Overcoming the Body through the Body

Elliot R. Wolfson on Hasidism: A New History

Hasidism: A New History. David Biale, et al. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Hasidism: A New History is the result of a massive undertaking that will undoubtedly  stand for many years as the most comprehensive survey of a phenomenon that fundamentally altered the social and religious history of the Jews from the eighteenth century to the present. With such a colossal enterprise, inevitably there will be lacunae and legitimate critical engagement will evaluate the merits of what has commanded more attention and what has been attenuated or even ignored. As scholars have previously noted, it is reasonable to proffer the following generalization: the two salient vantagepoints from which Hasidism must be examined are the socio-historical and the hermeneutical-phenomenological. On balance, it seems that the ideational scaffolding of this volume tacitly accepts the dichotomization of these two poles, a tendency that is not uncommon in Jewish studies. In my judgment, this is a fallacious binary. Phenomenology need not be cast as metaphysical and anti-historical, as my own methodology has recently been mischaracterized. This is not to deny that on occasion such a view has been expressed. Thus, for example, Henry Corbin, the scholar of Islamic esoteric philosophy, unabashedly confessed that the “concern for truth” required of him to explain that “history as such” did not interest him. “Delineating what a spiritual greatness manifested in the past means for us ‘in the present’ is doing something other than history.” Despite my great admiration for Corbin and the ready acknowledgement that he has critically influenced my thinking, I would contend that his dismissal of history as pertinent to phenomenology is imprudent. A more compelling phenomenological orientation should be rooted in an historical enframing that epistemologically problema­tizes the commonplace belief that we can be certain that the future does not flow into the past through the present or that the past is not as much occasioned by the future as the future is by the past. In con­trast to the more conventional standpoint that views time as a sequence of now-points and thus privileges the presence of the present, the temporal presupposition buttressing the hermeneutical phenomenology that has informed my thinking entails the prospect of a reversible timeline—what I have called the timeswerve of linear circularity—such that the present may be considered the cause of the past as the past is considered the cause of the present; the past persists in the present as the trace that is reconfigured anew each moment through the agency of anamnesis. From that perspective, memory is not simply the repetition and reliving of past events; it is directed forward and therefore may be considered progressive as opposed to regressive. Building on the insights of Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger, the scholarly reconstruction of history should be construed as a futural remembering, or a remembering expectation, an act of recollecting that has the capacity to redeem the past, not by describing how the past really was but by imputing to it meaning that it never had except as the potential to become what it is not. The radical possibility of time as future implies that the past itself is only past insofar as it is the reiteration of what is yet to come, the recurrence of the similar that is entirely dissimilar.

Adopting this understanding of temporality, we would argue that the phenomenological approach to Hasidism does not need to presume the existence of timeless archetypes; on the contrary, phenomenology should be grounded noetically in the culturally specific and historically contingent. To clarify the point, let me mention that in the recently published book on Hasidism—the second volume of The Roots of Jewish Consciousness—the Jungian analyst Erich Neumann opines on the absoluteness of the present moment and its relation to the ideal of an actualized messianism:

When a human being is put to the test, it always concerns his specific situation. For this reason, each person is always contained in the unconditionality and newness of the present moment. This is a radical reversal of the doctrine of the helpful merits of the fathers. Not even one’s own merits from yesterday are helpful, for the new situation demands an absolute, not a historical, commitment. This antihistorical concept represents a revolution against the merits of the fathers, against tradition, and against relying on the past for security. Taken together with what we have called actualized messianism, it constitutes a basic teaching of Hasidism. Neither the past nor the future has priority over the present, which is fulfilled by the secret, divine light. Actualization places the individual at the center of destiny, for the world and also for God. All that matters is this individual and his existence in the here and now. The Christian doctrine of redemption, according to which the Messiah has already come, and the doctrine of the pre-Hasidic Judaism, according to which he has yet to come, are both abolished here. Individual life actualizes messianism, and the messianic stage of the individual actualizes the world to be fulfilled.

