Commentary Magazine

Interpreting Hasidism

In the October 1961 issue of COMMENTARY, Gershom Scholem, commonly regarded as the leading authority on Jewish mysticism, criticized Martin Buber’s interpretation of Hasidism for failing to pay sufficient attention to the actual history and philosophy of the movement and for reading into its texts a number of Buber’s personal speculations. Early this year, Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, in the German collection, The Philosophy of Martin Buber (W. Kolhammer Verlag) , also criticized Buber on somewhat the same grounds. The following essaytranslated from the German by Maurice Friedman—was written in response to these two critics.



There are two different ways in which a great tradition of religious faith can be rescued from the rubble of time and brought back into the light. The first is by means of historical scholarship that seeks to be as comprehensive and exact as possible. The scholar takes this former tradition as an object of knowledge; he edits and interprets the texts of its teachings, investigates its origins and background, its phases of development, and the ramifications of its schools. The primary and controlling purpose of this type of investigation is to advance the state of historical knowledge about the body of religious faith in question—though it may also contribute to the instruction of future generations in the faith. Such a task of historical reconstruction and clarification requires the objectivity and detachment that make the scholar what he is. He must, to be sure, decide which materials are important and need to be treated directly and fully, and which are secondary and can be left in the background. In arriving at these decisions, however, he must follow strictly the principles of historical research and present the primary data as comprehensively and exactly as possible.

The other, and essentially different, way of restoring a great buried heritage of faith to the light is to recapture a sense of the power that once gave it the capacity to take hold of and vitalize the life of diverse classes of people. Such an approach derives from the desire to convey to our own time the force of a former life of faith and to help our age renew its ruptured bond with the Absolute. The scholar bent upon unearthing a forgotten or misunderstood body of teaching cannot accomplish this renewal, even if he succeeds in establishing a new interpretation. To effect such a renewal one must convey the reality of the way of life that was once informed by these teachings, the life of faith that was lived by exemplary individuals and by the communities they founded and led.

An adequate knowledge of the tradition in all its spiritual and historical connections is necessary to insure that a genuine renewal may take place. However, the work of transmitting the old faith to one’s contemporaries does not require a complete presentation of all these connections, but rather a selection of those manifestations in which its vital and vitalizing element was embodied. And this, in turn, requires an act of judgment which rests not upon the customary objectivity of the scholar, but upon the reliability of the man in the face of his special task. As long as he performs it with fidelity, he should not be judged by external criteria; for what may appear to be mere “subjectivity” to the detached scholar can sooner or later prove to be necessary to the process of renewal.

Secondly, the man who faithfully and adequately tries to communicate the vitality and power of this faith should not be expected to turn away from the traditional reports concerning its former life in order to give primary emphasis to the doctrine to which the founder and his disciples appealed for their authority. Even in the founding of the great world religions (which are not in question here), the essential is not a doctrine comprehensible in itself but an event which is at once life and word. But it is also right to refuse the demand to give primacy to doctrines even where religious life reaches back to a much earlier doctrine in order to establish its legitimacy. An old teaching as such never engenders a new life of faith in a later age. Rather this new way comes into being within the context of personal and community existence and signifies a far-reaching transformation despite the persistence of traditional forms. At the time of its birth, as well as in the stages of development that follow, the new faith assimilates itself to an old doctrine, appeals to it, indeed finds in the doctrine its own origin. Certainly, in the life of the founder, elements of this doctrine already appear to have fused with his own experience of faith, but with modifications characteristic of the way of life that his own mode of existence has initiated. In the following generations of disciples and disciples of disciples, such modifications may be discarded to the point where the original doctrine rigidly prevails, but in the next generation vital experiences of faith may again renew its power.

Such is the case, as the evidence shows, with Hasidism and its relation to the Cabbala (especially to the later, “Lurianic” Cabbala). The man who remains true to the special task of renewing the vitality of that Hasidism is obliged to proceed selectively: he must know precisely what he is to include in his work and what he must hand over uncontested to the scholar who follows the principles of historical completeness.




