Hasidic Philosophy - English Literature On Hasidic Thought

English Literature On Hasidic Thought

Hasidic thought and life comprises a Jewish culture of many dimensional aspects, from emotional creativity and flavour, to psychological and spiritual insight, and profound intellectual theology and philosophy. These different elements can be connected together, so that its intellectual thought can sometimes incorporate a feeling of its charismatic poetry. The different streams and personalities in its history share ideas in common, and differences of thought and spirituality. Because of this, an overview of the range and variety of books on Hasidism offers insight into the nature of Hasidism itself, and interpretations of it from inside and outside the movement today, as well as a guide for further interest. It is important to note that books on Hasidism, like books on other aspects of Judaism, reflect alternative philosophical positions in relation to the Jewish tradition and belief. With the rise of modern thought, a number of different views emerged on the nature and meaning of the Jewish concept of Divine revelation, from the secular, through the historical, to the literal. These influential views reach a range of conclusions, and there is philosophical variety within each of the different Jewish denominations that emerged. Hasidism has offered spiritual meaning to people from all these backgrounds, and the interpretations are reflected in the range of books by Hasidic followers, and by outsiders. The Hasidic contribution to Judaism has gained adherents (Baal Teshuva-"Returnees") from secular backgrounds in the 20th Century, as well as contributing, often through Neo-Hasidism, to many non-Orthodox Jewish people's spirituality. It has also attracted the interest of many academics of Jewish thought and history, especially after the mid-Century establishment of critical investigation of Jewish mysticism as a full University discipline. A guide to suggested reading should indicate the philosophical background to different works, where it is helpful. It is also beneficial to include writings in a full range of examples, from accessible and inspiring introductions, to traditional and classic works, to academic studies. Artistic presentations can offer their own unique insight, as the soul of Hasidism articulated in its deeper thought, can often be appreciated more tangibly in poetic and transcendent works.

Biographical foundations of the general Hasidic movement:

  • The Great Mission - The Life and Story of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov,Compiler Eli Friedman, Translator Elchonon Lesches, Kehot Publication Society. Accessible and inspiring traditional account of the founder of Hasidism, and the significance of his thought. It can offer an introduction to Hasidic ideas and spirituality. Because the many different streams of the Hasidic movement trace their origins back to the Baal Shem Tov, they have sometimes transmitted different stories and teachings attributed to him. One traditional source of storytelling about the Baal Shem Tov, and the most consolidated and complete account of his esoteric life, is encapsulated in a Genizah (collection of documents) that was said to be passed from the Hasidic dynasty of Ruzhin to the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe. This account, that describes the Baal Shem Tov's spiritual teacher, and the narrative of his forced revelation, forms a backbone to this book. The Baal Shem Tov has received alternative interpretations and various views, from the school of critical scholarship. Some of these can compliment religious philosophical views, while others offer revisionist positions. For further book citations, see the page on the Baal Shem Tov
  • The Great Maggid - The Life and Teachings of Rabbi DovBer of Mezhirech, Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Kehot Publication Society. A scholarly survey in English of the architect of Hasidism. It records the different versions of the initial encounter of DovBer with the Baal Shem Tov, and recounts the life of the Maggid's close circle of disciples, the "Holy Society". This academy gave philosophical articulation to the Baal Shem Tov's seminal teachings, and organised the future shape of the movement. This third generation of leadership were assigned the different regions of Eastern Europe, after the death of the Maggid. The historically documented stories and teachings in the book can offer an accessible introduction to the depth and breadth of Hasidic thought, and the warmth of its different early personalities

Components of Hasidic thought:

  • The Hasidic Tale, Edited by Gedaliah Nigal, Translated by Edward Levin, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. More than any previous movement in Jewish history, Hasidism gave significance to the tradition of storytelling as a spiritual inspiration
  • The Hasidic Parable, Aryeh Wineman, Jewish Publication Society. Hasidic thought gave new life to the traditional Jewish medium of using parables to explain ideas. Hasidic parables make the mystical ideas tangible, in keeping with the emphasis in Hasidism, to transform Jewish mysticism from abstract theology to personal fervour
  • The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary,Edited by Norman Lamm, Michael Scharf Publication Trust of Yeshiva University. Perhaps the most comprehensive collection and explanation in English, of the variety of theological content in Hasidic thought. Rather than offering a secondary survey of Hasidism, it presents excerpts from the main Hasidic mystical source texts, and gives a commentary that sets Hasidic thought within wider Jewish philosophy. This conveys the common denominators and differences within the underlying theology of the Hasidic movement, and how it differed from non-Hasidic theological interpretations of Judaism. Mostly focuses only on the writings of the first three generations of the Hasidic movement, when the main Hasidic ideas were shaped. Since the popular publicity in the 20th Century of Hasidism, the charismatic and emotional aspects have been well presented, while the depth of Hasidic thought has been less well known. The aim of this book is partly to restore emphasis to the theological depth and significance of Hasidic thought, so it mostly avoids including Hasidic stories. The theory presented here, especially in the early chapters on the fundamental topics in Judaism, is the source for the popular aspects. However, the book also gives insight into social realities in Hasidism, because the later chapters of collected texts also cover ideas of practical significance to Jewish life. While other books offer better first introductions to Hasidism, this gives a subsequent deeper understanding for the reader, and an encounter with the writings of the movement

