The Religious Thought of Hasidism

Text and Commentary

By Norman Lamm

Michael Scharf Publication Trust of Yeshiva University Press

at Ktav Publishing House, Inc.

Hoboken, NJ, 1999

711 pages

Reviewed by Professor Yehuda Gellman

This is a monumental work for the study of Hasidism.  It is written by Rabbi Norman Lamm, whose scholarly accomplishments are well known, with the assistance of Alan Brill, an outstanding scholar of Hasidism, and Shalom Carmy, one of Orthodoxy’s most prominent thinkers.  The work presents us with a detailed review of Hasidic thought, with its major focus on early Hasidism.

Here we have close to 400 English translations of selections, most of them substantial, from the writings of the great Hasidic teachers.  The translations consist of 18 chapters, covering a wide panoply of topics, including: God, the soul, faith, love and fear, deveikut, worship and service of God, the tzaddik, repentance, joy and dejection, evil and suffering, exile and redemption, and women.  Each section in turn reveals a richness of sub-topics.  Chapters come with an introduction, extensive explanatory notes, and often with additional notes at the end.  Some chapters include a brief Hasidic story that brings home the existential mood behind the sometimes abstract, soaring theological tone of the selections.  The book also includes short biographies of the selected authors, a select bibliography of primary and secondary sources, a glossary, and detailed indices.  A general introduction sets the academic tone of the work, with a learned discussion of recent academic scholarship in Hasidism.  The explanatory notes show an impressive erudition with regard to recent scholarship, making this work an important contribution to the academic study of Hasidism.

The Hasidim tell a story that once the Baal-Shem Tov davened Mincha outdoors close to some sacks of grain.  As the Baal-Shem Tov prayed, the grain in the sacks began to jump and dance in rhythm with his prayers.  From this story, I learn three lessons: the first is that if we are to understand Hasidism we must be willing to get up close to it.  The second is that when we get up close, we must be willing to listen to it intently.  Thirdly, if we are to really understand Hasidism, we must be prepared to “dance” with it.  I propose to assess this work by how well it does in these three categories.

This book comes up close to Hasidism as no anthology has ever done (in any language.)  It is hard to over-estimate the importance of this work for the study of Hasidism.  Hasidism as a spiritual teaching has been in vogue in recent decades among non-Orthodox Jews possessed of a spiritual bent, as well as by spiritual non-Jews.  In addition, its teachings have gained ascendancy in some non-Hasidic Orthodox circles, especially among the younger folk.  Unfortunately, the interest in Hasidim is too often disengaged from serious, broad textual study.  Orthodox neo-Hasidic groupings tend to focus narrowly on a small group of “in” books, such as the Sefer haTanya; the writings of Reb Tzadok Hakohen; the Sfat Emet; and Reb Nachman of Breslav.  The rich historical development of Hasidism, including the writings of some of its greatest teachers, including the Baal-Shem Tov himself, the Maggid of Mezeritch, and the Hozeh of Lublin, are ignored or given only a passing nod.  The result tends to reinforce a skewed, partial, and somewhat superficial understanding of what Hasidism really was and is.

Add to this the lamentable distortion of Hasidism for a wide English-speaking audience.  The detailed nuances of Hasidic thinking and its continuity with the past are almost totally ignored in popularizations, for the sake of a watered-down religious orientation that shades off into religious anarchy.  The greatest popularizing influence on English-speaking culture has been Martin Buber, who for 50 years or so wrote about Hasidism in essays, stories and collections of aphorisms.  In his writings, Buber reduced Hasidism to a dogma-less, general orientation of a person to the world and to God in an “I-Thou” relation.  Buber played lightly with Hasidic texts, tending to make them over in the “dialogical” I-Thou philosophy he espoused.[1]  He has also been accused of doctoring Hasidic stories to fit them to his preconceived picture.[2] Thus, the English-speaking world has been presented with a version of Hasidism lacking in the rich differences between Masters, devoid of the theological depths of its thinkers, and effectively censored from its traditional Jewish piety.  Gone from Buber’s portrayal of the Hasidim is their prominent adherence to halachah and their continuity with the past.  Not surprisingly, Buber’s rendition of Hasidism had a strong influence on liberal Protestant Christian thinkers and has served as a religious inspiration for some Jews not committed to tradition.

In light of this background, we should appreciate the importance of this collection of English translations (with introductions and commentary) of selections from the works of the greatest of the Hasidic teachers.  Here we have a compendious presentation of what the Hasidim actually thought, including the details of their views on a wide-range of theological and religious topics.  The work stands as a much-needed corrective to what has been available until now.  At times, the work makes this explicit by citing Buber’s views, juxtaposing them with translated texts.  I refer the reader especially to the section on deveikut.  A reader with no background in Hasidism can find in this anthology a strong survey of Hasidic thought as it was.

As for willingness to listen closely to the Hasidim, when up close, this book gets high marks.  The general introduction declares that, “For Jewish thought to become alive to us, it is necessary to think ourselves back into contemporaneity with the past Sages.”  That “thinking ourselves back” is well executed in this work.  The general introduction canvasses the historical roots of Hasidism, and the introduction, notes, and endnotes display an investment of effort revealing many years of close, patient listening by its author and contributors.

Together with this high praise, I must say that I found the section on women to be particularly unsuccessful.  First, there is little justification for including a chapter on women in a compendium of Hasidic thought.  Generally, the Hasidim did not expend much energy on this topic.  Neither did they have much to say that was unique or emanating out of a specifically Hasidic ethos.  Coming as the last section of the book, the section on women comes across as tacked on (following directly upon the sections, “Life and Death,” and “Exile and Redemption”), an ad-hoc addition to a work surveying the grand topics about which the Hasidim had much to say.  Undoubtedly, the commendable motivation for this was to acknowledge the importance of the topic of women in contemporary religious discussion.  Alas, the good intentions fall somewhat flat.

