Photo: William Karel/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo: William Karel/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Navigate to Belief section

Who Owns the Black Hat?

Zionist scholars are battling the religious left for the Hasidic legacy

Shaul Magid
January 14, 2020
Photo: William Karel/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo: William Karel/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Today we are in the midst of an internal battle in the academic study of Hasidism, an attempt by more conservative readers to appropriate Hasidism, particularly as seen from the viewpoint of the academy, from its more radical neo-Hasidic frame. Neo-Hasidism has historically been congenial to left-wing and revolutionary religious readings. Its conservative critics, whom we might call neo-Haredim, comprise a loose group of scholars, mostly within the Orthodox world, who have been engaging in a synthetic project merging Hasidism with the Zionist writings of Abraham Kook (1865-1935) and with various other forms of a new nationalized Jewish spirituality. My intention in this essay is not to delve into the arguments and counterarguments of each side, nor to weigh in on which view is more compelling. Rather, I explore how and why this is happening when it is. What prompted this scholarly backlash, this challenge to the neo-Hasidic frame of Hasidic scholarship?

First, the background. There were at least two waves of neo-Hasidism, movements that have appropriated and transformed what they loved most in the original 18th-century Hasidism for their own creative and religious purposes. The first wave comprised literary figures, artists, and theologians in the early 20th century. The second wave emerged in 1960s and 1970s counterculture, using Hasidism as a Jewish source for nontraditional religiosity that cohered with the revolutionary spirit of the age. In both of these waves, neo-Hasidism was interested in Hasidism’s radical, critical perspective of normative religious practice. And this was true not only for practitioners, but also for scholars who used neo-Hasidism as a scholarly frame, concerned more with explication than with praxis. Frequently, of course, there was overlap between neo-Hasidic practice and scholarship and more generally Hasidism and the study of Hasidism existed in a state of creative tension.

First-wave neo-Hasidism drew from Hasidic sources to explore the changing vicissitudes of Jewish life in early 20th-century Europe. Some of the great literary figures of the time such as Micha Josef Berdyczewski (1865-1921) wrote depictions of Hasidism and Hasidim, as did some of the prominent Zionist figures, such as Ben Zion Dinur (1884-1973) and outstanding literary figures, such as Israel’s Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970). Marc Chagall used Hasidim as subjects in his paintings of his beloved Vitebsk, and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) penned important essays on early Hasidism as groundwork for a larger unrealized project on the Baal Shem Tov. These modernists saw in Hasidism a revolutionary spirit and a challenge to the conventions of Orthodox Judaism. This work often combined a nostalgic sentimentality (think of Roman Visniac’s photographs in his A Vanished World), a Jewish “Orientalism” (Buber’s notion of Hasidism as authentic living), and a resource for a sense of religious-community-cumnational existence, given Hasidism’s frequent romanticization of the land of Israel. Some disciples of the Baal Shem Tov were among the first immigrants to Palestine in the late 18th century, settling in Tiberias and Safed. In short, the national project of Zionism cannot quite be imagined without the presence of Hasidism as part of its story.

This first-wave neo-Hasidism is perhaps best known through the work of Martin Buber (1878-1965), whose writings on Hasidism brought it to a wide audience in Germany, and later in America and Israel. Buber, who was also a leading Zionist, and Heschel were the great bridges between first-wave neo-Hasidism and its second wave in postwar America and Israel. When Buber’s works on Hasidism were translated from German to English in the late 1950s (they appeared in Hebrew a bit earlier), Hasidism became the foundation for a new form of nontraditional Jewish spirituality that meshed well with the rising counterculture in America and the new aesthetics in Israel. The popular Hasidic Music Festival in Israel in the 1970s, a festival by and for mostly secular Israelis, introduced many Israelis to Hasidic music—just as interpretations of Hasidism in America served as the foundation of the Jewish counterculture that produced, among other things, the Havurah movement, The Jewish Catalogs, and, later, Jewish Renewal. Chabad was a traditionalist version of this new interpretation of Hasidism, but also contributed to this countercultural renaissance.

All of this was founded on the assumption, born in the first wave, that Hasidism was a rebellious form of Jewish spirituality built on the tension between law and spirit, between command and inspiration, a tension that has existed in Judaism since its inception but was often kept contained within Halacha, normative Jewish law. Buber noted in his work that the modernist agenda of challenging convention and the strictures of dogmatic adherence to preconceived notions of obligation are already present in Hasidism itself. Whereas German spiritualists and radicals in the early 20th century, Jews and non-Jews, were looking toward the “east,” in particular India, for inspiration, Buber suggested they only need to take a train to Warsaw to see true religious radicalism in action. Even as Buber’s notion of Hasidism was romanticized, and even as he viewed Hasidism in his time as a mere skeleton of its former self, having grown up with his grandparents in a town in Galicia with numerous Hasidic groups (his grandfather was the well-known midrash scholar Solomon Buber), his knowledge of Hasidim was neither theoretical nor superficial. Buber may have thought Hasidism in his time had become mere popular religion, but he remained steadfast in his belief that it contained the seeds of true Jewish radicalism.