Gershom Scholem objects that my interpretation and presentation of Hasidism rest largely upon its legendary writings and neglect the theoretical literature that was produced fifty years before them in the age “in which Hasidism was actually productive.” Now, in order to deal with the question of the lateness of the legendary writings in Hasidism, it is necessary to understand the genre in the history of religion to which they belong. My term for this genre is “legendary anecdote.” It comprises short—often brief—stories which are built almost entirely around a saying of one of the masters of the “mystical” teachings: the event is the occasion on which the saying was made.

I know of only three great instances in the history of religion in which this genre was fully developed: the legendary literatures of Sufism, Zen Buddhism, and Hasidism.1 Although both Sufism and Zen, like Hasidism, produced significant theoretical works, it is the legendary tale that stands at the center of their religious-historical development.

I by no means wish to imply that the doctrinal side of religious mysticism is necessarily less significant than its literary manifestations. Such generalizations seem to me very dubious. For example, Tor Andrae, in his recent Islamische Mystik, asserts that theology is in greatest danger of failing to understand religion when it deals with mysticism; however, I find that he has no specific arguments to support this proposition. Nor would I wish to compare the value of a classical Taoist tale with that of the texts handed down under the name of Lao-tse, or that bold offspring of German cloister mysticism, the Story of Sister Katrei, with a sermon of Meister Eckhart. From these examples it is clear that one must distinguish between two kinds of mysticism. The kind to which I point here is the one whose essential development can be seen most clearly in the mode of lived realization, and thus in that of the event.

To clarify this distinction, one can compare two representative forms of Islamic mysticism—the teachings of the 10th-century theologian, Al-Junaid, which were decisive in the development of the doctrine, and the teachings of his contemporary Al-Hallaj, who was condemned and executed because of his avowal of identity with God. Many of the teachings of Al-Junaid have been preserved in the form in which he wrote them; aside from his poetry, Al-Hallaj expressed himself only orally, and these oral utterances we know from the story of his life that has been handed down, interspersed with his sayings. There can be no doubt concerning which of the two provided the original inspiration of Sufism, or, for that matter, which of the two was decisive for the later period of Sufism. The relationship to God characteristic of the Sufi mystics is so basically an existential one that no theoretical discussion can do it justice, and the only suitable vehicle for expressing this relationship is the anecdote that embodies the utterances of the Sufi masters either during their intercourse with God or testifying to it. Indeed, we possess testimonies of Sufi mystics that warn, either tacitly or openly, of the danger of theory. One of them says that when God is well-disposed to His servant, He opens the gates of deeds for him and closes the gates of discussion.

A similar relation exists in Zen, though in an entirely different form which is harder to grasp. Quite apart from the writings that have been handed down as fundamental doctrine, there developed a class of literature altogether peculiar to Zen, the “Koan”—a word that is customarily translated as “example” but is more exactly understood as “demonstration.” It takes the form of a concise report of meetings framed by introductory “hints,” “elucidations,” poetically elevating “songs,” and other forms. In the course of the “demonstration,” a basic problem is stated, whether directly or not, that proves to be insoluble in speech. No sentence of the teaching is equal to this paradox, whose solution is found to lie in some essential attitude of the human person that breaks up all conceptualization. Especially characteristic of the Koan are the reports of meetings between a teacher and disciple in which the latter asks a question and receives an apparently absurd answer or a reply in the form of a peculiar kind of cry, or else is beaten, thrust aside, driven out. And ever again we read that precisely in the moment of being radically refused, the disciple experiences the “enlightenment” that comes solely from the indescribable mystery of the event, which is reported—or better, narrated—just as it happened.

In both, in Sufism and in Zen, the innermost core discloses itself to us in the narrated event—in Sufism in the legends of the intercourse of the master with God leading to “union,” in Zen in the Koan which time and again indicates how truth happens.

The third type of legendary anecdote is the Hasidic. Again, an utterance of one of the masters stands at the center of a narrated event. In Hasidism these utterances or sayings are reported as spoken to disciples, to members of the community, to strangers, and also directly to God. The didactic character of the legendary anecdote is developed in Hasidism in incomparably stronger fashion than in Sufism and Zen. The story may often have a manifold significance, but it almost always either culminates in a saying or at least clarifies itself through one. Some of the “miracle stories” are an exception; but in others the narrated miracle carries a saying, a lived teaching, preserved in this form.




