Behind the Beards: A Philosophical Survey of Modern Orthodox Neo-Hasidism
You have seen their flowing beards and pe’ot. You have seen their gartlach (prayer belts) and pocket editions of Sihot Ha-Ran. Perhaps you have even seen them clap and jump in your otherwise uneventful morning minyan. We all call them neo-Hassidim, a term coined to account for the renewed popularity of Hassidic texts and customs in non-Hassidic circles, ranging from Modern Orthodox post-Israel youth, to Haredi rabbis. But beneath the external trappings, who are these bohemian firebrands? What do they really believe, and why do they encounter so much cynicism from onlookers?
Despite recent discussion of neo-Hasidism, these questions, which relate to the philosophical underpinnings of the movement, have been largely overlooked. Perhaps the most widely read treatment[i], Barbara Bensoussan’s article in the Winter 2014 issue of Jewish Action magazine, appears to treat Modern Orthodox neo-Hassidut as a sociological phenomenon rather than a theological doctrine.[ii] Rather than describing the movement’s ideological foundations, the article discusses, in general terms, the inspiration and alternative spiritual avenues that neo-Hassidut provides to young adults. To be sure, Bensoussan mentions the revival of Hassidic texts, and, to a lesser degree, Hassidic practices, as central to the ethos of the movement. However, since this is the extent of the article’s philosophical inquiry, several vital questions remain unanswered. This is entirely appropriate for an article in Jewish Action, as it generally serves to orient its chiefly older readership of social, not ideological, phenomena in the Modern Orthodox community. For members of the younger generation, however, many of whom encounter neo-Hassidim in their social circles, and to whom neo-Hassidut may be ideologically relevant because of their still-evolving, fluid worldviews, this article can hardly be considered an adequate investigation. Taken out of context, it would not be difficult to recognize it as the work of a reporter, albeit a respectful, impartial one.
Yet if Bensoussan’s work can easily be discerned as that of an outsider, it is by no means unusual in this regard. Of the very few organized discussions on neo-Hassidut, the recent Orthodox Forum, held earlier this year at Yeshiva University[iii], received considerable attention from neo-Hassidim for its embarrassingly biased and cynical tone, as well as its remarkably poor timing at a moment when neo-Hassidut had finally gained some acceptance in the broader community.[iv]Though the topics presented may have been well-researched, and though the organizers allowed the participation of scholars who find genuine spiritual inspiration from Hassidic texts, such as Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld of Lincoln Square Synagogue, it was quite easy for the neo-Hassidic participants to detect the contemptuous nature of the discussion. In their comments on Twitter, an established social medium for neo-Hassidic scholarship, these observers dismissed the Forum because it disingenuously ignored the bonafide spiritual and emotional impact of studying Hassidic texts.[v] By regarding neo-Hassidut as little more than a social, perhaps even psychosocial phenomenon, the organizers of the Forum displayed their own theological biases, and, more importantly, their utter detachment from the emotional needs of today’s Modern Orthodox youth, many of whom rely on neo-Hassidut for inspiration, as evident in Bensoussan’s article.
This emotional aspect may be what best identifies neo-Hassidut, as described by Bensoussan, as a philosophical ideology rather than a mere Modern Orthodox zeitgeist. It is clear that common neo-Hassidic practices, including clapping, dancing, and playing instruments during davening, distinguishing one’s appearance with a beard and pe’ot, and attending lively farbrengens (Hassidic gatherings) are ideally intended to enhance one’s emotional connection to Jewish ritual and custom. This sort of emotionally engaged activity is what distinguished Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s 1970s Jewish Renewal movement and Arthur Green’s Havurat Shalom, which perhaps can be viewed as precursors, albeit halakhically distant ones, to modern neo-Hassidut.[vi] Though perhaps less clear, what I have seen from my personal interactions with people who identify with this movement, most neo-Hassidim primarily study Hassidic works that address the emotional dimension of Judaism. It is indeed more likely to encounter a young neo-Hassid studying Sihot Ha-Ran of R. Nahman of Bratslav than Tanya of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, because, as a general rule, the former’s work is more explicitly concerned with the psychological landscape of Jewish belief and observance.[vii] Likewise, though the accusation is often leveled at them[viii], few neo-Hassidim actually study Kabbalah, and if they do, they use books that dilute Kabbalistic concepts into practical terms that emphasize the emotional and attitudinal in the service of God.[ix] In a sense, then, neo-Hassidic pathos supplies an emotional content to rote observance that is difficult to teach in a classroom and difficult to maintain following the typical gap year in Israel. For the average post-Israel young adult, who may struggle to connect with the Talmudic rigor of classic mussar texts or the Rav’s ambiguous existential angst, neo-Hassidut serves as an ideal avenue for remaining emotionally invested in his or her avodat Hashem, an essential component of a healthy religious lifestyle.
