Arthur Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin

Did you ever want to create an elite group dedicated to perfecting spirituality? Did you think it was going to change the world? Did you ever wish that you were part of the elite circles around the Ramak in Safed, Ramhal in Padua, or the Magid of Mezeritch. Hillel Zeitlin’s writings offer an imaginative plan for creating such a community in 1920’s Poland. And the new translation by Arthur Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin (Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press) allows one to dream with Zeitlin about such utopias. This is a great volume to bring to synagogue to be inspired for love of God, to argue with the places where you think Zeitlin is wrong, or to fantasize about one’s own ideal world.

Hillel Zeitlin (1871-1942), broke with the faith of his pious Belorussian Hasidic family in order to became a long haired journalist for the Yiddish papers writing about European philosophy and literature, Spinoza, Nietzsche and Lev Shestov. Later in his life, Zeitlin turned back to the Hasidism on which he had been raised; he again dressed as a hasid He still earned his livelihood as a journalist, writing about religious affairs and Hasidism for the secular Yiddish press. Zeitlin was killed by the Nazis wearing tallit and tefillin, holding his beloved Zohar.

The recently translated volume focuses on Zeitlin’s thoughts on the meaning of Hasidism for the modern age. Green comments “But every time he wrote about a Hasidic master, he would compare him to the 19th-century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, a character in a Tolstoy novel, or a Christian saint. No one knew what to make of this unique and dramatic figure.”

Zeitlin considered his current Hasidism as in decline. They focus on the externals of dress and customs, they seek wealth and glory sometimes even more than non-hasidim, they castigate others and spend their lives in petty politics about the Hasidic courts, slaughterers and religious officials. They are fanatic, foolish and push Jews away. For those who want to know more about the intense decline of Hasidism 1880-1930, see Mendel Piekarz, Hasidut Polin, where give you details on many people rapidly fleeing and the ossification of most of the courts. Zeitlin also points out the corruption of political parties, the nationalists, the communists, and all others. Zeitlin complained how the nations yoke us and torment us, and wails about the slaughters, pograms, anti-Semitism and exile of the early twentieth century.

Zeitlin envisioned a renewal of Hasidism that takes the best of Western culture. Zeitlin called his envisioned movement Yavneh, and in other places they were the members of the elite, the bnai aliyah or the yehidim. This new Hasidim would be completely devoted to God, Torah, and Israel. Zeitlin’s role models are a bit surprising and probably not the list of your own fantasy team, his are Elazar Rokeach, Yehudah HaHasid, the Besht, and Hayyim ibn Attar. Zeitlin finds Bahye ibn Pakuda and Maimonides lacking in their intellectual focus, without enough burning passion and religious lust.

The Besht saw the Divine light in gentile folk tales and tunes, Zeitlin, in turn, exhorts his readers to expand on the Besht and find God in all arts and worldly wisdom, as well as considering the Divine light in social justice. The Hasid of the future senses the divine light when praying and studying, works by his own manual labor, and has love and compassion for Jew and non-Jew.

Zeitlin offers 15 principles or hanhagot for his new Hasidism. They include the need to keep away from all luxuries since luxuries combined with a true Jewish life are like immersing in a mikvah with sheretz in hand. Therefore avoid theater, parties, and expensive food & clothes. Unlike the contemporary Neo-Hasid, for Zeitlin the Hasid of the future needs to work on shimrat habrit and sexual holiness. He must be strict in kashrut.

Shabbat must be holy within, in contrast “sons are being prepared for empty careers where Shabbat is kept in an external way.” They pray, and when they have the opportunity, they fulfill commandments and customs, but everything mechanical.” He pleads “Don’t allow your house to become secular and commercial.” Speak Yiddish, live among Jews. Remove yourself from party politics. Any party, even Jewish ones limit the communion of Yisrael. When you work for a party (including Agudah) and it causes division between Jews then it is contrary to the Jewish spirit which is love justice and holiness. One should: Learn mussar works everyday, especially the classics such as Duties of the Heart, Way of the Righteous, Path of the Upright, Tanya, Likkute Etzot. If you follow these 15 rules, then he says to contact him.

The next part of the book are translated sections of Zeitlin’s Zohar visions written in Zohar Aramaic, which describe the activities of this envisioned elite group in the same way the Zohar protagonists are portrayed in the Zohar.

A highlight of the volume is Zeitlin’s The fundamentals of Hasidim, in which he explores Hasidic metaphysics in terms of German idealism. Schopenhauer, Nikolai Hartmann, and Nietzsche frame discussions of being and nothingness, tzimzum, creator in the created, raising sparks, raising up distracting thoughts and bad middot, sweetening judgments. I would definably assign this section to a class. It grapples with what it means to use Hasidic metaphysics in the modern world. Yet, modern for Zeitlin is for us in the 21st century a category of a prior century, it has little to do with the current remake of Hasidism as psychology, personal meaning, and private commitments.

