Originally published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 42:1 (1974), pp. 142, 144-6.
Hasidic Prayer. By LOUIS JACOBS. New York: Schocken Books, 1973. 195 pages. $8.95 hb. L.C. No. 72-86765.
Louis Jacobs’ Hasidic Prayer is the newest in a constantly proliferating number of works on or about Hasidism. Rabbi Jacobs’ works in the field of Jewish mysticism are well known and equally well respected. He has, for example, published a translation—with introduction—of Cordovero’s Palm Tree of Devorah (London, 1960). More to the point, his observations concerning Hasidism, particularly its latter phases, have been admirably presented in such works as Seeker of Unity (New York, 1966) —a study of Aaron of Starosselje (d. 1828), leader of an emotionalist branch of HaBaD Hasidim, and his translation of Dov Baer’s (of Lubavich, d. 1827) Tractate on Ecstasy (London, 1963). Jacobs thus appears eminently qualified to undertake the present volume.
Hasidic Prayer isolates a particular expression of religiosity, i.e., prayer, and traces its career through various periods in the development of Hasidic thought. The book strives for completeness of coverage—ranging from the Baal Shem Tov (the Besht) at the movement’s inception up until and including the HaBaD phase of Hasidism. Moreover, Jacobs provides a valuable service to the English-speaking audience by collecting and translating portions of a number of important Hasidic texts. In addition, he calls the reader’s attention to significant Hebrew studies of the Hasidic phenomenon. Jacobs, for example, synthesizes the original contributions of thinkers such as the late Professor J. G. Weiss, as well as the more recent work of Professor R. Schatz-Uffenheimer. The latter two scholars both were trained by Professor G. Scholem.
Jacobs has marshalled an impressive array of texts and commentaries. He cites with facility some relevant sections of the Toledot Yaakov Yossef—the first Hasidic book, the Noam Elimelekh—a crucial text for the “zaddikology” of the later Hasidic movement, as well as many other texts and studies. The phenomenon of prayer and its adjacent counterparts of both enthusiasm (hitlahavut) and contemplation (kavvanah) is treated in an intelligent and scholarly fashion. The author has correctly drawn attention to the Hasidic demand that kavvanah and devekuth (attachment or adhesion) are the primary requirements of Hasidic prayer life.
But there are problems connected with Jacobs’ presentation. For example, it is ironic that he makes such an abbreviated attempt at critically treating the central topic—prayer. There is no discussion of the essence of prayer. Useful typologies of prayer, such as offered by F. Heiler’s Das Gebet (English translation Prayer) (London, 1932) and I. Elbogen’s magisterial if somewhat antiquated Der Judische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (1931), have not been employed by Jacobs. Elbogen, in fact, has a chapter dealing with this problem—“Der Einfluss der mystik auf den Gottesdienst.” Jacobs’ work reduces prayer to two basic types, contemplative (chaps. 6 & 7) and ecstatic (chap. 8). Within this framework Jacobs discerns two further types: prayers of adoration and petitionary prayers (p. 23).
He is correct as far as he goes. But he neglects to mention a motif intimately associated with prayer and worship in the early phase of the movement, i.e., avodah be-gashmiyyut (service, or worship in corporeality). After all, one of the familiar accusations against the Hasidim was their bizarre methods of praying. Reverting to the Lurianic siddur also prompted denunciations from the mittnagdim, especially Rabbi David of Makkow (d. 1814). Hasidic advocacy of seemingly “profane” activities, i.e., smoking, dancing, and even sexual intercourse, as a legitimate means of worship must be taken into account in any study purporting to deal with Hasidic prayer.
Curiously, apart from the first page of the book, Jacobs ignores for the most part the appearance of parallel revivalistic movements in the world at large. There are isolated reminders (p. 54 and p. 176, n. 5) but little in the way of comparative typologies of prayer. Jacobs notes the Shakers and states that the Hasidim are like the Mennonites and the Quakers in their worship (p. 176, n. 5). He does not indicate, however, that during the same century (eighteenth) one could find similar kinds of revivalism occurring in France—the “convolutionaries”—and in the United States, where the first of the so-called “Great Awakenings” was taking place. What points of contact—phenomenologically—did these movements share? What, for example, was their position on lay preaching, or on preaching extempore? Did they encourage an enthusiastic type of religious expression? Finally, what kinds of things can be said of prayer in any “religion of experience?”
Jacobs’ book, while learned if not original, is neither a textual-philogical study in the model of Scholem and his “school,” i.e., scholars he has trained at the Hebrew University, nor is it a socio-religious study along the lines suggested by the works of Martin Buber. It presents a compilation of much data but little attempt at interpretation or analysis.
