A New Hasidism

Roots

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Editor(s): 
Arthur Green, Ariel Evan Mayse
  • Philadelphia: 
    Jewish Publication Society
    , October
     2019.
     432 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780827613065.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A New Hasidism: Roots, the first of two volumes, is an anthology of Neo-Hasidic writings, curated by Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse, that includes a concise and effective editors’ introduction to the key tenets of Neo-Hasidic thought. Neo-Hasidism, which the editors deem “a new Hasidism,” draws from theological and literary trends within Hasidic Judaism but does not accept as binding contemporary Hasidism’s strict traditionalism in matters of Jewish law and custom. Neo-Hasidic readings of Hasidism, particularly in the texts included in this book, blend together Hasidic theology and symbolic language with the concerns of modern Jewish thought, especially Jewish renewalism, revivalism, and spirituality. This aspect of Neo-Hasidism is captured in the provocative claim of the editors that “the insights of Hasidism are too important . . . to be left to the hasidim alone” (xvii).

Although A New Hasidism will appeal to those in the academy, particularly as an introductory or teaching text, the primary stated audience for the book is “the personal religious seeker, one who is looking for an old-new approach to the eternal questions of life, presented through a Jewish lens” (xi). Green and Mayse have chosen six Neo-Hasidic authors, seekers all, to explore such an approach: Hillel Zeitlin, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Shlomo Carlebach, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and Arthur Green himself. Each is given his own chapter in the book, and each chapter contains several short writings accompanied by brief editors’ introductions (the introduction to the Buber chapter is written by Sam Berrin Shonkoff, rather than Green and Mayse). Spanning approximately one hundred years and two continents, this is a generationally and geographically diverse group of thinkers, which helps to usher the central ideas of A New Hasidism along through the book, particularly as the editors guide the reader in locating points of connection between the authors.

Likewise, the selection of texts within each chapter reflects the book’s broader orientation toward Jewish seeking: the texts are not a “greatest hits” of each author—the Buber chapter does not include anything from I and Thou (Scribner, 1970)—but a sampling of their more exploratory thinking. The Heschel chapter, for instance, contains a previously unpublished essay entitled “Dissent,” which argues that “inherent to all traditional religion is the peril of stagnation . . . Acts of dissent prove to be acts of renewal” (174), and the Green chapter includes his earliest published essay, 1968’s “Notes on the Jewish Underground,” which explores the potentialities of psychedelics through the lens of Kabbalah. The controversial nature of these texts imbues the book with a real spirit of fun, despite the seriousness of the questions they pose. Moreover, the editors include several other previously untranslated or unpublished writings, most notably Carlebach’s “The Torah of the Nine Months” and an utterly fascinating interview of Schachter-Shalomi by Green. In this regard, the Zeitlin chapter is a true highlight, as many readers will be unfamiliar with his work.

Because there is so little published scholarship on Neo-Hasidic thought (there is slightly more on Neo-Hasidic art and practice), this book takes upon itself the responsibility of shaping the field of study. In presenting Neo-Hasidic thought through an anthology, Green and Mayse, intentionally or not, have created a preliminary canon of Neo-Hasidic thinkers and texts. As with any new canon, obvious problems arise: why this curation instead of another? Green and Mayse include only men in their canon and do not comment with significant depth on this fact (though they do mention the increasing opportunities for women in the second volume, A New Hasidism: Branches [Jewish Publication Society, 2019]). The question of women here is both representational—where are women in the roots of Neo-Hasidic thought?—and foundational—what might a Neo-Hasidic canon by women, for women, look like, if such a canon is possible? It is not the project of Green and Mayse to build a perfectly representational canon of Neo-Hasidism, nor does it need to be, but the absence of women from this book implies that Neo-Hasidism is foundationally a male tradition. Is it? It would have been helpful if the editors had devoted additional space to addressing the gender of Neo-Hasidism and guiding readers toward further exploration as to the alternatives of Neo-Hasidic canon making.

A similar problem occurs in the Carlebach chapter of the book. Carlebach has been accused by numerous women of sexual abuse, which the editors note explicitly and condemn (marking a significant upgrade over other writings on Carlebach). Nevertheless, the chapter is otherwise laudatory of Carlebach as a Jewish seeker, and the editors do not attempt to analyze the possible impact of Carlebach’s behavior on his Neo-Hasidic thinking. As with the canon, more explanation would have been helpful to the reader and to the burgeoning field of study, which needs to develop better modes of analysis with which to address Carlebach’s abuses.

Overall, A New Hasidism: Roots is a compelling, enjoyable book and a centrally important contribution to the study of Neo-Hasidism. We are seeing with this book the early stages of an exciting new field of study, toward which Green and Mayse do an excellent job orienting us, particularly by providing for us an initial set of questions, texts, and suggestions for further reading. Although this book is recommended especially for audiences in Jewish and Jewish studies settings, it is accessible—and likely quite interesting—to broader audiences, both in the academy and outside it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Kaplin is a PhD student in religious studies at Indiana University.

Date of Review: 
June 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arthur Green is rector of the Rabbinical School and Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College.

Ariel Evan Mayse is an assistant professor of religious studies at Stanford University and editor of From the Depth of the Well: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism.

Keywords: 

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