Hermeneutics in Hasidism

By Idel, Moshe | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Hermeneutics in Hasidism


Idel, Moshe, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Abstract: The present article argues that the Hasidic exegesis differs dramatically from most of the Kabbalistic schools that preceded it. Symbolic exegesis based upon the importance of a theosophical understanding of divinity was relegated to the margin. One major characteristic of the Hasidic masters is that they preferred binary types of oppositions that in their view shape the discourse of the sacred texts. They became much less interested in the Bible as a reflection of the inner and dynamic life of God, than in the understanding of the text as referring to the inner spiritual development of the mystic. From this point of view, Hasidism was closer to the metaphorical approach of the ecstatic brand of Kabbalah, which also emphasized the paramount importance of inner transformation. What is also characteristic of Hasidic exegesis is the monadization: a combination of the atomization of the biblical text, with both magical and mystical understandings of the verbal human activity related to ritual.

Key Words: monadization, Hermeneutics, Hasidic exegesis, The mystical implication, the Hasidic righteous

From the Oral Community to Written Documents

Hasidism is a revivalist religious movement that started in the regions of Ukraine in the mid-18th century. A paramount popular movement based upon verbal communication, and basically dependent upon the vernacular, Yiddisch, no book authored by a Hasidic master has been printed or even written during the first generation of this movement. This is no doubt part of a preference of the oral contact over the written literature. Indeed in a later Hasidic legend, this oral propensity has been put in relief in connection with the founder of the movement R. Israel Ba`al Shem Tov, known by the acronym ha-Besht:

"There was a man who wrote down the Torah [=teaching] of the Besht that he heard from him. Once the Besht saw a demon walking and holding a book in his hand. He said to him: "What is the book that you hold in your hand?" He answered him: "This is the book that you have written." The Besht then understood that there was a person who was writing down his torah. He gathered all his followers and asked them: "Who among you is writing down my Torah?" The man admitted it and he brought the manuscript to the Besht. The Besht examined it and said: "There is not even a single word here that is mine"."1

However, since 1780, when the first Hasidic book was printed, numerous Hasidic books started to appear in print and through some decades, Hasidism generated a huge printed literature. Most of those books are sermons delivered in the vernacular but printed in Hebrew, following the pattern of commentaries on the pericopes of the Pentateuch. Hundreds and hundreds of collections of sermons have been published since 1780, imposing Hasidic literature as one of the most productive forms of Jewish creativity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus, though elaborating on the oral teaching of the Besht, the formal focus of the literature are the verses of the Bible, radically reinterpreted. This transition from the centrality of oral preaching to printed texts has first to do with competition over the status of the different disciples of the Besht. Later on, it expresses the need of the Hasidic leader to display his knowledge not only to his immediate followers, but also in a more classical manner, by addressing a wider audience in Hebrew. Thereby he could compete with other seminal figures in earlier forms of Judaism, who also interpreted the Bible.

Exegetical Grids in Hasidism

Hasidic exegesis differs dramatically from most of the Kabbalistic schools that preceded it. Symbolic exegesis based upon the importance of a theosophical understanding of divinity was relegated to the margin. This means that resort to the various nuances of Hebrew words of the Bible as reflecting the characteristics of the ten divine powers, the sefirot, or the Lurianic divine countenances, the partzufin, was greatly attenuated. …

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