Hasidism, Tradition, and Spiritual Freedom

By Gottlieb, Roger S. | Tikkun, May/June 2004 | Go to article overview

Hasidism, Tradition, and Spiritual Freedom


Gottlieb, Roger S., Tikkun


Hasidism, Tradition, and Spiritual Freedom

* Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidk Masters, by Zalman Schachter Shalomi. Jossey-Bass, 2003.

* Opening the Tanja: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah, by Adin Steinsaltz. Jossey-Bass, 2003.

I was fourteen when, through a collection of stories by the great nineteenth-century Yiddish author I. L. Peretz, I first encountered Hasidic spirituality. Marooned in a suburban Jewish Reform synagogue in the aggressively secular and scientistic 1950s, I was taken by these tales of soulful God seekers and great rabbis castigating God for Jewish suffering on Yom Kippur. Their intense longing for God and boundless delight in Jewish learning and observance were my only model of spirituality for many years. I still find it striking that although my knowledge and practice of the tradition were practically nil, I could be so moved by what was a form of Orthodox judaism.

fndeed, an emphasis on joy, a deeply personal sense of God, and a questioning of the value of dry Talmudic scholarship in comparison with the raptures of devotion, have made Hasidic teachings fertile ground for subsequent commentators for over a century- including Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Art Green. These commentators, while all committed to judaism, were by and large not strictly observant in the traditional sense.

Zalman Schachter Shalomi's new book, Wrapped in a Holy Flame, joins this distinguished company in pursuing the insights and inspirations of the leaders of the great Hasidic religious revival-one that unfolded against a complicated historical background of widespread poverty, anti-Semitism, and strict religious hierarchy. Hasidism promised relief from these woes, teaching that the heart knew as much as the head, that joy was always available no matter what ("It is a great mitzvah," taught Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlov, "always to be happy."), and that the unlettered could encounter God as well as the most impressive Talmudic scholar.

Schachter's book is not meant to be a straightforward elucidation of the content of Hasidism, but an adaptation of its inner intentions to what he calls the "new paradigm" of contemporary spirituality. Having looked for God in space or time, in texts and rules, we now have come to sec that "Everything is God ... it's not that God created the world, but that God became the world." Schachter works with traditional texts to confirm and deepen this perspective, and to help us see what keeps us from maintaining our connection to the divine in daily life. he relates many teachings of what to do if we lose faith or face despair. For example, if you no longer feel a religious love for God, Moshe Leib of Sassov tells us, you can arouse that love by loving things of the world, and then you will be brought back to "the service of the Holy." Alternatively, Reb Pinchas of Koretz tells us that when things are so bad that you can't even recite psalms, "just sit in the silence and hold whatever it is up to God silently ...."

Reflecting his own unique personal history, Schachter's treatment of the tradition is itself unique. A yeshiva trained Orthodox rabbi, he was sent by the Lubovitcher Rebbe (along with Schlomo Carlbach) to Haight-Ashbury to reach the Jewish hippies who had turned to drugs and eastern religions. Surprisingly, Schachter himself was profoundly affected by what he found there-biochemically, psychologically, and, ultimately, spiritually. He "converted" to a new form of judaism and became a widely known figure in non-denominational circles, a key rabbinical resource for Reconstructionist judaism, and professor of "world wisdom" at the (Buddhist oriented) Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Because of his singular range of traditional knowledge, and because for him all authentic spiritual teachers share similar goals, Schachter can intelligently represent the great Hasidic masters as part of a continuum that reaches from judaism to Suftsm, Buddhism, and Christianity.

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