Scholarship

The Development of Neo-Hasidism: Echoes and Repercussions Part I: Introduction, Hillel Zeitlin, and Martin Buber

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ariel Evan Mayse

Editor’s note: This article, presented in four parts, is a revised version of a paper presented at the Orthodox Forum convened March 15-16, 2015. It will appear in the forthcoming volume, Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut, ed. Shlomo Zuckier (Urim, 2019), as part of the Orthodox Forum series. It is intended to spark a conversation about the origins of neo-Hasidism and to consider its contemporary relevance. After some preliminary notes, the first three installations are devoted to exploring in brief the works of foundational neo-Hasidic writers, thinkers and leaders. This intellectual genealogy paves the way for the fourth part of the series, considering the impact of neo-Hasidism, and particularly its liberal forms, upon Orthodox Jewish life and examines how such liberal neo-Hasidism may continue to influence Orthodox religious thought.

See the second installment of this series here

“No renewal of Judaism is possible that does not bear in itself the elements of Hasidism.”

— Martin Buber

“The Reformation continues.”

— Friedrich Schleiermacher

The quest for renewal dwells at the heart of Hasidic spirituality.[1] As a pietistic and mystical revival movement, Hasidism sought to infuse traditional practices and religious concepts with devotional significance that is at once both old and new.[2] The ideal Hasid strives to perform all deeds with total devotion, yearning to fulfill the divine command with focus and intensity rather than out of rote obligation. The Baal Shem Tov interpreted the Psalmist’s words, “Do not cast us into old age” (Psalm 71:9) as a soulful petition: may our service never become stale, and may our sacred actions and words never fade into old shells empty of meaning. The inimitable Kotzker Rebbe is said to have demanded that his students cultivate not frumkeit (“external piety”), but rather frishkeit (“freshness”), in their service of God. This tireless quest for perpetual newness, held as an aspiration for communities as well as private individuals, is as old as Hasidism itself.

But history has proven that it is difficult for energetic renewal movements to maintain their initial burst of vital spontaneity.[3] Such was the case as Hasidism matured, expanding from small fraternities and circles of disciples into a mass movement. Attempts to revive the intellectual and spiritual life from within the Hasidic world have a long history.[4] Hasidic masters such as Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav (1772-1810), Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), Rabbi Aaron (Arele) Roth (1894-1947), and Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno (1889-1943) sensed that the Hasidism of their day had lost its devotional intensity. They sought to combat the malaise of spiritual complacency by reclaiming the traditions of the Baal Shem Tov, but each of these thinkers developed a new Hasidic approach to religious life. Modern neo-Hasidism springs as a fresh branch from these roots of continuous growth and renewal.

No single definition of neo-Hasidism will comfortably stretch to include all of the various individuals and groups that lay claim to this inheritance, embodying very different approaches to fundamental questions of tradition and practice.[5] The present study traces the development of neo-Hasidism as defined in religious terms: an approach to Jewish life and practice grounded in the belief that the spiritual legacy of Hasidism can inspire a contemporary spiritual renewal. Neo-Hasidism emerges, first and foremost, from written teachings of Hasidism, which range from complex homilies to pithy tales, as providing both challenge and encouragement. These sources demand continuous growth commitment in the intertwined realms of personal devotion, theological reflection, and ethical performance. While one’s study may not be restricted to Hasidic texts alone, neo-Hasidism is defined by the way that all elements of the religious life are infused by the Hasidic sources and their ethos of inwardness, joy, and a unitive vision of God.

Neo-Hasidism incorporates lessons from a range of different Hasidic masters. Commitment to a particular Hasidic leader (or dynasty), and thus to a single spiritual path, has long been a defining element of Hasidism. It was possible for a Hasid to transfer his primary allegiance from one rebbe to another, particularly in the early decades of the movement’s history. But dynastic loyalty emerged as an extremely important social force in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and, since then, to be a Hasid has generally meant submission to one spiritual teacher or rabbinic family. Neo-Hasidim, by contrast, find inspiration in a wide variety of Hasidic sources and teachers, though many are drawn to or inspired by one particular Hasidic thinker or book. And the leaders at the heart of neo-Hasidism do not generally live within the highly regimented quarters of a traditional Hasidic society. Some may have visited the Hasidic world from time to time, and they may indeed share a connection with one or more Hasidic leaders, but at some point most have made an active decision not to live in a Hasidic community. This choice reflects their target audience, but also reflects their own zone of comfort.