The three movements of mysticism I have set alongside one another not only developed a similar type of legend, but also have in common the fact that these legends were first formed and transmitted orally and only recorded much later. Their theories, by contrast (with the characteristic exception of the founder of Hasidism who at times seemed to have radically preferred the oral to the written), were set down by those who originated them, or else by their immediate disciples.2 The author of the life story of the above-mentioned Al-Hallaj lived much more than a century after the death of the martyr, and composed his narrative from the material provided by Al-Hallaj’s son. So far as we know, the legendary biographies of other Sufi masters have come down to us in a similar fashion—that is, in biographies organized around the sayings of a master who testified with his life and thereby bequeathed the image of the “perfect man.”

Much the same process—although in a completely different form—is evident in the literature of Zen. The original core of the Koan literature is the report of an encounter between one of the masters and his audience that has been going from mouth to mouth. This is the “cloud of witnesses” of which we hear. In the course of generations, monks would note down “demonstrations” that were especially important to them. Then gradually collections of these materials came to be made, in “literary” form, and with elucidations and songs added. Centuries after the initial reports, a scripture thus evolved. Indeed, a later writer looked back with some scorn on this tradition as the “Zen of reflection on anecdotes.”

We find the same duality again in Hasidism; in fact, it becomes especially clear here. The coherent doctrine was almost always written down by its proponents themselves or transmitted to their disciples for this purpose. On the other hand, the stories containing the masters’ sayings were already preserved for the most part during their lifetime by word of mouth and recorded only years afterward. In Hasidism, then, we have a late but strong example of an oral tradition of mysticism that attempted to preserve the living spirit of its teachings by retaining their connection with the situations out of which they sprang as the sparks from steel. In the history of human faith, whenever there is a pressing need to transmit the factual character of the spoken teaching to the future generations and to save it from the danger of “objective” conceptualization, the tendency is to keep the teaching tied to the happening that bore it, to hand it down as part of the personal occurrence from which it is inseparable. Nothing can do this so well as oral transmission which is always assisted by tone and gesture. In the course of such transmission, to be sure, other materials that do not belong to the original begin to invade the tale, and in order to prevent further corruption a member of the faith will finally set it down in writing. This stage is followed ultimately by the practice of making a collection of those tales which belong together. In the Hasidic collections an attempt to preserve the oral character of the transmission was made by recording, wherever possible, the names of earlier figures who relayed the legends along with the legends themselves.

It thus becomes evident that the late transcription and collection, and, above all, the late publication of the cycles of mystical legends, give no support to the assertion that they are of questionable value as sources. The standard collection of the legends of the Baal-Shem, for example, did not appear in print until fifty-five years after his death. What does that prove about their authenticity? In general, the reliability of oral tradition in the history of religion still remains to be adequately comprehended, despite the important scholarly investigations we possess.




My presentation of Hasidism is not a historical one, for I do not discuss the Hasidic teaching in its entirety and do not take into account the differences that have prevailed among the various trends within the Hasidic movement.

Since about 1910—the point in my study of Hasidism when I began to deal with basic sources (my earlier work had not been sufficiently grounded in them)—I became conscious that my task would necessarily be a selective one. Though I did not aim to be comprehensive, either historically or hermeneutically, I was ever more firmly convinced that my principle of selection was not derived from a subjective preference, but rather from the same assumptions that informed my work on Judaism in general. In treating the life and teaching of Judaism, I have attempted to keep to what I believe to be its own proper truth and its decisive contribution in the past and future history of the human spirit. It goes without saying that my attitude includes an evaluation of what is the central truth of Judaism and Hasidism. But such evaluation—on this point, no doubt has touched me during the whole time—has its origin in the immovable central existence of values that in the history of the human spirit and in the uniqueness of every great religion has again and again given rise to those basic attitudes concerning the authentic way of man. Since having reached the maturity of this insight, I have not made use of a filter; I became a filter.

Still, it must be possible to characterize this filtering activity objectively, i.e., to explain why that which was admitted was rightly admitted, and why that which was left to one side was rightly left to one side.

