Originally published in The Journal of Religion, 87:1 (2007), pp. 138-40.
JACOBS, Louis. Their Heads in Heaven: Unfamiliar Aspects of Hasidism. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2005. x + 190 pp. $28.95 (paper).
This volume is one of several recent ventures to collect and re-present the lifetime achievements of Louis Jacobs. This collection draws together published and unpublished essays, encyclopedia entries, and lectures on aspects of Hasidism, the popular mystical movement that arose in eighteenth-century Eastern European Jewry. The articles, spanning the length of Jacobs’s career, are a series of studies on the attitudes, doctrines, literature, exegetical methods, and sociological features of Hasidism. Jacobs’s early immersion in Hasidic learning in Eastern European Yeshivot reconstituted in England, coupled with his scholarly training, makes him a rare, if not sui generis, purveyor of Hasidic knowledge.
Those familiar with Jacobs’s scholarly oeuvre will immediately notice several lacunae in this collection. After all, over the course of his prolific career, Jacobs has weighed in on the academic study of Hasidism (e.g., “Aspects of Scholem’s Study of Hasidism,” Modern Judaism 5, no. 1 : 95-104), published annotated translations of classical Hasidic works (e.g., Dobh Baer of Lubavitch’s Tract on Ecstasy [London, 1962]), engaged Hasidic doctrine with philosophic reasoning (e.g., “Jewish Parallels to the Tertullian Paradox,” in his Faith [New York, 1968]: 201-9), and explored the role of Hasidism in shaping present-day constructive Jewish theology (“The Relevance and Irrelevance of Hasidism,” Solomon Goldman Lectures, Spertus College, Chicago, 1979). Notwithstanding our indebtedness to Vallentine Mitchell for bringing together the scattered sparks of Jacobs’s scholarship, how are we to understand this idiosyncratic volume of phenomenological jottings on Hasidic thought and culture?
Our Ariadne’s thread becomes visible by placing this book alongside a strikingly similar collection of essays by Jacobs’s late colleague and friend Joseph Weiss. Weiss’s Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism (ed. David Goldstein [Oxford 1985]) contains a table of contents very much like the one for this volume. Indeed, these two scholars, both participants in Alexander Altmann’s Institute of Jewish Studies, in Manchester, collaborated and supported each other’s scholarly efforts. Together they sought to bring the texts, themes, and theology of Eastern European Jewry to the English-speaking public.
For example, both Jacobs and Weiss seek to come to terms with Hasidic motivations for the study of Torah. The rabbinic ideal of Torah “for its own sake” viewed Torah study as an intellectual end to itself, one without ulterior motivation. The Hasidic emphasis on devekut (spiritual practices aimed toward adherence to God) risked denigrating the preeminent status of Torah study. Both Jacobs and Weiss correctly identify the early Hasidic attempts to synthesize the contemplative ideal with the commandment of Torah study by assigning a mystical status to study as an occasion for devekut (mystical communion with the Divine). Jacobs posits this theological stance to be a useful sociological marker between Hasidim and their opponents (Mitnagdim). Weiss retrieves multiple voices within Hasidism that seek to marginalize the importance of Torah study altogether, giving devekut precedence. Thus while differences exist, these two essays may be read as two sides of one conversation between scholarly peers.
Other themes, common to both Jacobs and Weiss, take very different tactics. Jacobs’s study “The Tzaddik as a Source of Danger” explores the magical powers exercised by holy men from the Bible up through Hasidic literature, toward the conclusion that the baneful powers of spiritual holy men is a sustained element throughout Jewish literature. Weiss’s study “The Tzaddik: Altering the Divine Will” explores the means by which Hasidism reconciled belief in a supernaturally empowered holy man with the notion of humanity’s ongoing dependence on God.
Present throughout Jacobs’s essays is his methodological insistence on identifying the constitutive elements of Hasidic thought and culture while avoiding the pitfall of applying unfamiliar and modern categories to an unsystematic literature and culture. As noted, Jacobs seeks to situate the theological and exegetical modes of Hasidism in their sociological context: thus, for example, Jacobs’s intriguing suggestion that the pervasiveness of the father-son theme of rebellion and reconciliation in Hasidic literature should be understood as a window into the tensions of this insurgent movement.
Given the varied contexts in which Jacobs’s studies were first generated, there exists an uneven quality to the chapters, ranging from the sophisticated to the journalistic and homiletic. So too, there exists inevitable an overlap of material (e.g., treatment of the Nefesh Hayyim’s views on Torah study in chaps. 2 and 9). Given the breadth of insights offered throughout this volume, these drawbacks are more than mitigated. Ultimately, this volume accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: to serve as a point of entry into unfamiliar aspects of Hasidism and the scholarly contribution of Louis Jacobs.
ELLIOT COSGROVE, Chicago, Illinois.