Brown on Magid, 'Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism'

Shaul Magid
Jeremy Phillip Brown

Shaul Magid. Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism. Bloomington: Academic Studies Press, 2019. 580 pp. $109.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61811-751-9; $34.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-64469-115-1.

Reviewed by Jeremy Phillip Brown (McGill University) Published on H-Judaic (December, 2019) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version:

The past few years have brought a series of retrospective anthologies collecting the work of Hasidism scholars. Shaul Magid’s Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Ḥasidism appears alongside recent collections by Ada Rapoport-Albert, Naftali Loewenthal, and Arthur Green. It arrives in the same year as Magid’s The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik's Commentary to the Gospels, on the heels of his 2014 book Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism, and ahead of his much-anticipated spiritual biography of Jewish Defense League and Kach Party ideologue Meir Kahana. Instead of a programmatic anthology, the collection is an eclectic retrospective. It brings together previously published articles in their original, unrevised form that have not been assimilated into Magid’s pathbreaking monographs, as well as a few new pieces. Piety and Rebellion is thus more a collection of “B-Sides” benefiting experts in the field of Jewish mysticism than a “Greatest Hits” representative of the full breadth of Magid’s contribution, which, to be sure, extends beyond Beshtian Hasidism to embrace an expansive repertoire of Jewish thought, culture, and politics. Here, as elsewhere in the author’s large and daily-growing oeuvre, the collection is full of penetrating insights into a wide selection of traditional material. The primary sources range from the teachings of R. Israel ben Eliezer, the Baʿal Shem Tov, or Besht (as preserved by his earliest disciples) to early Ḥabad-Lubavitch prayer commentary, from the narrative realms of Reb Naḥman of Bratslav’s stories to the sermons and essays of twentieth-century Hasidic leaders wrestling with how to theologize the political realities of Jewish life at the brink of destruction and the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East. It takes on both the classical sources of Hasidism and less-studied material issuing from the contemporary Haredi world (such as the writings of R. Shalom Noah Barzofsky of Slonim and R. Aaron “Arele” Roth of Shomer Emunim).

The studies in Piety and Rebellion touch upon themes as diverse as biblical hermeneutics, gender, ritual, disability, pluralism, Jewish-Christian difference, law, the Holocaust, fundamentalism, Americanism, et cetera. In other words, they reflect themes that have occupied Magid throughout his career, especially in 2005’s Hasidism on the Margin (adapted from the author’s Brandeis PhD thesis), the aforementioned Hasidism Incarnate, and 2013’s theologically constructive American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society. The author not only interprets this material with an extensive command of traditional rabbinic sources, but brings to bear an intensive expertise in Lurianic Kabbalah. Of course, Magid is not alone among scholars of Hasidism who also work in Kabbalah studies. But one distinguishing element of the essays contained in this volume, and of Magid’s work more generally, is a willingness to engage in interpretive play at the intersections where Kabbalah and Hasidism converge. In addition to its eclectic quality, another feature that distinguishes Piety and Rebellion is the book’s bold autobiographical introduction. Here, Magid recounts his own captivating journey. It is the story of a restless intellectual, who, fashioning himself both an insider and an outsider, has sustained his soul on everything from macrobiotics and LSD to the yeshivas of Jerusalem, from the rabbinate to the Ivy League.

One of the riddles posed by Piety and Rebellion is that it is organized according to two competing chronologies. On the one hand, the essays follow the chronology of their subject matter: they are divided into the categories of “Early Ḥasidism” and “Later Hasidism.” On the other hand, the reader may take a cue from the book’s introduction and read the essays as progressively maturing stations on author’s own intellectual itinerary. Or as the blurb by Pinchas Giller on the back of the book suggests: “This collection of essays serves as the scholarly and intellectual diary of the evolution of Shaul Magid, tempered in the study of Kabbalah and Hasidism, now a scholarly and communal leader.” Yet one barrier to reading the anthology for what it reveals about Magid’s life path is that—short of a brief note acknowledging the original publishers of these essays—the volume does not date its contents, nor provide a bibliography indicating where, when, and how the essays first appeared.

