This first-ever anthology of Neo-Hasidic philosophy brings together the writings of its progenitors: five great twentieth-century European and American Jewish thinkers—Hillel Zeitlin, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Shlomo Carlebach, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi—plus a young Arthur Green. The thinkers reflect on the inner life of the individual and their dreams of creating a Neo-Hasidic spiritual community. The editors’ introductions and notes analyze each thinker’s contributions to Neo-Hasidic thought and influence on the movement. Zeitlin and Buber initiated a renewal of Hasidism for the modern world; Heschel’s work is quietly infused with Neo-Hasidic thought; Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi re-created Neo-Hasidism for American Jews in the 1960s; and Green is the first American-born Jewish thinker fully identified with the movement.
Previously unpublished materials by Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi include an interview with Schachter-Shalomi about his decision to leave Chabad-Lubavitch and embark on his own Neo-Hasidic path.
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Hillel Zeitlin (1871–1942) was the leading figure of philosophical Neo-Hasidism among Eastern European Jews in the pre-Holocaust era. In many ways his life's work — addressing a Hebrew and Yiddish-reading public that had both a familiar and complicated relationship with its Hasidic past — was parallel to that of the German philosopher and scholar Martin Buber, whose writing on Hasidism and Hasidic tales presented the spiritual legacy of the Ba'al Shem Tov and his disciples to a Western audience (chap. 2). Both men were deeply rooted in the Western philosophical tradition. Both tended toward a certain romanticization of Hasidism, in the spirit of their age. Both had profound insight into the religious heart of Hasidism that has come to be appreciated again in more recent times. The two studied and wrote about Hasidism with a programmatic agenda in mind: the dream of bringing about a new revival of Judaism that would bear within it much of the spiritual energy and enthusiasm that had characterized Hasidism in its early heyday.
Zeitlin, the scion of a Chabad family who had rebelled in his youth, was an autodidact who had read very widely, especially in the thought of his own era. In the first decade of the twentieth century, he saw his task as bringing philosophical enlightenment to the Hebrew reader. His first two significant published works were on Spinoza (Baruch Spinoza, 1900) and Nietzsche (a series of articles called "Friedrich Nietzsche" in HaZeman, 1905), both in Hebrew. He was also influenced by Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Lev Shestov, readings in Buddhism, and various other philosophical-theological currents present in his contemporary culture. All of these studies fed directly into his way of understanding Hasidism and his decision to reappropriate its religious language as his own.
During the decade prior to the First World War, Zeitlin was a member of the circle of Hebrew writers Yosef Chaim Brenner, Uri Gnessin, and others, all of them more-or-less followers of Micha Yosef Berdyczewski, Hebrew literature's Nietzschean rebel against tradition and its authority. In the course of a quest for an authentic Jewish spiritual language, Zeitlin began to reembrace Hasidism. Doing so, he made the very unusual decision for those times to return to a life of traditional religious observance. Until his death on the road to Treblinka in 1942, he lived at the center of Warsaw's teeming intellectual and highly partisan political life, dressed in a Hasidic caftan, a mystical-prophetic figure choosing to operate within an almost entirely secular milieu.
Zeitlin nonetheless disdained the Orthodox of his day almost as fully as he disdained every other party. A tireless author, journalist, and polemicist, he published constantly in both the Yiddish and Hebrew press, taking on enemies from all sides.
In his key 1910 essay on Hasidic thought, "The Fundaments of Hasidism," Zeitlin offers a quasi-systematic presentation of Hasidic mystical theology, woven of quotations from the movement's early sources. He begins with "Being and Nothingness," trying to show that the movement's doctrine grew out of an experiential matrix in which the world of multiplicity gives way to an inner perception of the mysterious underlying oneness of being, the ultimate truth of mystical religion. He continued in this vein in a 1913 essay called "In the Soul's Secret Place," a response to his reading of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, probably in Russian translation. Zeitlin thus shows himself to be both deeply rooted in the Hasidic sources, which he constantly quoted, and a person of modern sophistication who had not relinquished his Western literary tastes when turning back to Hasidism. His volume of personal religious poetry, published in both Hebrew and Yiddish versions, includes adapted translations of several poems from Christian and other non-Jewish sources.