Gershom Scholem correctly says that Hasidism produced no mystical doctrine that went essentially beyond the Cabbalistic tradition in which “personality takes the place of doctrine.”3 Looked at in terms of its theories, Hasidism is, in fact, purely derivative. But looked at in terms of the personal lives of its leaders—which we are able to reconstruct through the unexampled fullness of the notes of their disciples, once having separated out the purely legendary—Hasidism shows itself to be the bursting forth of a powerful originality of the life of faith, to which very few episodes in the history of religion can be compared. Scholem has described Hasidism as a “revival movement,” but where in the world has there ever been a “revival” with such power to inspire individual conduct and communal enthusiasm for seven generations?

As we have seen, the Hasidic literature that relates the lives of the masters can be compared typologically to that of Zen Buddhism, the Sufis, and at fewer points, the Franciscans; but none of these movements was empowered by so enduring, vital, and intimate a connection to everyday human life. One must immediately add that—in contrast to these other movements—the spiritual leaders of Hasidism were not monks: they were the leaders of communities composed of families. In Zen, Sufism, and Hasidism alike, we find a prevailing devotion to the divine that seeks to hallow each day of life; however, in Zen and Sufism the consecration of one’s life is borne by an ascetic limitation of conduct, even when it involves going among the people to bring assistance and instruction. Hasidism firmly extends this hallowing to the natural and the social life. Here alone does the whole man, as God has created him, enter into the hallowing of the everyday.

Scholem is right in saying that devekut, the “cleaving” of the soul to God, became the central tendency of the Hasidic teaching. But it must be added that this traditional doctrine of Judaism took two different forms in Hasidism. The zaddikim who sought—if, as has been said, unsuccessfully—to elaborate the Cabbalistic teaching, held to the view, already familiar to us from Gnosis, that one must lift oneself out of the “corporeal” reality of human life into the “nothingness” of pure spirit in order to achieve contact with God, whom the Bible had already named “the Lord of spirit in all flesh.” In contrast to this form of devekut—though there was no explicit contest between them—one also finds in Hasidism the belief that the “constant being with God,” as Scholem calls it in connection with Psalm 73, is to be reached by dedicating to God the totality of the life that a man lives. In the Talmud (b. Ket. III) the question of how one could serve God with the evil urge as well as the good had been answered: by doing what one does with the right kavvana, with dedication to God, and thus hallowing it.

The way of spiritualization comes into Hasidism with its great thinker, the Maggid of Mezritch; the second way, the hallowing of all life, was introduced by his teacher, the Baal-Shem-Tov. The Baal-Shem often based this teaching on two Biblical sayings: “In all thy ways know Him” (Proverbs 3:6), and “Do all that your hand finds to do with all your strength” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). He interprets the first saying: “It is necessary that even every bodily thing that you do be in the service of a higher need . . . all for the sake of heaven.” And the second: “That he acts with all his limbs according to the knowledge, and thereby the knowledge is spread to all his limbs.” Of course, only “the completed man,” says the Baal-Shem, can wholly fulfill this command. “The completed man may accomplish high unifications [i.e., unite God with His Shekhina, dwelling in the exile of the world] even with his bodily actions, such as eating, drinking, sexual intercourse, and transactions with his fellows over bodily things . . . as it is written: And Adam knew his wife Eve.”

Among the zaddikim closely associated with the Baal-Shem, it was above all Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov who developed this teaching, even though after the Master’s death he attached himself to the great Maggid. The word of the Bible, “Be fruitful and multiply,” he expounded thus: “Be fruitful, but not like the animals, be more than they, grow upright and cleave to God as the spring clings to the root, and dedicate your copulation to him.”

From what I have cited, it is evident that the inner dialectic between transcending earthly life and hallowing it does not belong to a later development of Hasidism, but is already apparent in its earliest stages. It is clear, furthermore, that the teaching of hallowing the everyday provides the original thesis, and that the doctrine of spiritualization comes later with the increasing influence of the Cabbalistic tradition. To be sure, the doctrine of spiritualization already accorded to the zaddik a direct influence through the hallowed human life on the divine sphere. But again and again, in sayings, parables, and tales, the Baal-Shem and many of his disciples praise the simple, ignorant man whose life-forces are combined in an original unity and who serves God with this unity. Even in this lower unspiritual form, the undivided existence of man affects the higher spheres.

