“Jesus H. (as in, Hasidic) Christ!” – By Allan Nadler

Allan Nadler on Shaul Magid’s Hasidism Incarnate

Shaul Magid, Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity and the Construction of Modern Judaism, Stanford University Press, 2014, 288pp., $65
Shaul Magid, Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity and the Construction of Modern Judaism, Stanford University Press, 2014, 288pp., $65

Pope Francis’s disclosure, early on in his papacy, that his favorite painting is Marc Chagall’s 1938 “White Crucifixion” elicited no small degree of excitement. For many liberal Jews and Catholics, this was a hugely promising sign of the new Pontiff’s potential openness to an unprecedented level of Jewish-Christian reconciliation.

“White Crucifixion” is the first and the largest of Chagall’s many similarly transgressive canvasses depicting the crucified Jesus. These crucifixions are entirely unlike the many thousands of piously Catholic paintings of the Passion of Christ, in that Chagall’s Crucified Jesus is unmistakably Jewish and, in the eyes of many critics, Hasidic (see pic below). Re-claiming the Passion as primordial symbol for the eternally suffering Jews, not least his distressed brethren in mid-twentieth century Europe, Chagall clad Jesus in the tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, instead of a loincloth. He bedecked him in teffilin (phylacteries), grasping a burning Torah scroll. Chagall surrounded him with the many degradations of his people, the eternally wandering Jews, fleeing their burning shtetls. Most startlingly, those binding Chagall’s Christ to the cross were often portrayed porting swastikas.

The immediate provocation for “White Crucifixion” was Kristallnacht, the night of terror in November, 1938 when the Nazis torched and vandalized synagogues and other Jewish properties all across Germany and Austria. Chagall was at the time living in Berlin, making him a first-hand witness to these horrors. In portraying Jesus as a pious Jew in that dark historical context, Chagall was indicting Christian Europe for its indifference to the horrific suffering of Jesus’s own progeny. And yet, other, more optimistic appreciations of these works by Chagall abound.

Among the most curious of the dozens of Catholic reactions to the Pope’s disclosure was that of Father John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His campus is home to “White Crucifixion,” which belongs to the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The painting comes out of the movement, particularly among Yiddish-speaking, nonreligious Jews, to see Jesus as sharing in the sufferings of Jews at the hands of Christians. However, few, if any, Christians are really aware of this movement.

To be sure, Chagall was not alone among East European Jewish artists and writers who sought to reclaim Jesus — not only his suffering, but also the core of his moral teachings — for modern Judaism. Beginning in the late nineteenth- and through the mid-twentieth century, a cadre of secular and contrarian Jewish artists, scholars, writers and public intellectuals were involved in this project, ranging from the controversial historian of Hebrew literature Joseph Klausner to the notorious Yiddish writer Sholem Ash.

"White Crucifixion," by Marc Chagall. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“White Crucifixion,” by Marc Chagall. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

With the publication of his stunning new study, Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity and the Construction of Modern Judaism, the contemporary scholar of Jewish mysticism, Shaul Magid, has taken his place in the ranks of these intellectuals. Indeed, in summing up his main objective in the book’s postscript, Magid writes of the romantic, anti-rationalist agenda he shares with the earlier neo-Hasidic romantics:

At the heart of Hasidism Incarnate is the thesis that Hasidism is the “crazy aunt in the attic” that many modern philosophers, like [Steven] Schwarzchild, [Menachem] Kellner, and [Kenneth] Seeskin did not want us to see, or at least take too seriously. Hasidism, especially interpreted outside its Orthodox context, is the anti-Maimonidean Judaism par excellence. Jewish thinkers who were members of the first wave of neo-Hasidism, such as Martin Buber, Hillel Zeitlin, I.L. Peretz, Marc Chagall and the young Abraham Joshua Heschel, always knew this and prepared the way for the second wave that would emerge at the end of the twentieth century. They creatively lifted Hasidism out of it its hyper-traditional context and exposed some of its unorthodox implications.