The work, owing to its voluminous citations, resembles an “academic scrapbook.” It tends to give entirely too much documentation and entirely too little analysis. Space forbids a detailed precis of the work, but one example may suffice. Jacobs correctly indicates that the nature of Hasidic prayer does change from the emotionally charged atmosphere of the founder to his more contemplative and sober-minded successor—Dov Baer of Meseritch (the Great Maggid). He does not, however, indicate the varying sociological conditions which prevailed during the first two “regimes.” The Besht was a wandering preacher. He can be seen typologically against the background of earlier Sabbatian wandering holy men in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century eastern Europe. The Maggid, on the other hand, represents the “settling down” of the movement. Dov Baer, to be sure, sent out emissaries and missionaries, but he and subsequent zaddikim represented a movement which could claim a stabilitas locus, the home or the “court” of the Zaddik. Surely the implications of this change can be reflected in the type of worship which is considered paradigmatic.
Moreover, Jacobs treats the Hasidic phenomenon in an overly historicistic, i.e., reductionistic, manner. He is willing to admit that “there is undoubtedly a core of historical truth behind all the Legends” (p. 94), but he reminds the reader that certain reports must “be accepted with more than a grain of scepticism since their authors lived several decades after the heroes mentioned” (p. 94). Jacobs here glosses over both the problem and significance of the role of oral tradition in popular lay movements of enthusiastic religion. For example, similar emphasis upon tales is found in both Sufi literature and the Franciscan legends. In fact, Buber suggests that the Hasidic Tale can be placed with these other tales in the category of “legendary anecdote.”
Further evidence of Jacobs’ reductionist tendency is presented in his contention that “the efficacy of the Zaddik’s prayer was Judaism’s reply to the Christian claim that Christianity was superior to Judaism” (p. 127). The Hasidic movement certainly reacted to an unfavorable socio-political climate. Times were difficult and conditions oppressive for all but the relatively few economically and religiously privileged Jews. But does Jacobs really intend to leave the reader with the impression that the geist of Hasidism was bereft of any internal integrity? This contention certainly is not borne out by the movement’s apparent, and continuing, resiliancy and spiritual resonance.
Jacobs rightly points out that the Zaddik can be meaningfully regarded as a prayer leader (p. 127). But this ironically draws too sharp a distinction between “religion” and “life.” Certainly the earliest of the Zaddikim, the Besht, was concerned to “spiritualize” every facet of man’s daily activities. The Shivhei Ha-Besht—the earliest collections of Legends concerning the Besht—for example, emphasizes the importance of man’s livelihood (parnasah) and other matters of the “profane” sphere which, with the correct kavvanah, could be employed in the act of worship. The Zaddik may in fact have been a prayer leader, but he was much more. He was an intensely charismatic guru whose example, no less than his sermons, was a source of inspiration.
Finally, Jacobs has commited a historical error which he should have avoided. He writes that “the Hasidic elevation of prayer over other religious duties, even over that of study of the Torah, is not in keeping with Jewish tradition” (p. 17). This simply is not the case. Scholem, in his rich and illuminating essay “Devekuth, or Communion with God” (New York, 1950), has observed that no less a kabbalist than Isaac Luria had, two centuries earlier, reportedly advocated that “. . . retreat from society, asceticism, and devekuth” was seven times more useful to the soul than study (p. 119). Moreover, the “Hasidim of Old” (Hasidim Ha-Rishonim) had taken nine hours off their time of study in order to practice solitude and devekuth (ibid., p. 127). Jacobs rightly reminds the reader that one cannot understand Hasidic expression without an intense study of Kabbalah (pp. 77 and 89 passim), yet his own work appears almost “cluttered” with Kabbalistic antecedents. Perhaps a brief expository chapter on relevant Kabbalistic notions would have helped.
Despite the fact that specialists will have much to debate in this book, Jacobs has presented the generalists with a closer glimpse of Hasidic data. Prayer is indeed a central phenomenon of man’s worship. It requires a phenomenological investigation and an attempt to assess its role in the “religious” life. Moreover, Jacobs has shed light on the important doctrine of “strange thoughts” (Mahshavoth Zaroth) which played so vital a role in the psychological emphasis of early Hasidism. The book does provide at least a taste of the rich harvest of Hasidic research. Jacobs’ work may well serve as a stimulus to other students of Hasidism attempting to delineate the ambiance of prayer within the sphere of an intensely emotional and enthusiastic Jewish religiosity.
ALAN L. BERGER