There is affinity between Neumann’s speculation and my own position on Hasidic messianism, which similarly accentuates the significance of the present as the moment that is, paradoxically, outside time but within time, indeed, within time as that which is outside time, the moment wherein the eternal is temporalized and the temporal eternalized through a transformed state of mindfulness. I concur with Neumann’s contention that from Hasidic texts we can elicit a denunciation of viewing time as an amorphous continuum as opposed to an endless series of now-points, each one a distinctive contraction of the infinite light, a reiteration of that which is continually different because continually the same and continually the same because continually different. Nonetheless, I would resist the characterization of this experience of time as antihistorical. To be in the moment—the most concrete abstraction of the abstract concretization of human temporality—is to be deeply enrooted in historical context. Pitting history against phenomenology is a false polarity. What is required to assess the spiritual comportment of Hasidism is a variant construal of historicity, one that is not beholden to a linear historicism, which is predicated, in turn, on a chronoscopic conception of time made up of discrete points such that the present at hand, as it were, is positioned between a present that is no longer and a present that is not yet.

In my judgment, the study of Hasidism would benefit from a hermeneutic based on the geometric confabulation of time that is circular in its linearity and linear in its circularity. There is ample evidence that this is precisely the understanding of time affirmed by many Hasidic masters. One might protest that the academic study of Hasidim should distance itself from the notion of time embraced by the Hasidic masters. Up to a point I agree with this stipulation; I am not convinced, however, that such a rigorous distinction is beneficial in the critical study of this phenomenon. At the very least, the phenomenological explains the historical, not the other way around, in spite of the overwhelming bias of the academy, including the volume under consideration. The assumed criticism that this theorization of time lacks practical significance is not the final arbiter of its truthfulness.

What I am calling the phenomenological corresponds to part 3 of Hasidism: A New History, “Beliefs and Practices,” which consists of three chapters, ethos, rituals, and institutions. For the purposes of this brief review, I want to focus on what has arguably been posited as a critical idea that informed the piety promulgated in the name Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, worship through corporeality (avodah be-gashmiyyut), discussed under the taxonomy of ethos. The latter term—from the Greek word for character—is defined more specifically as “a range of values and practices broader than theology. … Theology was mustered into the service of the world of human beings. Put differently, the concept of ethos suggests that Hasidic practices are grounded in a certain set of ethical and spiritual values that, in turn, reflect a theological background, and that these elements influence each other.” The authors are quick to point out that since Hasidism was never a monolithic movement, there is no single set of ideas or practices to which the plethora of dynasties adhered. Moreover, from its inception the ethos of Hasidism is not only inconsistent but may even be contradictory.

Turning specifically to avodah be-gashmiyyut, the authors follow the standard view that this locution demarcates the celebration of the material world as a locus of divinity, an ostensibly unique idea that distinguished Beshtian Hasidism from earlier forms of Jewish pietism. The authors observe that the debate between Buber and Scholem revolved around this very idea. Buber was of the opinion that the Hasidic ideal entailed revealing the spirit of God in the material world and thus the demand is to worship through the corporeal. By contrast, Scholem focused on the shedding of corporeality (hitpashsheṭut ha-gashmiyyut) as the means to achieve a  state of union and the annihilation of self (biṭṭul ha-yesh). It is rightly noted that one can find in the sources support for both perspectives. Some texts proffer a more positive view of the physical and thus the mandate is to hallow the body, whereas other texts proffer a more negative view and thus the mandate is to restrain, if not to abrogate, the body. We are also told that commensurate to the spread and institutionalization of Hasidism in the nineteenth century there is a decline in the emphasis on the worship through corporeality. Running the risk of libertinism, the idea became more elitist and was restricted to the religious leadership.

