The following is a “lost” introduction from a previous iteration of the Jews of Today project. It is much different in tone from the published work, but sheds light on the why and how of my art and research on Hasidism.
Hasidism is a revival movement within Judaism. Its chief intention is to restore and safeguard Jewish pride in all its dimensions, and creatively embraces mythical, linguistic, and cultural material from a wide array of sources to further this goal. Moreover, as much as it may appear a closed system of thought, Hasidism is and has always been a highly permeable ideology. As contexts and conditions change, Hasidism absorbs diverse doctrines from its surroundings that shape its internal structure as well as its external posture. As a result, Hasidism is dynamic and polyglot. It is not synonymous with the Jewish past, but like a fishing trawler gathers the detritus of history as it wanders in search of a living. The purpose of this project is to sort through the muck caught in the trawler’s net to give some accounting of those gems of its haul that have most sustained Hasidism up until now.
Many descriptions of Hasidism follow what Walter Benjamin might have called a historicist model. It reduces the history of the movement to a kind of flow-chart. In it, each stage of Hasidism’s development is subordinated to the scholar’s idea of immediate context, consisting of the active figures and important events of any given time, often very narrowly and arbitrarily conceived.
While this format is safe, resting as it does on the idea of historical progress, it risks missing important ways that Hasidism defies this model. Hasidism collapses time and place, miraculous and mundane. As it changes, as all movements do, it follows a messianic logic that should not be dismissed just because it can and often does mask realpolitik. Gilgul, the transmigration of souls, is a valued concept in Hasidism, negating a linear conception of time. The Kabbalah exhorts Hasidim to seek and recover nitzotz (divine sparks) scattered among the goyim, subverting purely endogenous theories of Hasidism’s development. Even the Jewish concept of family lineage, yihus, is so suffused with cult meaning in Hasidism that Mendelian heredity becomes an afterthought to the imaginative, often metaphorical interpretation of one’s descent within the biblical genealogical system.