Chapter 3: Hasidism

Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue
by Maurice S. Friedman

Chapter 3: Hasidism

Apart from his philosophy of dialogue, Martin Buber is best known for making Hasidism a part of the thought and culture of the western world. Hasidism is the popular mystical movement that swept East European Jewry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his essay, Mein Weg zum Chassidismus (‘My Road to Hasidism’), Buber tells of how his father took him on occasional visits to the Hasidic community of Sadagora in Galicia when he was a child. Although estranged by the conspicuous grandeur of the zaddik (the leader of the Hasidic community) and by the wild gestures of the Hasidim in prayer, when he saw the rebbe stride through the rows of the waiting he felt that here was a leader, and when he saw the Hasidim dance with the Torah, he felt that here was a community. Later he went through a period of uncreative intellectuality and spiritual confusion, living without centre and substance. Through Zionism he gained new roots in the community, but it was only through Hasidism that the movement which he had joined took on meaning and content. One day on reading a saying by the founder of Hasidism about the fervour and daily inward renewal of the pious man, he recognized in himself the Hasidic soul, and he recognized piety, hasidut, as the essence of Judaism. This experience occurred in his twenty-sixth year. As a result of it, he gave up his political and journalistic activity and spent five years in isolation studying Hasidic texts. (Martin Buber, Hinweise. Gesammelte Essays [Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 1953], pp. 179-196; Hasidism and Modern Man, Vol. I of Hasidism and the Way of Man, ed. and trans. by M. Friedman [N.Y.: Horizon Press, 1958], pp. 47-69.) It was only after he emerged from this isolation into renewed activity that he entered on his real life work as a writer, a speaker, and a teacher.

Of the many different cultural strains that converged in Buber’s thought, Hasidism is perhaps the least familiar. The Hebrew word hasid means ‘pious.’ It is derived from the noun hesed, meaning lovingkindness, mercy, or grace. The Hasidic movement arose in Poland in the eighteenth century and, despite bitter persecution at the hands of traditional Rabbinism, spread rapidly among the Jews of eastern Europe until it included almost half of them in its ranks. The founder of Hasidism was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700-60), who is more commonly known as the Baal-Shem-Tov, the master of the good name of God. Originally a simple teacher, then later a magic healer, he finally gathered about him a group of disciples dedicated to a life of mystic fervour, joy, and love. Reacting against the tendency of traditional Rabbinism toward strict legalism and arid intellectualism, the Baal Shem and his followers exalted simplicity and devotion above mere scholarship.

Despite its excommunication and persecution at the hands of traditional Rabbinism, Hasidism was firmly rooted in the Jewish past and was perhaps more truly an expression of that past than any Jewish movement in modern times. The Hasidic emphasis on piety, on love of God and one’s neighbour, and on joy in God’s creation goes clearly back to the Prophets, the Psalms, and the school of Hillel. Within the context of post-biblical Judaism Hasidism may be considered as a union of three different currents. One of these is the Jewish law as expressed in the Talmudic Halakhah; the second is the Jewish legend and saying as expressed in the Talmudic Haggadah and in later Jewish mythology; and the third is the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical ‘tradition.’ The central concepts of Hasidism derive from and can only be understood in terms of the theoretical Kabbalah of the Middle Ages and the Lurian Kabbalah of sixteenth-century Safed.

The theoretical Kabbalah (as it is set forth in the Zohar, the ‘Book of Splendour’) is in essence a complex theosophical system which explains creation in terms of ten sefirot, aspects or emanations of God. The origin of evil is explained in terms of a disharmony arising within these emanations so that God’s quality of judgment became separate from His quality of mercy. To some extent this evil is believed to be prior to man, but to some extent also it is felt to be actualized by the fall of man. The result of this evil is a separation between the En-Sof, the hidden nature of God, and the Shekinah, His Glory which is immanent in the world. This separation is expressed in terms of ‘the exile of the Shekinah,’ and redemption is spoken of in terms of the yihud, or the reunification of God and His Glory. This reunification can be initiated and in part brought about through the pious actions of man and through his cleaving to God (devekuth); for man is created with free will and with the power to be a co-worker with God in the restoration of the original harmony.

