Sunday 29 January 2023

415) The changing face of mysticism in the evolution of Chassidism


The Grand Synagogue of R. Yisrael of Ruzhin (der heiliger Ruzhiner) in Sadigur. 


This article, drawn extensively from the research by Professor Benjamin Brown, looks at how Chassidism, which started out as a mystical movement, slowly redefined its mysticism and, over time, replaced it with various substitutes.[1] 

From what began as a small movement in the eighteenth century with relatively common mystical ideas, the nineteenth century brought with it:

“deep ideological transformation…the vast majority of which were not mystical” (Brown 2017:247).

The mystical fervour of the early generations soon dissipated and became ‘neutralised’ by Chassidic substitutes. We shall look at a number of such examples. 

Phase One: The mystical phase

The Baal Shem Tov spoke of the importance of experiential Deveikut, or mystical ecstasy resulting from personal communion with G-d. This is also known as unio mystica. But within a generation or so because this process involved complicated procedures demanding bittul hayesh (nullification of the self) and the transforming of the ani (ego) into ayin (nothingness)[2] this became too difficult for ordinary followers to maintain on any meaningful level, so the concept of the Tzadik or Rebbe was instituted to act as a ‘facilitator’ for such practices. This developed into the idea of ‘attaching oneself to the Tzadik,’ which became a fundamental Chassidic concept.

The Baal Shem Tov’s successor, R. Dov Ber, known as the Magid of Mezerich describes the processes of Deveikut:

“in the lower level the person forgets his physicality, in the next level he does not hear what he speaks, and only when he feels he annuls all his physical capacities can he trust that he has reached the top” (Magid Devarav leYakov, sec. 57).

Because this was not easy to achieve, the Maggid, in his Or haEmet (197) advised his followers to reduce their time spent on studying, although not neglecting it entirely, to make time for such spiritual experiences (Brown 2017:252). 

Then came R. Yakov Yosef of Polna (Polnoye) and he introduced a ‘substitute’ to the difficult practice of Deveikut. He specifically proposed the study of Torah, which became a meditative technique, as a substitute for Deveikut. 

Some focused on the concept of Avodah beGashmiyut (serving G-d through physicality). Avoda beGashmiyut, in its various formulations, could either mean the emphasis on material involvement with the physical world (such as eating, singing, and working) or the opposite, its very negation. Either way, this offered an alternative substitute for Deveikut as it promised to elevate the ‘sparks’ hidden in the material universe, thus achieving the same results as the initial concept of communion with G-d. 

Others, like R. Pinchas of Koritz[3] and Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev,[4] took this idea and emphasised its relationship to other human beings who also have ‘sparks’ of holiness; thus cultivating the notion of communion and friendship, even extending it to the ‘outside’ world of sinners. This ‘outreach’ became an important preoccupation of some Rebbes. It was another substitute for Deveikut. 

Phase Two: The less mystical phase

Up to this point, although the movement regressed a little, away from the initial intensity of the Deveikut of the Baal Shem Tov, it still retained that mystical element. But this all changed quite dramatically as the movement moved further into the nineteenth century:

“Hasidic leadership…stopped being mystical-charismatic and became institutional-dynastic” (Brown 2017:255)

The sociologist Steven Sharot describes Chassidism as undergoing a process of “Routinization of Charisma.”[5] During this phase:

“[t]he tzaddikim were no longer required to be mystics but inherited their position or won it by virtue of other personal traits. Some of the practices that were used regularly as a means of achieving the mystical experience underwent a process of ritualization and were defined as ‘hasidic customs’” (Brown 2017:256).