What are the organizing principles guiding this collection of essays? The author cites the volume’s autobiographical premise as its unifying element: “[These essays] illustrate my struggle with ḥasidic texts, my closeness to them, and my distance from them. In retrospect perhaps they reflect more about me than about them, but all scholarship is, or should be, autobiographical” (p. xl). It is certainly daring to state that all scholarship—in particular, scholarship on religion, and especially Judaism—should be autobiographical. Indeed, the placement of a vita in lieu of a thematic introduction makes the collection a highly personal affair. But it also provokes important questions for scholars of Jewish mysticism—some who publicly espouse the theological promise of their subject matter, others who maintain a cautious distance, and still others like Magid who position their lives both within and without. For one, it begs the question of the epistemological viability of collapsing a critical distance between the subject and object of analysis, precisely when researching material that is inherently dogmatic and acutely political.

An additional avenue suggested by Magid for organizing these diverse studies is his claim that they exhibit the “alterity” of Hasidism, rather than its transcendental “essence.” “Unlike [Martin] Buber,” he writes, “I am not looking for a ḥasidic essence. That was for a different time. In these essays I am looking perhaps for an alterity that could open the texts to the world and shine light on the possible global implicactions [sic] at work in the recesses of a highly parochial tradition” (pp. xli-xli). This is an intriguing possibility that Magid evokes, albeit without connecting the dots for his readers. What, concretely, are the global implications at work in the recesses of Hasidism? Are these global implications data for theology? For philosophy? For politics? Readers are left to intuit their own responses from between the lines of the individual studies which follow. Also, if it is no longer possible to distill “a ḥasidic essence,” what can still be said about the general character of Hasidism without compromising its heterogeneity?

Another question that helps to illustrate the bifocal expertise that Magid brings to the table: what do these essays teach us about the relation of Hasidism to Kabbalah? This question remains important as ever, especially at a time when the academic study of Jewish mysticism, which has long presumed the categorical cohesion of the two subfields, is recalibrating itself to the ideological criticism of Boaz Huss. In the opening essay on biblical interpretation in the writings of the Besht’s amanuensis, Jacob Joseph of Polnoye, Magid develops Rachel Elior’s assertions about the innovations introduced to Jewish mysticism by Beshtian Hasidism, generally construed. After urging readers to appreciate the sundry and multivalent character of the tradition, Magid writes: “Ḥasidism is surely a link in the chain of the Jewish mystical tradition but one that in some ways undermines or revises the basic metaphysical framework of previous Kabbalah” (p. 4). A few pages on, we read more about what is new in Hasidism: the “new way of Ḥasidism, … though pietistic in nature, departed significantly from the ascetic pietism of the past and offered its readers a way of serving God joyously” (p. 10). And a few pages still further, Magid affirms: “The conventional model until Ḥasidism was one of pious asceticism and the division of society between elites and the masses. Ḥasidism suggests (at least in the Besht’s portrayal imagined by his early disciples) a non- or even anti-ascetic pietism and supports a more integrative relationship between the elite and the masses” (pp. 15-16), In the third essay, on the ontological significance of controversy (maḥloket) in the teachings attributed to the Besht, Magid explains that Hasidism, generally speaking, is founded upon a kabbalistic theosophy in which divine unity and plurality are not mutually opposed, but rather dialectically coordinated. Later, the same essay affirms (again, in general terms) how the Hasidic doctrine of devekut differs from the construction of divine communion in classical Kabbalah. In Hasidism, according to Magid, Jews’ access to the divine world is not simply leveraged by their performance of the commandments with mystical intention, but also by means of techniques which exceed the nomian framework of the commandments: “In this sense, Ḥasidism deviates from classical theosophical Kabbalah, which more strictly limits access to God through the miẓvot” (p. 60n63).

