Category Archives: Hasidism

Why does Breslov Attract crazies?

No, the question is not my question. However, Mispachah magazine had a positive feature article on Breslov Hasidus two weeks ago. This article was followed by a bevy of published letters critical or nasty toward Breslov. Among the letters was one that claimed that they get all the crazies.
So this week, the noted Breslov author and teacher Ozer Bergman blogged a letter that he sent in defense of Breslov to Mispachah. He writes as follows:

Lastly, insofar as “crazies” (a word that may be accurate, but is certainly loathsome) are concerned, may I suggest two reasons why there seems to be a preponderance in Breslov. First, since so many communities insist on keeping them out, lest those meshugaim spoil their sheine image, the “crazies” go to the only place open to them—Breslov. Second, nowadays when a bit of nevuah has been bestowed upon the insane, perhaps the “crazies” intuit that of all the rebbes and all the seforim, only Rebbe Nachman is great enough to heal them. for the full letter – see here

I am not sure most of us would have used the same line of defense.

Ex- Hasidim and the Besht

Over Shabbat, I met another of the many Boro Park Hasidim who have left the Hasidic world. Our Bachur said that unlike his friends who went un-observant, he was looking for some form of modern Orthodox identity.

He mentioned that the Besht was his role model because the Besht did not care what people wore or what the people did. I have noticed this intense and gravely serious use of the Besht by others in the same situation. Many of the articles and dissertations on the LES Chulent mention the important use of the Besht as a justification.

I did not have a heart to tell them that we have no indication that the Besht did not care about these things. The image of Besht as friend of the common man was created by Shimon Dubnow based on Renan’s Life of Jesus. The common folk needed a voice to be harnessed by Dubnow’s Yiddishist Folks party. IL Peretz also used this image with a healthy dose of Tolstoy mixed in. From Dubnow, the image of the Besht as friend of the common man was picked up by R. Yosef Yitzhak in his creative memoirs and stories, and then further used by Yisrael Yaakov Klapholtz. It was also picked up in 1930’s US by Levin and Shnitzer. They fill out the details of how the Besht was a proponent of education for girls, was a democrat, and a rationalist.
(I am not discussing Zweifel’s modernizations nor Buber’s view of an elite mystic, rather the friend of the common man.)

So obviously there is a need for a source and authority for change. Many times when a generation cannot turn to the prior generation they pick a distant figure to idealize. What are the contours of this new image of the Besht? It certainly has Chabad elements. Is it only a transitional image to something else? Is this different than when the generation of the 1920’s chasidic youth lost faith in their parents and the Piesetzna rebbe told them to consider “as if” the patriarchs and prior ages were their parents? Or many modern groups that choose Maimonides? I do feel it has a different feel, a lack of an “As if”” quality. Any thoughts?

Arthur Green- Radical Judaism #1 of 5 posts

There is a new book from Arthur Green that is his mature vision for a Neo-Hasidic Renewal Judaism. I received a review copy as soon as it came out and have been grappling about whether this will be a short quickly review or a very long full study. In his introduction, Green quotes Arnold Eisen as telling Green that he should put out a definite scholarly version of his theology. The actual product is a version that is actually less scholarly and more personal than the prior versions and can serve as an eminently readable introduction to his thought.

In the interim as I continue to write up my own reflections, David Wolpe has put out a very concise and insightful review. Wolpe puts his finger on the pulse of the book as having a renegade provocative 1960’s tone. He also catches how a technical academic scholarly approach glides in Green’s hands into New Age mysticism. Green’s work rejects Biblical theism into a minimal theology of mystical metaphors. Wolpe calls it pantheist and animist but I think there is much more going on. Green’s God would feel comfortable on the shelf with Eliade as a myth and symbol, sacred cyclical time deity.