The Lurian Kabbalah is largely based on the Zohar, and like it bears marked resemblances to Neo-Platonism and various forms of Gnosticism. It differs from it, however, in a number of new and highly complex concepts which make it of a more theistic nature than the earlier Kabbalah and yet cause it to lay much stronger emphasis on the power of man to bring about the Messianic redemption of Israel and the world. In the Zohar the sefirot were derived almost directly from the hidden Absolute, passing first through a ‘region of pure absolute Being which the mystics call Nothing.’ In the Lurian Kabbalah the outgoing movement of creation is thought to have been preceded at every point by a voluntary contraction or self-limitation of God (tsimtsum) which makes room for creation and gives man real freedom to do evil as well as good. Thus God is removed from rather than directly present in His creation. However, something of the favor of divinity remains in the space that God has left, and this flavor is preserved in the various sefirot and worlds that then evolve.

Evil here, as in the Zohar, is explained as a waste-product of creation and an inevitable result of the limitation, or judgment, that must take place if separate things are to exist at all. But the origin of evil is explained here under a different figure, that of shevirath ha-kelim -- the breaking of the vessels which contain the divine grace. As the result of the breaking of the vessels, the divine harmony is disrupted, the Shekinah is exiled, and sparks of divinity fall downward into physical creation. In the physical world the sparks are surrounded by hard shells of darkness (qelipot), a type of negative evil. This whole process is further confirmed by the fall of man, but it is also within man’s power to liberate the divine sparks from their imprisonment in the shells and send them upward again to union with their divine source. Through this liberation the power of darkness is overcome and tikkun, the restoration of the original harmony, is effected.

This restoration in itself causes the redemption of man and the world. Though it cannot be completed by man’s action, man can start the movement which God will complete by sending down His grace to the world in the form of the Messiah. For this purpose man must not only observe every injunction of the law but he must practice mystical prayer, and he must bring to his actions and prayers special types of mystical intention, or kovanot. Kavanah represents a deliberate concentration of will, an inner attitude which is far more effective than the particular nature of the action being performed. However, the greatest effectiveness is only secured by the practice of special kavanot for each of the different actions. Thus, what was at its best a concern for inward devotion became at its worst an attempt to use magic to bring about the advent of the Messiah. (Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism [New York: Schocken Books, 1946], chaps. vi-vii; Ernst Mueller, History of Jewish Mysticism [Oxford: East and West Library, 1946], chaps. vi-vii. 18)

Hasidism preserved the Messianic fervour of the people, yet it turned that fervour away from the future to the love of God and man in the present moment. It taught that the present moment is itself the moment of redemption that leads to the ultimate consummation. It infused a new and warm life-feeling into Kabbalistic theory, and it shifted its emphasis away from theosophical speculation to mystical psychology -- to a concern with the progress of the individual soul in its efforts to purify itself, to help others, and to cleave to God. Kabbalistic doctrine was replaced by the personality of the zaddik in whom the Hasidim found the embodiment of those very virtues which they needed for their redemption and from whom they learned the right way for each of them to travel while in the life of the body. This way varied from Hasid to Hasid, for the Hasidim believed that as God is represented differently by each man, so each must discover his individuality and bring it to ever purer perfection, Not only were individual differences looked on as of value, but it was believed that it was only through them that the perfection of the whole could be reached. ( Mueller, op. cit., p. 140 f.; Scholem, op. cit., pp. 338-341; Torsten Ysander, Studien zum B’estschen Hasidismus in seiner religionsgeschichtlichen Sonderart [Uppsala: A. B. Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1933], p. 139; Lazar Gulkowtisch, Der Hasidismus, religionswissenschaftlich untersucht ([Leipzig: 1927], pp. 31, 56.) This Hasidic individuality is strikingly embodied in a saying of Rabbi Zusya: ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: "Why were you not Moses?" They will ask me: "Why were you not Zusya?"’

The individuality of the Hasidim went hand in hand with a more intimate communal life than had yet been known in the Judaism of the Diaspora, and it is this communal life, centring around the personality of the ‘true illuminate,’ that Scholem has called Hasidism’s greatest originality. Unlike the rav of traditional Rabbinism, the zaddik, or rebbe, was at once a saint, dwelling with God in the solitude of the mountain-tops, and a man of the people, transforming his mysticism into ethos and bringing it to the community in the valley below. (Scholem, op. cit., p. 342 ff.; Mueller, op. cit., p. 148.) The strength of Hasidism lay in the zaddik, and the amazing spread of the movement in the first fifty years of its existence is a tribute to the true spiritual charisma of its leaders -- ‘a whole galaxy of saint-mystics,’ writes Scholem, ‘each of them a startling individuality.’ (Scholem, op. cit., p. 337 f.)