Notwithstanding the old saw against judging a book by its cover, Chagall’s anguished “Yellow Crucifixion” (1942), drawn over an agonizing two-year period that witnessed the Nazis’ mass shootings of the vast majority of Jews in his native Byelorussia, serves then as the perfect cover-art for Magid’s book. It is also as good a place as any to begin assessing Magid’s provocative argument that the Christian doctrine of incarnation, long reviled as the antithesis of the very essence of Judaic monotheism, is to be found in many Jewish mystical, and especially Hasidic, texts and teachings.

While their respective contexts and motivations are very different, both Chagall’s art and Magid’s recent articles on this subject (two of which are included in this new volume) constitute Jewish reclamations of some aspect of the Christ-idea. Magid, for example, presents the case, drawn from important Hasidic texts, of a process of kenosis, whereby the Hasidic zaddik (pl. zaddikim; master, or rebbe) becomes not just God-like and more than merely holy, but actually, ontologically divine. While certainly not Chagall’s primary intention, his transgressive portrayals of the Crucifixion have also been appreciated idealistically in particular by some prominent Catholic critics, as calling attention to a spiritual heritage shared by Jews and Christians. Such sunny appreciations of Chagall’s dark crucifixions ties them with Magid’s larger agenda of finding in Hasidic texts, as he imaginatively interprets them, the mustard seeds for future Jewish-Christian theological conversations.

Magid is essentially uninterested in the historical contexts or authorial intents of his sources and openly eschews the historico-philological approach to such texts favored by traditional historians. Thus, at the book’s very outset, he offers this challenge:

Should we read texts only on their own terms or should we open a chasm in the text itself such that we can view it otherwise by forcing it into dialogue with a related textual tradition … Literary scholarship in any tradition is an act of translation … Translation and transposability, using terms from one tradition to explain another, is another way to open the chasm.

At times, Magid seems to boast of forcing meanings into Hasidic texts at which their author’s would revolt, just as so many Jews have shuddered when first encountering Chagall’s crucifixions. Unlike Chagall however, Magid’s central concern is not with Jesus’s very dramatic “passion” but rather with the development of the idea of God’s incarnation in human form that preceded it.

The core argument of Hasidism Incarnate is that, for too long, modern Jewish philosophers and scholars have recoiled at the very idea of incarnation, though it is, in fact, to be found in a significant number of Jewish mystical texts and is not exclusively connected with Jesus. This repulsion stemmed largely from apologetic concerns and rationalist (or ‘Maimonidean’) biases; to this day, scholars of Jewish mysticism and Hasidism have quite consciously refused the concept of incarnation any place in their writing because of a strong sense that it is so unique and powerful a Christian notion.

Magid’s lengthy and strongly argued Introduction and his first chapter are the most important, original and challenging of the book’s sections. Here Magid sets forth the essence of his argument against his scholarly predecessors’ and peers’ firm resistance to employing the term “incarnation” when speaking of any aspect of Jewish mystical thought. He sets his mark squarely on Israel’s leading scholar of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel, and Idel’s adamant refusal even to admit the term into the lexicon of scholarship on Jewish mysticism, preferring the more neutral “embodiment” to depict even the most radically immanentist Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts and ideas. Here, as throughout the book, Magid makes clear his indebtedness to the massive body of earlier work by Elliot Wolfson, the only major scholar of Jewish mysticism who has not shied away from identifying the Jewish incarnational notions that suffuse so much Kabbalistic literature. Magid proposes to extend Wolfson’s groundbreaking work on kabbalism to focus specifically on Hasidic thought, in which he compellingly, and I believe correctly, argues that the idea of incarnation reached its apogee.

Magid is at pains to point out that the early Hasidic masters whom he cites had nothing approaching any real comprehension of the Christian dogma of incarnation, which is, paradoxically enough, precisely why their guard was not up against incarnational thinking more generally. Magid contrasts this license to formulate incarnational ideas — which he argues resulted from the Hasidic masters’ not being “under the Christian gaze” — with the extreme caution exercised by modernizing Jewish thinkers of a century past (such as Hermann Cohen and Leo Strauss). They sought a social reconciliation with their Christian neighbors, but drew a red line to prevent any Christological notions from invading Judaism.