Such a goal is of course central to the thought of Hassidut in general, which emphasizes religious passion even in the mundane motions of everyday life. From the Baal Shem Tov himself[x] to the Lubavitcher Rebbe[xi], one would be hard-pressed to find a Hassidic master who does not repeatedly emphasize the constant fervor required for a profound relationship with God. But in neo-Hassidut, especially the mystical variety promulgated by a few massively popular Haredi rabbis in Jerusalem, this fervor takes on a new force and urgency. Figures such as R. Yitshak Meir Morgenstern and R. Tsvi Meir Zilberberg deliver fiery discourses on the relevance of Hassidic passion in the face of a contemporary mood that is hostile to religion. In fact, R. Yitshak Moshe Erlanger and R. Avraham Tsvi Kluger, two of the leaders of Haredi neo-Hassidut, even argue that the current generation possesses spiritual capabilities beyond those of prior generations.[xii] According to Jonathan Garb, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, these rabbis, some of whom are former members of specific Hassidic groups, display the unique ability to transcend sectarian boundaries by attracting followers from all walks of Jewish life. Their appeals to the emotional issues of contemporary observance as well as their relative youth win them a relevance and charisma that older Haredi roshei yeshivah rarely enjoy.[xiii]
Lest one contend that these neo-Hassidic leaders simply repurpose Hassidic texts for their sermons and are not engaged in exegetical creativity, Garb notes that they do not shy away from innovation, especially in their written work. Of particular note are the imaginative hermeneutics of R. Morgenstern, which Garb describes as a “kabbalistic reinterpretation of Talmudic and halakhic texts”.[xiv] Traditionally, Hassidic exegesis focuses on Scripture, but many classic works, especially R. Natan of Nemyrov’s Likutei Halakhot, extend their unique Midrashic approaches to the world of halakhic literature. For Hassidim, this is second nature, so R. Morgenstern’s derashot do not necessarily strike them as especially novel. But in light of R. Morgenstern’s growing popularity among non-Hassidim—many Modern Orthodox neo-Hassidim receive his weekly pamphlet by email—one has to wonder whether the study of Talmud and other halakhic texts is now a different experience for those in his circle. Haredi roshei yeshivah, and perhaps some of Yeshiva University’s own, might frown at this relatively liberal derekh ha-limmud, but after reading R. Morgenstern’s Nishmatin Hadtin, it is difficult to deny its ingenuity and utility as a new way to infuse dryly legalistic Talmudic passages with spiritual and emotional resonance.
From a broader perspective, R. Morgenstern’s innovation reflects the neo-Hassidic approach to Torah study in general: what Bible scholar James Kugel calls omnisignificance.[xv] For the neo-Hassid, as well as the Kabbalist, every line, every word, and every letter of Torah contains infinite layers of meaning by virtue of its Divine origin. In truth, this doctrine has its roots in the derashot R. Akiva expounded on every kots (crown) on certain Hebrew letters[xvi], and later in the Ramban’s well-known comment that the entirety of the Torah constitutes one Name of God.[xvii] The Kabbalist, and now the neo-Hassidic Kabbalist, extends the belief to include Torah she-ba’al peh, granting him license to expound even the most technical of halakhot in a Midrashic light. Talmudic purists will surely shake their heads in disapproval, but what makes R. Haim Soloveitchik’s platonic hakirot any more plausible than a trained Kabbalist’s hakirah of the same contradiction in the Rambam? Neither can necessarily prove to arrive at the Rambam’s original intent, and yet both are legitimate hermeneutic avenues, as both have roots in the tradition of shivim panim la-Torah (Masoretic Doctrine of manifold meaning) and are propounded by highly qualified Torah scholars. It is no wonder that neo-Hassidic shiurim, such as those delivered at UofPurim meetings[xviii], include sources from across the historical and hashkafic spectrum. Neo-Hassidut blurs the line between tradition and innovation in Aggadic and Midrashic exegesis, giving way to an all-encompassing truth of a postmodern flavor.