A real criticism of the Cabbalistic doctrine of spiritualization was made only later, however, and, as it were, incidentally. It did not take the form of a new systematic doctrine that directly challenged the doctrine of spiritualization, but rather was embodied in a new mode of life that had to come to terms over and over again with the received mode of life. This criticism is found in the teachings of a zaddik of the fifth generation, who was concerned with restoring the original meaning of prayer: as man speaking directly to God.



To understand this development, it is necessary to go back a bit. In place of the immediacy found in Biblical prayer between the personal being of the praying man and the being of God, which is not purely personal but which stands in a personal relation, to the praying man, the Cabbala substituted forms of meditation whose subject is the inner structure of the divinity, the configurations of the “Sefirot,” and the dynamic prevailing among them. According to the text of the prayer, God is still the partner in a dialogue between heaven and earth. But the theosophy which has been added to the prayer alters God’s role to that of the object of an ecstatic contemplation and action. In line with this change, the text of the traditional liturgy comes to be covered by a net of kavvanot, or “intentions,” that lead the praying man into an absorption with the words and letters and with the practice of prescribed mutations, especially approximate vocalizations of the Tetragrammaton.

The Hasidic movement took over uncritically the Cabbalistic prayer book that was formed in this manner; the Baal-Shem himself sanctioned it. This state of affairs inevitably divided the community into the simple folk, who used their prayers to still the need of their hearts, and the “higher men,” who took upon themselves the meditational or theurgical task of prayer. This division soon threatened the fundamental community between the zaddik and his Hasidim.

Among the great men of prayer in the third generation was R. Shmelke of Nikolsburg, who sought to bridge this gap by raising the level of the community’s prayers, on the one hand, to a concern with the Shekhina’s return and to other more intense forms of devotion; on the other hand, in the hour of common prayer he himself prayed with the community, or rather came forth from it to lead the prayers. Another zaddik, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditshev, entered wholly into the free dialogue practiced by the common people. However, R. Shlomo of Karlin regarded his own praying—manifestly no different from the conventional praying of the zaddik—as a theurgical venture which only he could undertake (“perhaps this time too I shall still not die”).

It is perhaps not surprising that a disciple of a disciple of R. Shlomo, R. Moshe of Kobryn, should have become the one to warn against this split. Asked about the secret kavvanot of prayer by an author of Cabbalistic writings, R. Moshe answered: “You must keep in mind that the word Cabbala is derived from kabbel : to accept; and the word kavvana from kavven : to direct. For the final meaning of all the wisdom of the Cabbala is to take on oneself the yoke of God’s will, and the final meaning of all the art of kavvanot is to direct one’s heart to God.” The life indicated by the primal faith of Israel, the life of devotional cleaving to the Lord of life—to accept whatever happens to me from the hands of God and to do whatever I do as directed to God—is thus opposed to the hypertrophy of faith produced by mystical-magical doctrine. The original insight of the Baal-Shem into the fundamental need for an immediate and reciprocal relation to God that is attainable by man and that is able to encompass his whole life finds its expression in the words of a disciple of the fifth generation who had grasped the simple basic meaning of prayer that had been obscured by later Cabbalistic doctrine.

What is at issue here is not a spiritual matter that affects life to some extent but remains mostly above it: R. Shlomo’s teaching is directed to the question of living itself. When one of his disciples was asked what had been most important to his teacher, he replied: “Whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.” By accepting and dedicating whatever is happening here and now, intercourse with God is achieved in the experiences of daily life. Of the two modes of behavior—passively accepting and actively dedicating—the active is the more important. “You shall,” it is said, ‘“become an altar for God.” On this altar everything shall be offered, according to the elaboration made by the Baal-Shem of the Cabbalistic teaching of the holy sparks present in all things and awaiting redemption.



