At the Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat posts a link to her review of two books by Jewish Renewal Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. As a member of a Reform congregation and a political conservative, I don't really follow Jewish Renewal, but I often find myself casting an eye in their direction, particularly when they go for a deep dive into the pool of Hasidism for religious inspiration.
The two books she reviews: A Hidden Light and All Breathing Life are right up my alley. The first, is a description of the intricacies and relationships of the various early Hasidic teachers, their differences, similarities, and radical ideas are all taught through the method of hasidic story telling. It sounds like a great read, but I can't help myself in hoping that there will be an audio version of the book available. The second, is a listing of prayer and Hasidic teaching in a a poetic format intended to provide maximum inspiration.
When I teach this period of Jewish History and its ramifications, I try to emphasize the radical nature of the early founders of Hasidism. The Bal Shem Tov (BeShT), who was not accepted as a learned Rabbi by the intellectual elite of his time, promoted a number of radical ideas. One of the most important was that an average uneducated Jew was allowed to pray by addressing God in whatever terms he could muster. This offended the sensibilities of his more academically inclined contemporaries, who had no problem modifying the order of prayer, but felt that they should be the ones to do it. For the BeShT to do this was bad enough, but for him to encourage others with even less education to do the same was unforgivable.
A great struggle ensued in Poland and Lithuania for the soul of Judaism... while at the same time in Germany, Moses Mendelssohn was laying the foundation for what would later become Reform Judaism.
It was a confusing time to be a Jew.
Predictably, there were excesses in practice by those who took the BeShT at his word and created enough justification to excommunicate the promoters of Hasidism from the Jewish community. Ultimately, it took the Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladai to take the BeShT's teachings and synthesize them into the Tanya, (the basis of the modern Chabad movement) heal the rift, and reestablish Hasidism under the umbrella of Orthodox Judaism.
I am hoping that Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi's books will give some insight into the spiritual inspiration of that confusing time.
One thing I find particularly interesting, is the tendency of Reform Rabbis to draw inspiration from the early Hasidic teachers. Going to a Torah talk at my local Reform synagogue, you are much more likely to run into a story told by the BeShT or one of his disciples, than to encounter something written by the intellectual founders of modern Reform Judaism; Moses Mendelssohn, David Friedlander, or Abraham Geiger. I think that this is reflective of the struggle within Reform Judaism... which as of today, has generally rejected its classical Reform roots and is moving to a more traditional religious practice.
As Jews we have covered a lot of ground since the 18th century... the struggle continues. So, thank you Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi for your contribution to the conversation, I am looking forward to learning from you.