This observation was not just made by scholars from the outside, but even within the movement, some Rebbes were extremely conscious of this evolution. R. Chayim of Sanz (ca. 1797–1876), for example, said that the way of the Baal Shem Tov would only last for 150 years and expire towards the end of the nineteenth century.[6] R. Shlomo Zalman of Kopust (a branch of Chabad: see Kotzk Blog: 189) SUCCESSION BATTLES WITHIN CHABAD:) said the movement would only endure 120 years, ending with him.[7] R. Ahron Roth (1894–1947), of Shomer Emunim, a Rebbe during the twentieth century, claimed that Chasidism had lost its way.[8] R. Yoel of Satmar (1887–1979) famously said that “the path of the Baal Shem Tov has been forgotten.” 

Model 1) From Mysticism to materialism

The most widespread model of substitution for intense mysticism became the Chassidic Rebbes’ perceived ability to ‘draw down’ the shefa, or flow of G-dly energy, to activate chayei, banei umezonei (life, children, and sustenance) for their followers. This style of leadership was exemplified by R. Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717–87). He actually articulates this very transformation from mystical Deveikut to what has become known as ‘material tzaddikism,’ as follows:

“The complete devekut that the tzaddik has [in God] is that by which he bestows all good to the entirety of Israel” (Noam Elimelech).[9]

This ‘material tzaddikism’ became one of the most popular means of attracting adherents, particularly in Eastern Europe (Brown 2017:258). Other Rebbes who practised this approach were R. Abraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt (ca. 1748–1825), the “Seer” of Lublin (R. Yaakov Yitzhak Horovitz, 1745–1815), and R. Menachem Mendel of Kosov (1768–1825). 

Model 2) From mysticism to intellectual immersion

A student of the Maggid, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (1745–1812) who founded the Chabad dynasty, taught a path of ‘intellectual faith,’ particularly the comprehension of G-d’s immanence in the world, as a new means to achieving mystical Deveikut. He writes:

“[only one who] binds his knowledge and fixes his thought with firmness and perseverance [will] produce in his soul true love and fear [of G-d. Without that, he will produce][10] only vain fancies” (Tanya).[11]

Brown explains:

“in other words, the learning of hasidic theology is supposed to attain goals similar to those that the devekut attained in early Hasidism” (Brown 2017:260).

Another proponent of study as a later-generational substitute for Deveikut was R. Yitzhak Isaac Yehiel Safrin of Komarno (1806–74).[12] He emphasised study not so much of the Torat haChasidut (Chassidic doctrine) as per R. Shneur Zalman but rather of the Zohar. He writes:

“If my people listened to me, in this wicked generation, they would study the Zohar and the Tikkunei Zohar with nine-year-old children.”

Model 3) From mysticism to Meditation

R. Nahman of Breslov (1772–1810) certainly did lead a rich mystical life personally, “but he did not preach mystical experience to his followers, and his main emphasis was quite different” (Brown 2017:261). In fact, the teachings to his followers are startlingly sombre. He suggests that we are not living in what most people think is Olam haZeh (this world). Olam haZeh is not here, it is somewhere else. Here is Hell! We are in Gehinom (Hell):

“for here it appears to be Hell, as all people are full of sufferings” (Likutei Moharan).[13]

And it gets worse:

“[T]he path of ascent to God is full of ‘hindrances’ (meni’ot), that the believer has to overcome. Some of them are within the person himself, such as desires, doubts, ‘confusions’ (bilbulim), melancholy, despair, and fear; others are external: problems of livelihood, bad health, conflicts with other people, and troublesome family relations. The tzaddik is supposed to help the hasid through these difficulties, but going to the tzaddik also involves ‘hindrances’” (Brown 2017:261).

For R. Nachman the whole world is a ‘narrow bridge’ and man has a ‘heart of stone.’ All this makes the classical goal of Deveikut very much out of reach for most humans. Instead, R. Nachman offers a practical substitute, Hitbodedut (solitude and meditation).

“While the practice of hitbodedut is known in other sources from early Hasidism, there it was aimed to reach devekut, while in Breslav it is done without a direct mystical orientation” (Brown 2017:261).