While many, most notably his one-time disciple turned nemesis Gershom Scholem, challenged Buber’s rendering of Hasidism, most did not contest his view of Hasidism’s radicalism and his claim that Hasidism brought to the surface the age-old tension between law and spirit in new and daring ways. Heschel, who was a more conservative reader of Hasidism than Buber, illustrated this sentiment in his essay “Hasidism as a New Approach to Torah” (1972). Neither Buber nor Heschel ever claimed that Hasidism broke with the law, but only that its often radical teachings challenged the law’s ubiquity and dominance in Jewish piety and devotion. A religious precept can be observed as a means toward devekut (communion with God) without the status, or obligatory nature, of the Halacha. Sometimes acting beyond the letter of the law can also be acting against it. In much of Hasidic piety, Halacha is not an end but the means toward religious experience. This infusion of subjectivity itself speaks to Hasidism’s radical nature.

The scholarship on Hasidism and its use in popular culture often worked in tandem. Gershom Scholem, his students Joseph Weiss and Rivka Shatz-Uffenheimer, scholars such as Rachel Elior, Elliot Wolfson, Arthur Green, and many others wrote scholarly studies on Hasidism that often deepened and textured its radical challenge to normative Judaism. Many of these works focused on the early period of Hasidism, when it was still new, somewhat raucous, and in its more audacious experimental phase. More recently, scholars have delved into more contemporary Hasidic works to show that while its radical behaviorism may have dissipated, its theology retained its sharpness in its challenge to conformity.

At the time this was happening in the first wave of neo-Hasidism, Hasidism comprised a fully functioning group of communities that had swept across Eastern Europe decades before, remaking the terrain with a large institutional infrastructure and a religiosity that captured the attention of a Jewish populace in need of new forms of spiritual and communal life. While it may have been considered mildly transgressive behavior in its very early stages, and was even sometimes accused of having heretical Sabbatean roots, by the time first-wave neo-Hasidism emerged in the late 19th century, Hasidism had fully retreated back into normative Jewish practice. In other words, Hasidism chose the path of normativity rather than heresy. But that did not mean that its heretical strains were expunged from the literature.

The conservative turn in the communal structure of Hasidism put it and its neo-Hasidic interpreters at odds, or at the very least in a state of an anxiety of influence. Just as neo-Hasidic writers were invoking the Hasidic heritage in their robust, creative encounters with modernist art and contemporary phenomenology and thought, the actual Hasidic courts were, in real time, comfortably folded back into what would later be called ultra-Orthodoxy. So: Were neo-Hasidic writers misunderstanding Hasidism? Misrepresenting it? Distorting it? For first-wave neo-Hasidism, these questions were not quite relevant, largely because they were not looking to present Hasidism objectively but rather use it for its own revolutionary purposes. Most first-wave neo-Hasidic figures were not, nor did they pretend to be, scholars of Hasidism. There were some notable examples, like Shmuel Abba Horodetzky, but in general first-wavers were literary figures, artists, and theologians. Even Buber, in his response to Scholem’s criticism, argued that he was not writing scholarship on Hasidism but rather looking for its essence. Scholem didn’t disagree with an essence of Hasidism, but mainly disagreed about where it could be found: for Buber, in Hasidic stories; for Scholem, in its homiletical literature.

Postwar, second-wave neo-Hasidism was, by contrast, both a scholarly and a popular project. The scholars continued to focus on the radical trends in Hasidism and the nature of the Hasidic challenge to normative Judaism. Here Joseph Weiss set the stage with his scholarly essays, in particular his essay on the Hasidic master Mordecai Joseph of Izbica, whose provocative work Mei ha-Shiloah was viewed as problematic because of its ostensible religious antinomianism. Scholars surmised Mei ha-Shiloah was first printed by a gentile publishing house in Vienna, as opposed to one of the many Jewish publishing houses in Poland, because no Jewish publisher would print it. There is an apocryphal story that one night some Hasidim from the Ger dynasty broke into the print shop as Mei ha-Shiloah was being printed and changed the name on the cover from Mei ha-Shiloah (“Gently Flowing Waters,” from Isaiah 8:6) to Mei Raglayim (urine).