Already in the 1920s, Zeitlin became obsessed by a growing sense of an impending (but undefined) catastrophe about to overwhelm Polish Jewry. This was not difficult to imagine, given the terrible pogroms that had befallen the Polish and Ukrainian Jewish communities between 1918 and 1921. Particularly in the southern and southeastern regions of the newly emergent country (eastern Galicia and Volhynia), the local Jewry was even more badly battered by the bitter Polish-Ukrainian and Polish-Soviet conflicts in the immediate postwar years than it had been during the First World War itself. Both Polish and Ukrainian forces committed significant antisemitic atrocities, including large-scale murder. Vast numbers of Jews fled the region, continuing the ongoing process of urbanization. Warsaw in particular saw a great influx of refugees, including a large youthful population.
Many of these young people were unemployed and footloose. Coming from now-destroyed traditional shtetlakh, some were also on the edge of deciding whether to abandon the religious way of life. At the same time, by 1922 it was becoming clear that the loudly touted Minorities Treaty accepted by newly independent Poland would not amount to much, and that Jews both culturally and economically were being left to their own meager resources. Poverty and despair were widespread on the Jewish street.
Yet in these same years of increasingly dire economic and political circumstances, Jewish society was being dramatically transformed by the new intellectual currents rampant in the first half of the twentieth century: nationalist and territorialist movements, linguistic ideologies espousing the rebirth of Yiddish and Hebrew literatures, secular and religious forms of Zionism, and the mass politicization of the ultra-Orthodox bloc. These various movements, and especially their robust and energetic youth cultures, formed a crucial part of the historical backdrop of Zeitlin's project of spiritual renewal.
In the face of both the tragedy and the expansive opportunity, Zeitlin sought to become an activist as well as a literary figure. He was especially concerned with the situation of rootless Jewish youth. Throughout his career as a public figure, beginning shortly after World War I, he issued calls for a new organization of Jewish life under various banners, each addressing different aspects, concerns, and slices of the Jewish community. The conceptions ranged from Ahdut Yisrael, a vision for unifying and recharging the entire Jewish people (perhaps to be seen as an alternative to Zionism), to Beney Heikhala, a group so elite in its religious education that he sought to address it in Zoharic Aramaic! In 1936 he called the group Moshi'im or "saviors" of Israel. Even as the war was about to break out in 1939, he assembled a group of ten mekhavvenim, or people of intense prayer, to join him in devotionally withstanding the great destruction he knew was about to come. All of these groups called for transcendence of party loyalties, concern for the entire Jewish people and its fate, and a combination of political and economic reforms coupled with a call for spiritual renewal.
Of special interest is his 1923 call for the formation of an elite Jewish spiritual fraternity to be called Yavneh. He first announced this most fully elaborated of his attempts at intentional community in a series of stirring articles entitled "The Call of the Hour" in the Warsaw daily Der Moment, where Zeitlin had a weekly column (he had been among the newspaper's founders). These were followed up by two further articles in which he began to suggest more concrete steps for the formation of this would-be movement for the spiritual regeneration of Judaism and Jewry. The fact that this series of articles was published in a widely popular Yiddish daily suggests that Zeitlin was hoping to address the broadest possible readership.
Zeitlin longed for a rarefied and reinvigorated Judaism, one based on his idealized vision of early Hasidism and deeply tied also to the image of the circle around Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in the Zohar. Zeitlin had a lifelong love affair with the Zohar; in those years he was beginning to translate it from Aramaic into Hebrew. Still, his particular vision of a glorified Neo-Hasidic community very much belonged to Poland of the 1920S. The values of socialism, including supporting oneself by the dignity of one's own labor and disdain for commerce as a form of exploitation, were integral to the rules he composed for the community he sought to create. This idealistic religious community was to serve as a beacon for alienated Jewish youth, presenting Judaism to them at once as both a highly moral and profoundly spiritual way of life. This stood in sharp contrast to the petty and divisive squabbling, as well as to the questionable ethical standards, that he saw in the existing Orthodox and Hasidic communities of his day.
Zeitlin's vision of Yavneh was also the subject of a privately published pamphlet called Di Teyvah that appeared in 1924. Di Teyvah announced itself as published by the "religious-ethical circle Yavneh of the Ahavat Re'im Society," a group otherwise unidentified. This makes it sound as though Yavneh came into being for some brief amount of time following Zeitlin's call, although it is possible that the title-page pronouncement reflects more wish than reality.