The rift between God and the world is not closed but bridged over, though with the paradoxical instruction that man constantly set foot on the invisible bridge and thus make it real. It is for this purpose that man is created and so, too, the things of this world that belong to each individual, which, as the Baal-Shem says, “with all their might entreat him to draw near in order that the sparks of holiness that are in them may be raised”: in other words, that they may be brought to God through him. Therefore man, according to other sayings of the Baal-Shem, shall “have mercy on his tools and all his possessions,” and each action shall be directed “to heaven.” We know from the first-person sayings of the Baal-Shem that he excluded nothing corporeal from this intention. Thus in the Polnaer tradition, which is undoubtedly true to the teaching of the Master, the relation between body and soul is compared to the relation of a husband to a wife: each is only half a being and needs the other half to attain the fulfillment of life.

Is this not “realism” enough? Nor, to use Scholem’s term, can one find any “nullification” of the concrete whatsoever in this line of Hasidism—which begins with the beginning of Hasidism itself. The beings and things that we hallow continue to exist undiminished; the “holy sparks” that are “raised” are not thereby withdrawn from the forms of man’s earthly life. According to the teaching of the Baal-Shem, there is, to be sure, an art of “liberating” the “holy sparks” which otherwise wander “from stone to plant, from plant to animal, from animal to speaking being.” But when he says, “All that man has, his servant, his animals, his tools, all conceal sparks that belong to the roots of his soul and wish to be raised by him,” and therefore “entreat him with all their might to draw near them,” it is certainly clear that no form of annihilation is involved but rather a dedication, a hallowing that transforms without loss of concreteness. Consequently, the Baal-Shem can also include sin in this teaching—although with a different meaning from the one that Sabbatian theology gives to the inclusion of sin in the holy. “And what sort of sparks,” he asks, “are those that dwell in sin?” To which he answers: “It is the turning. In the hour when on account of sin you carry out the turning, you raise the sparks that were in it into the upper world.” Again, this is not a nullification of the corporeal but a bridging of the two realms.

The essential point has been expressed even more clearly perhaps by a great zaddik, R. Pinchas of Koretz, who is properly regarded as a comrade rather than a disciple of the Baal-Shem. There are no words or actions, he teaches, that are idle in themselves; one only makes them into idle words and actions when one talks and acts idly.

The critical problem of Hasidism, according to Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, a disciple of Gershom Scholem, is “that life split apart for it into external action on the one side and inner intention on the other.” But this is not true. Hasidism itself was not faced with this problem, only its spiritualistic tendency, which, to be sure, won the upper hand in the school of the Maggid of Mezritch. It is only here, in the doctrine of the Mezritch tradition, that one finds such terms as “sensory appearance.” But wherever the new mode of life became stronger than the doctrine that grew out of the Cabbalistic tradition, the world of concrete daily experience was again emphasized for the sake of a hallowing that became a matter of “decision” rather than a “problem.” In sum, the inner dialectic of the Hasidic movement is that between an unoriginal Cabbalism that remained the property of “spiritual” men and a religious life with the world which was unprecedented in its capacity to seize hold of one generation after another.

That is the basis of my selection. I have chosen what I have chosen; rather, I have let Hasidism go through my heart as through a filter because here is a way, one only to be sensed, but a way. I have stated this principle time after time with what appeared to be sufficient clarity.4 It seemed clear enough to me that I was concerned from first to last with restoring immediacy to the relation between man and God, with helping to end “the eclipse of God.”

Given this objective, my selection has necessarily emphasized the unjustly despised “anecdotes”—stories of lived experience—and “aphorisms”—sayings in which lived experience documents itself. The “anecdotes” tell of the life of the zaddikim; the “aphorisms,” which originally were spoken by the zaddikim, express this life in particularly pregnant ways.

The central significance of the zaddikim is that they constitute the common and sustaining center of the movement from the beginning—provided, of course, one regards Hasidism not only as theory but as practice that is interpreted by the teaching. Among the great zaddikim, two kinds can be clearly distinguished: the zaddik who is essentially a teacher and whose decisive effect is on his disciples, and the zaddik who is essentially a helper and whose decisive effect is on the people. This is no minor distinction, for it expresses, among other things, precisely the inner dialectic we have been bringing to light. The first kind of zaddik is to be identified mainly with the spiritualizing elements; the second kind with realizing. In the person of the Baal-Shem both roles are still united; after him they diverge. In the intellectual history of the movement the decisive figures are the great teachers and heads of schools, like the Maggid of Mezritch, R. Elimelekh of Lishensk, and the “Seer” of Lublin. The popular life of the movement, however, is concentrated in such figures as the Berditchever, R. Zusya, and R. Moshe Leib of Sasov. The latter are purely unique products of Hasidism.