Other scholars followed suit, writing interpretive studies of Hasidism focusing on different aspects of its radical religiosity. It is true that some, even many, who write about Hasidic radicalism in a variety of ways today do not view themselves as part of any neo-Hasidic movement per se. However, their work is arguably an outgrowth and extension of what I am calling a neo-Hasidic frame. This is partly a response to earlier Jewish historians such as Henrich Graetz, who wrote dismissively of Hasidism and were highly critical of its literature.

The scholarly work that is an extension of second-wave neo-Hasidism is fully cognizant of the highly normative and conservative nature of Hasidic society even as it read Hasidism differently. These scholars are fully aware that many inside Hasidic communities would not agree with their readings. But textual scholarship is not, nor should be, driven by these concerns. Rather, as a textual tradition, Hasidism makes certain claims, arguments, and interventions that, when read through a certain lens—and all scholarship has lenses—can be responsibly read as a radical critique of normative Judaism. Ironically, as Hasidism became more conservative, neo-Hasidic readers read it more radically, each group reading the very same texts.

Much of the scholarship on Hasidism until very recently has contributed to, and is an extension of, what I am calling this neo-Hasidic frame. In large part it has produced nontraditional readings, even as some of its contributors may be Orthodox. Among other things it has helped generate new Jewish movements: the Havurah movement in the 1970s, Jewish Renewal into the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, and various forms of experimental Judaism in Israel in the 2000s.

But something is changing in the study of Hasidism. In the last few years, new studies have appeared that are engaged in a subtle, but to my mind intentional, revision of previous studies that emerged from the neo-Hasidic frame. These new works come from both Israel and America. They attempt to challenge the more radical or unconventional readings of Hasidism and offer a more conservative, more domesticated, view of its literature. Some of these scholars argue that the notion that Hasidism challenges normative Halacha, evoking a tension between law and spirit, or pushes against the boundaries of normative Judaism, is influenced by a neo-Hasidic agenda and its radically revisionist project that is not an accurate appraisal of Hasidic literature.

They ask: If we have no indication that Hasidim broke with Halacha or exhibited any sense of actual tension with it, how can scholars claim that its literature is advocating or even legitimating, such an approach? If Hasidic masters sometimes served as poskim, legal decisors, and were certainly adept at halachic discourse, how can they devalue the law, as Buber argued? At most, these scholars will admit that Hasidism reorients normative practice by introducing kabbalistic customs and practices, e.g., praying after the apportioned time, but these hardly amount to any radical revision of the law or constitute a rupture with traditional Jewish life. Empirically, this is true. As far as we know, Hasidim did not openly break with the behavioral norms of the traditional societies in which they lived. But does this then mean that the radical doctrines in the literature are being misunderstood? Or can both exist is tension, leaving us agnostic as to its true intent?

Some of these new more conservative studies try to contextualize these radical readings, suggesting, among other things, they were responding to internal debates between Hasidic schools or masters, or they were envisioning a utopian future, or that they applied only to a completely righteous person—which disqualifies almost everyone (some Hasidic teachings make this claim openly). But these conjectures, appealing as they may be, to my mind are not less speculative than the neo-Hasidic interpretation they seek to undermine. This is particularly the case when they are used to subvert more expansive, and radical, interpretations. In many cases, we simply do not know what these radical teachings are trying to tell us. All we know is that they exist. Those who vie for a more conservative reading of Hasidism must also take into account the vehement opposition to publishing early Hasidic works precisely because of their radical nature. We may not know exactly what these detractors saw in these texts, but whatever it was, some viewed them as a threat to their normative Jewish existence. To some of these early retractors, the later neo-Hasidic interpretation would not be surprising, and may even be correct.

Like anything else, the scholarly research of Hasidism is the fruit of those who study it. From the 1960s through the 2000s, most scholars who chose to study Hasidism in the academy were in some way, often loosely, tied to what I am calling a neo-Hasidic frame. There were numerous exceptions, but generally I think this held true. Many scholars today who are choosing to study Hasidism—and here this may be more true in Israel than America—are not products of a neo-Hasidic orientation but of what I call a neo-Haredi orientation. Haredi is a fairly recent term, created to describe a broad-based ultra-Orthodox community that includes both Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. It has also come to include various forms of Religious Nationalist Jews influenced by the teachings of R. Abraham Isaac Kook, the architect of today’s Religious Zionism. Many have been exposed to Hasidism through a fascinating combination of influences. Abraham Kook offered his readers a fascinating amalgam of romantic Zionism infused with mystical resonances, kabbalistic nomenclature, and a belief that the Jew’s reunion with the land would spark a seismic, even cosmic, move toward redemption.

