical poetry’s “freedom” from rhyme and meter was a way to justify his own “experimentations” by casting them in the larger poetic—indeed, biblical—tradition.

So what we have is that, while we are exploring Whitman’s influence on Jewish poets, we find the reverse to be true, as well: Jewish poets’ influence on Whitman. What contemporary Jewish poets find in Whitman is a similar sensibility that Whitman himself finds in the ancient Jewish poets. In this way, American Jewish poets can discover their own Jewish sources. Of the Biblical writers, Whitman states categorically: “[T]he metaphors daring beyond account, the lawless soul, extravagant by our standards, the glow of love and friendship, the fervent kiss—nothing in argument or logic…but unsurpassed in proverbs, in religious ecstasy, in suggestions of common mortality and death—the spirit everything, the ceremonies and forms of the church nothing” (“The Bible as Poetry” 382).  Yes: “the spirit everything, the church nothing”: what could be more Whitmanian?

And what could be more Buberian Hasidic? When Buber talks about sanctification of earthly existence, the Jewish practice of blessing God each morning and when one begins any new project, such as “a new house or piece of clothing or tool because one has preserved in life to this hour” (Hasidism and Modern Man 21), how could an American Jewish poet not be reminded of Whitman’s celebrations of all the details of his perceptions, the enumerations of people, occupations, life-forms of every variation? For Buber, the character of Hasidic teaching is anti-ascetic, which he associated with the breaking of the world vessels. According to the Baal-Shem Tov, these sparks are contained in what individuals possess, ‘which belong to the root of a man’s soul and wish to be elevated by him to their original…possessions (Hassidism…24).” Even in food there dwell these holy sparks, and eating can be holier than fasting.  Thus, to invest an action with holiness is to elevate one’s sparks.

One can see these holy sparks in Whitman in the way he invests himself in who and what he perceives. For Whitman, poetry included the sacred act of enumeration: the long lists in Leaves of Grass, for example, are ways in which the poet can name, and thus, in much the same spirit as Adam naming animals, “sanctify” each encounter. Each item in his list is another holy spark he “lifts” through poetic identification: “The pure contralto sings in the organloft,/The carpenter dresses his plank/…the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp….” For Buber, “the sparks ascend to their source through the consecration of the pious who works on them in holiness (Hasidism 28); for Whitman, they are fragments of his America, his promised land, his greater community. For both Hasidic and poet, their gathering leads to redemption.

Both Whitman and Hasidism present a “hero” in the form of the “perfected man” as being the embodiment of the highest values of each moment. Intriguingly, both forecast the appearance of this “hero” to lead the way in presenting an alternative vision to their respective predominating hierarchies. For Hasidism, Buber claims that “rabbis who only bestowed advise as to how the prescriptions of the law should be applied could no longer satisfy the new longing…a man was needed to show how to believe and to say what was to be done” (The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism 42).

Clearly this is a clarion call for the Baal-Shem Tov to provide new approaches to satisfy the “new longing.” This call sounds suspiciously like Emerson’s call in his essay “The Poet” for a bard that will satisfy America’s new urgings to create a poetry that better reflected its new values as opposed to the old, rigid paradigms of English verse. Whitman, of course, felt himself to be that poet. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker assumes the role of the teacher and more—the ideal, the perfected man, the “American” individual Whitman sets himself up as an example for all.  Likewise, for Buber, the zaddic, or Rebbe, is the manifestation of Hasidic values fully realized in one person. When an American Jewish poet reads of how “the highest praise bestowed on a zaddic was that he was Torah,” can he or she help but recall Whitman’s claim that he is “deathless,” and that: “The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me,/The first I graft and increase upon myself…the latter I translate into a new tongue”? Both the zaddick and Whitman make the claim of having incorporated the spirit of something that resembles perfection. For Hasidism, it’s claimed that the best way to learn from a Rebbe was not through his statements but through his everyday gestures, “the way he tied and untied his sandals.” In Whitman’s case, perhaps that would correspond to how he wears his hat “both inside and out.”

Hasidism and Whitmanian Romanticism are both reactions against dominating hierarchies, and what’s striking to an American Jew is the similar constructs against which they react. At the same time these two movements emphasize the role of the teacher, the Rebbe, both also reiterate their essentially democratic spirits. And even though in the case of Hasidism that democratic spirit only spreads so far as to include Jews, yet it was an advance on the traditional rabbinical attitude towards those who practice Talmudic scholarship. As Buber says, “one cannot understand the enormous influence that Hasidism exercises on the masses…if one does not recognize the democratic strain in it, the tendency native to it to set in place the existing aristocracy of spiritual possession the equal right of all to draw near the absolute being” (The Origin and Meaning…61). In other words, one need not be versed in esoteric Talmudic exegesis in order to feel the presence of God. Whitman would go farther, of course, democracy being the root of his entire vision: “I give the sign of democracy,/By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart on the same terms.” On a wider scale, he follows the same impulses. Buber contrasts Hasidism to the Kabala when he says that “there’s no Hasidic esoteric, everything is fundamentally open to all, and everything is reiterated again and again so simply and concretely, that each man of real faith can grasp it” (The Origin and Meaning 48).  And even when one considers that for Hasidics “real faith” really means faith in Judaism, and “real faith” in Whitman really means real faith in the American democratic spirit, American Jewish poets can recognize the affinity between the two impulses.