Of course, neo-Hasidic readings of Hasidic sources are selective and creative. Certain elements of the Hasidic tradition are amplified, whereas others are ignored or actively rejected. For example, Hasidic attitudes toward gender, secular thought, and non-Jews are consciously rejected or heavily reinterpreted. Most expressions of neo-Hasidism have included elements of universalism, for these writers have long envisioned a reawakening of Jewish life that will inspire a similar revival of the spirit among the rest of humanity. They see the legacy of Hasidism and the wisdom of Jewish spirituality as too expansive and valuable a treasure to be restricted to the Jewish people alone. But neo-Hasidic writers and teachers also display their creativity by linking Hasidic and non-Hasidic texts together in new ways, and by translating traditional terms or concepts expansively, such that they speak to modern issues of the spirit and existential meaning. Neo-Hasidism may thus be described as an interpretative moment; it is a mode of reading texts through “Hasidic” eyes, through a lens of devotional or spiritual engagement.

Elements of neo-Hasidism are truly novel, but these innovations should, in a sense, be construed as new expressions emerging from the theological core of Hasidism. Some neo-Hasidic thinkers see themselves as a continuously creative element of Hasidic teachings, updating and reapplying the spiritual traditions of Hasidism without fundamentally altering its central teachings. From a different perspective, however, neo-Hasidism is also a project of radical cultural and religious reclamation. It seeks to unearth a lost (or buried) spiritual message, now present only as glowing embers or kernels embedded in the chaff of ossified Hasidism. The very notion of neo-Hasidism is thus predicated on a historiographical assumption: the great spiritual vitality that characterized Hasidism in its formative years eventually diminished.[6] While Hasidism generated interesting and audacious thinkers into the twentieth century, conflicts with the mitnaggedim and modernity forced Hasidism to retreat on many fronts. Neo-Hasidim thus seeks to reanimate the central teachings of Hasidism’s early period. [7]

Neo-Hasidism emerges from a twofold disappointment with the contemporary world. It reflects a lack of confidence in the secular world and the ideals of progress and modernization. Literature, philosophy, science, and technology hold wisdom and can greatly improve our lives, but these fields do not provide sufficient answers to the deepest questions of religion and existence for the seekers drawn to neo-Hasidism. This ironic “disenchantment” with the secular is all the more profound in the post-Holocaust world. But neo-Hasidism is also a response to the lack of spirituality or lack of intellectual and theological openness in the modern Jewish religious world.

The aim of this series of articles is to contribute to our understanding of neo-Hasidism and its contemporary importance from three interrelated vantage points. We will begin by tracing the development of neo-Hasidism, profiling the work of its foundational writers, thinkers, and leaders. Although their teachings do not cohere into a single doctrine or interpretation of Hasidism, the variety of ideas held in common by these neo-Hasidic thinkers is noteworthy. All are committed to translating Hasidic spirituality into a contemporary vernacular in order to spark a renaissance of Jewish spirituality. In the concluding section of this series we will then bridge to a discussion of the impact of neo-Hasidism, and particularly its liberal forms, upon Orthodox Jewish life, both acknowledged and unacknowledged. Stepping away from the historical analysis, we will also reflect upon a few ways in which liberal neo-Hasidism may continue to influence and invigorate the Orthodox world.

Hillel Zeitlin

Hillel Zeitlin (1871–1942) was a tireless author, a soul-stirring poet, and a deeply introspective mystical writer.[8] He was raised in White Russia in a Chabad family, steeped in the Hasidic contemplative tradition. Zeitlin enjoyed an energetic devotional life in his youth, a period that he later described as being filled with a rich, mystical intoxication with the divine Presence. Yet in his adolescence Zeitlin became increasingly troubled by philosophy and higher criticism of the Bible, and his confrontation with modernity led Zeitlin away from the world of Hasidism. He immersed himself in the study of Western thought, publishing books on Spinoza and Nietzsche, and he read the works of thinkers ranging from William James to Oscar Wilde. Zeitlin’s single-minded engagement with Western culture was, however, relatively short-lived. By the early 1900s he returned to the religious quest, and devoted his considerable literary talents to what he now saw as his life’s work: preserving the legacy of early Hasidism and rearticulating a vision of Jewish spirituality that was compelling to contemporary (and future) seekers.

Zeitlin is a neo-Hasidic writer because he interpreted and combined a wide variety of early Hasidic sources, and because he neither lived in a Hasidic community nor committed himself to a particular Hasidic path. He sought to return to the spiritual vitality at the root of Hasidism, but Zeitlin also felt compelled to reinterpret the sources of the Hasidic tradition. His works, peppered with references to Western philosophy, were written in Hebrew and in Yiddish for highly secularized Polish Jews, hoping to provide them with a compelling spiritual alternative to the balkanized, intensely political Jewish intellectual world of Warsaw, and to the ultra-Orthodox (and also highly politicized) Hasidic world of the early twentieth century.