The view of God of Arthur Green, Michael Lerner, and others has been given a quite cogent philosophic and theological analysis by Michael Silver, A Plausible God: Secular Reflections on Liberal Jewish Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006)

Those of us interested in Kabbalah and Hasidism have a much more complex relationship with Green’s work than does Wolpe because Green’s Tormented Master was one of the first works available in English. Green has had a presence in both the academic and theological use of Hasidism, and the field consists of his students. Nevertheless, many of the original readers of Tormented Master have either moved on to the works by the Breslov Research Institute and no longer turn to academic works or the readers turned to charismatic teachers by Aleph –Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Those of us who teach Polish Hasidism, when dealing with Green’s works have to grapple with when Green is modernizing in a natural way, when he transforms it into his own renewal view, and when he just truncates away an essential element such as Torah study or halakhah.
Continue to post 2 of 5 posts on Arthur Green – here.

March 30, 2010 Rethinking Judaism By Rabbi David Wolpe

Arthur Green, author of “Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition” (Yale University Press, $26), has been working to reimagine Judaism since his early days as a renegade scholar and theologian. The book under review is filled with interesting observations and sources. They are knit together in a neo-Chasidic, kabbalistically infused ’60s activist Judaism that claims Green as one of its pioneers and preeminent spokesmen. To rework a Divine self-description, this book will be persuasive for those to whom it is persuasive. Some will find it a bracing tonic; for others it will be Jewish learning sprinkled with heresy. Can “radical Judaism” speak to people outside the envisioned circle?
Most of Green’s book (a capstone to the trilogy, “Seek My Face, Speak My Name” and “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow”), is deliberately provocative. “Radical Judaism” should not be the title of a book that soothes. It is accessibly written, although occasionally with a kind of academic-cum-New Age mistiness that some will cherish and others will not: “Just as Y-H-W-H is not a ‘thing’ but refers to the transcendent wholeness of Being that both surpasses and embraces all beings, so is the soul to be seen as the transcendent wholeness of the person, a mysterious essence that is more than the sum of all the characteristics of that person we could ever name.”
Green’s approach is panentheist. God is not a separate Being who created and superintends the world. Rather God is in all things, shot through the fabric of life, but because the system as a whole is greater than its parts, God is also more than the sum of life. If this smacks of a kind of “Avatar”-ish paganism, that charge is one kabbalists have always had to combat. Green insists it is not pagan, as his predecessors always did. He is right; it is not worship of nature; it is rather a deification of the totality of all that is. For moderns, such a theology may be the only possible piety. To a classical taste, while this may not be paganism, it is at least in the animist suburbs.
Green wrests from this premise some very beautiful and inspiring imagery. Speaking of faith, he wisely says, “We can only testify, never prove. Our strength lies in grandeur of vision, in an ability to transport the conversation about existence and origins to a deeper plane of thinking.” This he seeks to do by insisting that we have to reconceive of God and the world. Everything is interdependent, connected and organismic — and together this vast, pulsing reality is what we can augment or diminish by our actions. In the modern world we have learned to look at systems, and his is a sort of systems theology.
For Green, our great task is awareness. The book is divided into classical categories — God, Torah, Israel. Within each, he struggles with the particularity and universality of the tradition. He struggles as well with the need, given a modern audience, to explain traditional concepts before he can offer a revisioning of them.
As one would expect of a leading light of the chavurah and renewal movements, Green’s book is also a call for Jews to be politically activist. Environmentalism, anti-war activities and other traditional causes of the left are seen not as political choices, but as spiritual imperatives. To criticize the book for this is foolish: One can agree or disagree with convictions and still esteem the courage to have them. For Green, a religious position that does not embrace his politics contradicts the heart of his theology of interdependence: As we are all bound together, universalism, environmentalism, radical activism in many areas is a concomitant of theological understanding.
Green writes several times that he hopes non-Jews will take up this book as well. Certainly much of his theology is not “specifically” Jewish: There is no chosenness, for there is no Chooser. Jews have special responsibilities arising from their history; yet other groups do as well. Green reads his beliefs from the sources of Judaism, and does so with deep knowledge and skill, but they are surely not the predominant reading. Other religious traditions can be read to endorse the same conclusions, as he readily acknowledges. Indeed, Green repeatedly encourages Jews to turn to other traditions, East and West, for insights absent or unacknowledged in our own.
In a pluralistic age, readers will have different feelings about such ecumenicism. Some will see it as a great strength; others as a disqualifying weakness. As one whose belief in God is more traditional than Green’s, I remain enlightened and provoked, but ultimately unpersuaded.

