Hasidic Roots, Secular Fruits: “Personal Mysticism” and the Political in a Networked Society


In today’s society, everything seems to be becoming more and more personal. In contrast to the not-so-distant past, less and less of what we do has to do with texts.   And if we read texts, they are in passing. Most of us don’t read novels or books of philosophy for wisdom or personal growth. To be sure, for most millennials it’s a chore. If any of us are “moved,” it is usually by what others say or feel either in person, on facebook or twitter, or through some media or other.   However, that movement needs to be defined: to be sure, it is often emotional or intellectual (at best), not spiritual. If we are moved – and that doesn’t happen too often – few of us see this or that person’s spiritual persona or charisma as inspiring us to change our lives.  Charisma is oftentimes mocked.    And those who are moved by this or that person are deemed…odd.

On Facebook this morning, I ran across this film clip which did its fair share of showing how being inspired or sharing it with others is ridiculous.   It suggests that people who are inspired are either stoned, dumb, or lost.

It’s interesting how, in difficult times, spirituality or religion has a large appeal. Today, despite the lack of great jobs, most of us feel self-important. Wit seems to be our guide through life, not spirituality. And, in truth, people don’t move us as much as an unexpected thing that they say or do. It’s the odd event that intrigues.

From this floating point above humanity, it’s easy for us to mock spirituality. Is there an alternative to this smug kind of nihilism? What is lost if it is deemed ridiculous to be inspired by other people? What happens if the only thing that moves us is the unexpected witty video clip, sound byte, or political intrigue, etc? One wonders if we can, once again, be inspired by other people to become more spiritual rather than fear that we are appearing more ridiculous.   Would that be backwards? Shouldn’t we be guided by wit and not by this or that person? Are we far away from what Moshe Idel – a Kabbalah scholar – calls “personal mysticism”?

In his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem argues that what makes Hasidism special “lies in the fact that mystics who had attained their spiritual aim – who, in Kabbalistic parlance, had discovered the secret of true Devekuth (clinging to G-d) – turned to people with their mystical knowledge, their “Kabbalism become Ethos,” and instead of cherishing as a mystery the most personal of all experiences, undertook to teach its secret to all men of good will”(342).   For Scholem, personal mysticism of the Hasidic variety isn’t “personal” (in the sense of only being mine); it is personal in the sense that it is shared. The secret is not hidden. It is open.

Sharing this secret – person to person – is what maters most. It is not the text of the Kabbalah that, as it did in the Medieval period, inspires the person to experience godliness. Now it is the person that is the carrier of mystery:

The believer no longer need the Kabbalah; he turned its mysteries into reality by fastening upon certain traits which the saint, or Zaddik, whose example he would follow, had placed in the center of his relation to God. Everyone, thus the doctrine ran, must try to become the embodiment of a certain ethical quality. Attributes like piety, service, love, devotion, humility, clemency, trust, even greatness and domination, because in this way enormously real and socially effective. (342)

Playing on Maimonides who saw Moses (in the Guide to the Perplexed) as the ideal person – because he could be intellectually connected to God while being with the people – Scholem argues that this double-ness takes on a mystical aspect with the righteous Hasid:

To live among ordinary men and yet to be alone with God, to speak profane language and yet to draw the strength to live from the source of existence, from the “upper root” of the soul – that is the paradox of which the mystical devotee is able to realize in his life and which makes him the center of the community of men. (343)

Scholem goes so far as to say that his personality displaces the doctrine of the Torah: “The whole development centers around the personality of the Hasidic saint; this is something entirely new. Personality takes the place of doctrine; what is lost in rationality by this change is gained in efficacy.”   The paradox is that he teaches his Hasidim that the love for the simpleton or common man is the “highest religious value.” The paradox is that the men whose “utterances not infrequently throw light on the paradoxical nature of mystical consciousness,” loved simplicity more than complexity. They were the “advocates of the simple and untainted belief in the common man, and this simplicity was even glorified by them as the highest religious value”(346).

In addition to “being” inspired, it was their celebration of the community and its simplicity that made the community experience the paradox in a personal manner. How could, as Larry David might say, a poor shmuck be so special? This realization is what inspired the masses that huddled around the Hasidic Tzadikim of the past to love being Jewish.   What fascinated Scholem most about all of this, however, was the enthusiasm around this personal mysticism.

The closest thing we have to this, today, can be found in the charisma of pop stars or major politicians.   But the fact of the matter is that this enthusiasm is found – as it was with the Hasidim – in the context of community.     In the video clip (above), the spirituality is unfocused because the people on stage are ridiculous. For this reason, the audience’s enthusiasm is also laughable.   If, however, the person on stage is special and is showing that he or she thinks you are special (although you’re really just a poor schmuck) that experience takes on a spiritual aura. And, today, this is what is odd because the communities that are inspired are mediated by culture not religion.   And – as we can see in politics – the devotees of this “personal mysticism” are less interested in doctrine and more interested in being liked by the exemplary leader who smiles at them and makes them feel special.   And – as with a Hasidic Rebbe – he helps them to dream; he makes everyone feel happy about being alive and in a living community that is infused with spirituality.

One person I think of, in this regard, is Bernie – or is it “Birdie”(?) – Sanders. He has had this kind of effect on people. The displacement, I would argue, is theological (in the Hasidic sense).   Echoing Scholem, we can say that his mysticism is his “ethos.” It seems to be displacing – at times – political doctrine.   He really “moves” people to think that they can take part in a radical change of the (American) world and a bifurcation of history.   There is, here, also an element of the messianic and what Scholem might call “messianic activism.” It may be secular but it feels spiritual.  Nonetheless, Larry David is always around the corner to “curb your enthusiasm.”

But enthusiasm can only be curbed…for so long.  While most people find spirituality and organized religion to be laughable, other people really want a Birdie Sanders sticker.   Get it while you can. Time is running out.  Isn’t this fun?


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