The book has Zeitlin’s reflections on his recent reading of William James, Varieties of Religious Experience called in the original “be-Hevyon haNeshamah, the Hidden Places of the Soul.” Zeitlin still does not have a word for mysticism or religious experience. Green translates this section as “Judaism and Universal Religion.” Zeitlin states that we need a science of religion, but those who those who know social science are far from religion; and those who practice religion are far from the ability to create a science. Among the documents Zeitlin looks include Berdychevski’s musings, kabbalistic texts, and Dostoevsky. We live in a sorrowful world- Zeitlin blends Brothers Karamazov with descriptions of hell from Chaim Vital. Zeitlin discusses the need to reawaken wonder and astonishment, which Green credits as having an influence on Heschel. There is a need to reawaken love and knowledge of God. The highlightsof this section is Zeitlin’ discussion of the various types of revelation in Judaism, he cites texts for each: Voice of God in nature, Symbols, Dreams, pangs of Conscience, Longing of soul, Inner voice, Feeling of Divine Closeness, and Ascent of the Soul.

The final essay in the volume is an interesting defense of spiritual beauty in Judaism. It includes a defense of Moshe Taku and others who wanted a corporeal God for Judaism. Zeitlin admires how – Aggadah can depict God, especially the shekhinah. Zeitlin finds a rare beauty of holy people, miracle workers, messiahs, and Hasidim. The book concludes with Zeitlin’s poetry of yearning for God, reworked Rav Noson of Breslov but also reworked St. Augustine confessions.

My main reaction to this book is that I want more. There are so many essays of Zeitlin that could use translating, more than enough to fill a second volume.

The romantic reclamation of the Zohar is mentioned in this volume but I would have wanted to see a translation of Zeitlin’s essay on translating the Zohar, and his essay on the history of the kabblah where he refutes the critics of the Zohar. Zeitlin never finished did translate the Zohar but his colleague Fischel Lachover did translate it.Lachover’s translation became known as Mishnat Hazohar and is usually called the name of the introduction editor Isaiah Tishby.

The book has a narrow focus on Zeitlin as proto Neo-Hasidiism and does not involve itself on his intense relationship to Zionists, Yiddish and Hebrew authors, Polish revisionists, Shomer Hatzair, and fellow new kabbalists such as Rav Kook and Ashlag. Zeitlin wrote the first reviews of Rav Kook, Rav Ashlag, and the Piesetzna Rebbe –not included in the volume. He also has an important essay mediating between the Socialism of the Mizrachi and Ashlag as opposed to the free enterprise of the Revisionists. The book also does not investigate his relationship with Russian nihilists, Spinoza, or Tolstoy. Zeitlin has almost half a volume of essays on Lev Shestov, who is important because Shestov’s meditation on doubt, atheism, and faith become the basis for Zeitlin’s and Green’s portrayal of Rav Nahman.

Zeitlin is hard to translate. His original mixes languages and Hebrew/Yiddish is rapidly changing. For example, Zeitlin’s education gives him the vocabulary of Early Rav Kook, so Zeitlein does not have a word for relgious experience since that word “havaya” was only coined by AD Gordon. He works with nevuah- prophecy, hevyon haneshama- hidden places of the heart, and kol dammah dakah– small inner voice. These were Hebrew phrases in the original Yiddish. Tovia Preschel translated the Yiddish into Hebrew and Green worked mainly with the Hebrew, glad to use our current available vocabulary. Green himself notes that he translated the medieval phrase “red bile” as “erotic energy.”

The book lacks any mentions of Zeitlin’s interest in para-psychology, supernatural, and powers of the mind similar to his contemporary Menachem Eckstein, and Zeitlin’s son Aharon Zeitlin wrote a tome on the subject ha-Mitziut ha-Aheret.

Green considers the citation of gentile authors by Zetilin not a continuation of the selective adaptation of secular literature as shown in the approaches of Hebrew authors, Rav Zadok or Rav Kook, but rather a form of commitment to multi-culturalism and universalism. So Green’s pluralism is greatly taken aback by Zeitlin’s eulogy for the 1921 murder of his friend YH Brenner in which Zeitlin calls the Ishmael murderers “forest beasts.” And elides Zeitlin’s particularism, especially his reworking Maharal exclusivism in a poem as “This people to whom was revealed eternal love, to whom were given laws and statutes no other people were given!” or Zeitlin’s poem for shofar blowing, which cries for revenge against the nations that slaughter us.

