The Neo-Hasidism of Hillel Zeitlin

Dec. 21 2018

In the 1920s and 30s, a number of Jewish thinkers from outside the ḥasidic world—most prominently Martin Buber—began to mine ḥasidic teachings and practices as a source for spiritual renewal, seeking to make Judaism relevant, in their minds, in an increasingly secular era. Historians refer to their ideas as “neo-Ḥasidism.” Among the most influential of these in his own time was Hillel Zeitlin (1871-1942), who, unlike Buber, was himself raised in a ḥasidic family in Eastern Europe. Ariel Evan Mayse describes Zeitlin’s intellectual development:

Zeitlin enjoyed an energetic devotional life in his youth, a period that he later described as being filled with a rich, mystical intoxication with the divine presence. Yet in his adolescence Zeitlin became increasingly troubled by philosophy and higher criticism of the Bible, and his confrontation with modernity led Zeitlin away from the world of Ḥasidism. He immersed himself in the study of Western thought, publishing books on Spinoza and Nietzsche. . . . By the early 1900s, [however], he returned to [religion], and devoted his considerable literary talents to what he now saw as his life’s work: preserving the legacy of early Ḥasidism and rearticulating a vision of Jewish spirituality that was compelling to contemporary (and future) seekers.

Zeitlin is a neo-ḥasidic writer because he interpreted and combined a wide variety of early ḥasidic sources, and because he neither lived in a ḥasidic community nor committed himself to a particular ḥasidic [sect]. He sought to return to the spiritual vitality he believed lay at the root of Ḥasidism, but also felt compelled to reinterpret the sources of the ḥasidic tradition. His works, peppered with references to Western philosophy, were written in Hebrew and in Yiddish for secularized Polish Jews, hoping to provide them with a compelling spiritual alternative both to the balkanized, intensely political Jewish intellectual world of [non-ḥasidic] Warsaw and to the [insular ḥasidic world that very much persisted in Poland]. . . .

Zeitlin felt that it was his privilege and obligation, together with the rest of Polish Jewry, to ensure that the vital spiritual message of Ḥasidism did not founder. More than simply preserving and safeguarding Ḥasidism, Zeitlin saw his task as returning this movement of devotional renewal to its roots . . . so that it might develop anew and spread forth to include all peoples.

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More about: Hasidism, Hillel Zeitlin, Judaism, Martin Buber, Religion & Holidays

Yasir Arafat’s Decades-Long Alliance with Iran and Its Consequences for Both Palestinians and Iranians

Jan. 18 2019

In 2002—at the height of the second intifada—the Israeli navy intercepted the Karina A, a Lebanese vessel carrying 50 tons of Iranian arms to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But Yasir Arafat’s relationship with the Islamic Republic goes much farther back, to before its founding in 1979. The terrorist leader had forged ties with followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that grew especially strong in the years when Lebanon became a base of operations both for Iranian opponents of the shah and for the PLO itself. Tony Badran writes:

The relationship between the Iranian revolutionary factions and the Palestinians began in the late 1960s, in parallel with Arafat’s own rise in preeminence within the PLO. . . . [D]uring the 1970s, Lebanon became the site where the major part of the Iranian revolutionaries’ encounter with the Palestinians played out. . . .

The number of guerrillas that trained in Lebanon with the Palestinians was not particularly large. But the Iranian cadres in Lebanon learned useful skills and procured weapons and equipment, which they smuggled back into Iran. . . . The PLO established close working ties with the Khomeinist faction. . . . [W]orking [especially] closely with the PLO [was] Mohammad Montazeri, son of the senior cleric Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri and a militant who had a leading role in developing the idea of establishing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) once the revolution was won.

The Lebanese terrorist and PLO operative Anis Naccache, who coordinated with [the] Iranian revolutionaries, . . . takes personal credit for the idea. Naccache claims that Jalaleddin Farsi, [a leading Iranian revolutionary], approached him specifically and asked him directly to draft the plan to form the main pillar of the Khomeinist regime. The formation of the IRGC may well be the greatest single contribution that the PLO made to the Iranian revolution. . . .

Arafat’s fantasy of pulling the strings and balancing the Iranians and the Arabs in a grand anti-Israel camp of regional states never stood much of a chance. However, his wish to see Iran back the Palestinian armed struggle is now a fact, as Tehran has effectively become the principal, if not the only, sponsor of the Palestinian military option though its direct sponsorship of Islamic Jihad and its sustaining strategic and organizational ties with Hamas. By forging ties with the Khomeinists, Arafat unwittingly helped to achieve the very opposite of his dream. Iran has turned [two] Palestinian factions into its proxies, and the PLO has been relegated to the regional sidelines.

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More about: Hamas, History & Ideas, Iran, Lebanon, PLO, Yasir Arafat