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Neo-Hasidism is a name frequently given to the significant revival of interest in Hasidic Judaism on the part of non-Orthodox Jews in different decades due to the writings of non-Orthodox teachers of Hasidic Judaism like Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Lawrence Kushner, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Arthur Green.
Early 20th century
Martin Buber helped initiate interest in Hasidism among modernized Jews through a series of books he wrote in the first decades of the 20th century, such as Tales of the Hasidic Masters and the Legend of the Baal Shem Tov. In these books, Buber focused on the role of story telling and the charisma of early Hasidic masters as a vehicle for personal spirituality. As such, these books represent one aspect of Buber's larger project of creating a new form of personalistic, existential religiosity. Buber came under considerable criticism, especially from younger contemporary Gershom Scholem, for having interpreted Hasidism in an eccentric way that misrepresented Hasidic belief and literature. Nevertheless, Buber's sympathetic treatment of Hasidism proved attractive to many and started the 20th century romance between (idealized) Hasidism and non-Orthodox Jews.
Post-World War II
Following World War II, when the Hasidic centers of Central and Eastern Europe were decimated, some of the surviving communities relocated to America, creating new opportunities for American Jews to have direct experience with them, their practices and their beliefs. Most of these communities remained determinedly insular, but a few, primarily the Chabad and Bratslav (or Breslov) Hasidim, adopted an attitude of outreach to the larger Jewish community, seeking to win more Jews to the Hasidic way of life. In the 1960s the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Shneerson) started commissioning young Chabadniks to seek out and teach young secular and religiously liberal Jews. Two of the early "shluchim" were Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Shlomo Carlebach. While Carlebach, a charismatic singer who used music as his tool, stayed (largely) within the circle of the Orthodox community from which he arose, Schachter-Shalomi charted an increasingly independent course, leaving Chabad to eventually study at Hebrew Union College (HUC), the leading academic institution of Reform Judaism, and to found what became Jewish Renewal.
Equally important was Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Holocaust refugee and scion of Hasidic royalty, who began his academic career in America with a life-saving but difficult wartime stint at HUC. In 1946, he moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the intellectual center for Conservative Judaism. There he still found himself marginalized for his Hasidic interests and customs, yet he surrounded himself with a small circle of devoted students (and eventual congregational rabbis) drawn to his mystically flavored phenomenology. As the 1960s began, Heschel was achieving increasing recognition as a theologian of stature with the publication of his books God in Search of Man and The Prophets. With that fame came an interest in his Hasidic roots and their role in his teachings. His social activism in the 60s and 70s further endeared him to many young Jews.
1960s and 1970s
Several of Heschel's students at JTS during the turbulent 60's and early 70's eventually became involved in the embryonic Havurah movement, a loosely defined project of creating an alternative, informal type of Jewish community first proposed by Reform theologian Jakob Petuchowski in the 1960s. While the movement spanned a broad spectrum of spiritual proclivities, some Jews in the founding circles, like Arthur Waskow, Arthur Green, and Michael Lerner, under the combined influence of Heschel and Schachter-Shalomi, took up the project of further exploring Hasidism and recasting it in an American idiom. Havurat Shalom, the flagship of this experimental quasi-communal movement which was started jointly by Green and Schachter-Shalomi in Boston, produced the greatest artifact of Havurah Judaism, the Jewish Catalog series, a set of three books devoted to "do-it-yourself" Judaism, written with a healthy dose of information and enthusiasm for things Hasidic. In general, the Havurah communities most influenced by Hasidism were also influenced by Kabbalah, and it remains the case that these interests overlap in most of what can be labeled neo-Hasidic.
These future "Neo-Hasids" focused on selected attractive aspects of traditional Hasidism while rejecting those Hasidic teachings they found incompatible with their modern egalitarian commitments, such as Hasidism's attitudes toward women, sexuality, and non-Jews. A few of these devotees, like Waskow and Lerner, became writers of note and "public square" intellectuals in the Jewish community and in the Jewish Renewal movement. Others, such as Green and Lawrence Fine, became leading scholars in the Jewish academic world, bringing an appreciation of Hasidism and an interest in adapting its ideas and customs to contemporary mores and life. Through books like Tormented Master, The Language of Truth and Your Word Is Fire, Green (and others) made Hasidism both more accessible and compelling for Jews seeking personal spirituality amidst the outwardly focused and sometimes spiritually dry world of the formal American Jewish community. Among the liberal movements, the Reform community remained resistant to this trend for a longer period, but a few rabbis, such as Herbert Weiner and Lawrence Kushner, also started "translating" Hasidism into a Reform idiom, expanding its influence.
This overlapping if amorphous interest in Hasidism among academics, seekers, religious functionaries, intellectuals, "alternative" rabbis and teachers, has led to the coining of the term "Neo-Hasidism (NH)."
A few formalized groups and institutions, such as P'nai Or congregation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Elat Chayyim Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT, are heavily influenced by NH. NH also enjoyed a period of pre-eminence at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary (RRC) during Arthur Green's tenure there as dean.
In 2004 a conference on Neo-Hasidism was held in NYC, organized by Rabbi Natan Margalit. At that conference there was a call by Arthur Green and others to "solidify" and in some way institutionalize the movement and its teachings so that it may survive the eventual passing of its first generation of luminaries. To some degree this has been achieved through the establishment of Green's post-denominational rabbinical school at Boston's Hebrew College. Neo-Hasidism continues to develop in projects like NeoHasid.org on the internet and in egalitarian minyanim (prayer groups) that define themselves in terms of Hasidism like the Shtibl minyan in Los Angeles.
In the past several years, among the modern-Orthodox world, both young men and woman have begun exploring the texts and way of life of Chasidic masters. Possibly, most notable are the works of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who brings much light into this world of darkness and professes the idea of never giving of hope. He says there is never a time to give up on yourself, don't look back on your mistakes and be hard on yourself, this only leads to more sins. If God is only good, then everything that happens is for the good.
- Jewish denominations
- Jewish Renewal
- Arthur Green
- Gershom Scholem (Began 20th-century academic discipline to study Jewish mysticism)
- Elie Wiesel (Neo-Hasidic literature and mystical theodicy of silence)
- Jewish philosophy (Buber and Heschel articulate theology in terms of Jewish existentialism)
- NeoHasid.org "Chasidus without Border" – Rabbi David Seidenberg's site on Chasidic music and eco-Torah
- Shtibl Minyan "an egalitarian community whose davening attempts to fulfill the joyous Hassidic ideal of kol atzmotai tomarnah 'with all my limbs I will say praise.' "
- Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner Sidney Schwarz's article on reconstructionism and neo-Hasidism