Rabbi Morgenstern and Meditation

When someone mentions Jewish meditation to me the first thing I think of are the Haredi Kabbalitic mediators. I think of Y.M Erlanger who in his Sheva Eynayim and in classes in Heimishe Yeshivos is teaching Hasidut combined with Abulafia and I think of Yitzhak Meir Moregenstern who is reorganizing early Kabbalah, Ramak, Ari, and Abulafia as Hasidut. Erlanger’s starts with the statements in Sefer Habesht al Hatorah and introduces ever more esoteric material and at the end of the last volume, he introduces Abulafia with a warning that the material that he is about to teach is not for everyone, and not everyone should enter the Pardes, and even if you do enter this may not be for you. In contrast, Rabbi Morgenstern called Rav Itchie Mayer Morgenstern starts everyone on the real stuff.

R. Morgenstern is a Haredi descendant of the Kotzker and lived most of his life in England and has moved to Jerusalem and set up a Beit Midrash. You can find videos of him teaching and singing with Anglos on the web. See here, here and here.
He has attached a real following. He gives weekly public shiurim in kavvanot, in Komarno, and Ramhal. He has an email list serve for his Torah, his kabbalah, and for assorted teachings (Hebrew, English, and Yiddish). Send an email here to subscribe

He seems to have read some generic books on “How to Meditate” or “Meditation for Everyone” and in his work Derekh Yihud he reorganizes traditional kabbalistic practices into an order that reflects the general mediation world. The topics are sitting, breathing, visualizing, creating an avir in front of one, colors, and a unified vision. He freely takes pieces of Abulafia, Ramak, and early kabbalah to create a Jewish meditation manual in line with the non-Jewish ones. The work Derekh Yihud opens up a new path of reorganizing the older materials based on modern principles.

I see him as potentially the future. Rav Ashlag wrote in the 1930’s and took the meditation, medieval worldview and fantasy out of the Kabbalah and replaced it was science, communism, Schopenhauer, and a closed system. Now everything from the Kabbalah Centre to Bnai Baruch to Michael Leitman are his spiritual descendents. Rabbi Morgensten is teaching the young grandchildren of the Rebbes and many in Kolel and he also accepts the varied pneumatics of Jerusalem as his students. When all those students take their positions as Rebbes, Ramim, and teachers then the meditation format of breathing and visualization will be the tradition. If the trend continues, in 2050 this will be mainstream Kabbalah.

I had originally planned this post before my computer crash when I received the following two weeks ago. It offers a concise taste of Derekh Yihud. Morgenstern advises to close the eyes and see the hidden lights in order to achieve bliss. One turns from this world to the airspace and achieves a vision of the Throne. Lights, then hidden mind, and finally the source of the soul and the Throne.

When a Jew spends time in hisbodedus before his Creator, he closes his eyes so as not to be enticed by the illusory pleasures of this world because he doesn’t want to be connected to them.
When he closes his eyes in this way, he is able to see the brilliant hues that are rooted in the “hidden mind” of Mocha Sesima’ah, and he begins to derive pleasure from spiritual reality, from the fact that Hashem is revealed through a myriad of shades and hues of dveikus. He starts to feel Hashem’s light and glory within himself, and how all of the pleasures of this world are null and void, are like a mere sliver of light, compared with the delight of dveikus that is a composite of all possible forms of bliss.

