Martin Buber's Hasidism
THERE CAN BE no doubt that the contribution of Martin Buber to the Western world’s knowledge of the Hasidic movement has been a most distinguished one. Before Buber took it upon himself to introduce and interpret Hasidism to Western readers, the movement was practically unknown to students of religion-despite the fact that it had been a major force in the life and thought of East European Jewry since it crystallized in western Ukraina in the middle of the 18th century. Throughout the period known in Jewish history as the Enlightenment, Hasidism was seen mainly as an outbreak of extreme obscurantism allied to those forces in the Jewish past to which the protagonists of a modern enlightened Judaism found themselves in fiercest opposition. So, too, with the great Jewish scholars of the last century who initiated the “scientific” study of the universe of Judaism-men like Heinrich Graetz, Abraham Geiger, and Leopold Zunz: mysticism and emotionalism held no attraction for them and they repudiated the values for which movements based on such tendencies stood. It was only toward the turn of the century that certain Jewish writers and scholars living in Russia tried to take a more sober view. This new view was linked to a general revaluation of Jewish history which treated it as the history of a living people rather than as the paradigm of an enlightened theology to be judged by the extent to which it lived up to abstract standards set by philosophers and religious thinkers. We can take it for granted that the new wave of Jewish nationalism which erupted in the late 19th century, and a romantic urge for discovering the deeper forces active in the life of the Jewish masses, played a great part in bringing about this change. Scholars like Simon Dubnow, enthusiasts like Samuel Horodezky, and great writers like Judah Leib Peretz, heralded the new era, and though Dubnow’s pioneering researches into Hasidism were marked by a rather cool and reserved tone, this was more than outweighed by the glamor which the discovery of the world of Hasidic legend lent to the movement. Since Peretz, the poetic and emotional appeal of Hasidic legend has deeply influenced Jewish literature, especially in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German.
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