The neo-Hassid’s belief in omnisignificance reaches into other realms as well. Needless to say, the omnisignificance of every minute detail of reality, otherwise known as hashgaha peratit, is a key element of neo-Hassidic philosophy just as it is a core tenet of Hassidic thought.[xix] Beyond that, however, neo-Hassidut sees omnisignificance in the Jew’s experience of the material world that is permissible to him or her. For the neo-Hassid, “kadesh atsmekha be-mutar lakh” “Sanctify yourself with that which is permissible for you”[xx], is not a moral imperative for setting boundaries on material pleasures, as traditionally understood[xxi], but an exhortation to find the Divine in those pleasures. Obviously, this type of omnisignificance is on a more concealed plane of Divinity than that of the Torah’s omnisignificance. But any belief in omnisignificance stems from a broader belief in the immanence and omnipresence of God Himself in all aspects of existence, including human expression. Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that many Modern Orthodox neo-Hassidim find spiritual exuberance, even redemption, in all kinds of music. The Vermont-based jam band Phish is especially popular on the neo-Hassidic Twittersphere[xxii], but neo-Hassidut itself has already produced its own homegrown music, most notably Omek HaDavar and Zusha. This renewed focus on the artistic and aesthetic is decidedly Hassidic in character, and may reflect a deep-seated appreciation for the Godly sanctity that can be revealed in human expression.
Because of the uniquely emotional nature of neo-Hassidic thought, it is natural that neo-Hassidim are criticized for a supposed lack of intellectual rigor or even just a lesser focus on intensive Talmud study. As quoted in Bensoussan’s article, a rabbinic leader in RIETS wondered aloud whether neo-Hassidut is capable of producing talmidei hakhamim.[xxiii] The problems with this perfunctory evaluation of the movement are too troubling to ignore. Perhaps the most notable of these is the erroneous assumption that the study of Hassidut is by definition not intellectually challenging. Though younger students interested in Hassidut are encouraged by yeshiva and seminary teachers to begin with entry-level works such as Netivot Shalom, many who are just a few years older can navigate the Kabbalistic and Midrashic wordplay of Tanya and Likutei Moharan as well as a yeshiva student can navigate a piece in the Ketsot Ha-Hoshen (casuistic work on Hoshen Mishpat). And more advanced texts that are well-known for their difficulty, such as those of the Chabad rabbis (Torah Ohr of R. Shneur Zalman, Hemshekh Samekh Vav of R. Shmuel Dov Ber, and others), are well on their way to becoming required reading in neo-Hassidic circles. This sophistication extends to original work as well; already, one notable neo-Hassid has published a book about a highly esoteric Kabbalistic concept[xxiv], which has been acclaimed by the prolific scholar of Jewish mysticism Elliot R. Wolfson. Another has produced a thesis on Polish Hassidut as well as a Hebrew book about sin and repentance that includes a diverse array of Hassidic sources.[xxv] Though every community includes elements that are less academically inclined than others, such high-level output attests to neo-Hassidut’s capability of sophistication, which in turn speaks volumes about the intellectual depth of Hassidic texts.
In spite of that, the aforementioned RIETS leader, in his apparent assumption that every new spiritual movement must produce talmidei hakhamim, seems to view neo-Hassidut through his own Talmud-centric lens. Yet a simple survey of young adults, even those studying in Israel, would reveal that many struggle to glean religious inspiration from poring over a Gemara. Yeshiva University’s own R. Moshe Tzvi Weinberg, a popular teacher and mashgiah ruhani in the Stone Beit Midrash Program, is quoted in the Jewish Action article saying that there are a significant number of students who do not necessarily feel at home in the legalistic atmosphere of the Beit Midrash.[xxvi] As R. Weinberg continues, neo-Hassidut essentially solves a problem Modern Orthodoxy has hardly addressed, by offering alternatives to the impersonal Talmudism that is given precedence in the community.[xxvii] It is a basic principle of Hassidic thought that one does not need to be a talmid hakham to be a good Jew[xxviii]; indeed, many scholars agree that the very origin of Hassidut was a natural response to the exclusive intellectual nature of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.[xxix] It might be too much to suggest that history is repeating itself here, but at the very least, it is unfair to blame neo-Hassidut for engineering a legitimate solution to a serious socio-religious problem.
Unfortunately, the indictments do not stop there. Some complaints may be more well-informed than others, but many stem from personal biases. It is easy for opponents to claim that neo-Hassidim in general are less stringent in their observance of halakhah, because some might daven later or learn less Gemara, but actually, any laxity is a result of one’s own personal decisions. Hassidic sources never advocate for a looser adherence to Jewish law, and neither do neo-Hassidic teachers, so it is merely a hasty generalization to assume that such leniency is part of neo-Hassidic philosophy. The same is true for the purported antinomianism, or determinism, of the rabbis of Izbica and Radzyn (Mei ha-Shiloakh, Ohr Yesharim, and others), which is grossly misunderstood by those who have not studied these works intensively.[xxx] No, neo-Hassidut does not equal antinomianism, and yes, the rabbis of Izbica and Radzyn knew that the Rambam states that humans have total free will[xxxi], which is the opposite of antinomianism. It is only because neo-Hassidut is accused of theological simplicity and superficiality that unreasonable allegations gain any traction. In truth, the philosophy of neo-Hassidut, especially regarding the exceedingly complex interplay of Divine Knowledge and Free Will, is a richly nuanced field of study that deserves to enter the Modern Orthodox conversation.
