Love life like yourself ?!?!?

November 2, 2010, 1:59 pm
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JI DAILY: By Allan Nadler: Abraham Joshua Heschel, who unlike Buber was an authentic scion of a major Polish Hasidic dynasty, subsequently integrated the most elevated of Hasidic teachings into his existentialist philosophy of Judaism. But Buber and Heschel, like their predecessors I.L. Peretz and Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, were cherry-picking their evidence.

 Not only did they deliberately ignore the overtly alienating features that emerged in the movement’s later history, but, as Gershom Scholem demonstrated, Buber’s tales of the early masters were themselves heavily edited to excise those parts that might prove offensive to modern spiritual sensibilities. Still, the elevation of Hasidism for contemporary purposes has continued to flourish.

Many of today’s appropriators are spiritual seekers associated with what is loosely termed the “Jewish Renewal” movement, inaugurated in the 1960s by a new genre of neo-Hasidic “rebbes.” The most famous were “the singing rabbi,” Shlomo Carlebach, and “the acid rebbe,” Zalman Schachter. Both men dropped out of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to chart a “renewed” Hasidic path appropriate to the heady temper of the times. Alas, they were even more selective, and textually less judicious, than their predecessors.

What they did find, however, scattered here and there amid Hasidism’s vast literature, was a small handful of eccentric rebbes whose bizarre (and, within the Hasidic milieu itself, largely discredited) writings could be cited in support of their own agenda of freeing Jews from the constraints of established religious authority.

 Thus, with help from a few “friends,” did Hasidism meet the Age of Aquarius. Prominent among those friends was the psychologically tormented Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810), to whose latter-day followers I shall devote a future column. For now, let us turn to the other main Hasidic school whose teachings have formed a staple of New Age neo-Hasidism. This is the late-19th-century Polish dynasty of Izhbits-Radzin. While never among Hasidism’s major branches, and almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust, Izhbits-Radzin has enjoyed a posthumous renaissance ever since Carlebach began invoking some passages by its rabbis that struck him as speaking to the countercultural spirit in which he was trying to re-direct Judaism.

The founder of the dynasty was Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izhbits (1800-1854). A student for many years of the legendary Kotzker Rebbe, Mordechai Joseph broke away from his master for still-obscure reasons, leaving behind manuscripts that were regarded as subversive and dangerous by all the major Hasidic masters of the time. His son, Rabbi Jacob of Radzin (1828-1878), published those teachings and added significantly to them in his own work, most notably a commentary to the Torah. Until the neo-Hasidic renaissance of the 1960s, these various writings remained virtually unknown.

What was revolutionary about them? According to a classical Hasidic doctrine, nothing exists outside of God; in the words of the Baal Shem Tov, the movement’s founder, “there is nothing but Him.” Later masters, most notably Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, understood this even more radically as meaning that the physical world is nothing but an apparition, a series of veils obscuring the greater reality that God is everything and everywhere. That sweeping claim, dubbed “acosmism” by scholars, was then taken by the rabbis of Izhbits-Radzin to an unprecedentedly extreme and, in many respects, antithetical conclusion—namely, as sanctifying, rather than annihilating, corporeality. For them, every urge, every impulse, and indeed every action generated by the human senses is, in some hidden fashion, an expression of Divinity and a fulfillment of the divine will.

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