Magid terms his assertion that the Hasidic zaddikim of the nineteenth century felt freer to articulate incarnational ideas due to their basic obliviousness to Christianity as a “historical claim.” While that claim sounds interesting enough, it is far from historically convincing. Indeed, Magid himself appears to be conflicted, or at the very least unsure, about the degree of the early Hasidic leaders’ awareness and understanding of Christian doctrines. He initially suggests that “Most Hasidic masters knew little about Christianity other than what they absorbed from Jewish polemical literature … or ideas they absorbed from living among Christians … In contrast [to the authors of medieval polemics and medieval kabbalists], the Hasidic masters were by and large not engaged in polemics against Christianity; that is, although they lived in a Christian world, they were largely not working under a Christian gaze.” Soon thereafter Magid describes Hasidism in general as a movement “that did not take a polemical stance against Christianity.” He then goes on to observe that “While Hasidim lived in the Christian world and were often quite knowledgeable about Christianity [emphasis, mine] they were freer than their medieval or early modern predecessors from the influence of Christian onlookers.”

The work of today’s leading historians of Polish Hasidism, Glenn Dynner and Marcin Wodzinski, suggests that Magid is treading in murky waters here. Hasidic writers did engage in the most vicious polemics against Christianity, at the center of which was usually the demonization of Jesus, as well as the vilification of the local priests and regional bishops, both Catholic and Orthodox, of their time. Dynner has richly depicted social relationships between ordinary Hasidim and their Christian peasant neighbors that were often very friendly, and on many occasions, almost intimate. At the same time, Wodzinski’s current work on Hasidic attitudes towards Christianity displays that the depths of contempt expressed by many zaddikim for Christians and their faith had neither precedent nor parallel in the history of Jewish thought. Of the many ways in which the doctrine of the ‘Election of Israel’ was interpreted, in only one school of Judaism did it lead to a form of grotesque national chauvinism, bordering perilously on overt racism: namely, Hasidism. All this is well known, and I can only speculate that Magid chose mainly to ignore it, for the rather obvious reasons that it cannot be reconciled with his book’s central contention. I say mainly, because in chapter five, which analyzes the respective attitudes of Martin Buber and the Sochaczever Rebbe, Shmuel Bornstein, towards Christianity, Magid provides ample evidence of Hasidism’s demonization of Jesus and Christian clergy.

In fairness, Magid’s is a consciously ahistorical study using methods of interpreting its primary sources that divorce them from their specific context. Magid would have been better off, and more consistent, had he simply not addressed the historical “whys” and “hows” related to Hasidic incarnational thinking at all, as these have been dealt with in more than sufficient detail by historians of Hasidism.

After having made a compelling argument that the deep Jewish aversion to even consider using the term ‘incarnation’ to explicate any Jewish theological concept is archaic, and ought to be abandoned, Magid turns to a few exceptional, and extreme, examples of incarnational thinking in Hasidism. These include Magid’s superb, at times shocking, chapter on the nature of the personal charisma of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (Chapter 2) which he compellingly renders in the broader context of incarnational theology. This chapter opens with a daring challenge, asserting that the deification of Hasidic zaddikim is not all that distant from Christianity’s deification of Jesus:

If Christianity’s monotheism is questioned [by Jews] because of its doctrine of incarnation, so should Hasidism’s because of its doctrine of zaddikism.

While too complex to summarize adequately here, Magid’s reading of Rabbi Nahman’s teachings puts them in dialogue with the central formulation of Johannine Christianity, namely that in Jesus the word of God became flesh. Magid argues that R. Nahman executed a new twist on this core principle of Johannine theosophy; that is, Nahman himself, through articulating his own published words, becomes God in his own flesh.

To argue that Nahman of Bratslav was no ordinary zaddik, and is unrepresentative of any wide trends in Hasidic history, would of course be a gross understatement. So profoundly idiosyncratic was Nahman that his thought represents only himself, and certainly not Hasidism in general. To his credit Magid makes this very clear at the end of this chapter, in one of the most sober and deflating assessments of R. Nahman’s legacy I have yet to read: “His claim of uniqueness was part of his charisma, but in the end charisma was all there ever was.”

In the two chapters bookending his treatment of Nahman, Magid cites and analyzes selections from the work of more conventional and enduringly influential Hasidic masters such as Dov Ber, the Great Maggid of Mezeritch, Ephraim of Sudilkow, grandson of the founder of Hasidism, Zev Wolf of Zhitomer, Isaac Lev of Berdichev and Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk.