But the better option would be to ignore the demarcations within Jewish philosophy entirely. Thankfully, Yeshiva University has accomplished this to some degree, by hiring R. Moshe Weinberger and R. Moshe Tzvi Weinberg to teach Hassidut to contrast with the mitnaged-friendly atmosphere of the Beit Midrash (which has two pitiful shelves of sifrei Hassidut). Until Hassidut is celebrated along with mussar and the thought of the Rav, and until academic discussions like the Orthodox Forum can respect Hassidut as a mode of spirituality, the Modern Orthodox philosophical conversation cannot be regarded as intellectually honest. When that happens, the hope is that we will have no need for the label and category that is neo-Hassidut.
Netanel Paley is a junior in Yeshiva College studying biology but breathing Hassidut.
[i] Due to its publication in the Orthodox Union’s magazine, which is distributed to Orthodox homes across the United States free of charge.
[ii] Barbara Bensoussan, “Rekindling the Flame: Neo-Chassidus Brings the Inner Light of Torah to Modern Orthodoxy”, Jewish Action, December 1, 2014”. Available at www.ou.org
[iii] Commentator Staff, “Orthodox Forum on Hassidut at Yeshiva University”, April 19, 2015. Available at yucommentator.org
[iv] The forum was held just two months after the publication of the complimentary Jewish Action article.
[v] Some of these comments were serious, but many were light-hearted and sarcastic. Rabbi Rosenfeld wrote several humorous tweets with the hashtag #RejectedForumPapers; one can be seen at https://twitter.com/shuaros/status/568050442812456960
[vi] This is my own idea, based on Arthur Green’s own label of his movement; he gave a talk at Brown University in 2014 titled “The Neo-Hassidic Imagination.” Bensoussan also mentions a view that Shlomo Carlebach was partially responsible for a revival of Hassidic song and prayer, and he in fact was friends with Schachter-Shalomi.
[vii] For instance, Sihot Ha-Ran and Likutei Etsot summarize the practical, spiritual, and emotional lessons contained in the larger, more complex Likutei Moharan.
[viii] Firsthand experience.
[ix] For example, Siftei Hen by R. Shmuel Kraus and Talelei Hayyim by R. Haim Cohen, also known as the “Helban” (Milkman).
[x] See, for example, Keter Shem Tov, sec. 168
[xi] See, for example, Likutei Sihot, Vol. XV, pp. 50-56
[xii] Jonathan Garb, “Mystical and Spiritual Discourse in the Contemporary Ashkenazi Haredi Worlds”. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Vol. 9. March 2010. pp. 17-36
[xiii] ibid. See also Alan Brill, “The new Haredi Hasidism – Zilberstein, Erlanger, Morgenstern, Kluger, and Schwartz”. Book of Doctrines and Opinions. July 28, 2013. Available at kavvanah.wordpress.com
[xiv] Garb, 2010
[xv] James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (New Haven and London, 1981), pp. 103-4. See, also, Yaakov Elman, “The Rebirth of Omnisignificant Biblical Exegesis in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries” available online at www.biu.ac.il
[xvi] Menahot 29b; see also Eruvin 21b, where the idea is cited without mentioning R. Akiva
[xvii] Ramban, Introduction to Commentary on the Torah
[xix] See Keter Shem Tov, Addenda, 395. See, also, Sha’ar ha-Otiyot, “Hashgaha Peratit”
[xx] Yevamot 20a
[xxi] See Ramban to Lev. 19:2
[xxii] From personal experience on Twitter.
[xxiii] Bensoussan, 2014
[xxiv] Yoel Rosenfeld, Botsina de-Kardinuta
[xxv] Dovid Bashevkin, be-Rogez Raheim Tizkor
[xxvi] Bensoussan, 2014
[xxviii] Many Hasidic stories, in addition to Hasidic exegetical teachings, emphasize the spiritual capabilities of simple, ignorant Jews. For one well-known example from the Baal Shem Tov, see R. Yosef Yitshak Schneerson’s Sefer ha-Sihot 5703, pp. 167-168.
[xxix] See, for example, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary. KTAV Publishing House, 1999, p. xlii
[xxx] See Shaul Magid, Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism. University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. 432 pp.
[xxxi] Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:1
Please leave comments below or email responses to email@example.com. Select responses will be published in future issues.