Chanted Prayers in Early Hasidism

Aubrey Glazer on Moshe Idel and Ariel Mayse

“There’s blaze of light in every word,
doesn’t matter which one you heard,
the cold or the broken Hallelujah”

No one expected “Hallelujah” to become a 1984 near-anthem for this post-secular age — especially its singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen. The Montréal bard–at home in his Judaism, but incessantly searching for deeper light –found himself meditating on retreat atop Mount Baldy Zen Center. He knew there was celestial illumination to be embodied here in this world on “Boogie Street.” Fueled by his unconventional and anarchic “appetite for something like religion,” the genius of Leonard Cohen’s songbook continues to echo through the sonorous experience of that “blaze of light in every word” which always reveals new meanings in otherwise concealed words.

Once set to music, these words dressed in song enliven, touch and transform you as a listener. No one expected the European revivalist movement of Jewish spirituality known as Hasidism to become a near-anthem for the modern (and even contemporary) seeker, especially the sonorous experiences of the good master of the Name, known as the BeSh”T, short for the Ba’al Shem Tov. Born as R. Israel ben Eliezer (ca. 1698 – 22 May 1760). This charismatic mystic evoked the sounds of this next iteration of Hasidism, enlivening them with more vibrant colors and richer tonality, channeling the song of his soul to a generation adrift. The BeSh”T’s  appetite for something wild was  the needed anarchic impulse to awaken the repressed within the forms of the otherwise slumbering Jewish tradition.

Opposition to such ecstatic expressions of spirituality came swiftly by the Mitnagdim, while the broken dreams of redemption after the unrealized messianism of Sabbetai Zvi in 1666 deepened a sense of  communal loss that had still not yet fully healed. For the BeSh”T it mattered which word you heard—both “the cold and the broken” words of prayer and Torah — as he applied his charisma to revealing the light hidden within every word, whether sacred or mundane.

The sympathetic resonances of these words emerged from his humble beginnings in a small Ukrainian village of Okop on the Polish Russian border of Podolia, and these words were always dancing — between mysticism and astral magic, between semantic vitality and spiritual force, between the embodied vocal activity and the graphics of its textual tradition — thus enabling generations to listen anew to the luminosity within religious language of traditional Judaism that otherwise would have ossified or assimilated under the influence of the Enlightenment.

While the BeSh”T was a charismatic visionary who touched, tasted, heard, saw and danced through this light, his legacy remains a mystery.  Somewhere between a romantic hero and broken healer, between astral magician and ecstatic shaman, the polyphonic nature of this visionary leader can now be more fully heard thanks to Moshe Idel’s Vocal Rites and Broken Theologies. Neither succumbing to hagiographic maximalism nor historiographic minimalism, Idel’s analysis of a plethora of the BeSh”T’s teachings as transmitted through his disciples aptly called hasidim, provides a new window into this spiritual visionary who pioneered a revolutionary chapter in the rebirthing of modern Hasidism that swept through Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. Idel’s scholarly commitment to tracing the modular shifts from medieval Kabbalah to modern Hasidism is marked by a shift in the sensorial experience of mysticism, from primarily a visualization of letters to vocal rites that enable the hasidic seeker to be cleaving to vocables of prayer and study. Idel is seeking to restore an awareness of the sonorous quality of mystical experience heretofore eclipsed by scholars of Kabbalah, who inclined towards the ocular quality of mystical experience in reading these hasidic texts.

Speaking Infinities
Ariel Mayse. Speaking Infinities: God and Language in the Teachings of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritsh. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.

We might ask: What is bothering Idel?

Despite his otherwise stellar scholarship erratic commentary on contemporary American Judaism interrupt the flow of his argument, for instance: “The complexity of historical Hasidism has been reduced in some forms of scholarship in the field in order to adjust it for the imagined needs of some liberal audiences of today or of tomorrow, seekers for new Jewish identities or of some spiritual experiences.” Idel is bothered by the renewal and heterodoxic application of these experiences as “useful and usable for today’s democratic approach to religion” that he feels are “[a] rather extreme, modern and scholarly process of spiritualization of Hasidism.” It is worth considering the implications of Idel’s  decrying the “tragicomic” state of Diasporic scholarship prone to constructing “secular theologies” that are essentialist, reductive, artificial or apologetic in light of an earlier  divide whereby Israeli scholarship was circumscribed by its own essentialist  Zionist reading of of Jewish history and its scholarly projects. The greater irony here is that even amidst such a nuanced analysis of early Hasidism, the BeShTian core teachings of radical compassion for all creatures within the polyphonic symphony of creation ultimately eludes us all on some level, as the challenge remains how to apply these practices to daily life—whether it is embodied within an ethno-cultural nation-state like Israel  or in a liberal democracy of America—the challenge remains of living in a post-secular world.

Another important aspect of the BeSh”T’s legacy is analyzed through his disciple re-imagined as innovative revisionist through the  analysis of Ariel Evan Mayse, in Speaking Infinities. His analysis of the writings of the chief disciple of the BeSh”T, simply known as “the Maggid” (preacher), Rabbi Dov Ber Friedman of Mezritsh (1704-1772), focuses on the one who disseminated oral components of his master’s spiritual renewal project in extensive written homilies, what Mayse constructs is a philosophy of language from close readings of the Maggid’s legacy as lived, preached, taught, practiced and adapted. The Maggid gave complex form to that “blaze of light in every word” to ensure that sonorous light would never be lost. Mayse  is right to analyze the Maggid’s philosophy of language from the visionary experiences that took place around and through the BeSh”T. A generation of emissaries extends the Maggid’s vision to far-reaching local villages known as shtetlach and building up a loose network of sonorous communities around a charismatic leader fueled by the Maggid’s empowerment of his colleagues to then go and apply his philosophy of language to the messiness of communal life.