One term Buber refers to again and again is “hallowed,” the consecration of the everyday, the ordinary act becoming infused with holiness. For a Hasid, every action should be hallowed, “even by eating and drinking in purity and holiness, it is possible to hasten the coming of the redemption” (The Origin…84). Along with the hallowing of the details of ordinary life, Buber claims that Hasidism is “unique in that it is the only mysticism in which time is hallowed (The Origin…5). Thus, we have a sanctification, a holiness, a celebration, of each moment, which seems, from Buber’s perspective, to be at the heart of Hasidic life almost to the point, it seems, of becoming heretical to rabbinic tradition. One must live in the moment with fervor.  Buber says the Baal-Shem Tov is “he who takes onto himself the quality of fervor. He rises from sleep with fervor, for he is hallowed and become another man and is worthy to create and is become like the Holy One (The Origin…70).  How far removed from this sentiment is Whitman’s claim that “I know I have the best of time and space—and that I was never measured, and never will be measured”?

To live with fervor implies a spirit of ecstasy, and one discovers this spirit to be so similar in Hasidism and in Whitman’s poetry that one might be forgiven for seeing them as indistinguishable. In Hasidism, ecstasy is hitlahavut, “the enflaming,” the ardor of ecstasy. The ecstatic intensifies the moment completely—past and future are swept away, and one lives in an eternal now, when, according to Buber, “the whole body serves the aroused soul and in which each of the soul’s rising and bendings creates a visible symbol corresponding to it, allowing one image of enraptured meaning to emerge out of a thousand waves of movement—is the dance (Hassidism and Modern Man 71).”  Here Hasidism recognizes and affirms the role of the body in celebrating and expressing hitlahavut. To dance and to daven (i.e., pray) is an acknowledgement of how one’s whole self is caught up in an ecstatic moment of union with God. As Buber says, the hitalahavut “soars beyond all limits. It enlarges the soul to the all. It narrows the all down to nothing” (Hasidism and Modern Man 74). Or, as Whitman would have it, “[T]he past and present wilt…I have filled them and emptied them,/And I proceed to fill my next fold of the future.”

Through Buber’s interpretation, we have inherited a perception of the early Hasids as a people whose beliefs correspond to the ways in which our American consciousness has been shaped.  What Whitman and the Hasids, indeed all of Jewish tradition, have in common is their constant impulse to praise—the ultimate sources, the “Creation,” the sentient world, human communities, and the miracle of our individual lives. Whitman was initiated into the possibilities of praise, in part, by reading the praises of ancient Jewish writers. And those writers are still praising, as we read in the poet John Hollander’s work, how “Every single instant begins another new year…sing thanks for being enabled, again, to begin this instant” (Barron and Selinger 85).

During his lifetime, Whitman was seen as a man who would walk about in the woods and sing songs of praise with such great ardor that one would almost say that he was out of his mind.

But this tale was actually told about someone else:  the Hasidic master Rabbi Susya.


Barron, Jonathan N. and Selinger, Eric Murphy, Editors.  Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections.  Hanover and London:  Brandeis 
University Press, University Press of New England, 2000.
Buber, Martin.  Hasidism and Modern Man.  Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.
Humanities Press International, Inc., 1988.
Buber, Martin.  The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism.  Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey:  Humanities Press International, Inc., 1988.
Goldbarth, Albert. Across the Layers.  Athens:  University of Georgia Press, 1993.
Hollander, John.  “At the New Year,” quoted in Jewish American Poetry, p. 85.
Howe, Irving.  The World of Our Fathers.  New York and London:  Harcourt Brace  Jovanocich, 1976.
Kaplan, Justin.  Walt Whitman, A Life.  New York: Simon and Shuster, 1980.
Levine, Philip.  “commentary.”  Included in Jewish American Poetry, pp. 101-107.
Stern, Gerald.  Leaving Another Kingdom:  Selected Poems.  New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Whitman, Walt.  Leaves of Grass:  His Original Edition.  Edited by Malcolm Cowley. Penguin Books, 1981.
Whitman, Walt.  “The Bible as Poetry” in Complete Prose Works.  Boston:  Small Maynard and Company, 1898, pp. 381-384.

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