Hasidism Incarnate

Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism

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Shaul Magid
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , December
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Whether by a handful of scholars, or by a large group of 19th century Jews who called themselves Mitnagdim (“those who are against”), Hasidism has often been associated with the heretical group of Jews otherwise known as the Sabbatians. Sabbatai Zevi, who the group is named after, was an apostate Messiah and those who rose in his wake were called the Sabbatians. They all shared similar heretical ideas rooted in Zevi’s apostasy. When Gershom Scholem, the revered scholar of Jewish mysticism, addressed Hasidism in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism he immediately noted the possible connection: “it can hardly be an accident that the Hasidic movement made its first appearance in the regions where Sabbatianism had taken root, Podolia and Volhynia”(Schocken Press, 1974, 330). The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, “began at a time when Sabbatianism, incessantly persecuted by rabbinical orthodoxy, became more nihilistic”(330). Scholem pondered what the Hasidim may have inherited from their heretical predecessors. One of the most salient points of confluence that Scholem finds is “their conception of the ideal type of man to which to ascribe the function of leadership”(333). While for “rabbinical Jewry” the ideal type was “the scholar, the student of the Torah, the learned Rabbi,” the Hasidic leader is “the illuminate, the man whose heart has been touched and changed by God, in a word, the prophet.” Even though both the Hasidic movement and the Sabbatians had “large numbers of outstanding minds,” it was “not scholarship and learning that counted; it was rather an irrational quality, the charisma, the blessed gift of revival” (334). The crucial difference, however, is that the Hasidim did not repudiate Torah law, as did the Sabbatians. Their heresy was, so to speak, partial. By way of this reading, Scholem suggested that any scholarly study of Hasidism would have to address this “heretical” challenge to rabbinic Judaism.

Shaul Magid’s Hasidism Incarnate takes up Scholem’s thoughts on Hasidism, but he makes claims that Scholem would not utter (but are, nonetheless, suggested by the subtext of Scholem’s reading). While Scholem notes the importance of charisma, Magid argues, by way of different Hasidic leaders and thinkers, that this charisma, and many of the Hasidic ideas that set Hasidism apart from the rabbinical tradition, be read and understood within the comparative framework of “incarnation.” Although the use of this term to describe a Jewish phenomenon is problematic for many good reasons, Magid (drawing deeply on Judith Butler’s approach to difference and language) argues for its necessity, and suggests how we can understand Hasidism (and even Kabbalah) in terms of what he calls “incarnational thought”(9). (Magid wisely uses a small “i” in the word “incarnation.”) Using this framework, he contends that incarnational thought was a staple of Hasidism and a threat to the rabbinic tradition. To be sure, Magid’s readings are original and provocative. They invite dispute and discussion and for that reason are worthy of deeper thought and intense scrutiny by scholars inside and outside of Jewish studies.

From the outset, Magid’s tactical decision to use the word “incarnation” suggests that Judaism and Christianity may have a lot more in common than many rabbis (who have engaged in polemics with the Christian Church) and Jewish Studies scholars—ranging from Franz Rosenzweig to Leo Baeck—would be willing to entertain or admit. The imperative to make categorical distinctions between Sinai and Golgotha was not only prompted by history and the persecution Jews withstood from Christians; it also has a philosophical basis. Scholem and Michael Wyschogrod have correctly pointed out how the Jewish thought of Maimonides transformed mainstream Judaism into a religion that was rationalist, rejected anthropomorphism, and described God as more transcendent than immanent. The thought of a personal God was anathema to Maimonides. For this reason, Scholem and scholars like Elliot Wolfson (who has clearly had a major influence on Magid’s book) suggest that Kabbalah took up the anthropomorphism that Maimonides rejected and forged a way to God that was more tied to the imaginary and the body than to the intellect. In Through a Speculum that Shines, Wolfson uses the word “incarnation” to describe the hermeneutic relationship Kabbalists had with images and text. He thinks that there may have been a “tendency to incarnational theology” but that there was not an adoption of it. In contrast, Magid argues that since Hasidism was even more interested in the person than in the text or image than medieval Kabbalah, it had an even greater tendency to incarnational theology.

While Magid, drawing on Idel, suggests that there is an “ontic affinity” (7) between Hasidism and Christian incarnational theology, he decides to spend much more time talking about the affinities and much less about the differences. In fact, at one point Magid writes that there is a “difference in degree” but “not in kind”(30) between Hasidic and Christian readings of incarnation. The strongest example he uses to illustrate this is a close reading of a specific talk by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. Magid suggests that Rabbi Nachman had a truly heretical moment during the Jewish holiday of Shavuoth in which Nachman suggested that his charismatic words were more powerful that any Torah passage. Magid provides significant evidence that Rabbi Nachman thought himself better than Moses (38; 41; 47). But since Nachman doesn’t say this explicitly, Magid works by way of allusions and even brings anecdotal evidence (37). This presents a contradiction, because Nachman praises the Torah and learning throughout his corpus and often emulates Moses. Nonetheless, one can see this text as an example of how charisma and “incarnational thought” might be used to describe a Hasidism that borders on heresy.

The biggest problem with Magid’s reading of Hasidism is the fact that it risks slipping into the Pauline reading of the Torah/Law. In fact, Magid, in the beginning of his chapter on Nachman, cites Alain Badiou who, drawing on Paul, argues against the Torah’s particularity, which is embodied in the Law (31). Law, for Badiou, gets in the way of a universality that emerges out of charisma. Drawing on his own work on Hasidism, building on Weber’s reading of charisma, and creating a genealogy which reflects a reading that is sympathetic to Badiou, Magid argues that Moses, before Deuteronomy, was a charismatic leader, but at the end of Deuteronomy, near his death, substituted the Torah text/law for himself (32). With this in mind, Magid suggests (while drawing on Daniel Boyarin’s work on early Christianity) that it makes sense that Jews would take part in early Christianity because they wanted what was at Judaism’s root: the charismatic leader, not the text. Magid’s genealogy then shows how rabbinic Judaism bit back by making law the center of Judaism throughout the medieval period. While this was happening, incarnational thought took refuge in Kabbalah only to resurface in Hasidism. Since what the Hasidim were doing was, for Magid, closer to incarnational theology, it posed an even greater threat to the text and law.

These examples and many others in Hasidism Incarnate aim to show that Hasidism’s “ontic affinity” with Christianity is great. The only thing that is missing, however, is the ontological difference. Although Magid suggests that the term “incarnation” can be used while retaining both identity and difference, his study suggests (indirectly) that by focusing too much on affinity, difference becomes less relevant or exciting (in a charismatic sense). Be that as it may, Hasidim Incarnate is an excellent contribution to the study of Hasidism because its query into embodiment evokes such questions and can prompt a larger discussion about charisma, law, and heresy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Menachem Feuer is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Humanities at York University and teaches in the Center for Jewish Studies. 

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shaul Magid is Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.



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