Sunday 17 March 2024

466) Separating the text from the context: an early Chassidic approach to Torah study


Toledot Yakov Yosef: The first Chassidic book to be published. Koritz 1780.


We examine Chassidic sources that show how early Chassidism reworked the traditional methodologies of classical Torah study. They did this by separating the text from the context and focusing, instead, on the divine light contained within the letters and the words themselves. They did this regardless of the position and meaning of these words in the sequence of the biblical storyline. This approach was generally used to enhance the experientialism of the study process which now became a spiritual, as opposed to an intellectual, enterprise. It also opened a space for the theurgic or ‘magical’ use of Torah study to benefit the student (or perhaps more appropriately, the practitioner) to utilise the exposed light or energy to effect a change in their material reality. 


This article – based extensively on the research by Professor Moshe Idel[1] − shows how Chassidism innovated a new approach to Torah (biblical) study as compared to the traditional method adopted by the classical exegetes and Torah commentators. Traditionally, a text was explained and interpreted very much within the context of the biblical narratives, and sometimes within an ethical and moral framework. We only need to turn to Rashi and other meforshim (exegetes) to see these well-known approaches which are, for the most part, rooted in the literal biblical text. 

However, with the onset of eighteenth-century Chassidim, the context of the biblical narrative was almost reduced to insignificance. It must be noted that not all models of earlier Kabbalah adopted this experiential, theurgic and ecstatic approach to Torah study. Some Kabbalistic schools adopted a more theoretical, philosophical or theosophical approach, where the context would have maintained its purchase. 

But this was not the case with Chassidism as the main focus generally became one of drawing down the latent light and spiritual energy contained within the holy words of the Torah regardless of their literal meaning or contextual positioning. Chassidism advanced a conceptualisation of Torah study that downplayed the aspect of ‘study’ as it was traditionally understood and emphasised ‘experientialism’ and the “importance of inner transformation” (Idel 2010:3). This development and process will become evident as we move through various Chassidic sources allowing the texts to speak for themselves. 

Chassidism as an oral tradition

During the lifetime of the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of the Chassidic movement, Chassidic teachings were transmitted orally. This was intentional on the part of the Baal Shem Tov because he did not want the teachings to be committed to writing. Shivchei haBesht portrays the Baal Shem Tov who meets a demon on the road, carrying a book. He inquires as to the nature of the book and the demon responds that it was a book written by the Baal Shem Tov himself. He realises that someone had been copying his teachings against his wishes, and had produced a book. In the imagery of the narrative, the forbidden written presentation of Chassidic teachings is presented as a ‘demonic’ act. The Baal Shem Tov is angry, he gathers his followers and discovers the culprit. His response is intriguing: 

“There is not even a single word here that is mine" (Shivchei haBesht #159). 

Emergence of a written Chassidic tradition

The new Chassidic teachings were supposed to have remained an oral tradition. However, this restriction did not last too long because in 1780, just twenty years after the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, the first Chassidic book was published. The pattern was repeated and, ironically, Chassidisic books were to become: 

“one of the most productive forms of Jewish creativity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (Idel 2010:4). 

Pragmatically, according to Idel (2010:4), the battle to establish authority of leadership within the various groups of followers of the Baal Shem Tov may have led to the defiance of the ban against printing the teachings and the production of the large corpus of Chassidic literature. 

What is interesting for our study, is that of this huge literature, most of the material was arranged, not around the Talmud, but around the weekly Torah portion. In this sense, Torah study (in the Chassidic conceptualisation thereof)  occupied an important place in this emerging literature. Idel (2010:4) explains that while “the formal focus of the literature are the verses of the Bible,” nevertheless they no longer follow the traditional formats of classical biblical interpretation but are instead “radically reinterpreted.” 

Even from a theosophical and theoretical Kabbalistic point of view, the new Chassidic interpretations are radical because they involve experiential rather than intellectual or theoretical faculties. 

Shifts in emphasis

In the earlier theosophical and less ecstatic Kabbalah, the interpretation of biblical words was indeed mystical but related to the Ten Sefirot and still had significant theoretical elements. With the advent of Chassidism, the interpretation and essential intent of biblical study became notably binary. The importance of the narrative was visibly diminished and in its place were cosmic battles of good versus evil, holy versus impure, soul versus body, and devotion versus study which all fell within the essential rubric of Gadlut (expansion of the mind) versus Katnut (restriction of the mind). 

This means that in addition to the literal biblical narratives fading into the background, even the earlier Kabbalistic perspective underwent a shift from its understanding of the Torah as a theosophical description of the heavenly sefirotic realms, to a binary experiential and theurgical battle of expansion versus restriction. 

The context is no longer relevant

With the onset of Chassidic literature, the context of the biblical narrative began to lose its previous position of importance: 

“Hasidic interpretations were not interested in the larger context of a certain chapter, but refer more to single words or locutions found in a verse. Those units have been reified, by understanding the sounds produced by the worshiper as if being entities possessing some form of objective existence” (Idel 2010:10). 