Zeitlin’s call for renewal, which increased in intensity and reached its peak in the 1920s and ’30s, was already visible in a German article published in Martin Buber’s periodical Der Jude in 1916. This short piece concludes as follows:

Polish Jewry has another very great and holy task. To say it more precisely: a holy and glorious endeavor, a great and vital responsibility. It was in Poland that Hasidism was born. There it flourished and branched forth, diversified and divided. There too it dissipated and declined in various ways. But Polish Jewry needs to preserve that treasure in a strict, serious, and artful way, a treasure granted to it by the gracious right hand of the Eternal…. Hasidism in Poland must return [or “repent”], if it is not to die (and it must not die, because “an idea that comes from the highest wisdom, cannot be destroyed”), it must return to the Baal Shem and his divinely-inspired students. Hasidism first must be restored to its source. Then it can nourish the spirits and minds of all people.

Far, far beyond Poland’s borders, the holy Hasidic word must be taken, across the entire Jewish people. This word, with its power and interiority, will summon all people and awaken them to true love, to true justice and to the true “rule of heaven.”[9]

Zeitlin felt that it was his privilege and obligation, together with the rest of Polish Jewry, to ensure that the vital spiritual message of Hasidism did not flounder. More than simply preserving and safeguarding Hasidism, Zeitlin saw his task as returning this movement of devotional renewal to its roots, returning Hasidism to its early spiritual teachings so that it might develop anew and spread forth to include all peoples. Intimated in this passage is something that was to become explicit in many of his later writings: the wisdom and spiritual vitality of Hasidism was too dear and too powerful to be limited to the Jewish people alone.

What was this “treasure” so in need of preservation and rescue? Zeitlin understood Hasidism as, first and foremost, a call to inwardness.[10] He interpreted Hasidic spirituality as relating primarily to the interior spiritual world of the mind and the heart. But, claimed Zeitlin, Hasidism also articulates a bold belief in the omnipresence and immanence of God in the physical world; the Divine saturates all elements of the cosmos, dwelling also within the heart of man. This sacred energy in each manifestation of being, often described as “holy sparks,” is generally hidden from the view of humanity. The veil of tzimtzum, the “contraction” or “withdrawal” of God’s infinite light from the world, occludes our vision of God’s presence. The task of the mystical seeker is to peer beyond the phenomenal world and to gaze into the rushing wellspring of the Divine that lies within.

Zeitlin described the message of Hasidism as founded upon three key “loves”—the love of God, the love of Torah, and the love of Israel—expressed in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. These themes have long been essential to the literatures of Jewish thought and theology, but Zeitlin argued that the early Hasidic masters offered a new conception of each. Zeitlin then complemented this Hasidic tradition with his own distinctively neo-Hasidic reading of the three foundational loves. The Baal Shem Tov, he said, taught that the love of God must become an all-consuming fire, the worshiper’s burning passion to encounter the Divine Presence. This yearning for God is neither an intellectual postulate nor a precept to be observed alongside others. The passionate love of God is the foundation of all spiritual life.

The Hasidic approach to the love of Israel, according to Zeitlin’s recasting, was deceptively simple. The Jewish people share a common root in the Divine, and each soul is a unique expression of the infinite God. True service of the Divine can only happen when Israel acts together in harmony and in unison. Only the love of others allows the worshiper to stand in the presence of God.[11] Finally, the Baal Shem Tov and his students explained the love of Torah as far more than a commitment to scholastic enterprise. Scripture is God’s Wisdom cloaked within words; the Torah is divine essence crystallized within the structures of language. The scholar must uncover the kernel of divinity hidden with its every letter. The words of the Torah are apertures of infinity, gateways through which the devoted seeker may step into the ineffable beyond. Zeitlin sought to re-invigorate these traditional Hasidic “loves,” universalizing and expanding them in an attempt to build an intentional community and a broader current of religious renewal.

The spiritual legacy of Hasidism, expressed succinctly in these three “loves,” needed to be preserved from extinction, but it also needed to be delivered from the insipid forces of spiritual myopia. Zeitlin felt that the religious community of his day, including the Hasidic world, had become trapped in reactionary thoughtlessness. His critique of the Hasidim he must have seen around him in Warsaw was incisive and highly insightful:

Today’s Hasidim still talk about all these things. But they mix all sorts of incidental things in with them—fanciful interpretations, homilies, intellectual games—until the real point is obscured. Second—and this is really the main thing—for some of today’s Hasidim their Hasidism has become a purely external matter. They study without a real taste for it; they pray in the same way. They pursue wealth and glory no less, and sometimes even more, than non-Hasidim. They’re always busy praising their own rebbes and castigating all the others, along with their disciples. They’ve set up rebbes’ courts and dynasties and get all involved in the politics of these.[12]