Accounts and biographies of the variety of interpretations and streams, in the historical development of Hasidic thought: Biographical accounts of the lives of the Baal Shem Tov and Maggid of Mezeritch are listed under their own heading at the start, to offer a choice of approaches into the subject. The new inspirations and creative ideas of early forms of Hasidism, later became settled into new paths, thoughts and practices. Some thinkers offered radical reinterpretations of the legacy of the Baal Shem Tov, and of all of Jewish tradition. The books here that describe individual schools of thought in Hasidism, are some of the more well known and innovative paths Overviews of the movement and its variety of leaders:

  • Hasidism: The Movement and its Masters, Harry Rabinowicz, Jason Aronson. This book is unusual amongst English works, as it gives a historical overview of the whole historical movement, as it was shaped by its many personalities. Until a full English history of Hasidism is published, this fills a gap. It describes the early Hasidic ideas and practices of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid, through the flourishing schools of the 19th century, to the consolidations of Hasidism after the Holocaust, in the 20th century. It may be out of print, though many titles in Jewish thought by Jason Aronson, were reissued by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. It is an expanded version of the earlier book by Rabinowicz The World of Hasidism, published by Hartmore House
  • Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of The Hasidic Masters, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jossey-Bass. "Reb Zalman" is a leading figure in Neo-Hasidism and Jewish Renewal amongst non-Orthodox Jews. He takes the spiritual warmth, teachings and thought of his earlier experiences inside Hasidism, to inspire wider circles of worship and Jewish life. This book offers his personal take on Hasidism, addressed to the cosmopolitan spiritual contexts of society today, and has the great advantage over many books on Hasidism in capturing its emotional relevance for personal growth. The book divides into three sections: the general leaders of the new revitalising movement, a special look at the Habad dynasty and its thought, and latter figures who developed Hasidism in radical directions or reinterpreted it through Neo-Hasidism for wider audiences. The selection of figures it looks at is necessarily selective, but most of the main distinctive luminaries of Hasidism are understandably included. Rather than a historical survey or academic analysis of the whole movement, this book is one of the best introductions to the variety of leaders of Hasidism, chapter by chapter

Specific schools of thought:

  • The Zaddik: The Doctrine of the Zaddik According to the Writings of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy, Samuel H. Dresner, Jason Aronson publishers. Yaakov Yosef was one of the leading disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, and in 1780 published the first Hasidic book Toldos Yaakov Yosef. This Hasidic commentary on the Pentateuch, is seen as one of the most direct records of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and attracted opposition from Hasidism's Opponents. It set the tone for future Hasidic writings. Its author was the other main contender to succeed in the leadership of the new movement, instead of the emergent successor, the Maggid. This describes the new Hasidic doctrine of the saintly Hasidic Master (Rebbe or Tzadik), through whom simple folk can experience the Divine Presence, and who can channel spiritual and material blessing to them
  • Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School, Naftali Loewenthal, University of Chicago Press. The theoretical sources for the Habad interpretation of Hasidism, that led to its ideals of articulating Hasidus in fullest intellectual forms, and seeking to communicate that to the widest degree. The founder of Habad was one of the great disciples in the leadership-academy of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who dispersed across the different regions of Eastern Europe after the death of the Maggid. Habad, later to be called after its Russian village of Lubavitch, can be seen as a separate offshoot of general Hasidism. While its founder Schneur Zalman of Liadi is venerated by other groups as one of the leading figures of Hasidism, other Masters have tended to see its teachings as too close to Philosophy for their paths, and kept some distance from it. Often, the great Hasidic thinkers drew from the Rabbinic and Mystical(Kabbalistic) traditions, and shunned the religious Jewish Philosophical tradition(Hakira), seeing independent intellect as a hindrance to revelation based faith, for all but great scholars. Schneur Zalman, and the path he founded, expressed Hasidism in intellectual descriptions, that could incorporate sources from all traditional Jewish thought. He aimed, through this, to enable the mind and heart to unite in Hasidic life. This scholarly survey only covers the first generations of the Habad dynasty, which would continue until recent times, as it initially developed from amidst different Hasidic views
  • Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Arthur Green, Jewish Lights Publishing. Nachman of Bratslav founded a unique path of faith in Hasidism, but could have no successor, because of the special nature of his personality. He is seen as the most imaginative and poetically creative Hasidic Master. While he was a third generation, direct descendent of the Baal Shem Tov himself, his followers venerate him to a degree beyond even usual Hasidic fervour. This offers a psychologically speculative biography of his life and thought
  • A Passion for Truth, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish Lights Publishing. Heschel was one of the famous 20th Century theologians in non-Orthodox Judaism. Descended from a dynasty of Hasidic leadership, his spirituality was shaped by the life and thought of Hasidism. In the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, he influenced a generation of students towards greater traditional adherence to Halachah (Jewish practical observance), and became a leading figure in Neo-Hasidism. In this personal exploration, he contrasts the spiritual message of the Hasidic Master Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, with the Christian theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The Rebbe of Kotzk, in his ascetic passion for truth, became one of the most individual, and different figures in Hasidic history. The book gives as much insight into the Hasidic creativity of Heschel, as his mentor the Kotzker. Heschel also wrote a main Yiddish work on the Kotzker, but until it is translated into English, this is a good alternative