Chassidim ironically, although characteristically, offered a biblical source for the move away from biblical literacy and the move toward letters with objective existence. According to Genesis 6:16, concerning Noah’s Ark, the verse states, “A window shall you make to the ark [=teivah].” The Hebrew word for Ark is teivah, which has dual meanings either an ‘Ark’ (like Noah’s Ark), or more importantly, a ‘word.’ Going with the second interpretation, the ‘word,’ which obviously is comprised of letters, cannot remain dormant and closed, but “An opening shall you make to the words [of Torah].” In this interpretation, one needs to actively make a portal to the words to enter within words of the Torah, not merely study them. 

We shall now turn to some sources that serve as examples of how Chassidic thought completely reframed the classic understandings of Torah study, profoundly minimising the biblical narrative and the context. 

Magid of Mezeritch and the emergence of ‘white spaces’

With the Chassidic movement came the notion that G-d was not just represented in the Torah but housed in the Torah. According to R. Dov Ber Magid of Mezeritch: 

“He [God]…concentrated Himself into the Torah; therefore, when someone speaks on issues of Torah…let him do it with all his power, since by it [i.e. the utterance] he united himself with Him…[who] dwells in the pronounced letter” (Magid of Mezeritch, Or haEmet, 15b-17a). 

The Magid of Mezeritch goes on to explain that the Torah indeed contains literal stories of biblical personalities and events, but we now live in a new era where they take on a completely new meaning: 

"The Torah in its entirety is collected from [the deeds of] righteous men, from Adam, and the forefathers…and this is the complete Torah. However, the luminosity of the essence has not been revealed yet, until the Messiah will come and they will understand the luminosity of His essence. And this is the new Torah…” (Magid of Mezeritch, Magid Devarav leYaakov, 17-18).[2] 

In other words, the ‘new Torah’ is not a new text. Rather it is a new approach to reading the old text. This idea developed further and the understanding of the definition of the  ‘text’ also underwent a dramatic and remarkable reworking. In fact, it is no longer technically the text that contains the essence of G-d, but the white spaces between the black letters. This was a common theme among the early Chassidic writers. 

R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev

One of the students of the Magid of Mezeritch was R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. He developed this idea of white spaces further and even connected it to the Halachic requirement that no two letters of the Torah are allowed to touch each other: 

“We can see by the eye of our intellect why in the Torah handed down to us one letter should not touch the other. The matter is that also the whiteness constitutes letters but we do not know how to read them as [we know] the blackness of the letters. But in the future God…will reveal to us even the whiteness of the Torah” (Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev recorded in Imrei Tzadikim, 5b). 

R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev writes about how G-d is to be found in the white spaces, which become white ‘letters’: 

“the boundary of the white that encompasses the letters possesses the aspect of the encompassing lights, which are not revealed but are found in a hiddeness, in the aspect of the encompassing light. From this we may understand that also the white boundaries possess also the aspect of letters but they are hidden letters, higher than the revealed letters” (R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Kedushat Levi, 327-328). 

R. Aharon haLevi Horowitz

One of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev’s students was R. Aharon haLevi Horowitz who writes that this experience of the divine is not only something for the messianic future: 

“[but] even now, when a righteous person pronounces the letters in a state of devotion... he unites the letters to the light of the Infinite... and ascends higher than all the worlds to the place where the letters are white and are not combined and then he can perform there whatever combination he wants" (R. Aharon haLevi Horowitz, Toledot Aharon, I, 18c). 

Here we begin to see the conceptualisation of a theurgic or supernatural notion emerge where, through the white letters, the student becomes a practitioner who “can perform whatever… he wants. 

R. Aharon haKohen of Apta

R. Aharon haKohen of Apta explains how Torah study is anything but academic. Instead, it is a sublime experience of the infinity contained and hidden within the letters of the Torah. He makes the important distinction between Katnut (restricted consciousness) and Gadlut (expanded consciousness). The letters of the Torah, even out of context, hold expanded consciousness. He gives the analogy of a person who looks at a picture of the king and is inspired. That is restricted consciousness. Then he contrasts that with one who goes into the palace and interacts with the king face to face. That is expanded consciousness. The letters of the Torah represent the heavenly palace and one can meet the King by entering their portals: 

“[One] sees the form of the king, which is inscribed on a paper, and he very much enjoys seeing the form and its beauty. And whoever is [found in the state of] qatenut ha-sekhel, enjoys and delights in the inscribed form. But whoever has a wise heart says that because there is such a great joy which is derived from the inscribed form, I shall be more glad and I shall delight [more] from the light of the face of the king, namely when seeing the form of the king himself. Therewith he makes an effort to enter the palace of the king. Thus whoever is in [the state of] qatenut ha-sekhel is enjoying the study of the Torah or the prayer whose letters are the inscribed form of the king of the world... But whoever is [in the state of] gadelut [ha-sekhel] says that it is good to enjoy the light of the face of the king, namely he causes the adherence of his thought to the light of ’Ein Sof which is found within the letters” (R. Aharon haKohen of Apta, Or haGanuz laTzadikim, col. 8, 3ab). 

