How to Read Hasidic Texts: A Quick Guide
by Ariel Evan Mayse
Ariel Evan Mayse is completing his doctorate in Jewish Studies at Harvard University, where he is working with Professors Arthur Green and Bernard Septimus. He has been a student of Jewish mysticism for many years, and he teaches Hasidic thought and theology in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and son. Ariel’s forthcoming dissertation, entitled “Beyond the Letters: The Question of Language in the Teachings of R. Dov Baer of Mezritch,” explores the philosophy of language of one of the most important early Hasidic leaders. He is a co-editor of the two-volume collection Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings From Around the Maggid’s Table (Jewish Lights, 2013), available here and here, and editor of the recent From the Depth of the Well: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (Paulist Press), available here.
This is his second contribution to the Seforim blog, his first can be found in Ariel Evan Mayse, "Kindler of Hearts and Illuminator of Letters: An Essay in Memory of Reb Levi Yitzhak ben Sara Sasha of Berdyczów," the Seforim Blog (29 September 2010), available (here).
Learning how to read Hasidic texts is a challenging but rewarding enterprise. The following short outline is intended help illustrate the process in a step-by-step manner.
1. LOOK IT UP - As you read, look up the biblical verses cited throughout the text and read them in their original context. Whenever possible, do the same with the rabbinic/zoharic passages. Try to locate the question or difficulty in the verse or story which becomes the point of departure for the homily. Then consider: How is the Hasidic master reinterpreting the plain-sense meaning of the passage, and to what extent does his teaching amplify preexisting elements already present?
2. VOCABULARY - Hasidic books often use familiar words and terms but give them specific definitions, so don't be afraid to look up in a dictionary something you think you might already know. The limited vocabulary used by the Hasidic masters to describe complex psychological processes and interior mystical experiences was inherited from medieval Kabbalah and philosophy, so it is crucial to recognize when a term is being employed in its original sense, and when the Hasidic master is using it to articulate a newer idea. The move is often one from the metaphysical toward the psychological.
3. THE POINT - After you've read the text and are satisfied that you understand the basics of its language, think about the deeper ideas the author is trying to convey. These teachings always have a personal message meant to concretize abstract theology into spiritual praxis. Similarly, what underlying question(s) is he trying to answer? The Hasidic masters stand on the shoulders of many generations of Jewish thinkers (philosophers, kabbalists, talmudists) who have continuously engaged with the existential and spiritual questions by reinterpreting earlier sources. Hasidic texts should be read as a part of this conversation.
4. THE CONTEXT - Now reflect on the text in two ways: First, try to read the text on its own terms. How might this message have sounded to its original audience, and why might it have been an appropriate teaching for that time and place?
5. PERSONAL REFLECTION - Second, step back for a moment and examine it once more from a personal perspective. What do you find meaningful in its words, and what do you find challenging or difficult? How are the spiritual issues at the forefront of the text relevant to your own journey?
6. THE BIG PICTURE - Hasidut emerged from the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, but each Hasidic master since then has lent his own unique voice to its theological chorus. Consider how the teachings of different Hasidic masters compare to and contrast with one another? Do they agree on all points of theology? Do they articulate the same vision of spiritual growth and mystical experience?
7. THE REBBE - As you read more teachings from a particular teacher, think about how they relate to one another. Does this particular Hasidic master have certain themes he returns to again and again? And how do these written teachings relate to any stories you may have heard about him?
8. THE EVENT - Remember that in most cases the written text was originally a homily delivered orally in Yiddish. Hearing these sermons was a special experience for the Hasidim, and these texts are only a transcribed echo of that original event. Don't forget this framing!
9. TEACH AND TRANSLATE - Think you understand? Now it's time to take one (or both) of the challenging next steps. First, teach the text to someone else! Second, try translating it, first for yourself and then for someone who wouldn't be able to read it in the original Hebrew.