An alternate explanation of avodah be-gashmiyyut is warranted, one that pivots around an understanding of corporeality that challenges the conjecture that there was an historical waning of this ideal. The explanation I am proffering, moreover, can attenuate the tension between the disquieting denial of the body, on the one hand, and the joyful embrace of the body, on the other hand, a tension that is duly noted but left unresolved by the authors. In some respects, my explanation is congruent with the position of Scholem, and thus I concur that, notwithstanding the widespread conviction that the Besht altered the earlier kabbalistic conception of piety by celebrating the mundane and rejecting a stringent abstention from the world of sensual pleasure, the dicta reported in his name—and there is no reason to doubt their trustworthiness—indicate that a kernel of the ascetic discipline persists. Indeed, the two most important disciples of the Besht, Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye and Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhirech, taught that contemplative ecstasy is consequent to the quietistic stripping away of materiality. In contrast to Scholem, however, I maintain that transcending the corporal entails an alchemical transformation into a more reified sense of embodiment, a process that is effectuated not by anomian forms of meditation or magic but through compliance to ritual obligations—and this would include the practice of unifications (yiḥudim)—mystically conceived as limbs and sinews of the divine body, identified as the Tetragrammaton or the Torah. The transmutation, therefore, is a recalibration rather than an obliteration of tangible bodiliness. Here it is worth recalling the use of the expression “tantric approach” by Miles Krassen to describe the Besht’s idea of avodah be-gashmiyyut adopted by the Maggid, that is, the viewing of activities involving corporeal pleasure as an opportunity to release the pneumatic sparks entrapped in the shells of materiality. Even if one is uncomfortable with the use of the term tantric, we can avow that, phenomenologically, the Hasidic directive of discarding the material is itself an embellishment of the material in the same fashion that, hermeneutically, every unveiling of the secret is another form of veiling.

According to the Maggid of Mezhirech, only the righteous, who constrict themselves in the act of humility and are thereby divested of corporeality (mufshaṭim mi-gashmiyyut), are capable of discerning the incarnational mystery of the Godhead constricting itself and dwelling in the world by means of the Torah and the commandments. Just as the singularity of the infinite has to be contracted in the guise of the innumerable particularities of the multiple worlds, so the human being, in order to be unified with the divine, has to be divested of all corporeality and annihilated completely from the existence of discriminate beings that are seemingly separate from the indiscriminate godliness. One recalls, for instance, the discussion of Shneur Zalman of Liadi in the nineteenth chapter of the first part of Tanya to the effect that the aspect of wisdom of the divine soul of the Jew, which is a spark of the infinite light, must overcome its exile in the shell of the animal soul—the mystical import of the traditional concept of the exile of the Shekhinah—by withstanding the desires of this world. The anthropomorphic humanification of the divine through the kenosis of ṣimṣum is thus homologous to the theomorphic divinization of the human through the dissolution of self-renunciation. The divestiture, however, is concurrently an investiture, a transfiguration as opposed to an eradication of the somatic.