These are indeed subtle attempts to relate the doctrinal and social conceptions of Hasidism to those of Kabbalah. What they suggest (beyond the sense that Magid is sometimes operating with a more robust sense of the general character of Hasidism than suggested by his avowal of alterity) is that the two fields are mutually imbedded to an extent that is sometimes obfuscated by isolating Hasidism as an analytical object. But beyond the negotiation of phenomenologically, chronologically, or sociologically isolated types (Kabbalah-nomian-early-elitist vs. Hasidism-hypernomian-late-populist—a set of oppositions which are by no means absolute), scholarly constructions of difference may also be conditioned by, for example, the enthusiastic perpetuation of Kabbalah qua Kabbalah on the part of major Hasidim (e.g., in the Ḥabad and Zhidachov-Komarno dynasties), as well as the dissociation of others therefrom.

Needless to say, I find Magid’s treatment of the Kabbalah-Hasidism relationship most compelling when his analysis does not hinge on typological disparity, but rather highlights categorical intersections. The second essay, on ẓaddikism, does this effectively. This study continues Magid’s exploration of incarnational thinking in Hasidism—an avenue stimulated by Elliot Wolfson’s work on Kabbalah’s affinities to Christian theology. Here, Magid qualifies the incarnational thinking exemplified by the Hasidic doctrine of the ẓaddik’s preexistence as a “Case of Jewish Arianism.” That is, he represents ẓaddikism as akin to the Christian heresy of Arianism in that it predicates of the ẓaddik (the righteous pillar of the religious community) what some fourth-century Christians predicated of Christ (see too Hasidism Incarnate, esp. 25-27). Accordingly, ẓaddikism affirms a primordial human type who, though not coeternal with God, subsists with the Godhead prior to creation. One twist in this essay’s approach to the problem of incarnational thinking in Jewish mysticism is that he likens ẓaddikism to the specific heresy of Arianism. It thus stakes a somewhat fixed position in relation to a broader spectrum of incarnational thinking, such as discussed by Wolfson vis-à-vis medieval Kabbalah (ranging from docetism to post-Nicene doctrine). Though some may be wary of affirming the ecclesiastical authority of heresiological categories, Kabbalah and Hasidism prove themselves to be quite close in their respective affinities to a range of Christian belief. Chapter 8, which presents Magid’s take on the embattled question of Ḥabad messianism, also examines the messianic dimensions of ẓaddikism, highlighting its relationship to “the Zohar-Luria kabbalistic trajectory” (p. 219), as well as its ancient precedents in binitarian strains of Jewish worship that found expression in early Christianity.

Another facet of Wolfson’s work on Kabbalah that Magid amplifies in his interpretation of Hasidism is the problem of how various thinkers have constructed the ethno-religious particularism of the Jewish people. The culminating study, on “American Jewish Fundamentalism,” discusses how the Tanya (the 1797 compendium of teachings by the “Alter Rebbe” of Ḥabad-Lubavitch, Shneur Zalman of Liadi) “makes a categorical distinction between the divinity of the Jewish soul (neshamah elohit) in contrast to the pure corporeality (neshamah behamit) of the gentile soul” (p. 281). Magid goes on to write: “While Ḥabad has often been accused that its doctrine constitutes a form of spiritual racism, Elliot Wolfson has shown that this doctrine is not exclusive to Ḥabad Ḥasidism or Ḥasidism more generally but permeates much of kabbalistic literature upon which the Tanya is based” (p. 281, my emphasis) In fact, Wolfson has deployed the term “rabbinic xenophobia” to explain the demonization of non-Jewish nations in medieval Kabbalah, rather than “spiritual racism,” as suggested here.[1] While critics may object that differentiating between the two terms is tantamount to the apologetic strategy that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. maligned as “gradualism,” it is worth marking here what appears to be a rhetorical intensification in Magid’s prose.