Hasidism began as a movement focused on the inner world, but it fell into obsession with external trappings. But Zeitlin’s trenchant criticism of the bourgeois and autocratic forms of Hasidism did not blind him to the spiritual majesty of some religious communities of his day. He notes, “there are other sorts of Hasidim present today as well: those who bear a deep inwardness, a deep attachment, a passionate love of God. They have love for all Jews, a love of truth and a longing for peace, a strong, clear understanding of all that is happening around them.”[13] Zeitlin was a frequent visitor of the Novominsker Rebbe of Warsaw,[14] the uncle and mentor of the young Abraham Joshua Heschel.[15] He was also aware of the creative work of R. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno, whose attempt to create an intra-Hasidic revival has been well documented in recent years.[16]

The Hasidism of Zeitlin’s day was generally quite dysfunctional, no longer able to courageously inhabit its one-time theological creativity. So Zeitlin hoped to introduce his modern readership to the spiritual treasury of Hasidism. But his forward-looking project of articulating a spiritual vision for the contemporary seeker also sought to expand the world of Hasidism beyond what it had been even in the movement’s formative early days:

In the Hasidism of the future, the love of God will shine forth and burn even more brightly than it did in the days of the BeSHT. The “Love of Israel” will be transformed into a great worldwide “Love of Humanity.” Nevertheless, Israel will always be recognized as the firstborn child of God, the one who has borne, continues to bear, and will continue to bear the godly light. “Love of Torah” will spread forth over all that breathes with sublime wisdom, after the inner light teaches the Jews to distinguish between that within the worldly sciences which is of the divine mind and that which is just self-proclaimed human conviction, error, and lies.[17]

Zeitlin’s dream was not a romantic return to an idealized Hasidic past. He hoped to expand the spiritual vitality of Hasidism, such that the love of God would continue to become amplified in the future to even greater heights. But his modern reinterpretation of the loves of Israel and the Torah reveals a striking universalism.[18] Zeitlin claims that what had once been restricted to an insular affection between Jews will, in the future, transform into an unbounded love for all humanity. At this time, the love for Torah will encompass most noble and sublime cultural works. Literature, philosophy, music, and presumably the physical sciences will all take a place within the spiritual canon, for each of them contains an element of God as well. And society itself will undergo a transformation as well:

The Hasid of the future will live only from his own physical labor. He will exploit no one in the world, doing not even the slightest harm to anyone. He will partake of God’s own holiness, living in uninterrupted communion with the Endless. He will walk through divine fire while praying, will study Torah with an inner godly light, will seek and find everywhere the light of Torah and messianic light. In all his thoughts and deeds he will strive only for true peace and unity. He will be filled with love and compassion for every Jew and non-Jew, for every creature. He will long to raise up the form of the shekhinah in the holy land and to spread her light through all the world. He will be a great seer and a great knower.[19]

Reflecting the discourse of class struggle and the physical reality of the terrible poverty of so many Polish Jews in the interwar period, Zeitlin explains that the Hasidim of the future will refuse to cause suffering or take advantage of workers. Taking from socialism all that is honorable and upright, Zeitlin imagined a renewal of the Jewish community in economic as well as spiritual terms. Yet this concern, we should note, extends beyond the Jewish masses. Zeitlin’s ideal seeker is alert to the suffering of all humanity, and the Hasid’s devotional quest to live in the Divine Presence should lead directly to an economy in which nobody is exploited.

Zeitlin aspired to be an activist and organizer in addition to a writer. Throughout the mid-1920s, Zeitlin issued a series of calls to those who were interested in creating a mystical fellowship of intensely devoted seekers.[20] This collection of exceptional individuals, described in a series of newspaper articles and privately printed booklets, would translate his spiritual vision into a lived community. In one such foundational document, Zeitlin offered a series of theological precepts and practical guidelines by which this fellowship should live their lives. He referred to this imagined group as Benei Heikhala (“Children of the Palace”), Ahdut Yisrael (“Unity of Israel”), Moshi’im (“Saviors”), and, most frequently, the Yavneh society. In a recently discovered manuscript, Zeitlin defines the goals of this fellowship as follows:

Yavneh wants to be for Jewry what Hasidism was a hundred and fifty years ago. This was Hasidism in its origin, that of the BeSHT. This does not mean that Yavneh wants to be that original Hasidism. It rather wants to bring into contemporary Jewish life the freshness, vitality, and joyful attachment to God in accord with the style, concepts, mood, and meaning of {the BeSHT. We offer these to}[21] Jews just as the BeSHT did—in his time—according to the style, concepts, mood, and meaning of onetime Jews. Yavneh wants especially to revive the soul of Jews. Yavneh seeks… to bring together those Jewish individuals who feel God in their souls, who live in Him and through Him, as God lives within them.[22]

Zeitlin dreamt of establishing an intentional community of seekers who would follow—and expand—the social and theological principles of early Hasidism. This would require them to rise above the politics, devoting themselves entirely to physical labor, spiritual refinement, and divine service.