Secondly, the selections in the section on women fail to reflect what the section-introduction attributes to them.  The introduction claims to point to selections allegedly advancing an “autonomous realm” for women or the idea of an “autonomous woman.”  The relevant readings, however, do not bear out this claim to autonomy.  Another example of an over-claim here is that Reb Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin “associated” women with “transgressions for the sake of Heaven.”  The short selection from Reb Tzadok does indeed mention only women, including Yael and Esther, as “holy transgressors.”  However, in doing so, Reb Tzadok simply follows the examples cited by the Talmud, and by the subsequent discussion of the rishonim, in connection with aveirah lishmah.  A reading of Reb Tzadok’s work from which the selections are drawn would have brought the reader’s attention to men whom he counts as having sinned for the sake of Heaven, as well as the women cited.

Finally, the section on women has the scent of apologetics.  We are treated to selections on Sarah as a great prophet, to Miriam as a source of greatness, and so on. At the same time, the author omits the most extensive reference to women in early Hasidic literature, in the writings of Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye.  The “Toildos” expands on the Aristotelian notion, found later in Rambam and Maharal (as the introduction to this section notes), that men are “form” and women “matter.”  Form rules matter.  Just so, men rule women.  Though the introduction mentions this theme, one would not guess from the selections the far greater weight given in Hasidic thought to this idea and to the correlative lack of women’s autonomy than to any other view.

Is this work prepared to dance with the Hasidim, if need be?  I am not sure. My problem is this: while the author and contributors show sensitivity to and love for the material, they may not adequately report the rhythms of Hasidism as a movement. Hasidism as a movement has a certain rhythm:  a back and forth motion, swaying toward daring, radical teachings and then back to moderation and consolidation.  The back and forth movement characterizes some chronological shifts as well as differences between thinkers of one period.  To capture this dialectic rhythm of the movement, this anthology would have had to give serious space to the more daring and radical movements of the Hasidic “dance.”  Instead, a golden thread runs throughout the book of presenting Hasidism in a relatively monochromic conservative tone.  The laudable goal of showing Hasidic continuity with the tradition apparently has caused the author to lean too far in that direction.

The pull to a conservative rendition of Hasidism is stated at several places in the book.  Although the work does readily acknowledge Hasidic innovations with respect to the valuation and times of prayer, there is a systematic attempt to play down the innovative thinking of the Baal-Shem Tov and early Hasidism in the name of “Jewish continuity.”  We read that, in general, the Hasidim “sang the same lyrics to a slightly new tune” (p. 4, my emphasis), and that, “The basic themes of life and death…are common to Hasidism and ‘perennial’ Jewish literature,” the Hasidim adding only “zest and profundity” to old themes (p. 490).   The repeated emphasis on moderation goes too far.  

Acknowledging the possible charge that the book “makes too much of the continuities between Hasidism and its ‘Orthodox’ opponents,” the introduction replies defensively that the anthology confines the selections almost entirely to early Hasidism, when Hasidism was (allegedly) at its most radical.  Thus if the selections of the anthology seem moderate rather than radical, that just shows how moderate a movement Hasidism really was!

This defense notwithstanding, the author omits, tucks away, or refers but obliquely to some of the more radical lines of Hasidic thought.  As a result, we get a somewhat unbalanced view of the movement overall.  As an academic work, this anthology is obligated to represent the fullest spectrum of Hasidic thought in all of its historical truth, regardless of the author’s beliefs in the matter.  On the other hand, as the work of an Orthodox rabbi and community leader, the author might well have wished to de-emphasize certain topics.  The tension between “full disclosure” and ideological selection is built in to an academic work on Hasidism that seeks to be responsible to its religious base and institutional grounding.  While I can sympathize with the predicament, history has taught us, I believe, that fuller disclosure is best in the long run.

In keeping with that assessment, I suggest three topics of a more radical import the anthology might well have treated more fully.  The notion of contemplative prayer is not adequately treated.  Especially missed is a selection from one of the great classics of Hasidic literature, the Kuntres haHitpa’alut of the “Middle Rebbe” of Habad, Rav Dov Baer.  A second topic is aveirah lishmah, transgression for the sake of Heaven.  In this anthology, there is scant attention to this topic.  The only explicit mention of this entire theme is in a 22-line selection from Takanat Hashavim, buried, as I have noted already, in the last section of the book, on women. (There is also an oblique reference to it in a selection from Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye about the “descent of the tzaddik.”)  A third topic is the problem of free will in early Hasidism. How to provide room for an autonomous subject in the overpowering Divine presence?  Some solutions tend to the unusual.  While the issue of free will does get mention in some endnotes, the issue does not appear as a topic that concerned the Hasidim.  In this anthology, the reader gets little clue of the richness of these three topics in Hasidic thought.

I do not wish to present Hasidism as a “radical” movement.  Doing so would apply the opposite tilt to the one I find in this work.  Rather, my concern is to urge more of an appreciation of the inner rhythms of Hasidim, moving between the more radical and the more sober, without which we might not be prepared to “dance” with the Hasidim.

Whoever wishes to get up close to the Hasidim, listen to them attentively, and get something of the inner rhythm of this movement, would do well to study this anthology with care.


Dr. Gellman is Professor of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel.

[1] For more on this see J. Gellman, “Buber’s Blunder: Buber’s Replies to Scholem and Schatz-Uffenheimer,” Modern Judaism 20, 2000, 20-40.

[2]  This has been argued by Steven Katz in “Martin Buber’s Misuse of Hasidic Sources,” in his Post-Holocaust Dialogues (New York, 1983), pp. 52-93.

This article was featured in the Fall 2000 issue of Jewish Action.