Israeli sociologist Shlomo Fischer calls this more recent combination of Hasidism, Kabbalah, and Kookean thinking “neo-Kookean.” Some years ago a loose group known as HaBaKuk, an acronym for Habad, Bratslav, Kook, and (Shlomo) Carlebach, began a kind of loose countercultural renaissance among settler youth. Yeshivot such as Bat Ayin, Siah Yitzhak, and Otniel (all located in the settlements) offered a mix of traditional study with Kookean philosophy, Hasidism, and Kabbalah, often integrating secular philosophical, artistic, and literary corpora. Some versions took a more right-wing view of Jews and Eretz Israel, as in the writings of Chabad Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. Others, such as Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (known as Rav Shagar) and Menachem Froman, offered a synthesis of Hasidism and Kookean theology that propounds a tolerant, expansive, and mystical worldview, one that is supportive of Jewish-Arab coexistence. These individuals, and others, influenced many American Jews as well, some of whom spent time in these yeshivot and then made their way to the academy. This all resulted in what I am calling a neo-Haredi perspective, which is influencing the contemporary scholarly study of Hasidism.

By “neo-Haredi,” I mean those who have been influenced by various countercultural trends but remain tied to a traditional orientation, embellished by a romantic reading of Hasidism that confirms its traditional premises but offers new perspectives on Jewish life and practice. This is more common in Israel than in America, because traditional forms of Jewish practice are more endemic to Israeli society, whose Haredi sector, which increasingly includes Religious Nationalists, carries far more influence. There is, of course, something quite ironic in this, given Israeli’s radical secular foundation, and given that much of Hasidism in Eastern Europe was anti-Zionist, but the days of ideological Zionist secularism and staunch Hasidic anti-Zionism seem like things of the past.

Rather than reading Hasidism solely through the lens of contemporary Hasidim, these neo-Haredi scholars explore the experimental nature of Hasidic texts but do so to confirm rather than challenge normative Jewish practice. As opposed to neo-Hasidism, both first and second wave, neo-Haredism renews Hasidism by domesticating it, often through a nationalistic lens, doing so within its own traditional orbit, resulting in what one might call neotraditional radicalism. By this I mean an acknowledgment of Hasidism’s potentially radical dicta but with a denial that these teachings can support moving outside the confines of normative Orthodox practice. Studies from this perspective that have recently appeared challenge earlier neo-Hasidic studies that pushed Hasidism beyond the bounds of tradition. In short, neo-Haredism seeks to save Hasidism from the clutches of the nontraditionalism.

The shift in constituency in the academic study of Hasidism is palpable. When I studied as a graduate student at the Hebrew University in the 1980s, many of the students in Jewish thought were secular, many coming from the kibbutzim or urban centers like Tel Aviv. Others were refugees (or soon-to-be refugees) from the yeshivot, looking for new ways to understand Judaism. Today, in the same program, most of the students are Orthodox, many coming from National Religious backgrounds. This is in part the result of a Kookean-Hasidic amalgam that reads Hasidism through a nationalistic romantic lens. The merging of Kook and Hasidism is quite natural. Kook himself came from Chabad lineage, and even though he studied in the Lithuanian Volozhin yeshiva, his writings certainly reflect Hasidic and kabbalistic teaching. In some ways, neo-Haredism situates Kook within the Hasidic/kabbalistic tradition, and, in doing so, sheds new light on his work as well as enabling a rereading of Hasidism through a romantic and expansive Kookean lens.

Some of this “neotraditional radicalism” comes from Shagar and Froman, neither scholars of Hasidism in the formal sense, whose theological writings fold Hasidism into their neo-Kookean perspectives. What has resulted is that the study of Hasidism is not only untethered from Hasidic communities—that was true in the neo-Hasidic turn long ago—but also from its neo-Hasidic revision. It has become, to some extent, nationalized through Kookean influence, and also normalized through neo-Haredism’s commitment to Orthodoxy. In the academy we are thus seeing what one might call a revision of the revision, giving birth to a kind of romantic neotraditionalism, born outside the orbit and social context of Hasidic life and in opposition to the more radical rendering of Hasidism in the neo-Hasidic era.

My point here is not to criticize these studies in either their method or substance. I do think many often misconstrue and even misread the neo-Hasidic interpretation, and the neo-Haredi readings raise their own concerns and questions. But I am fully in favor of respectful polemics and acknowledge the Oedipal nature of scholarship more generally. I only suggest that new lenses are being ground as we speak; a new iteration of Hasidism is emerging, one offering a foundation for this neo-Haredi, romantic, neotraditionalist approach. Whatever one thinks of this new turn, it is worth marking its existence. Critiques of this new revision will certainly be forthcoming. That is the way of scholarship. Still, the effects are already being felt among those of us who live in academe. The extent to which this will expand outward, and whether it will serve a larger constituency the way neo-Hasidism served the rebuilding of Jewish spirituality outside of Orthodoxy in the postwar years, remains to be seen.

The author sends heartfelt thanks to David Maayan for his thoughtful suggestions and comments.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.