The book includes letters to Mizrachi leaders in the yishuv about his Yavneh project. Green acknowledges that Mizrachi workers party and the early Agudah workers party were the closest to the revival that Zeitlin envisioned. Yet, throughout the volume Zeitlin is not compared to Shmuel Hayim Landau of Mizrachi or to Isaac Breuer’s followers in Poalei Agudah but to the birth of Neo-Hasidism in the United States. The preface of the book is Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s description of his creation of the neo-Hasidic Bnai Or (later changed to Pnai Or) based on the Essenes. Yet, the Mizrachi movement produced the festschrift for Zeitlin Oskar (Yesha‘yahu) Wolfsberg and Tsevi Harkavi, eds., Sefer Tsaitlin (Jerusalem, 1944/45) and they published his writing through Mosad Harav Kook.

When I open Zeitlin’s works, I am overwhelmed by the many directions to take the discussion, his relationship to the Homel school of Habad, his personal relationship with the Gerrer Rebbe, his relationship with Gershom Scholem, or his co-workers at the newspapers Haynt and Der Moment. Zeitlin was answering the question of Agnon: Where do we go now after the breakdown? Most chose secularism. Zeitlin says of Y. L. Peretz (1852-1915) that he had a heaven but that there was no God in his heaven. Peretz responds, however, by calling Zeitlin the Prophet of Yesterday. Zeitlin offered Hasidut as a solution for a modern age before it became the variety of counter cultural and new age.

We have to thank Art Green for sharing one of the books that inspired him and his Neo-Hasidism. Zeiltin’s journey holds many gems for the new readers that will now find them because of this translation. In the introduction, Green paraphrases Zeitlin about the persecution and exile restraints of Jewish life not allowing for renewal. The question for us now is whether our peace and prosperity is the era that can realize his vision of a renewed love of God, intentional community, and the creation of a Bnai Aliyah.

For more info:
Sheraga Bar-Sela‘, Ben sa‘ar li-demamah: Ḥayav u-mishnato shel Hilel Tsaitlin (Tel Aviv, 1999);
Jonatan Meir ‘Longing of Souls for the Shekina: Relations Between Rabbi Kook, Zeitlin and Brenner’, The Path of the Spirit; The Eliezer Schweid Jubilee .
Idem, ‘Hillel Zeitlin’s Zohar, The History of a Translation and Commentary Project’, Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 10 (2004)

6 responses to “Arthur Green, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin

  1. He doesn’t deal with it nor does he need to do it. He is not making a one to one correspondence of Zeitlin and himself.

  2. Thanks for this, as ever. Has Green made a translation directly from the Zeitlin text, or is this a translation of a hebrew version? If so, what is the hebrew version called? I ask because you mention a translation by Tovia Preschel.


  3. Unlike the contemporary Neo-Hasid, for Zeitlin the Hasid of the future needs to work on shimrat habrit and sexual holiness.

    I’m not so up-to-date on my terminology, but does this mean that it’s wrong to refer to Habakuk/chardal or Steinzaltz types as neo-hasidic?

  4. With regard to R’ Zeitlins relationship towards James, he felt that he was the only significant attempt towards a systematic approach to defining religious behavior. In “al gvul shnei olamos” he writes that it stems from James’s recognition of the ultimate undefinability of religious behavior. I see how this idea is seen in Heschel’s writings, but was Zeitlin a known influence on him?

  5. steve- the originals were articles in the Yiddish press and then collected and translated into Hebrew. Some of them have an early translation in the Yavneh series and then a new translation by Jonathan Meir.
    YM- I was using the term in the US meaning. see here
    [p.s. YM- Can you please pick one name and stick to it? I have you for about 5 different names]
    JR- Green claims that there must have been an influence because of simialrities- see his article “Three Warsaw Mystics” in Rivka Shatz Festschrift.

  6. My thanks to AB for his – as always – serious reading. Yes, there is much of Zeitlin that could not be included here, and I would be the first to welcome a second volume. Both the series size format and the integrity of a single-themed volume dictated choices made. I do think the very best of his neo-Hasidic writings are included here, but there is much more that this intellectually vibrant, highly prolific, and ever-controversial writer had to say.

    The most attractive thing about Zeitlin to me personally – unstated in the volume – was that he was a deeply religious Jew and yet a social non-conformist. He was, if you will, a fully “transdenominationalist” Jew in the terms of interwar Poland, equally vilified by hasidim, Zionists, Socialists, assimilationists, and nearly everyone else. How can a contemporary religious would-be nonconformist not love this guy?

    Mo’adim le-simha! Art Green

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