Di Teyvah opens with a small number of evocative Yiddish poems. These reveal Zeitlin's deep longing to draw near to the Divine as well as his increasing frustration with the Jewish people's sufferings and God's seeming indifference to their plight. One such poem, a prayer entitled "Our Wish," is accompanied by a note telling the reader that it "was prayed in a small circle in Warsaw on the new moon of Shevat in 5684 [January 7, 1924]."
In Di Teyvah Zeitlin also published the previously mentioned rules: a list of fourteen "commandments for every true follower of Yavneh [a fifteenth was added in a 1928 version found in Sifran shel Yehidim]." Preceding these admonitions was an "interview" Zeitlin did with himself, "What Does Yavneh Want ...?," which describes the new society as a renewed and more universalized version of the Ba'al Shem Tov's spiritual path.
This was also the subject of a newly discovered manuscript signed by Zeitlin, a single-sheet four-sided text in which he describes more succinctly (brevity was not one of his virtues) and clearly the nature of the group and its intended function. That text is offered in translation here. In it he announces that some tens of Polish Jews have already signed on to the group and are living by its rule. He also refers to a forthcoming prophetic-mystical work of his that is to serve as a guide to the group's members. This is likely Sifran shel Yehidim, published in 1928.
The existence of an active Yavneh group in Warsaw is also attested by a letter Zeitlin wrote to Nehemiah Aminoach in Jerusalem in the summer of 1925. Aminoach was one of the founders of the Poel Mizrachi movement, the religious version of Labor Zionism. The two had met during Zeitlin's single visit to the Land of Israel earlier that year, on the occasion of the opening of Hebrew University. Zeitlin writes:
Now there is something I want to say to you. I think a small Yavneh group should be established in Jerusalem, a society of working people who will live in accord with the fourteen principles that I set forth in my Yiddish composition Di Teyvah. Such a group already exists here in Warsaw, but I think that Jerusalem (or the Land of Israel altogether) is its true place. Members of Yavneh may belong to any political party, so long as they recognize the holiness of Israel [i.e., all Jews] and the exaltedness of true Jewish religious life. They should come together to fulfill in life those fourteen principles I set forth in Di Teyvah. For people like you, living by the work of your hands and filled with religious feeling and holy fire, it will be easy to live by those rules. [You should] join together for support, to defend these principles, and to distribute them among all the working people of the Holy Land. I am sending you a special package of thirteen copies (since thirteen is the numerical equivalent of ehad) of Di Teyvah and ten copies of the seventh issue of Mayn Vort (because it contains a letter to the members of Yavneh, and there you will see their spiritual side). Along with these will be a few other booklets that I have published recently, including Ha-Hasidut (in Yiddish), Hillel Zeitlin's Bletlekh (I am missing the first issue), and Der Sneh. And what do I want of you? Please distribute Di Teyvah and Mayn Vort among your friends and try to establish a Yavneh society. [Members of] this group should take upon themselves to strive to live in the spirit of those ideas and principles outlined in Di Teyvah, and to meet each week (no less) to study together and discuss matters of true religion (here we study mainly the Tanya by the Rav of Liadi, the Kuzari, the works of the MaHaRaL, and similar things) and life in the spirit of Yavneh.
Here we learn uniquely of the existence of Yavneh as a group that met regularly for study in Warsaw. The record of its curriculum is also most revealing, giving us a glimpse into Zeitlin's own selection of Jewish religious classics.
We do not know how long that group continued to function or what problems it encountered. Four years later, when Zeitlin published Sifran shel Yehidim, he confessed that his prior efforts had failed and he was now attempting to revive them:
The Yavneh or Beney Heikhala [Children of the palace] groups that I suggest founding in this book are not to be confused with the Ahdut Yisrael [Unity of Israel] of which I have spoken frequently in the press. Ahdut Yisrael is meant to absorb all within it, since it is of Jewry as a whole. The Yavneh or Beney Heikhala groups (I call the elite within the elite Beney Heikhala), if they are founded, will be societies of unique individuals dedicated to inward elevation and a quest for solutions to the ills of the nation and the world.
A small attempt was made in this matter in 1923–24, but that attempt did not succeed. A few pure and upright young people responded to my call in the press, but not people of clear consciousness and deep inner awareness.
What did not succeed in the years 1923–24 may succeed now.
