The Early Modern Era
What is God?
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The first stage of the Jewish enlightenment took the form of the Hasidic movement. The Hasidic movement itself was not built on thin air. It was long in coming due to two factors. First there was the general disenfranchisement of the masses from the intellectual and spiritual thrust of Judaism. The masses were largely ignorant of any Talmudic, philosophical, or mystical trends, regardless of how significant these trends were. Their Judaism consisted, for the most part, of rote observance and internal and external pressure to remain within the fold. At some point, this form of Judaism, based upon conformity, had to break. It broke, not with rebellion to leave, but with an intense drive to find inner meaning in observance.
The second factor in the origins of Hasidut was the tremendous growth and influence of Kabbalah. By the beginning of the 17th century Kabbalah had incorporated philosophy into its scope and the two systems were no longer rivals. The vast and complex systems of Moshe Cordovero and the Yitzchak Luria were now thoroughly mixed in with normative Judaism. It was so integrated that it stirred up the most successful Jewish messianic movement since Christianity. The Sabbatean movement of the mid-17th century had a full two thirds of the Jews of the world rushing to embrace a messianic figure who turned out to be a charlatan and eventually converted to Islam under threat of death. Shabbtai Zvi was a direct product of the influence of Kabbalah. His success could never have happened had Kabbalah not taken over the minds and souls of Jewish leaders. His failure and apostasy should have dealt Kabbalah a fatal blow. It did nothing of the sort.
There was instant suspicion of any overt attempt to actually use Kabbalah in a practical way, but the theory continued unabated. The person who probably best exemplifies the post-Sabbatean combination of suspicious practice and highly respected theory was early 18th century Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (better known by his acronym Ramchal). He began delving into Kabbalah at an early age after mastering everything else, including play writing, poetry, and Hebrew grammar. His Kabbalistic journeys took him into the realm of personal communication with Biblical and angelic figures, an experience that he seemed to have made known to his students. This got him into trouble with the still wary anti-Sabbatean rabbinic authorities, who managed to force him to leave Italy permanently.
He ended up in Amsterdam, a refuge for Jews and Christians who didn’t fit in elsewhere. He wrote his major works in Holland, works that earned him famed as one of the leading expositors of both Kabbalah and the foundations of mainstream Judaism. His two best known works are Derech Hashem (The Way of God) and Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just). Another work probably from the Holland period is called Da’at T’vunot (Knowledge of Understanding). In it, Ramchal goes into all the core issues of God and God’s relationship to creation in general and to the Jewish people in particular. This book brings out a entirely new image of God built around an older traditional image and the infinite depths of Lurianic Kabbalah. His take on God will be our first image of this period.
We do not know how much direct influence Ramchal played in the development of Hasidut, but there is no question that Kabbalah in general was a major factor. It was a system that revealed hidden pathways of spirituality that were completely obscure in the Talmud and Midrash. The pre-history of Hasidut is built around the private and very personal journeys of individual seekers who sought out mystical avenues to express their love for God.
These seekers went by the odd sounding name of Baal Shem (Master of the Name), a reference to their ability to use the name of God to achieve spiritual enlightenment and perform miracles. We know almost nothing about any of these Masters, with the exception of one, about whom we know a considerable amount. This, of course, was the Baal Shem Tov (commonly translated as ‘Master of the Good Name’). As far as we know, he had no formal advanced education in Talmud or Halacha. Somehow he acquired a profound knowledge of Kabbalistic ideas. He obviously was extremely adept at converting these deep ideas into a mystical outlook for everyday life.
He unassumingly gathered a circle of like-minded disciples around him; some extremely learned who only reluctantly were pulled into his sway, and others who embraced it immediately. They were taken by the new outlook of Jewish observance that he encouraged. They devoted their lives to seeking out the presence of God in all walks of life. God was to be found everywhere and in everything, but God was also hidden. This paradox would form the core theology of Hasidut and become one of its most lasting contributions to Jewish mystical philosophy.
We see early evidence of this paradox in an innovation that the early Hasidim inserted into the standard format of Jewish prayer. By this point in Jewish history, additions were few and far between. Hasidut was an exception to this trend, and therefore looked upon with suspicion by the early opponents of the movement. Hasidut introduced a new structure to daily and holiday prayer based upon a combination of the Sefaradic and Ashkenazi traditions. But even more than this, they introduced a Kabbalistic formula to be recited before many blessings that would direct the person reciting the blessing towards the hidden goals of Kabbalah. The widespread use of this innovation may have come from the Baal Shem Tov or it may have come from his disciples. Whatever the case, it was fairly early on in Hasidic history and was met with strong opposition. It involved the unification of the Holy One and the Shechina – a process with gender nuances that were not lost on the Mitnagdim. This will be our second image from this period.
