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Studying Hasidut: Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

Reviewing: “Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut” (The Orthodox Forum) edited by Shlomo Zuckier. Yeshiva University Press, KTAV Publishing House, Urim Publications. 2022. ISBN: 978-1-60280-398-5

The topic of hasidut brings to mind very different responses from different individuals, as most topics do. While there seems to be frequent agreement in the description, the difference often lies in the judgment placed.

Hasidut is often described as emotionally focused while more Mitnagdic thinkers are categorized to be more cerebral. While often in agreement, the value placed on these seemingly disparate approaches is where the distinction lies. A more intellectual approach can be seen as a lauded value, but it might be described as lifeless. If Hasidut is relegated to a sphere that does not promote gaining Torah knowledge as a singular value, it can be labeled as a powerfully emotional experience.

The Orthodox Forum continues its legacy as a serious academic publication with “Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut,” edited by Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Zuckier. The volume explores new directions in hasidut and spirituality through essays written by a range of leading American and Israeli thinkers from varied disciplines.

The development of the book was possibly prompted by the addition of the hasidic leader Rabbi Moshe Weinberger as the mashpia of Yeshiva University in 2013, an event described as a seminal departure in the history of the university. The position taken by many of the book’s essayists is that there is a trend of neo-hasidut that has spread throughout the Modern Orthodox world, so it is a natural consequence that such a figure was brought into the traditionally brisker/Lithuanian yeshiva.

For example, Dr. Nehemia Polen describes the niggun as a spiritual practice. “As we go more deeply into the divine realm, the more we appreciate the holiness of the everyday, of one’s own being, of human interactions with others. There is an enriched awareness of the preciousness of each individual and the granular uniqueness of every moment.”

While much of the book covers hasidut, Rabbi Dr. Zuckier points out that the material that exists from previous generations only helps the reader to approach the topic of this newly coined movement, neo-hasidut. While there seems to be vmany common trends associated between the two movements, many of the authors in this volume direct the reader’s attention to the vast differences.

Professor Elman, z’l, provides a deeper understanding of the role Rav Yitzchak Hutner played in bridging the gap between hasidut and the more rational streams of Judaism. Dr. Paul Franks points out that, “Rav Dessler made the visionary proposal for a Yeshiva combining the best of the Lithuanian, Chabad, and Polish-Hasidic traditions.” In addition, it has been posited that the entire debate was merely one-sided, and that Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal HaTanya, believed the Gra to be in error in understanding this new movement. As such, many of the authors suggest that there is already a melting pot of the two worlds. Where the emphasis may be placed in studying hasidut or the Talmud may be somewhat of a quantitative difference, both elements have been infused into, and valued and studied, by much of Orthodox Jewry.

The question must be asked, however, why the neo-hasidut confrontation has been met with much worry. Roshei yeshiva of YU are presented in this volume as decrying the current trend, and worried for the future of Torah study at the yeshiva. The articles provide a great understanding of this dilemma. While each contributor provides their own separate research and passion in this area, the editor weaves a tale together, creating a fluid narrative. He paints the picture of what is occurring in modern-day Orthodoxy, the concerns they prompt, a history of the antecedents to this movement, and a guided journey through the expertise that the contributors provide. Still, as an academically focused publication, even the apparent existence of such a trend which so many see to be real is questioned, providing a full picture of researchers in this field.

This work is ordered in the following manner. The first part primarily focuses on the hasidic thought found in Mitnagdic thinkers. The volume then profiles key neo-hasidic thinkers, followed by contemporary phenomena of neo-hasidut, and concludes with detailed aspects of the theology of neo-hasidut.

Some commonalities between the submissions illuminate the issue concerning neo-hasidut. Professor Elman, z”l, points out that, “More than that, the emphasis on these themes, when viewed against the anti-intellectual trends that have become increasingly dominant within Orthodoxy in the last century-and-a-half, constitutes a cri de coeur.”

However, in a departure from many of the articles present, Dr. Miriam Feldmann Kaye inquisitively looks to the future, with so many unanswered questions waiting to be unearthed, and seems to provide the reader with a more optimistic approach. She provides understanding for the current attraction to the theology of Rav Shagar, Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg. “Rav Shagar had begun to respond to an entire generation raised on postmodern and technological principles. Inherent in this theology of technology are strong elements of mystical and Hasidic discourses.”

How the world of Modern Orthodoxy is shaped is something that either concerns or excites many. People may turn to this movement due to a void they are trying to fill. Rabbi Reuven Boshnack paints a vivid image for the reader: “To the Hasid, the ideas, beliefs, and feelings of Judaism are palpable. They are a reality, not merely the topic of a lecture or an intellectual exercise.” Others may turn to this movement because they are following a general trend found in current day religions in America, as Rabbi Yehuda Turetsky points out: “The pursuit of meaning underlies core elements in neo-Hasidut ideology…This general trend of increased focus on what is personally meaningful is not limited to Modern Orthodoxy, but is rather part of broader developments within religion in America.”

In a similar vein to many of the responses found throughout Jewish history, Rabbi Yitzchak Blau encourages the reader to take the good and leave the bad without necessarily rejecting an entire approach. So for such a widespread movement presented in this book, I conclude with the blessing that Rabbi Yitzchak Blau provides us with. “May we succeed at extracting the wheat while rejecting the chaff.”

Rabbi Eliezer Barany is an editor and serves as a high school rebbi at Posnack Jewish Day School in South Florida.

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