Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), p. 48.
Annihilation of selfhood: the hasidic ideal of self-transcendence. In hasidic theory a person’s ego interposes a barrier between the real self and God. A saying attributed to R. Uri of Strelisk, for example, interprets the passage “I stood between the Lord and you” (Deuteronomy 5:5) to mean that a person’s “I” stands between that person and that person’s God. For this reason some of the hasidic teachers would never use the personal pronoun “I.”
The practice of the hasidim of R. Hayyim Heikel of Amdur of turning somersaults during their prayers was in obedience to the bittul hayesh doctrine—the complete overturning of self. One of the reasons given for the need of the hasidim to journey to the tzaddik was that through their association with others in a common enterprise and through their appreciation of their insignificance when they appeared before the holy man, they would attain to bittul hayesh. A text frequently quoted in hasidic literature for the doctrine is, “What are we?” (Exodus 16:8), said by Moses and Aaron. Our true greatness consists in our ability to say “What am I?” to ourselves.
The theory behind this doctrine is the hasidic view that God alone is the true Reality, so that the created universe and those who inhabit it do not enjoy ultimate being. Consequently, people’s grasping ego, calling as it does our attention to the world of the senses, causes our life to be invaded by illusion, and we fail to see the power of God infusing all. The early hasidic text Tzavaat HaRibash (Jerusalem, 1948, p. 2) states:
In what way is a man better than a worm? For the worm serves God with all its might and mind, and man, too, is a worm, as it is written: “But I am a worm, and no man” (Psalms 22:7). If God had not endowed man with intellect, he could only have worshipped Him as does a worm. Consequently, he has no more worth up on high than does a worm, and certainly not more than other men. He should think to himself that he and the worm and all minute creatures are all companions in this world, for all are God’s creatures and have no power except that which the Creator, blessed be He, gives them.
This is the hasidic basis for the ideal of humility, but it is not incompatible with a high degree of self-regard and self-fulfillment. Before he can attain to self-annihilation, man must develop the self to be annihilated.
The doctrine of bittul hayesh is clearly at variance with Martin Buber’s attempt to read his “I and Thou” philosophy into Hasidism. As a mystical movement, Hasidism may begin with the “I” and its enjoyment of the world in a spirit of consecration, but the ultimate aim of the hasid is to peer beneath the veil and see only the divine vitality, which infuses all things. Instead of the encounter between the hasid’s “I” and God’s “Thou,” the hasid seeks to arrive at that stage at which, lost to the divine, the “I” is completely negated.
G. Scholem, The Messianic Ideal in Judaism, pp. 227-250.