But other than the small group of eclectic disciples that clustered around him, there is no evidence that his dream of founding Yavneh came to fruition. Zeitlin’s writings became increasingly desperate in the 1930s. He broadcast a heavy-handed and prophetic call for national return, predicting that a terrible calamity would soon overtake the Jews of Eastern Europe. Zeitlin was murdered on a Nazi death march in 1942; he apparently met his death adorned in tallit and tefillin, and with a copy of the Zohar in his hands. His dream of a renewed Hasidic community was mostly buried in the ashes of the Warsaw ghetto, but Zeitlin’s writings on Hasidism were rediscovered after the war. These works played a significant role in inspiring the next generation of neo-Hasidic thinkers, and in some sense Zeitlin’s fire burns in the Havurah and Jewish Renewal movements, two great post-War attempts at the spiritual regeneration of North American Judaism. Zeitlin’s writings have also been rediscovered–and reprinted–by a new generation of Israeli seekers who are captivated by his reading of Hasidism. Such individuals are also inspired by Zeitlin’s example of one who pushes beyond the entrenched binary categorization of “secular” and “religious,” a voice for a renewal that draws from the fundaments of the human spirit rather than ossified structures of institutional Orthodoxy.

Martin Buber

Martin Buber (1878–1965) was one of the most important Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century. He was born in Vienna, but after his parents’ divorce he moved to the home of his grandfather, the great Midrash scholar Solomon Buber, in Galicia. He was raised in a cultured and traditional environment, but the young Martin Buber abandoned all religious practice. Drawn toward the world of universal spirituality, he also studied Western and Eastern philosophy assiduously and emerged as a promising student and scholar. But in the early twentieth century, Buber took a renewed interest in the primal, lived forms of religious experience, and later came to find new meaning in the Jewish tradition. Zionism was an important part of this return to Judaism, but it was the literature of Hasidism that captured his mind and his heart. Buber’s father had taken him to visit the Hasidic community of Sadagora, where he was deeply impressed, but he felt that the dynastic system had led Hasidism into degradation. Years later he would return to classical Hasidic texts from the movement’s early period—rather than contemporary twentieth-century Hasidim—as a resource for enriching and critiquing modern culture.

Unlike Zeitlin, Martin Buber sought to recast Hasidism for a Westernized Jewish audience that had assimilated into the German cultural sphere. Dominated by the thought of philosophers like Hermann Cohen, and scholars of the nascent field of academic Jewish Studies (Wissenschaft des Judentums), German Jewish intellectuals portrayed Judaism as a rational and philosophically sophisticated faith. Buber, by contrast, presented the teachings of Hasidism in a way that highlighted the spontaneous, mystical, and devotional aspects of Jewish spirituality. At first he focused primarily on the experiential and mystical elements of Hasidism, identifying in the teachings of the Hasidic masters a reflection of the ecstatic devotion present in many different religious traditions. In his later years, as Buber turned toward a dialogical model of religious experience, he interpreted Hasidism as a mode of hallowing the mundane realm and transforming all moments into sacred encounters. [23]

Buber is known best for translating Hasidic tales, which he considered the most authentic textual sources of Hasidic spirituality. He self-consciously rewrote the stories, but that role, he argued, situated him in an organic chain of spontaneous transmission:

I received it and have told it anew. I have not transcribed it like some piece of literature; I have not elaborated it like some fabulous material. I have told it anew as one who was born later. I bear in me the blood and the spirit of those who created it, and out of my blood and spirit it has become new. I stand in the chain of narrators, a link between links; I tell once again the old stories, and if they sound new, it is because the new already lay dormant in them when they were told for the first time.[24]

Buber thus saw himself as an active agent in carrying forward the Hasidic—or neo-Hasidic—tradition, a role taken up by storytellers in every generation. He was engaged in recovering elements of Hasidism that were already present, but Buber imbued his presentation of Hasidism with much of his own personality and spiritual sensibility. This type of creativity was further permitted, and even necessary, because the Hasidism of his day was essentially defunct:

Groups of Hasidim still exist in our day; Hasidism is in a state of decay. But the Hasidic writings have given us their teachings and their legends. The Hasidic teaching is the proclamation of rebirth. No renewal of Judaism is possible that does not bear in itself the elements of Hasidism.[25]

But Buber’s creativity was also linked to his desire to use the Hasidic canon to spark a cultural and religious revival amongst his Western readers.[26] In order to accomplish this goal, he knew that it would be necessary to jettison elements of Hasidism that would appear problematic or antiquated. He recast the ethos of Hasidism for modern eyes, but his reading of the tradition, though selective, was quite astute.