For R. Nachman, his recommendation of Hitbodedut was more cathartic and existential than mystical. His disciple Reb Nosson writes about another substitute for classical Deveikut:

“the very toil on and practicing of the mitzvot and good deeds is the gist of devekut” (Likutei Halachot).[14]

Again we see how the initial and intensely mystical concept of Deveikut as construed by the Baal Shem Tov is reworked and reformulated. 

Model 4) Mysticism has been ‘taken away’

R. Tzadok Hacohen Rabinovitch of Lublin (1823–1900) writes that concentration in prayer can lead to “hitpashtut hagashmiyut (a shedding of physicality), which is close to prophecy…[which is][15] devekut to God,[16] but he quickly points out that “this has already been taken away.” For Rav Tzadok, the substitute for classical Deveikut becomes Torah study:

“[When studying Torah, one][17] forgets matters of the body and is shedding his corporeality through his cleaving [devekut] to the Torah…This is possible in our time as well.”[18]

Model 5) From mysticism to Halachic strictures

Amazingly, this substitution of other values for classical mysticism came full circle with R. Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz. Ironically, Halachic strictures, which “some voices in early Hasidism considered to be an antithesis to devekut” (Brown 2017:266) later became a cornerstone of subsequent Chassidism. His student R. Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dynów (1841–73), writes:

“it is the way of the Jew that even though he is exempt, his desire and yearning is to fulfill the commandments of the Blessed One, and this comes from pietistic norms (milei dehasidei), the [urge to do] more than is required, with excessive stringencies beyond what is commanded…the more a person is pedantic and stringent in how he fulfills the commandments, the more distantly he shines the surrounding light” (Benei Yisachar).[19] 

Model 6) From Mysticism to opulence

R. Yisrael of Ruzhin (1796–1850) adopted probably the most variant substitute for mysticism of all the examples we have seen. He chose “the regal way:”

“The main idea of this path was that the tzaddik—contrary to his flocks—would institute customs of royalty: He would live in splendor, majesty, and wealth, immersed in material and earthly advantages. He would live in large, expansive palaces, decorate his home with luxurious furniture, wear luxurious clothes, travel from place to place in a private carriage to which fine horses were harnessed, and he also had an orchestra that accompanied him in his travels” (Brown 2017:277).

Although this path was originally intended for the Tzadik, somehow it filtered down to the followers who were encouraged to “build beautiful and well-kept synagogues and to be meticulous about aesthetic clothing” (ibid). R. Yisrael also encouraged his Chassidim not only to ask him for spiritual blessings but particularly for material well-being. This was his interpretation of Avodah beGashmiyut (serving G-d through physicality) which was originally a mystical idea, but it “underwent a transformation for the glorification of the life of material luxury…” (Brown 2017:279). 

Model 7) From mysticism to anti-mysticism

The evolution away from classical Deveikut and its concomitant substitutions as we have seen, reaches a fascinating extreme with R. Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, known as the Sfas Emes (1847–1905), the second Gerrer Rebbe. He explained there are two ways of perceiving G-d: The way of truth and the way of belief. Truth is perceiving G-d through mystical insight, which will only be applicable in messianic times, while Belief is the more common and pragmatic method for today. 

In a letter to his son, he espouses an “anti-mystical, even antispiritual” (Brown 2017:281) message, emphasising that only Torah learning and mitzvot need to concern him. He need not try to pursue “high levels” nor entertain “thoughts and meditations:”

“A young married man like yourself should not walk around with thoughts and meditations, only be occupied with Torah [learning] and mitzvot. ... Fulfill each and every mitzvah in its simple form, and do not seek high levels... Do not walk around with the talit on your shoulder, engaged in your ideas, but take a short while to remember that you fulfill the commandments” (Gachalei Eish).[20]

In a letter to his brother, he even discouraged him from outward attempts at ecstasy during prayer:

“[G-d] does not want the body and its movements... but moderate temper [Yishuv hada’at]” (Gachalei Eish).[21]


Clearly, the original aim of classical Deveikut as unio mystica was just too high a standard to maintain over subsequent generations of Chassidim. A compromise had to be struck. This is how Brown understands this compromise:

“On one hand, it was impossible to give up the original ideal [of intense mysticism and Deveikut],[22] while on the other, that ideal seemed distant, unsuitable to the needs of the time, and unachievable. The hasidim were forced, therefore, to settle for a compromise: If the ideal itself was not attainable, then perhaps it was possible to achieve its results without attaining the ideal itself” (Brown 2017:286).

