Where Hasidim Went Wrong

Arthur Green, rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, just published an article in the Forward on how Hasidim went astray. While this will probably come as a surprise to exactly no one’s ears — Rabbi Green is a radical leftist, and the Hasidim of whom he speaks are scarcely his target audience — it’s a call for reform, in both the capital and lowercase senses of the word.

In one part of the article, Rabbi Green speaks of finding valid and inspirational content in Hasidic teachings.

For the past half-century, I have been reading and studying the sources of Hasidism with both affection and respect. I have worked as a historian of Hasidic thought and, more recently, as a theologian trying to construct a contemporary Judaism on the basis of Hasidic insights.

Then, of course, he introduces the inevitable personal backlash.

But most of the movement is pure imitation and entrenchment in the past. As the Kotzker rebbe taught long ago, a Hasid by dint of imitation is an imitation Hasid.

And a swipe at contemporary Hasidim, the erstwhile (as he would have it) bearers of the torch:

How shall we who love Hasidism, who still pore over such writings as the “Kedushat Levi” or the “Sefat Emet” to find inspiration, relate to the narrowly exclusivist, self-righteous and intolerant version of Judaism that is one face of contemporary Hasidism?

Rabbi Green is totally right about some things. I think he terribly short-changes the Hasidic movement by reducing their passion to a few factors — the nepotism inherent in the system of appointing rebbes, the self-importance of one’s own tradition in comparison to others — while, at the same time, he ignores most actual contemporary Hasidic life, where people really are trying to live in harmony with the teachings of the Torah and Hasidic teachings.

Basically, if I can paraphrase, the gist of what Rabbi Green is saying is that there were good and bad things about Hasidism in the Baal Shem Tov‘s original vision. This is true, of course; you can say “there’s positives and negatives” about basically everything. But, in the course of his argument, Rabbi Green reduces everything to weirdly oversimplified levels of black or white — weirdly, because the essence of his protest is that Hasidim do exactly that. For instance, when he talks about ancient Hasidim believing that gentiles have a lesser soul than Jews, the belief (as elucidated in the very texts that Rabbi Green still professes to espouse) isn’t that at all. Now, I’m not saying that I believe this — really, I’m not wise enough to say one way or the other — but I do know that the idea of gentile souls versus Jewish souls is much more complicated than saying “gentiles are less fully human than Jews.” (Basically, at least in what I’ve studied, these sources believe that Jews have an “extra soul” which they use to fulfill mitzvot, and non-Jews, because they don’t have mitzvot, also don’t have that soul.)

Rabbi Green’s point, I think, is that there’s a lot of good stuff in Hasidism and Hasidic texts, but that not all of Hasidism — the texts or the lifestyle — is applicable or appreciateable to him. Which is neither new nor revolutionary, but is still 100% true.

What might surprise him, however, is how many actual Hasidim agree with him. (See, for instance, the overwhelmingly positive comments on DovBear’s blog, which has a significant Hasidic readership.) And maybe, in a way, Rabbi Green’s article is a call for a new Hasidic renaissance, where people who don’t have big bushy beards and long Amish dresses study and get inspired by some (if not all) Hasidic philosophy. But, in a way, isn’t that what we all do with Judaism — taking the Torah, and some of the minhagim and traditions around it, accepting some, wrestling with others, and making it our own?

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