Accompanying collections of Hasidic stories from across its history:

  • Tales of the Hasidim (vol.1 The Early Masters, vol.2 The Later Masters, here published together), Martin Buber, Schocken books. Martin Buber was the first person to bring Hasidism to the attention of the Western world, and gave new strength to the Neo-Hasidic movement, that interpreted Hasidic spirituality for secular society. This book most encapsulated his articulation, and so has historic status. It provides an English anthology of the traditional stories, told and recorded by the Hasidim about their leaders. Its spiritual insights cover the history of early and later Hasidism. However, it needs to be read with caution, as its translations represent Buber's personal reinterpretation of Hasidic tradition. Buber was one of the famous 20th Century theologians in non-Orthodox Jewish thought. His existential philosophy of I-and-Thou describes a personal relationship with God. To Buber this conflicted somewhat with the mystical humility of self negation in Hasidism. As a result, Buber retells the tales from traditional sources through his own spiritual view, rather than offering accurate translations. Similarly, in his interpretation of Hasidism, he leaves aside theoretical Hasidic teaching and thought, finding spiritual meaning in the Hasidic stories alone. Nonetheless, with these reservations aside, this book offers a valuable resource companion to much of Hasidic traditional history for the English reader. For an analysis of the spiritual difference between Buber's translations, and the originals, see the article in the Wellsprings magazine reader, collected in the book Feeding Among the Lilies: The Wellsprings Reader, selected essays edited by Baila Olidort, published by Wellsprings Journal, distributed through Kehot Publication Society

Artistic presentations of Hasidic tradition:

  • Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs: Tracing the Origins of the Chasidic Movement - vol.1,2, Yoseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, Translated by Nissan Mindel, Kehot Publication Society. The 6th leader of Habad wrote the Yiddish original of this compiled history, to imaginatively record the stories of the early origins of Hasidism, that he had absorbed and recorded from the world of his youth. Through this and other works, the 6th Rebbe was renowned as a unique recorder of the transmitted history and spirit of Hasidism, that complimented his serious writings. Blessed with a dedicated memory, and the skill of a storyteller, he captured a lost world of mystics and scholars, simple folk and landowners, and their stories, that lay behind the early roots of Hasidism. Rather than giving the well known stories of the Hasidic Masters, this narrative sets the later developments in the life and thought of the traditional circles of mysticism from which Hasidism would spring
  • Souls on Fire - Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, Elie Wiesel, Simon & Schuster. Well known for his personal testimonies of the Holocaust, such direct writings only comprise a small part of Elie Wiesel's output. In many of his books, he celebrates the great traditions of Jewish study that lasted until the War. Some of these evoke the ever present lives of Biblical and Talmudic Figures, while others dwell on the life of Hasidism in which he grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. Elie Wiesel distils this life of Judaism, that enveloped him before the War, with artistic mastery. In his retelling of traditional Hasidic tales, he displays the soul of a Hasid, infused with his personal philosophical interpretations. This book was followed by subsequent volumes of portraits (Somewhere a Master, Four Hasidic Masters: and their struggle against melancholy, and chapters in other books), and his other works are influenced by Hasidism, but here he imaginatively presents the lives and thoughts of many of the most famous Hasidic Masters. What this account lacks in straight presentation of the traditional stories, it gains greatly in the author's artistic vision of the poetry of Hasidic life, and can offer someone an introductory approach to Hasidism
  • The Earth is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish Lights Publishing. Just as the old world of Jewish Eastern Europe was destroyed, Heschel wrote this evocation of the period he described as the crowning glory of Jewish history. The preceding centuries had seen a flourishing of traditional Jewish thought and life, both in the Hasidic movement, and in the civilisation of non-Hasidic Lithuanian Jewish Orthodoxy. Jews of the Western World have often come to look back on the Old World with some nostalgia. This has fed the popularity of Neo-Hasidic spirituality in the 20th Century. This book gives context to other Hasidic accounts, by picturing the warmth and soul of the world from which it emerged
  • Rabbi Nachman's Stories, translated by Aryeh Kaplan, Breslov Research Institute publication. In the literature of Hasidism, the "Sippurei Ma'asiyyot" (Wonder Tales) of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov are unique. Here, this does not mean traditional Hasidic stories about Rabbi Nachman, told by his followers, of which there are many. Rather, Nachman told special mystical fairy tales, recorded down by his early disciples, that his followers study for Hasidic meanings and inspiration. The Hasidic Masters, beginning with the Baal Shem Tov especially, developed the medium of the Hasidic parable, to convey the new, inner mystical ideas of Hasidism to their followers. These might utilise short stories of Kings and Princes to refer to the relationship between a Jew and his "Father in heaven" (In later, systematic articulations of Hasidic thought, other direct observational analogies from human perception are used as well). Rabbi Nachman's lengthy wonder stories seem to have extended this traditional vehicle, but here to a new ultimate degree. In these works of great literature, however, the direct analogies are not stated. The tales have received commentary from Breslav followers, and also from secular perspectives, in the history of Jewish literature. This book compiles the traditional commentaries made by Rabbi Nachman's followers, that draw on Rabbinic and Kabbalistic thought. In Breslav Hasidism, the stories become profound articulations of Hasidic thought and worship. Nachman of Breslav's artistic and immaginative, radical Hasidic thought has appealed to many secular thinkers, and the tales inspire admiration for their many layered structures
  • A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling, David G. Roskies, Harvard University Press. The author describes the history of Yiddish literary fiction, by devoting a chapter to each of its greatest figures. He calls their reinvention of traditional social themes and folk literature forms "creative betrayal", as they simultaneously represent and reshape the authentic Eastern European Jewish world and its spirit. For most this was a personal way of overcoming their distance from this world, and involved various motivations, from the early critical desire of secular figures to leave behind the Shtetl, to later nostalgia of the immigrants for their origins. Hasidism, above all representing Jewish spirituality, is one of the themes in the writing of these secular authors, whether critical or appreciative. Their literary characters have helped shape the way Hasidism is popularly imagined in the wider world. Stories by Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to give the most well known examples, were later adapted for the musicals "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Yentl". However, most relevant is the chapter devoted to the first of the great Yiddish storytellers, and the only religious figure, the Hasidic Master Nachman of Breslav. In this chapter, Roskies analyses his "Sippurei Ma'asiyyot"(Wonder Tales) from both traditional and critical literary perspectives. He relates them to the events of Rabbi Nachman's life, and shows how they began, and influenced, later secular Yiddish writing. For their literary analysis, this chapter is indispensable.

Studies in Hasidic thought:

  • On the Essence of Chassidus, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, translated by Y.Greenberg and S.S.Handelman, Kehot Publication Society. This discourse, delivered by the 7th leader of the Habad movement, gives a philosophical explanation from within Hasidic thought, of the essential nature and contribution of Hasidus to Judaism and Torah exegesis
  • Hasidism Reappraised, Edited by Ada Rapoport-Albert, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. The most comprehensive anthology of recent academic scholarship on Hasidism, with multi-discipline papers from leading authorities on a wide range of aspects of Hasidism
  • The Mystical Origins of Hasidism, Rachel Elior, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Introduction to the academic interpretations of Hasidism, covering its ideological and social natures, including its relation to Kabbalah, and the history of Hasidic historiography.
  • Hasidic Prayer, Louis Jacobs, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. The emphasis of Hasidic thought on the Divine presence in everything gave it a new focus and interpretation of daily prayer, suffused with joy, optimism and mystical faith. This classic study examines the nature and diversity of the different Hasidic approaches to prayer and meditation.
  • Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah's Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries, Norman Lamm, Ktav Pub. Study of the theological and Kabbalistic background to the religious differences of the Hasidic-Mitnagdic schism.
  • Hasidism gave new emphasis to prayer in addition to traditionally pre-eminent Torah study. Hasidic prayer, often in informal Shtiebels, follows various paths in meditation

  • Hasidism taught the value of both the scholar and the layman. Rebbes and elite scholars sought to emulate the simplicity of the sincere common folk

  • Hasidic theology interprets Torah study "for its own sake" to mean learning Torah in order to cleave to God in dveikut

  • Chachmei Lublin Hasidic yeshiva. In the 19th-century, the Hasidic-Mitngdic schism had mostly resolved, as Hasidism revealed a dedication to Talmudic study, and Lithuanian Jews saw the value of ethical study

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