Martin Buber’s interpretation of Hasidism emphasized the power of ecstasy, focus and intention, community, optimism and joy, and sanctifying the mundane through intentional presence.[27] Hasidism, even in Buber’s early reading, embodied theology in the lived experience of man and the realm of interpersonal relationships. Ecstasy is not to be found only in prayer or study, nor in withdrawing from the physical world and from other people. According to Buber, Hasidism claims that ecstasy may transpire in every moment and in all deeds. Intentional devotion is cultivated within the individual, but it expands to embrace the entire community.[28] And Hasidic spirituality, argues Buber, leads to a perpetual state of attention and open-heartedness:

When a father complained to the Baal-Shem, “My son is estranged from God—what shall I do?” he replied, “Love him more.” This is one of the primary Hasidic words: to love more. Its roots sink deep and stretch out far. He who has understood this can learn to understand Judaism anew. There is a great moving force therein.[29]

The religious life of the individual, defined also by humility, is expressed through unmitigated love of one’s fellow.

Buber once summed up the ethos of Hasidism in the following sentence: “God can be beheld in each thing and reached through each pure deed.”[30] The Hasidic belief in absolute divine immanence gives rise to an immediate religious imperative to serve God in all moments. God must be worshiped in all physical deeds, since the divine essence fills the entire cosmos. But Buber suggests that this service is more than an opportunity—it is a profound and fundamental human obligation. Each action bears immeasurable and unforeseeable consequences, and therefore in every deed one must be totally focused and attuned: “Every human action is a vessel of infinite responsibility.”[31]

Buber was particularly captivated by the Hasidic notion of charismatic leadership. He invoked the idea of the Hasidic rebbe not as a wonder-worker, but as “the helper in spirit, the teacher of world-meaning, the conveyor to the divine sparks.”[32] Judging by his first-hand experience, Buber felt that Hasidic leadership had lost this essential purpose. He was appalled by the regal style of some tzaddikim, and by the fact that Hasidim came to them for magic and miracles rather than for religious guidance. But even as a young man Buber had been drawn to the power of the rebbe, and he sensed that such leaders could—in theory—serve as a model for a contemporary spiritual and intellectual teacher.

Hasidism’s ability to overcome what Buber saw as the false dichotomy of holy and mundane/secular concerned Buber throughout his career. He writes, “What is of greatest importance in Hasidism, today as then, is the powerful tendency, persevered in personal as well as in communal existence, to overcome the fundamental separation between the sacred and the profane.”[33] Buber argued that the expansive Hasidic view, which shattered the boundary between holy and secular, was precisely the solution for the compartmentalized Western man. In what became one of his most enduring formulations, Buber argues that Hasidism views the world not in terms of the sacred and the profane, but rather as divided into the holy and “the not-yet-hallowed.”[34]

This holistic presentation of Hasidism was quite world-affirming.[35] Buber interpreted Hasidism as a call to transform the physical realm into a dwelling place for the Divine, not as a form of spirituality that denied the importance of engagement with materiality or sought mystical transcendence at the expense of the world. His reading of Hasidism on this point, as well as his creative method of reclaiming the Hasidic stories rather than the printed sermons, led him into a bitter disagreement with the famed historian and scholar Gershom Scholem and his students.[36] Buber was taken to task for his lack of scholarly distance, for favoring the tales over the theoretical sermons, and for downplaying the world-denying aspects in favor of more world-affirming moments. Buber readily admitted his constructive project, but defended his position vis-à-vis Hasidism as a religious movement about sanctifying the everyday. Recent scholarship has confirmed that Buber’s reading of Hasidism is selective, but that his presentation is entirely in keeping with elements of the Hasidic ethos.[37]

In his later years, however, Buber expressed a sense of regret at having taken such considerable artistic license in rewritten Hasidic tales. Though still faithful to the original works, he acknowledged that he was consciously retelling the stories as a Western intellectual and thus tailoring their message for a modern readership.[38] In an essay from this period, Buber also revealed why he could not himself adopt a Hasidic way of life and join a contemporary Hasidic community:

I could not become a Hasid. It would have been an impermissible masquerading had I taken on the Hasidic manner of life—I who had a wholly other relation to Jewish tradition, since I must distinguish in my innermost being between what is commanded me and what is not commanded me. It was necessary, rather, to take into my own existence as much as I actually could of what had been truly exemplified for me there, that is to say, of the realization of that dialogue with being whose possibility my thought had shown me.[39]