While Mayse demonstrates that Dov Ber was an innovator who establishes Hasidism as a movement, any coherence of such an early theology would be challenged by Idel’s model of an ongoing process of disintegrating theosophical systems to refocus on the paradoxical and dynamic nature of experience itself. The complex relationship between the philosophy of language nascent in the BeSh”T and its evolution in the Maggid could be much more  fully analyzed.  After all, nothwithstanding Mayse’s  passing referrence to Ludwig Wittgenstein, can there really be a Jewish philosophy of language without serious engagement —   with (Jewish) philosophers of language such as Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida, and Hélène Cixous, among others. Mayse defies Idel’s strawman category of “tragicomic” scholarship given his disinterest in constructing secular theology; yet, that does not preclude Mayse from falling prey to an apologia for a contemporary domesticated Neo-Hasidism that ultimately sublimates the BeSh”T’s  anarchic impulse underlying his spiritual experiences even when revised by the Maggid.

Reconstituting the actual experiences enabled by the BeSh”Tian practice has eluded generations of scholars amidst limited access to the actual devotional worlds built by these paradoxical spiritual regimens after their near wholesale destruction in Auschwitz. Those mystical experiences remain elusive unless one “goes native” into those sequestered hasidic sects that continue to carry forward murmurs of these practices as felt in hasidic communities like Karlin-Stolin. The building block of such sonorous communities remains the very “architectural imaginaire of the sound,” which Idel identifies through the double entendre of the Hebrew word teivah, both as a “word” and as an “ark.” This means that both words of prayer and Torah when pronounced “are to be seen, therefore as constituting a sonorous mesocosm, a space that though created during the verbal ritual, is entered by either human body or by soul, and the divine emanation described several times as light, in order to be united there.”

Idel sees this as another example of a magical practice providing a fascinating parallel challenge in Hindu studies as conveyed in English scholarship, namely, that the Orientalist approach focuses more upon “abstract, noetic, philosophical parts of the Hindu traditions—the Upanishads and the philosophy of the Shankara” while remaining tone-deaf to the “more concrete aspect represented by the Tantric traditions and practices.” It took another Romanian scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade and his studies on Yoga as a technique and his later book on Shamanism to put into relief a “less theological approach to religion.” Idel should be lauded for bringing an Eliadean ear to Jewish studies so that the experiential “mesocosmic ballet” that dances between status, space, and spiritual powers to embody more complex structures of meaning in ecstatic ritual can be seen for how it “transforms aspects of the symbolic order,” bringing the textures of  time and tempo into the fuller experience of the spiritual ballet being enacted. I have benefited from applying Idel’s insights in my own research into another under-explored sonorous community of 1777 known as Tiberian Hasidism that led me to “go native” into a Karlin-Stolin hasidic community to experience  hearing the power of its mystical sonority as a within an “architectural imaginaire of the sound” modulated by both the volume of the speaking and singing voice.

Great scholarship invites further queries and cultivates curiosity and to conclude, I extend Idel’s “polyphonic” exploration of the “mesocosmic ballet” of mystical experience in hasidic music and dance.  Such extensions into the mystical experience of hasidic musicality could begin with listening anew to Hassidic Tunes of Dancing and Rejoicing (1978), the invaluable recordings by André Hajdu and Yaakov Mazor. Already in the 1950s, ethnomusicologist Me’ir Shim‘on Geshuri would wander the streets of Israel asking people to sing the songs of their ancestors so he could jot down the melodies on musical staff in small notebooks. Despite the distance from the BeSh”T, Geshori found that even seven generations later the oral tradition of music continued to be transmitted with remarkable accuracy. In his all but forgotten three volume study, Melody and Dance in Hasidism (Ha-Nigun veha-rikud ba-ḥasidut), Geshori annotated, classifed and analyzed these melodies as a way of  better understanding  the context of hasidic social life and religious thought —which remains an invaluable tool for entering into this “an architectural imaginaire of the sound.”

Further extension of more textures in the mystical experience in Hasidism mean a more expansive view of Ashkenaz by reconsidering ethnomusicologist, Walter Zev Feldman, whose numerous studies especially  Klezmer: Music, History and Memory (2016), shows how East European cultural expressivity and communication integrated dance that united melody, movement, and gesture. While the temporal shaping across all human modalities of perception, action and cognition is universal, its embodiment in Hasidism that emerged from Podolia to Tiberias in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire is unique.

Leonard Cohen well understood that “blaze of light in every word” means here too that vocals cannot be separated from gesture, music and dance in Hasidism. So Feldman’s  taxonomy accounts for the creation of a new musical synthesis under Hasidism that combines modal structures from the synagogue with a variety of co-territorial and Near Eastern influences. These earliest layers of Hasidic spiritual revivalism were attempts to listen anew to that “blaze of light in every word” and ensure that their immersion in the sea of divine consciousness began and culminated in a song for all to sing. Despite the early Hasidic struggle to listen and dance against the dying light of modernity’s broken promises, meanwhile Leonard Cohen’s swan song (of ,) “You Want it Darker” (2016) encapsulates that deep listening to the divine song “as we kill the flame.”

Aubrey L. Glazer, author of Tangle of Matter and Ghost and God Knows Everything is Broken, is the director of Panui: An Open Space for Contemplative Judaism. Visit www.panui.org.