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

Why Israel Pretends That Hamas Fired Rockets by Accident

March 21 2019

Israeli military and political officials have repeated Hamas’s dubious claim that the launching of two rockets at Tel Aviv last week was inadvertent. To Smadar Perry, accepting Hamas’s story rather than engaging in further retaliation is but a convenient, and perhaps necessary, way of aiding Egyptian efforts to broker a deal with the terrorist group. But even if these efforts succeed, the results will be mixed:

The [Israeli] security cabinet has met in Tel Aviv and decided that they would continue indirect negotiations with Gaza. A message was sent to Egypt, whose delegation is going back to Gaza to pass on the Israeli demands for calm. The Egyptians also have to deal with the demands from Hamas, which include, among other things, an increase in aid from $15 million to $30 million per month and an increase in the supply of electricity.

The requests are reasonable, but they do leave a sour taste in the mouth. Israel must ensure that this financial aid does not end up in the pockets of Hamas and its associates. [Israel] also knows that if it says “no” to everything, the Iranians will step in, with the help of their Gazan friends in Islamic Jihad. They are just waiting for the opportunity.

Hamas also must deal with the fallout from a series of massive handouts from Qatar. For when the citizens of the Gaza Strip saw that the money was going to the Hamas leadership, who were also enjoying a fine supply of electricity to their own houses, they took to the streets in protest—and this time it was not Israel that was the focus of their anger. . .

[But] here is the irony. With Egyptian help, Israel can reach understandings for calm with Gaza, despite the lack of a direct channel. . . . In the West Bank, where the purportedly friendlier Fatah is in charge, it is more complicated, at least until the eighty-three-year-old Mahmoud Abbas is replaced.

As evidence for that last statement, consider the murder of two Israelis in the West Bank on Sunday, and the Palestinians who threw explosives at Israeli soldiers at Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem yesterday.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, West Bank