This passage reflects Buber’s complex anomian—and perhaps antinomian[40]—interpretation of Hasidism, a position for which he was criticized by many of his colleagues.[41] Unlike Hillel Zeitlin, who lived according to the rhythms of Hasidic piety in the heart of Warsaw (though still within its secular circles), Buber remained a Westernized Jew.[42] But Hasidism captured his soul, and his role in presenting the Hasidic legacy to his readers was more than that of an ethnographer, a sociologist, or a philosophical observer. Buber allowed himself to become an active party in the renewal of Jewish life and spirituality in light of the fundaments of Hasidism. He was a great theologian, philosopher, and teacher, and a practitioner in his own way, but Buber observed Hasidism from a distance.[43]


[1] I wish to express my gratitude to Shlomo Zuckier for inviting me to contribute this article, and to Sam Berrin Shonkoff, Mindy Schwartz Zolty, and Yehuda Fogel for their insight and helpful editorial comments.

[2] The interested reader is invited to turn to the forthcoming two-volume collection A New Hasidism: Roots and A New Hasidism: Branches (The Jewish Publication Society, 2019), edited together with my teacher and friend Arthur Green. Roots features key texts by the founders of neo-Hasidism together with biographical essays, including versions of the sketches of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Shlomo Carlebach, and Arthur Green appearing in the present series. Branches offers a wide range of essays by current neo-Hasidic writers and teachers from across North America and Israel.

[3] Stephen Sharot, “Hasidism and the Routinization of Charisma,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19:4 (1980), 325-336.

[4] See Arthur Green, “Hasidism and Its Response to Change,” Jewish History 27:2-4 (2013), 319-336.

[5] Literary figures such as Y.L. Peretz, Micha Josef Berdyczewski, S.Y. Agnon, and Elie Wiesel incorporated Hasidic themes into their writings. These authors did so not in order to satirize or parody mysticism, but because they understood that creatively adapting Hasidic motifs could serve as a powerful tool for cultural revival. Their interest in Hasidism, however, was primarily for its literary potential. See Nicham Ross, A Beloved-Despised Tradition: Modern Jewish Identity and neo-Hasidic Writing at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (Beer-Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2010) [Hebrew]; idem, “Can Secular Spirituality be Religiously Inspired?: The Hasidic Legacy in the Eyes of the Skeptics,” AJS Review 37 (2013), 93-113; and Arthur Green, “Wiesel in the Context of Neo-Hasidism,” in Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives, ed. Steven T. Katz and Alan Rosen (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 51-58. On the phenomenon of neo-Hasidism more broadly, see also Tomer Persico, “Neo-Hasidic Revival: Expressivist Uses of Traditional Lore,” Modern Judaism 34:3 (2014), 287-308.

[6] See, for example, Simon Dubnow, in Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to Present, ed. Gershon David Hundert (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 25-85.

[7] Neo-Hasidism thus reflects several different meanings of the prefix “neo.” See the discussion of the term in a very different context in Scott Simpson and Mariusz Filip, “Selected Words for Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe,” in Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 32.

[8] On Zeitlin’s life and times, see Arthur Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin (New York: Paulist Press, 2012); and Shraga Bar Sella, Between the Storm and the Quiet: The Life and Works of Hillel Zeitlin (Tel Aviv: 1999) [Hebrew].

[9] Hillel Zeitlin, “Aufgaben der Polnischen Juden,” Der Jude (1916/17), 93; based on the translation in Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era, 33-34.

[10] See Zeitlin’s summary of Hasidic theology, translated in Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era, 71-117.

[11] See also his remarks in Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era, 51-55.

[12]  Ibid., 39.

[13]  Ibid., 40.

[14] See the description in Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 62: “Zeitlin arrived at twilight, almost surreptitiously, with his flowing black hair and reddish beard, wearing a cape and wide-brimmed hat…after listening intently to the speech, Zeitlin slipped out of the room and disappeared.”

[15] Harry M. Rabinowicz, The World of Hasidism (Hartford: Hartmore House, 1970), 165 recalled that “Hillel Zeitlin used to say: ‘Whenever I felt depressed and needed to repent I visited the Rabbi of Novominsk’.”

[16] Zeitlin published a review of the Piaseczner Rebbe’s book Hovat ha-Talmidim, which he extolled as an exemplary effort toward a new type of spiritual education as well as a remarkable prolegomenon to Hasidic spirituality and Jewish mystical thought. This essay, which first appeared in 1934, was reprinted in the posthumous and expanded version of Sifran shel Yehidim (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1979), 240-244 [Hebrew]. On Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, see Nehemia Polen, The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (Northvale, N.J.: J. Aronson, Inc., 1994); and Daniel Reiser, Vision as a Mirror: Imagery Techniques in Twentieth Century Jewish Mysticism (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2014) [Hebrew].

[17] Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era, 42.