That is why they had to settle for substitutes for Deveikut. Any movement that starts out as radical and revolutionary very soon reaches a point where it has to merge with traditional conservativism. This is known as “the paradox of conservatism.” One of the ways of dealing with this conundrum is:

“to continue using terms that were handed down from the revolutionary generations, but to give them new, more solid and traditional meanings” (Brown 2017:287).

This appears to have been what happened in the case of Chassidism, yet the solution was not at all singular but encompassed a vast spectrum of models and approaches.

[1] Brown, B., 2017, ‘Substitutes for Mysticism: A General Model for the Theological Development of Hasidism in the Nineteenth Century,’ History of Religions, vol 56, no. 3,  The University of Chicago Press, 247-288.

[2] The two Hebrew words have the same letters, just the order changes.

[3] R. Pinchas of Koritz, Midrash Pinehas heChadash (Warsaw: Lipshitz, 1910), 3.

[4] Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, Parshat Noach, 5b, Pinchas, 121a–121b.

[5] Sharot, S., 1980, ‘Hasidism and the Routinization of Charisma’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 19, no. 4, 325–36.

[6] Ohel Moed 3, nos. 1–2 (1928): 11.

[7] R. Shlomo Zalman of Kopust, Magen Avot (Berditchev: Sheftel, 1902).

[8] Eliyahu Steinberger, Uvda deAharon (Jerusalem: Horev, 1948), 59–60.

[9] R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Noam Elimelech (Lemberg, 1788), Bereshit, 1b.

[10] Parentheses are mine.

[11] R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, Tanya, 1.3. This reference to “vain fancies” may relate to the Tzemach Tzedek’s apparent comment that R. Shneur Zalman was worried about the direction the early Chassidic movement was moving in, and therefore gave the Chassidim a Shulchan Aruch to keep them grounded in Halacha. See Kotzk Blog: 414) Did the first three Rebbes of Chabad credit the Vilna Gaon for saving Chassidism?.

[12] Brown points out that the Komarno Rebbe himself actually did practice Deveikut and did not rely of study as a its substitute, but this Deveikut was never something demanded of his followers who were to maintain the path of study instead “without any demand for mystical experience” (Brown 2017:260).

[13]R. Nachman of Breslov, Likkutei Moharan (Brooklyn, NY: Gross, 1980), 2:119.

[14] R. Natan Stenhartz, Likkutei Halakhot, laws of Sukkah, 6:11 (230).

[15] Parenthesis is mine.

[16] Rabinovitch, Tzidkat Hatzaddik, article 210.

[17] Parenthesisn is mine.

[18] Brown comments: “R. Tzadok’s words are reminiscent of those written by one of the foremost theologians of the misnagdic camp a few generations earlier, R. Hayim of Volozhin, as criticism of the early hasidic concept of devekut and in support to the misnagdic ideal of Torah learning. There is therefore no doubt that this is a retreat from the mystical ideal of early Hasidism” (Brown 2017:266).

[19] R. Tzvi Elimelekh of Dynów, Bnei Yisaskhar (Bnei Brak: Heikhal Hasefer, 1990), Maamarei Tishrei, 10, 40–49.

[20] R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, Otzar mikhtavim umaamarim [A treasury of letters and articles] (Jerusalem: Gachalei Eish, 1986), nos. 21, 66–67.

[21] Ibid., nos. 24, 70.

[22] Parenthesis is mine.

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