So when a person seals his vision against the illusory nature of this world, he rises to the place of the “airspace” and its “membrane,” which is really the source of the human soul and its throne of glory. In that place it can be said, “From my flesh, I see G-d.” One begins to enjoy a vision of the ultimate Kisei HaKavod upon which the “form of a person sat.”
The final three plagues parallel these three states of dveikus:
First, a person must meditate and be misboded on the expansive Binah light of Hashem.
Then he must ascend to the place of the “hidden mind” which is the counterpart of the holy darkness of turning aside from this-worldly concerns to receive “light in all his dwellings.” With this, he destroys the klippah of the impure firstborn and rises further to the place of the “membrane of the airspace” and the “airspace” itself which correlates to the level of the Da’as of Atik and which reveals to him the source of his neshamah that “sits upon the throne.”
“It is revealed and known before Your Kisei HaKavod…” Meaning, through coming to the level of the Kisei HaKavod, we are able to subdue all of the klippos and utterly “smite Egypt through their firstborns.”

This past week he sent out a special Tu beShevat essay. He opens the essay stating that was asked why Hayyim Vital did not mention TuBeshevat and answers in the name of R. Haayim Cohen that it is a hidden quality. And when pressed why does everyone do it today? He turns to R. Aharon Halevi of Strashelye explaining that since we are lesser today everyone learns Kabbalah since they do not grasp the real depth anyway. The essay is a running account of his Torah and the questions he received Tu Beshevat-Shabbat Shrah. There are many interesting points in it including -We are told of the joy from the recent publishing of Vital’s alchemy and magic.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Do not make the Torah into an Idol

While on the topic of Yitro, here is a classic homily from Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbitz about not making the Torah into an idol. Moses’ Torah was only known by Moses, the rest of us only grasp the Torah incompletely, in moments and parts. The Torah is experiential, looking back toward the experience at Sinai.
Note how saving a life on the Sabbath is presented in Poland, as a revelation of the moment that over rides the ordinary norm. Saving a life is treated as an event that gives a deeper insight into the law and not just an act of legal triage.

“I (anokhi) am the Lord (the Tetragrammaton) your God.” It does not say “I (ani)” because then it would imply that God revealed Himself completely to Israel all His light. One would not be able afterward to deepen His words because everything has already been revealed.. The kaf [implying comparison], however teaches that it was not complete, but only an image, a resemblance to the light, which in the future God will reveal.
The more a person grasps the depths of Torah the more he sees that he was previously walking in darkness… Therefore, “do not make any hewn god” in order not to make the Torah into a habit. Hewn means cut, measured, and fixed — complete without any lack.
Only Moses’ Torah was perfect, but the human intellect it is impossible to attain complete perfection…
Our law, according to the Torah, permits violating the Sabbath in order to save a life. Yet, it is against the Torah to violate the Sabbath not in order to save a life. Similarly, in every place in which there is “a time to act for God” there is a commandment of “overturning Your Torah.”
The Torah includes all events that will arise and its light encompasses all situations and all possible experiences. No one person may achieve this level. This is explained in the holy Zohar on the phrase “do not make for yourself a graven image” which are understood as referring to positive commandments, “and any picture” connotes negative commandments. Nothing is revealed to anyone in its infinite nature.(Mei HaShiloah . I:25a.)

Here is another one for this week about not blaming things on one’s parents. One has to take responsibility for the present.

“Honor your father and mother” One should not ascribe one’s faults to one’s upbringing… rather, ascribe the fault to one’s self and bring a sacrifice to atone. (Mei HaShiloah . I:26a.)

From the same continuity of homilies:
“Make no god of silver and god of gold for yourself, but an altar of earth build me” Silver represents love and burning fervor greater than human capability.
Gold stands for fear and awe greater than human capability.
But earth stands for simplicity within the heart. (Mei Hashiloah I: 26a).

Now, what do these homilies mean? How do we apply them? I have know them so long that their novel effect has worn off. On one hand, asking what they mean could serve as a Rorschach test for the interpreter. But if we can get beyond the first thoughts, what do they mean today?

People turned in the 1970’s to Kotzk to find disestablishmentarian statements, they turn to the school of the Maggid for ecstatic prayer, to Chabad for non-duality, and to Rav Nahman for acknowledging emotions and faults. What do we acknowledge or seek to gain when we turn to the Mei Hashiloah of Izbitza?