Basing himself on a small selection of readings (too small in fact for any kind of evidentiary conclusions) from the work of Mencham Mendel of Vitebsk and Levi Isaac of Berdichev, Magid argues that through their radical, incarnational ideas, these two leading zaddikim of Hasidism’s second generation planted, however unwittingly, the seeds for a universalistic ethics.

From explicating Menachem Mendel’s incarnational theology of how divine love fully enters the human soul and becomes one with it, Magid goes on to argue, based on his reading of a single selection from Levi Isaac of Berdichev’s classic and influential work, Kedushat Levi, that this divine love is by definition infinite and universal, extending thus to all of humankind. However, a close and contextual reading of this particular commentary, which deals with a classical rabbinical tale about a potential convert to Judaism, suggest that that Levi Isaac would not extend what he writes about loving the non-Jew beyond proselytes to Judaism. It is here in particular that the dissonance between Magid’s theorizing and the ineludibly demeaning attitudes of dozens of Hasidic leaders, since Hasidism’s inception, towards the very souls of Gentiles and the essence of their faith, is most pronounced.

While it is plausible that the early Hasidic zaddikim had no concern about approximating, let alone appropriating, the notion of the incarnation of God in the human form of Jesus Christ because they were basically oblivious to the theology undergirding this radical idea, it is almost certain that these sages could not even remotely imagine, let alone approve of Magid’s interreligious agenda. This is something Magid himself allows. Indeed, over and again, in the course of making his arguments for the “incarnational thinking” to be found in Hasidic texts, Magid knowingly pushes his sources into waters that their authors’ would dare not tread. Again, it must be stressed that Magid’s concern is not with the original meaning or intent of these texts or how they have been received by their intended Hasidic readers for generations, but rather with the transgressive potential inherent in them. It is to Magid’s credit that he scrupulously avoids blurring this critical distinction.

For critical scholars of Hasidic thought, Magid’s book has enormous potential to inspire fresh and more detailed studies of the genuinely radical ideas of both the Hasidic masters whose works he cites, as well as the treasury of literature produced by subsequent generations of Hasidic authors. There are ample tales and theoretical works testifying to the God-delusion under which many Hasidic leaders operated. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk’s writings are filled with shocking, and often antinomian ideas that buttress Magid’s thesis about him. To mention just two other outstandingly outrageous Menachem Mendels, the life and thought of Menachem Mendel of Rymanow brim with evidence that he held himself to be on par with, if not actually identical to, God; and then, most famously, there are of course the far more recent messianic delusions of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a subject that has been dealt with profoundly and comprehensively in Elliot Wolfson’s recent work, Open Secret.

Magid’s book is overwhelmingly a work of scholarship, of original exegeses of arcane Hasidic texts. And yet, the author does allude here and there to the broader potentialities of his, and Elliot Wolfson’s, transgressive readings of a significant body of kabbalistic texts. An acceptance on the part of Jewish scholars and clergy that the doctrine of incarnation is not exclusively Christian might, Magid suggests, play a helpful role in furthering Jewish-Christian theological dialogue by discrediting the formidable Jewish taboo regarding any notion of incarnation, a doctrine which, to a great many Jewish thinkers, borders on idolatry. Thus, in his methodological premise, Magid makes a concerted effort to assure his readers that his revelation of incarnational modes of thinking in Hasidic texts and traditions need not lead to any equation between them and the Christian doctrine that is specifically associated with Jesus as God in the flesh. “I am interested in exploring difference via similitude,” he writes, “in deepening our understanding of traditions that share an ontic affinity when Judaism no longer needs to define itself ‘against’ Christianity, and no longer needs to see in Christianity an unequivocal ‘not-me.’”

Interfaith dialogue not being my own field of religious engagement or scholarly expertise, I would rather leave those professionally involved in that noble enterprise to assess the degree to which Magid’s work might enhance their work. At the same time, it seems rather obvious that eliminating, even if only partially, a daunting doctrinal barrier that has proven the single most formidable impediment against deepening Jewish-Christian theological dialogue, promises to bear rich fruit.