Unfortunately the strength of the Hasidic movement was also its weakness. The dependence of the Hasidim on the zaddik left the way open to a grasping for power which eventually tended to produce a degeneration of the zaddik as a spiritual type and the consequent degeneration of the movement. Faith and religious enthusiasm were replaced in many cases by obscurantism and superstition, and the true charismatic was almost obscured by hereditary dynasties of zaddikim who lived in oriental luxury and exploited the credulity of the people. (Ibid, pp. 336 f., 344-348; Mueller, op. cit., p. 145.)

Hasidism takes over from the Lurian Kabbalah most of its principal concepts in somewhat simplified and popularized form, but it gives these concepts an emotional content that sometimes makes them very different from the original. Thus the idea of tsimtsum, or the self-limitation of God, is given a metaphorical rather than a literal interpretation which enables it to coexist with the strongest possible emphasis on the immanence of God, or God’s Glory, in all things. The world is in the closest possible connection with God, and nature is in fact nothing but the garment of God. God clothed Himself in the world in order to lead man step by step to the place where he can see God behind the appearances of external things and can cleave to Him in all his actions.

The Hasidic emphasis on the immanence of God is not to be regarded as pantheism, but as panentheism. The godly in the world must be brought through our action to ever greater and purer perfection. Man has a part in the Shekinah which enables him to be a co-worker with God in the perfection of the world toward redemption. Thus the stress of Hasidism is on the actual consummation of religious life -- the inward experience of the presence of God and the actualization of that presence in all one’s actions.

The attitude of Hasidism toward evil grows out of its concept of God. Since God is embodied in the world, there is no absolute but only relative evil. Evil is the lowest rung or the throne of the good -- an appearance, a shell, or a lesser grade of perfection. Evil only seems real because of our imperfect knowledge which causes us to fail to see the deep connections between happenings. Sin correspondingly is selfassertion, not seeing God’s immanence in all things. Evil serves the good precisely through its opposition to it, for through evil man comes to know God even as through darkness he comes to know light. Moreover, evil can itself be redeemed and transformed into the good. Not only the sparks of divinity but the qelipot, or shell of darkness, may ascend and be purified, and the ‘evil impulse’ in man, the yezer ha-ra, can be redirected and used to serve God. ( Scholem, op. cit., p. 347 f.; Mueller, op. cit., pp. 141, 143; Chajim Bloch, Priester der Liebe. Die Welt der Chassidim [Zurich: Amalthea-Verlag, 1930], p. 22 f. Simon Dubnow, Geschichte des Chassidismus [Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1931] 2 vol., I, 95 f.; Gulkowitsch, op. cit., pp. 48-51, 30 f.; Ysander, op. cit., pp. 134-142, 145 f., 200, 208, 272-276; Paul Levertoff, Die religiöse Denkweise der Chassidim [Leipzig: F. C. Hinrischs’sche Buchhandlung, 1918], pp. 10, 38 f.)

The fact that Hasidism lays less emphasis upon the knowledge of God’s immanence than on the confirmation of that knowledge through dedicated action shows that evil is not for Hasidism, as for the Hindu Vedanta, pure illusion. It has reality, even though this reality is only relative. The sparks must in truth be liberated, the shells must in truth be transformed, and the ‘evil impulse,’ which God created and which man made evil through his sin, must be turned once more to the service of God. This turning to God is spoken of by Hasidism as the teshuvah -- a repentance and purification in which one cleaves to God with all the power with which he formerly did evil. Through the teshavah man not only redeems himself but he liberates the divine sparks in the men and objects around him. The redemption of the individual prepares the way for the ultimate Messianic redemption, but the latter is only brought about through God. The individual redemption is like the ultimate one in that it is a redemption rather than a conquest of evil -- a redemption which transforms it into good and realizes the oneness of God in all things. The individual’s turning to God is thus the most effective action possible for the yihud -- the reunification of God with His exiled Shekinah.