There is no indication, however, that the second call for Yavneh was any more successful than the first. In the 1930S Zeitlin became ever more absorbed both in his Hebrew translation of the Zohar and the prophetic call to repentance in the eye of the gathering storm. We no longer hear of Yavneh. One is left with the impression that the lack of response to his call was disappointing to Zeitlin, who struggled throughout his life with periods of depression and disillusionment. The failure of Yavneh likely left him more isolated than ever. It is also probable that aspects of his own personality, including his donning the mantle of prophet of doom, did not encourage others to come to his side.
In his Demamah ve-Kol, published in 1936, Zeitlin asks himself:
"Where are the Bonim, Beney Yavneh, Beney Heikhala, Beney ha-Raz, and all the various yehidim [special individuals] of yours?
"The wind has blown them away; the stormy times have scattered them ... but wherever they are, they are better than others.
"And for whom do you wait and hope today?
"For those whom I would like to call 'Ve-'Alu Moshi'im.'
"And who will they be?"
There follows a long paragraph giving yet another description of Zeitlin's imagined vanguard: people freed from all doctrinaire views, dedicating themselves entirely to the Jewish people, having holy fire burning in their hearts, forming a holy society to liberate the people, while "on their lips are whispered prayers that will carry them on the wings of great hope toward the messianic days that are approaching." They are to devote themselves to the ten-point program described earlier in that work, including six suggestions for the physical salvation of Jewry and four devoted to its spiritual restoration. Given the increasing desperation of the times (rabid antisemitism was becoming a dominant political force in Poland as well as across the German border), there is more emphasis on the political program, especially organization toward emigration, than was present in the 1920S documents.
Zeitlin's call for an elite and intimate religious brotherhood places him in a long tradition within the history of Jewish mysticism. His "rules" immediately invoke association with those of the circle around Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Isaac Luria in sixteenth-century Safed, with the Ahavat Shalom circle (the original Bet El) around Rabbi Shalom Shar'abi in eighteenth-century Jerusalem, and with groups that crystallized around such figures as Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in Padua and Rabbi Nahman in Bratslav. All of these, in turn, reflect the fantasy circle of devoted disciples surrounding Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in the pages of the Zohar, and perhaps, through the mask of that fiction, the real circle of the Zohar writers in late-thirteenth-century Spain. Although rabbinic Judaism defined itself as a religion for married householders, rejecting the monastic option that had existed in Qumran, a thread of quasi-monasticism runs through all of these circles, however diverse in time and place, including also the Hasidey Ashkenaz of the medieval Rhineland, the Mussarniks of nineteenth-century Novarodok in Lithuania, and the Hasidim of Reb Arele Roth in Hungary and Jerusalem.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A New Hasidism: Roots"
Copyright © 2019 Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse.
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Table of Contents
Preface Acknowledgments Introduction Editors’ Note 1. Hillel Zeitlin Introduction What Is Yavneh? (Untitled Manuscript, ca. mid-1920s) What Does Yavneh Want? (1924) Admonitions for Every True Member of Yavneh (1924) The Fundaments of Hasidism (1910) Mystery of Thought (1928) Suggestions for Further Reading 2. Martin Buber Introduction The Life of the Hasidim (1908) Spirit and Body of the Hasidic Movement (1922) Interpreting Hasidism (1963) Suggestions for Further Reading 3. Abraham Joshua Heschel IntroductionPikuah Neshamah: To Save a Soul (1949) Hasidism as a New Approach to Torah (1972) Dissent (Date Unknown) Suggestions for Further Reading 4. Shlomo Carlebach Introduction Introduction to “The Torah of the Nine Months” The Torah of the Nine Months (Undated, 1970s) Suggestions for Further Reading 5. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Introduction Hasidism and Neo-Hasidism (1960) Toward an “Order of B’nai Or”: A Program for a Jewish Liturgical Brotherhood (1964) Foundations of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism: A Manifesto (2014) Selections from an Interview with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (ca. 2000) Suggestions for Further Reading 6. Arthur Green Introduction Notes from the Jewish Underground: On Psychedelics and Kabbalah (1968) After Itzik: Toward a Theology of Jewish Spirituality (1971) “Where Are We Going?”: An Address to the Neo-Hasidism Conference, New York City (2003) Suggestions for Further Reading Source Acknowledgments Notes