Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic

By Moshe Idel | Go to book overview
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Appendix B : Rabbi Yisrael of
Ryzhin Who Cries

In a letter written by the famous student of the Gaon of Vilna, addressed to the much less known R. Yehudah Leib de Butin, he accuses some unidentified Hasidim, inter alia, of speaking vain things and conceiving them to be the "words of the Torah." 1 This is, apparently, not his own formulation; from the context it appears that his addressee, who had some leanings toward Hasidism, had informed him of it in a previous, and no longer extant, letter. In fact, it is a characteristically Hasidic practice to refer to the sermon delivered by the Hasidic Rabbi at the end of Shabbat, 2 as Torah. It is, indeed, a quite remarkable claim, to argue that the mystical sermons delivered each and every Shabbat in many communities are part of, or in some way identical to, the sacrosanct Torah. In any case, it seems that this assumption was instrumental in bringing about the printing of the greater part of Hasidic literature, which consists of sermons. The question may be raised, how serious is this claim? Were these sermons, delivered in Yiddish, 3 indeed considered by the homilist or his audience as Torah, in the usual sense of the word? Although they were explanations of the pericopes of the Torah, they were no more and no less than interpretations. We may therefore ask whether this phenomenon represents a statement, reminiscent of modern debates in the fields of literature and hermeneutics, about the relationship between text and commentary. Without offering an answer for the whole range of Hasidic literature, one can say without any doubt that in some schools the teachings of the Hasidic leader immediately became canonical. This is obviously the case with teachings of the great‐ grandson of the Besht, R. Naḥman of Braslav, each of them having been designated as a Torah. According to his closest student, R. Naḥman repeatedly recommended that his disciples will transform his Torot into prayers. 4 Thus, R. Nahman himself openly regarded his teachings as Torah. His student, however, went a little bit further; he describes the teachings of his master as "containing, each and every one of them, the entire torah, the whole people of Israel, and all the things in the worlds." 5 Indeed the whole introduction is a lengthy description of the way to transform the teachings into prayers.

However, this is just one extreme phenomenon, because of the highly original nature of R. Naḥman's mystical thought and, perhaps, also becaues of a theory he elaborated according to which

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