For this reason Hasidism transforms the Lurian kavanah from a special, magical intention into a general consecration or inner dedication which man brings to all his actions. The Hasidic kavanah ‘signifies less an effort of the will centred on the attainment of a definite end than the purposeful direction of the whole being in accordance with some feeling springing from the depths of one’s nature.’(Mueller, op. cit., p. 141 f.) Without kavanah no service of God (abadah) has any value, for right moral action is dependent on the intensity of inner religious feeling. Thus Hasidism does not recognize any division between religion and ethics -- between the direct relation to God and one’s relations to one’s fellows, nor is its ethics limited to any prescribed and peculiar action. In Hasidism, writes Buber, the Kabbalah became ethos. This meant a true religious revolution in which devotion absorbed and overcame gnosis. The Hasidic movement took from the Kabbalah only what it needed for the theological foundation of an inspired life in responsibility -- the responsibility of each individual for the piece of the world entrusted to him. ( Martin Buber, The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, Vol. II of Hasidism and the Way of Man, ed. and trans. by Maurice Friedman [New York: Horizon Press, 1960], IX. ‘Supplement: Christ, Hasidism, Gnosis.’)

The Hasidic attitude toward the law, revelation, and the life of the senses is consistent with its concept of kavanah. The Torah is a priceless gift of God when it is used to conquer the evil impulse and to transform the inner life of man, but not when it is made an end in itself -- a joyless burden or an occasion for intellectual subtlety. Similarly, although Hasidism believes in the historical revelation of God, it regards the feeling and consciousness of God’s nearness as equally as important as the acceptance of tradition. The revelation of God to the fathers of Israel must be confirmed and renewed in the inner life of every believer. In the same way Hasidism rejects the Lurian tendency to asceticism for its own sake and emphasizes instead a holy joy in the sensual life which will hallow and sanctify it. The redemption of the individual is twofold: the freeing of the soul from externals which enables it to enter into God and the entrance of God into the world through which the world is purified and uplifted. The life of the senses is, therefore, to be set aside only when the individual becomes attached to it for its own sake so that it becomes a hindrance to his meeting with God. (Ysander, op. cit., pp. 275 f., 251 f., 256, 178 f., 281, 260-270, 140 ff., 170, 279; Bloch, op. cit., p. 30; Mueller, op. cit., p. 140.)

The real essence of Hasidism is revealed not so much in its concepts as in the three central virtues which derive from these concepts: love, joy, and humility. For Hasidism the world was created out of love and is to be brought to perfection through love. Love is central in God’s relation to man and is more important than fear of God, justice, or righteousness. The fear of God is only a door to the love of God -- it is the awe which one has before a loving father. God is love, and the capacity to love is man’s innermost participation in God. This capacity is never lost but needs only to be purified to be raised to God Himself. Thus love is not only a feeling; it is the godly in existence. Nor can one love God unless he loves his fellow man, for God is immanent in man as in all of His creation. For the same reason the love of God and the love of man is to be for its own sake and not for the sake of any reward.

The Hasidic emphasis on joy also comes from the knowledge of the presence of God in all things. This joy has a double character. It is at once a joyous affirmation of the external world and a joyous penetration into the hidden world behind the externals. In perfect joy the body and the soul are at one: this precludes both extreme asceticism and libertinism. To cultivate joy is one of Hasidism’s greatest commandments, for only joy can drive out the ‘alien thoughts’ and qelipot that distract man from the love of God. Conversely, despair is worse than even sin; for it leads one to believe oneself in the power of sin and hence to give in to it.

Humility for Hasidism means a denial of self, but not a self-negation. Man is to overcome the pride which grows out of his feeling of separateness from others and his desire to compare himself with others. But man is at the same time not to forget that he is the son of a king, that he is a part of the godly. Thus Hasidic humility is a putting off of man’s false self in order that he may affirm his true self -- the self which finds its meaning in being a part and only a part of the whole. Humility, like joy and love, is attained most readily through prayer. Prayer is the most important way to union with God and is the highest means of self-redemption. Hasidic prayer, however, was not always prayer in its most ordinary sense. Sometimes it took the form of traditional prayer, sometimes of mystical meditation in preparation for the prescribed prayers, and sometimes of hitlahabut, or an ecstatic intuition into the true nature of things. (Ysander, op. cit., pp. 149, 166-171, 176, 335, 137, 279, 189 f., 134 f., 246, 283; Levertoff, op. cit,, p. 10; Gulkowitsch, op. cit., pp. 51 f., 57, 59 f., 72; Martin Buber, For the Sake of Heaven, trans. by Ludwig Lewisohn [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1945; 2nd Edition, with new Foreword, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953], p. 7; Dubnow, op. cit., I, 96 f.) Even the Hasidic singing and dancing might be justifiably conceived, at its highest, as a way of praying.