R. Aharon of Zhitomir

In another theurgical (manipulative) conceptualisation of the words of Torah, R. Aharon of Zhitomir also writes how one can powerfully ‘control’ the letters of the Torah to derive material benefits here on earth. This can not be achieved through sincerity alone, with mere “speeches with power and devotion” but  only when one “utters speeches with devotion and brings all his power within the letters and cleaves to the light of the Infinite”: 

“Sometimes, the letters rule over man, and sometimes man rules over the letters. This means that when man utters speeches with power and devotion, the speeches then rule over him, because the light within the letters confer upon him vitality and delight so that he may utter speeches to the Creator, but this man cannot abolish anything bad, by performing other combinations [of letters]. But when someone utters speeches with devotion and brings all his power within the letters and cleaves to the light of the Infinite…that dwells within the letters, this person is higher than the letters and he combines letters as he likes... and he will be able to draw down the influx, the blessing and the good things" (R. Aharon of Zhitomir, Toledot Aharon, I, fol. 40ab). 

R. Mordechai of Chernobyl

R. Mordechai of Chernobyl writes about the actual power contained within the words of the Torah themselves to transform and elevate the student who essentially becomes a mystical practitioner. In this formulation, the words of the Torah are: 

“palaces for the revelation of the light of ’Eiyn Sof, [= Infinity]…that is clothed within them. When someone studies the Torah and prays, then they [!][3] take them out of the secret places and their light is revealed here below....By the cleaving of man to the letters of the Torah and of the prayer, he draws down onto himself the revelation of the light of ’Eiyn Sof." 

R. Moses Chaim Efraim of Sudylkov

R. Moses Chaim Efraim of Sudylkov takes this abovementioned notion of a semi-autonomous power in the letters themselves, to a new level. One must first communicate with the holy letters and ‘ask’ them to reveal their secrets: 

"by study and involvement with the Torah for its own sake…he can vivify his soul and amend his 248 limbs and 365 sinews, [and] join…to their root, and to the root of their root which are the Torah and the Tetragrammaton…all of this is [achieved] by the study of Torah for its own sake…and for the sake of asking from the letters themselves” (R. Moses Chaim Efraim of Sudylkov, Degel Machaneh Efraim, 94). 

Do with the words whatever one wishes

With this notion of a semi-autonomous power contained within the letters, comes an additional profound autonomous power given over to the mystical practitioner, who can do with the words whatever one wishes. 

Baal Shem Tov

According to R. Yakov Kaidaner’s Sippurim Noraim (p. 34), the Baal Shem Tov was given the authority from above to do whatever he wished with the letters of the Torah. 

R. Levi Isaac of Berdichev

R. Levi Isaac of Berdichev takes this matter even further and writes that the righteous Tzadikim: 

"now have the power to interpret the Torah in the way they like [even if in heaven this interpretation is not accepted]” (Pirkei Avot, 25b). 

Note the use of the word “now” indicating that this is a Chassidic if not pre-messianic innovation. 

R. Menahem Mendel of Rimanov

Continuing along these lines,  but taking it yet further, R. Menahem Mendel of Rimanov writes that if one studies the Torah for its sake, he is allowed to introduce his own thoughts into the Torah. This is an astonishing innovation that fundamentally allows the practitioner to contribute new material to the spiritual corpus of the Torah (R. Menahem Mendel of Rimanov, Introduction to Ilana deChayei, 3a). 

The teachings of Chassidic Rebbes are the Torah itself

These ideas were developed to a previously unimaginable level where the words of the Chassidic Rebbes are not only lofty and sacred but become the essence of the Torah as well: 

“In several Hasidic discussions the sermons of the righteous were conceived as identical with Torah…which should be fathomed and interpreted in seventy ways, just as the divine Torah” (Idel 2010:15). 

Just like the Torah has seventy facets of interpretation, so do the words of the Chassidic Rebbes have seventy facets of interpretation.[4] This seems to suggest that not only were there innovations to the methodology of Torah study but the barriers and boundaries of what constitutes the Torah may also have undergone a radical reappraisal.

[1] Idel, M., 2010, ‘Hermeneutics in Hasidism’, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, vol. 25, 3-16. 

[2] Maggid Devarav LeYaakov, ed. R. Schatz-Uffenheimer, (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1976).

[3] Exclamation mark is Idel’s. The “they” appear to be the letters themselves. There are indeed earlier references to 'letters flying off' independently and suchlike, but they are more developed and given practical impetus in the Chassidic texts.

[4] This may explain why the writings and teachings of some Chassidic Rebbes even after their passing and even on unrelated topics are still perceived to have direct bearing on real-life issues of people born decades later; because, on this model, Chassidic Rebbes are subject to the application of the principle of ‘seventy facets of the Torah,’ just like the Torah itself.

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