The mantle of leadership of the early Hasidic movement passed onto the shoulders of a major disciple, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, in the Ukraine. This took place with the death of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760. Dov Ber himself transformed Hasidut from an unorganized popular movement centered around stories and miracles to a formal structure with a highly developed theory and extremely learned students. Among his students were some extremely colorful personalities. These students went out on their own in the late 18th and early 19th century to found Hasidic dynasties in dozens of towns in Poland and its surroundings. This was the springtime of the Hasidic movement, a time of great innovation and expansion, filled with fanciful but moving stories and new insights by the droves.
It was also a time of a time of rabid opposition and threats of excommunication. At the center of the controversy was Rabbi Shneur Zalman who was based in the middle of the Mitnagdim bastion of Lithuania. Shneur Zalman went to Lithuania after the death of Dov Ber to spread Hasidut in these lands of opposition. He succeeded to a limited degree, but in doing so became the symbol of the growing rift between Hasidim and their opponents. His major work, popularly known as the Tanya, has become almost the equivalent of the Bible or the Zohar among his Hasidim. The Hasidut that sprang from this teacher was highly intellectual. Fittingly, it goes by the name of Chabad – an acronym form Hochma, Bina, and Da’at (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge). It is deep and far-reaching. More than anything else, the Tanya clarified the important paradox of God being both hidden and present. This will be our third image from this era.
There was more to the Jewish enlightenment during the 18th and 19th centuries than Hasidut. The vast rabbinic world of Lithuania and elsewhere was always growing increasingly cerebral and increasingly distant from the masses. Hasidut was not the only response to this intellectualization, nor was it the only threat. Jews left Judaism by the droves to join the political revolutionary movements of the mid-19th century. This was all a result of the changes that infected the Jewish communities from the Napoleonic wars. They were emancipated from life in insular ghettos, and either embraced their new freedoms or shunned them. Usually it was one extreme or the other with little room for anything in between.
One exception was the (Modern) Orthodox movement in Germany. Led by Samson Raphael Hirsch, it came to define the traditional communities of central Europe during the 19th century. In a sense it was a reaction to the growing non-traditional Reform and Conservative movements of early 19th century Germany. It attempted to integrate traditional Judaism with modern science and philosophy, a difficult endeavor if there ever was one. Hirsch’s methods included more modern form of education and combining Torah study with a secular lifestyle. He had his opponents, but on the whole he was very popular, at least in Germany.
His image was of an ethical God who wanted nothing other than for His people to be ethical reflections of Him. Although it tends towards the intellectual side of things, there is a strong component of humanism in his theology. It was a valiant attempt to rescue the intellectual God from the indifferent clutches of deism and the non-existence of atheism and will be our fourth image from this period.
Our final image comes from a representative of what was going on in the mind of the average Jew, religious or not, as the 19th century came to a close. Ashkenazi Jews had branched off into many different areas. A good deal of them were not the least bit interested in religion. Emigration to North America was the choice of millions. While religion was still a major force, the dominating feature in many Jewish communities was not religion but Jewish culture. More than anything else, this was reflected in a field that hardly existed at the beginning of that century – Yiddish literature. Poets, playwrights, and novelists sprang up in Jewish cities all over Eastern Europe. They wrote of the troubles of Jews, of their battles with the goyim and their internal battles with each other. They wrote of immigration to New York and of daily life in the shtetl in Poland. They wrote of love and God and communism. They were Jews writing about Jews, and they told the story with great skill.
Probably the most famous of these was a man who goes by the name of Shalom Aleichem. His real name was Solomon Rabinovich and he epitomized the life of Eastern European Jewry during the latter half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. He grew up in a Hasidic home and ended up traditional but not all that religious. He immigrated to New York late in life but his soul never really left Eastern Europe. He went from wealth to poverty to struggling fame, all the time subject to the whims of fate. His characters reflect his own background. Despite all the problems, they are always able to look at life with a kind of senseless optimism and a very Jewish sense of humor. His most famous character, Tevye the Milkman, from a novel by that name, epitomizes this uniquely Jewish trait. Tevye’s on/off relationship with God, surprisingly, gives us a window into how the average Jew perceived God while standing at the end of a millennium of Jewish life in the Old World and at the cusp of Jewish life in the New World. This image will be our fifth and final onefrom this period.
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