The issue of Jewish ethnocentrism has special interest for the author, who, in 2013’s American Post-Judaism, has prescribed a postethnic theology for “American Judaism” even as race philosopher George D. Yancy, among many others, has cautioned against adopting a postracial paradigm for contemporary thought. As Giller is correct to note, Magid has, in recent years, stepped up his public engagement as both a critic and partisan of Jewish politics. This may be gleaned from the continuous flow of writing Magid is now publishing on online platforms (at least one of the new essays printed in Piety and Rebellion—his poignant study of Kalonymous Kalman Shapira as the Hasidic [!] originator of post-Holocaust theologyhas evolved from a popular piece originally published online). The public vocation of Magid’s work may also be seen in his explorations of the political in Hasidic and Haredi thought. More than other critics who dismiss the antimodernism of ultra-Orthodox Judaism as an intellectually vacant strain of reactionary politics, Magid is thoroughly respectful of the intellectual complexity and exegetical rigor undergirding the political theology of contemporary Hasidism. The sixth essay, on faith and modernity in the teachings of  Reb Arele Roth of Shomer Emunim (the Hungarian-born proponent of anti-Zionist Haredi ideology in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem), exemplifies this, as does the final study, which maintains that not only Ḥabad, but also Satmar, and the ArtScroll publishing enterprise should be considered forms of “American Jewish Fundamentalism.”

The basic argument of this final study, the longest in the collection, is that even when these “fundamentalist” movements claim that Jews experience the same obstacles in the United States that they have encountered elsewhere, they have, in fact, benefited in constitutional ways from their adoptive political, cultural, and economic environment. With respect to Satmar Hasidim, he writes: “while Satmar proclaims … that ‘America is no different,’ its history in America, including its post-1967 stance on Zionism and the establishment of its rural enclave in upstate New York, Kiryas Joel, points to the fact that even for those who proclaim that American is not different in principle, in practice, America is different” (p. 172). While I admire this study for shifting the dominant narrative about the creative potentiation of Judaism in its US (and Canadian) context—from a story about the triumph of “liberal Judaism” to one about the incubation of “Jewish fundamentalisms” which buck against the mainstream—I find his use of the term “America” and the framework of “Americanization” troubling. This is because the analysis recapitulates the uncritical usage of “America” in the same reified and monopolizing sense used by the protagonists of his study, namely, as a hypostasized designation for the liberal-democratic administration, Anglo-Protestant culture, free-market economy, and geographical attributes of the United States (and sometimes Canada) all amalgamated into one. What this usage obviously does not encompass is the Latin-Catholic world to the south where Hasidic life is certainly a reality, though one often eclipsed by both scholarly bias and the substantially greater demographic distribution of Hasidim north of the Rio Grande. In other words, while Magid quite reasonably objects to the idea that ultra-Orthodox Judaism in United States (and Canada) has somehow remained impervious to its surroundings, he implicitly agrees to his protagonists’ inflated and boreocentric understanding of what “America” is. Moreover, the reiteration of Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson’s claim that “America is different,” albeit in a scholarly register, is still beholden to the comparative premise that “America” is different from Europe or elsewhere, and thus reproduces a set of uncritical premises about the history of Judaism in the diaspora.

Notwithstanding my reservations about this final study, I find Piety and Rebellion to be a stimulating addition to the scholarship on Hasidism by one of its most energetic, creative, and politically engaged interpreters. There is much to praise in these studies, which are as varied as the variegated corpus of Hasidism itself. Though the essays open many trajectories that will stimulate future research, the collection will most likely be remembered for its candid “cards on the table” introduction, which certainly breaks with genre.

Jeremy Phillip Brown is Simon and Ethel Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University


[1]. Elliot R. Wolfson, Venturing Beyond: Law and Morality in Kabbalistic Mysticism (New YorkOxford University Press, 2006), 40.

Citation: Jeremy Phillip Brown. Review of Magid, Shaul, Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

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