[18] Zeitlin shared this universal aspiration with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook; see Jonatan Meir, “Longing of Souls for the Shekinah: Relations between Rabbi Kook, Zeitlin and Brenner,” The Path of the Spirit: The Eliezer Schweid Jubilee Volume, ed. Yehoyada Amir (Jerusalem: The Van Leer Institute, 2005), 771-818 [Hebrew].

[19] Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era, 42-43.

[20] See Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse, “‘The Great Call of the Hour’: Hillel Zeitlin’s Yiddish Writings on Yavneh,” In Geveb (2016), available at http://ingeveb.org/articles/the-great-call-of-the-hour-hillel-zeitlins-yiddish-writings-on-yavneh (accessed August 28, 2016).

[21] The text is illegible, and the bracketed words represent the authors’ reconstruction.

[22] Green and Mayse, “The Great Call of the Hour.”

[23] This turn is best expressed in his classic work I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner, 1970). See Paul Mendes-Flohr, From Mysticism to Dialogue: Martin Buber’s Transformation of German Social Thought (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989); and Rivka Horwitz, Buber’s Way to “I and Thou: The Development of Martin Buber’s Thought and his “Religion as Presence” Lectures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1988).

[24] Martin Buber, The Legend of the Baal-Shem, trans. Maurice Friedman (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955), x. I should note that this work, though central for understanding Buber’s views on Hasidism, is from a relatively early phase in his decades-long and evolving relationship with Hasidic spirituality.

[25] Buber, The Legend of the Baal-Shem, xii-xiii.

[26] See Martina Urban, Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber’s Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[27] He organized an early essay on the devotional life of Hasidism into four central categories of lived spiritual experience: ecstasy (hitlahavut); service (avodah); intention (kavvanah); and humility (shiflut); see Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, trans. Maurice Friedman (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[28]  Ibid., 47.

[29]  Ibid., 57.

[30]  Ibid., 17.

[31]  Ibid., 30.

[32]  Ibid., 19.

[33]  Ibid., 5.

[34]  Ibid., 7.

[35]  Ibid., 8-10.

[36] For example, see Gershom Scholem, “Martin Buber’s Interpretation of Hasidism,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 228-250.

[37] See the remarkable work of Sam Berrin Shonkoff, “Sacramental Existence: Embodiment in Martin Buber’s Philosophical and Hasidic Writings,” PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2018; and see also Seth Brody, “‘Open to Me the Gates of Righteousness’: The Pursuit of Holiness and Non-Duality in Early Hasidic Teaching,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 89, no. 1/2 (1998), 3-44.

[38] Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, 2.

[39]  Ibid., 3.

[40] Though he refused to submit to traditional forms of halakhah, this passage and others reveal that Buber saw commandedness as a compelling force that is constantly regenerated; see Paul Mendes-Flohr, “Martin Buber’s Reception Among Jews,” Modern Judaism 6:2 (1986), 111-126; and idem, “Law and Sacrament: Ritual Observance in Twentieth-Century Jewish Thought,” in Jewish Spirituality, vol. II: From the Sixteenth-Century Revival to the Present, ed. Arthur Green (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 317-345.

[41] Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (Schocken Books: New York, 1955), 72-92, 111-118; Rivkah Schatz-Uffenheimer, “Man’s Relation to God and World in Buber’s Rendering of the Hasidic Teaching,” in The Philosophy of Martin Buber, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp and Maurice Friedman (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 420-421. See Buber’s explanation in a letter to Maurice Friedman in The Letters of Martin Buber, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer and Paul Mendes-Flohr, trans. Richard and Clara Winston and Harry Zohn (Schocken Books: New York, 1991), no. 624, 576-577.

[42] Of course, it was unthinkably rare for Western European Jews to undergo such a transformation, and Hillel Zeitlin had been born and raised in the Hasidic world. An interesting exception is found in the case of Jiří Mordechai Langer, an assimilated Czech Jew who joined the Galician Hasidic community of Belz. His journey is detailed in his work, Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries, trans. Stephen Jolly (London: J. Clarke, 1961).

[43] See Arthur Green, “Buber, Scholem, and the Me’or ‘Eynayim,” in Swimming Against the Current: Reimagining Jewish Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, ed. David N. Myers and Shaul Seidler-Feller (Boston: Academic Studies Press, forthcoming).

Ariel Evan Mayse
Ariel Evan Mayse joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2017 as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies, and serves as rabbi-in-residence of Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute (https://www.atiqmakers.org). He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination from Beit Midrash Har’el. His research examines conceptions of language in Hasidism, the formation of early Hasidic literature, the renaissance of Jewish mysticism in the twentieth century, and the relationship between spirituality and law in modern Jewish thought. Together with Arthur Green, he is the editor of the forthcoming two-volume collection A New Hasidism: Roots and A New Hasidism: Branches (The Jewish Publication Society, 2019).