This alternative notion of enfleshment holds the key to understanding the much discussed Hasidic principle of worship through corporeality. What is intended by this tenet is not an unqualified exaltation of the physical, let alone the potential for deliberately antinomian actions. Nor am I convinced that the idea of corporeal worship is grounded in the dialectical relationship between matter and form such that one passes through the material to reach the spiritual goal. The explanatory model I am proposing is based rather on the transformation of the carnal body into the linguistic body, the restoration of all things to their “first matter” (ḥomer ha-ri’shon), identified more technically as the hylic matter of divine wisdom or the Torah whose mystical essence is the divine name, YHWH, which contains all the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. One who is enlightened appreciates that every physical action, no matter how trivial, can become a technique of serving God, for everything that one does—not simply everything that one says—is through the agency of the letters, a point that necessarily follows from the longstanding assumption that the letters are both the instruments of divine creativity and the substance of all that is created. This is the import of Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye’s comment that the verse “In all your ways know him” (Proverbs 3:6) imparts that through the ritual (miṣwah) that is enacted somatically one that makes of the corporeal (gashmi) something spiritual (ruḥani). According to the interpretation of this verse ascribed to the Beshṭ, an individual must “relegate his mind to every corporeal thing [litten ha-da‘at be-khol davar gashmi] to elevate it and to bind it, to unite the tent so that it will be one.” The theurgical dynamic of knowing God in all of one’s ways in the world is predicated on the admittedly incomprehensible mystery of the metaphysical being garbed in the physical. The releasing of the sparks of divinity through seemingly pedestrian acts that involve the flesh is possible only because of the assumption regarding the true nature of the corporeal—I do not pretend that the majority of Hasidim ever understood this kabbalistic dogma but this does not mean that the masters, who promulgated the ideational foundation for the movement, did not uphold this belief, much as today millions of people benefit from digital technology without knowing a thing about computer science. The pietistic ideal is based on perceiving the immanence of the divine in all things, but this perception, in turn, rests on contemplating the spiritual luminosity clothed in the letters so that the base physicality morphs into the semiotic body, the body whose limbs are the letters comprised in the alef, the wisdom (ḥokhmah) or thought (maḥashavah) that is the root of all the alphabetic ciphers and hence the ontic source of all being (alufo shel olam), the oneness of infinity (aḥdut ha-ein sof). Based on an older orthographic decoding of the alef in kabbalistic sources as made up of a yod on top, a waw in the middle, and a yod of the bottom, this letter can be demarcated as an encoded reference to the Tetragrammaton—the numerical sum of yod, waw, and yod (10 + 6 + 10) is the same as YHWH (10 + 5 + 6 + 5). The alef is the name by which the nameless is vocalized, the garment through which the nonapparent becomes apparent, the vestment in which the infinite that transcends spatial locality is assigned the title “place” (maqom), the materialization of the immaterial in the concatenation of worlds that are comprised in the Hebrew letters.

Reiterating a fundamental doctrine of Jewish esotericism, which he reportedly heard from the Besht, Jacob Joseph writes that “just as there are twenty-two letters in the speech of Torah and prayer, so in all the material and corporeal entities of the world there are also the twenty-two letters through which the world and everything that is in it was created. … The letters are garbed in the matter of the entities of the world in several coverings, garments, and shells, and within the letters there dwells the spirituality of the blessed holy One, and thus his glory, blessed be he, ‘fills the whole earth’ (Isaiah 6:3) and all that is in it, ‘there is no place devoid of him’ as it is explained in the Tiqqunim.” The Hasidic innovation is to juxtapose the doctrine of radical divine immanence—expressed by the paraphrase of Isaiah 6:3 and the oft-cited passage from section seventy of Tiqqunei Zohar—with the archaic belief that the substance of the physical universe is composed of the Hebrew letters. Insofar as the spirituality of the divine is enclothed in the letters, it follows that nature, the icon of the invisible, may be envisioned as the book in which the ineffable is inscribed. To probe the depth of this teaching, we must bear in mind the dual function of the garment as that which concomitantly reveals and conceals, indeed as that which reveals in the manner that it conceals and conceals in the manner that it reveals. We can speak of the world manifesting the divine presence only if we apprehend that this manifestation is an occlusion—precisely by hiding the light of infinity does finite nature expose it.

To summarize this brief discussion of a topic that demands a more elaborate analysis, the historical import of the Hasidic doctrine of the worship through corporeality is related to the phenomenological ideal of the transmogrification of the fleshly into the textual body. The efficacy of liberating sparks by means of corporeal worship extends democratically to all who fulfill the commandments, and not only to those with the capacity to elevate wayward thoughts, but the esoteric wisdom of this process is discerned by the men of knowledge, those who have divested themselves of the gross materiality and assumed the contours of the transfigured corporeality, the body as letter, through the state of expanded mindfulness. This transubstantiation—which is portrayed in the hierarchical language of the submission of matter to form or as the act of contrition and self-abnegation—can be attained in the present as a prolepsis of what will be realized unreservedly in the messianic future.

Elliot R. Wolfson is the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent publications include The Duplicity of Philosophy’s Shadow: Heidegger, Nazism and the Jewish Other(2018) and Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiesis(2019).