Originally published in the National Jewish Monthly, May 1979.
Hasidic Prayer by Louis Jacobs. Schocken Books. 195 pp. $3.95.
In most of the major cities of the United States and in a good many college towns, Hasidim, sometimes in full dress, are not unusual sights. The Lubavitch Hasidim have built a network of Habad houses and established hasidic synagogues and schools all over the world in an effort to fight assimilation, to deepen Jewish sensitivity, and to foster a sense of Jewish community that is intensely religious. The effort has been mounted with vitality, by deeply committed, intelligent, utterly sincere, and, for the most part, youthful men and women.
Along with the official Habad movement, a parallel movement has developed, which was described by one astute observer as pop-Hasidism. This movement borrows heavily from hasidic mystical sources and utilizes the hasidic stress on emotionalism, spontaneity and innovation in the celebration of Jewish religious experiences. The proliferation of havurot, the widespread use of The Jewish Catalog and the renewed interest in Jewish mysticism are only the most visible aspects of this movement.
These movements, taken together, are now the single most influential spiritual force within American Jewish life. Federations sponsor Shabbat retreats led by Habad teachers and even some classical Reform congregations have introduced hasidic nigunim and handclapping in their formal worship services. The Conservative movement engaged one of the original authors of The Jewish Catalog to edit its new Haggada. This new Haggada represents a sharp departure from all previous Conservative publications in that it is heavily celebratory in nature, rather than historical or educational. Other examples abound. The popularity of the Israeli Hasidic Song Festival is evidence of the strength and power of this new trend.
If we are to have Hasidism—Lubavitch, Pop, or any other type—at the very least we ought to provide ourselves with a deeper understanding of the Hasid. The fact is that the Hasid is not simply a dancing, finger-snapping, ethnically authentic Jew intoxicated with the joy of celebration.
Louis Jacobs, in his recently reprinted book, Hasidic Prayer, has provided us with a splendid analysis of the various hasidic attitudes toward human nature, spirituality, good and evil, and the meaning of Jewish existence. While the book is organized around prayer and Jewish rituals, it presents a serious study of both Hasidism and the opposition to which it gives rise. Jacobs is a gifted teacher who offers the best of hasidic teachings along with a properly critical view of the implications of these teachings.
In Hasidic Prayer, the reader will encounter the mythic foundation of all Hasidism, the Kabbala. He will learn how very seriously the Hasidim treat the Kabbala and he will be brought, inevitably, to wonder if Jewish life today ought to be based on a set of mystical myths. The reader will learn of the critical importance of the Zaddik, or Rebbe, and inevitably question whether or not one wishes to derive one’s spiritual worth from another human being, no matter how exalted the Zaddik.
Jacobs shows us that Hasidim are very serious about prayer. To some Hasidim, prayer is no passive exercise. The Hasidim teach that prayer literally influences the divine processes and, in effect, changes the nature of reality. The picture Jacobs paints is the very opposite of the sentimentality commonly attributed to the Hasid.
By providing ample selections from original hasidic source materials, diaries, letters, responsa and commentaries, Jacobs shows that Hasidism rests on a context of serious philosophy and a coherent, tightly drawn, highly intellectual view of the nature of the Jew and the Creator. Moreover, these sources show that while the Hasidim were genuine innovators in Jewish religious life, they are sharply opposed to any kind of innovation which does not flow clearly from the hasidic traditions.
Jacobs does not only offer hasidic sources. He provides a generous sample of anti-hasidic writings. These writings are included not merely for the purpose of illuminating a historical dispute, but more importantly, to show that ours is not the first generation to feel the heavy impact of Hasidism and to believe that its vitality and emotional appeal should be grafted on to existing religious patterns and institutions. The most serious (and least vituperative) anti-hasidic writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries warned that a massive and uncritical acceptance of hasidic modes is not only bad policy, but bad Hasidism, as well.
Hasidic Prayer is not entertainment. The reader will not find here the lovable characters from Fiddler on the Roof. If this short volume is studied, as well as read, the reader, regardless of his level of Jewish education, will be deeply rewarded.
Rabbi Alexander Graubart is director of B’nai B’rith’s Adult Jewish Education Commission.