The zaddikim of the second kind, along with Baal-Shem, seem to me unique in their feeling of the essential relatedness of the elevated man, who has found the unity of the material and spiritual, to the simple man who, from his much lower spiritual position, can still truly devote himself to God. What the Baal-Shem said to his Hasidim about the faithful stocking-weaver—“Today I have seen the foundation stone that bears the holiness until the Redeemer comes”—is preserved, not in the teaching but in the legends, as a statement of primary importance. And a whole garland of similar tales of the Baal-Shem have been handed down, with the legendary ones supplementing the authentic.




The great hasidic contribution to the belief in the redemption of the world is its assertion that each man can work for this redemption but none can effect it. This is an insight common to all the tendencies within Hasidism. Because of the inner dialectic of the movement, however, two different teachings are again evident. The one asserts that man can work for the redemption of the world by exerting a magical influence on the divine configurations; the other asserts that man can do so only by “turning” with his whole being to God and doing everything that he does henceforth for God. He thereby enhances, in a measure corresponding to the strength of his “turning,” the capacity of the world to be redeemed: he “brings it nearer” to the heavenly influence.

That is the basic theme of my book For the Sake of Heaven, the one full-scale narrative that I have written. I wrote it because I wanted to make the inner dialectic that was visible and coherent to me visible and coherent to the man of today. Let me try here to clarify it once again.

According to the “metaphysics” of the Seer of Lublin, the demonic force already active in the Napoleonic wars could be intensified to the point where it would shake the gate of heaven and God would come forth to redeem the world. In opposition, not to this Cabbalistic doctrine itself, but rather to its magical undertakings, the “holy Yehudi” taught a simple human “existence.” He would have nothing to do with the world-historical Gog—whose wars bring the human world to the chaos from which redemption shall proceed—but confronted instead the dark Gog in our own breast. He called for the transformation of this latter Gog through the “turning”—that is, through giving direction to the indispensable passion so that it might become a force of light working directly for redemption. One should not depreciate this message by identifying it with this or that modern train of thought. To call it “anthropocentric” does not make sense to me; it is rather bipolar. The “holy Yehudi” reaches back both to the prophets of Israel—who exhort us to “turn” before God “turns” from the “naming of his wrath”—and to the idea expounded in the Talmudic age that all eschatological combinations having taken place, redemption now depends upon the human “turning” alone. In the teaching of the Baal-Shem this traditional concept finds its mystical expression in the saying: “The beginning is up to you. For if the power of procreation first stirs in the woman, a male child is born.”

That the “holy Yehudi” was deeply committed to this way to God is clearly shown by his saying, reliably transmitted by R. Shlomo of Radomsk: “Turn, turn, turn quickly in the turning, for the time is short and there is no longer any leisure for further wanderings of the soul, for redemption is near.” According to the tales I heard in my youth, this was in fact the kernel of the sermon that he repeatedly gave in varying contexts on his “great journey” through the Galician villages. The meaning of the call is clearly this: that man must accomplish the decisive movement now, without depending on the idea that his soul still has time to ascend to higher forms; for now the sphere of redemption has drawn close to our world and henceforth the important thing is to draw it at once to us.

The interpreter of Hasidism who in deep and dispassionate seriousness attempts to relate this controversy between “metaphysics” and “existence” to the problematic nature of our own world hour will recognize that all forms of magical gnosis in the end only mean an attempt to flee before the command of our human reality into the darkness above the abyss.




1 The Franciscan legends might be thought to qualify, but they differ in their manner of origin. Certain Taoist texts could be included in the genre but Taoist literature, generally speaking, is an example of parable rather than of anecdote.

2 In this respect as well, the Franciscan legends are different: the legend is composed and edited for the sake of the Order.

3 Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, (Revised ed.), Schocken Books, p. 338 ff., 344.

4 Most recently in the conclusion of the Foreword to the new edition of For the Sake of Heaven (Meridian Books, 1953) and in the title essay of Hasidism and Modern Man, edited and translated by Maurice Friedman (Horizon Press, 1958).

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