In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Neo-Hasidism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • The Gendered Margins of Hasidism

Jewish Studies Neo-Hasidism
by
Sam Berrin Shonkoff
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0220

Introduction

“Neo-Hasidim” (sing. Neo-Hasid) are non-Hasidic Jews who draw upon Hasidism for purposes of spiritual or cultural renewal. Neo-Hasidism is thus rooted in a belief that the core of Hasidism—often identified with the movement’s earliest generations—is transferrable to other sociological contexts. Neo-Hasidim tend to be more secular and liberal-minded than Hasidim, but this is not necessarily the case. Note that even the most radical innovators within Hasidism itself, such as Nahman of Bratslav, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno, or Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, are not “neo-Hasidic” per se, since they operated within Hasidic communities. A border case, however, is women from Hasidic families who have been excluded from the central sites of Hasidic identity performance due to their gender and yet drawn deeply upon Hasidism in their own lives. When neo-Hasidism emerged in Central Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, it represented a striking cultural shift. From the Enlightenment through the 19th century, liberal Jews had generally cast Hasidism as backward, superstitious, and irrational. This was largely a strategic position: by differentiating themselves from “uncivilized,” “oriental” Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews), especially those ecstatic Hasidim, liberal Jews could demonstrate their own worthiness of citizenship and civil rights in modern nation-states. Around the turn of the century, though, a new generation of Jews rejected these bourgeois, assimilationist aspirations. On one hand, unmitigated discrimination against Jews and a rise of racial anti-Semitism seemed to suggest that liberal Jewish denigration of Ostjuden was unproductive, if not immoral. On the other hand, at the same time, a wave of neo-Romanticism swelled in the region, as more and more Europeans asserted that modernist rationalism, promises of progress, and industrialization and urbanization had only bred disenchantment and alienation. Many turned to folk cultures, mythologies, and mysticisms as keys to a renewed vitality. From this perspective, Hasidism took on a new aura. The first wave of what came to be called neo-Hasidism began as a literary phenomenon. Modern Hebrew and Yiddish writers such as Y. L. Peretz (b. 1852–d. 1915), Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky (b. 1865– d. 1921), and Samuel Abba Horodezky (b. 1871– d. 1957) wrote glowingly about Hasidism from decidedly non-Hasidic—or, in some cases, ex-Hasidic—vantage points. Around the same time, Hillel Zeitlin (b. 1871– d. 1942) and Martin Buber (b. 1878– d. 1965) celebrated Hasidism as a resource for Jewish religious renewal. Decades later, a second wave of neo-Hasidism took shape among spiritual seekers in the North American Jewish counterculture of the 1960s. Sparked initially by immigrants who had fled the Shoah (Holocaust)—most notably Abraham Joshua Heschel (b. 1907– d. 1972), Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (b. 1924– d. 2014), and Shlomo Carlebach (b. 1925– d. 1994)—the neo-Hasidic ethos gained steam through activities of US-born seekers and scholars, especially through the Jewish Renewal movement. Additional, and sometimes surprising, offshoots of neo-Hasidism continue to spread through today.

General Overviews

There are only a few scholarly overviews of neo-Hasidism as a whole, encompassing both waves. Ross 2013 and Ross 2018 portray it as a fundamentally secular appropriation of Hasidism. Mayse 2018–2019 offers a portrait of neo-Hasidism as a religious phenomenon through discussions of key figures. Biale, et al. 2018 captures the highly eclectic nature of neo-Hasidism. For an alternate definition of neo-Hasidism, see Persico 2014.

  • Biale, David, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, et al. Hasidism: A New History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400889198

    This social history of Hasidism devotes a full chapter to neo-Hasidism (chapter 21). Beginning with foretastes of neo-Hasidism among Eastern European maskilim, the authors then turn to strikingly diverse forms that neo-Hasidism took in literature, performing arts, spirituality, and politics.

  • Mayse, Ariel Evan. “The Development of Neo-Hasidism: Echoes and Repercussions.” Lehrhaus, 19 December 2018– 11 February 2019.

    Mayse offers a four-part series on neo-Hasidism, focusing on the religious and theological dimensions of the movement from Martin Buber and Hillel Zeitlin through Arthur Green.

  • Persico, Tomer. “Neo-Hasidic Revival: Expressivist Uses of Traditional Lore.” Modern Judaism 34.3 (2014): 287–308.

    DOI: 10.1093/mj/kju016

    Persico offers a brief history of neo-Hasidism and then discusses three Orthodox Israeli examples. Notably, Persico’s definition of neo-Hasidism as “the deliberate and conscious attempt to draw inspiration, tools, and cultural capital from early Hasidic texts and practices in order to bring about a contemporary spiritual revival” (p. 287) differs somewhat from the definition used in this bibliography. First, Persico does not limit neo-Hasidism to non-Hasidic Jews, so various Hasidic rabbis appear in this article as “neo-Hasidic.” Second, Persico’s definition excludes those who draw upon later Hasidic sources.

  • Ross, Nicham. “Can Secular Spirituality Be Religiously Inspired? The Hasidic Legacy in the Eyes of Skeptics.” AJS Review 37.1 (2013): 93–113.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0364009413000056

    In this article on neo-Hasidic figures from early-20th-century European writers through late-20th-century and contemporary leaders in the United States, Ross draws a stark boundary between “religious” Hasidism and “secular” neo-Hasidism.

  • Ross, Nicham. “Shalosh Tofa’ot Neo-Ḥasidot.” Michlol 2 (2018): 63–80.

    The three neo-Hasidic phenomena that Ross considers in this article are: the literary neo-Hasidism of European Jewish writers around the turn of the 20th century (what we call first-wave neo-Hasidism), the New Age neo-Hasidism of Jewish seekers in North America (what we call second-wave neo-Hasidism), and the relatively recent Orthodox neo-Hasidism of Religious Zionists in Israel.

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