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The Hasidic Contribution to Psychology



Jerusalem, March 2 2014


I would like to begin this presentation by thanking Professor Philip Wexler, not only –
together with Rabbi Schmidt – for organizing this exciting event, and not even for almost
15 years of joint work and study and reflection, but especially for his wonderful
inspiration. I still remember my excitement when Prof. Idel, then my doctoral advisor,
kindly lent me his copy of Philip’s Holy Sparks: Social Theory, Education and Religion
and warmly encouraged me to read it. Even then, I sensed the revolutionary potential of
his approach for the study of Hasidism and Jewish civilization in general: Philip was
essentially calling for a move from analyzing Hasidic texts through the lens of social
science, sociology, social psychology, to uncovering the internal, indigenous forms of
social thought found in the texts. And then, as a second and vital step, to critique and
reevaluate Western theory in light of the ideas that emerge.

This shift blended well with the direction of my own work, as I moved from a
kind of compromise between analyzing Kabbalistic ideas of power via Foucault and
through the internal vocabulary of Jewish mysticism, or a similar stance with regard to
trance and Western hypnotic theory, towards now describing Kabbalistic psychological
thought from within, as an independent form of modern European psychology, both in
my Massive Open Online Course (in the Coursera platform) and in a recently submitted
book manuscript, Yearnings of the Soul: Psychological Thought in Modern Kabbalah.1
What I am claiming these days, is that Modern Kabbalistic Psychology should stand
alongside psychoanalysis, or other secularized forms of psychology (with deep religious
roots, as Suzanne Kirschner has shown at length, a book that I reached through Philip), or
other forms of mystical psychology, as part of what the great late Israeli social scientist,
Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt termed “multiple modernities”.

In other words, both psychoanalysis and forms of thought such as Hasidism are
products of modernity, and one can use the later to interpret the former no less than one
can essay the opposite move, as is very common these days. I will add, parenthetically,
that yet another rule that I have learnt from Philip is to embed a form of thought, such as
sociology or social psychology, in the full context of cultural and intellectual history,
rather than selecting an idea of theme in a psychoanalytic work and then comparing it to
an equally isolated theme in modern Jewish thought.

This stance informs one of my critiques of some of the important research on

Hasidism pursued for what is now more than a century (I am counting from Buber’s 1906
work on R. Nahman of Braslav). For all of its incredible richness and scope, Hasidism
cannot be isolated from the broader context of Jewish modernization, firstly that of
modern Kabbalah, but also Mussar, the literature of the Jewish Enlightenment (as Jonatan
Meir is showing us), and especially Halakhah, as Maoz Kahana has taught us. As I
argued in my lecture in the 2012 Habad and the Academy conference at the University of
Pennsylvania, It is no coincidence that the alter, or first, rebbe of Habad, “ba‘al” or
owner/writer of the Tanya, is also author of a second Sulkhan ‘Arukh, or code of Law,
consciously rewriting the quintessential modern canonical work.

I shall conclude these introductory comments by presenting the main arena in

which I shall apply this approach: That of positive psychology. In the same decade as
Buber’s above-mentioned work on R. Nahman, William James delivered and published
his lectures on the verities of religious experience. There and elsewhere in his large
corpus, especially his subsequent book on pragmatism, James pointed at the “healthy-

Now forthcoming at The University of Chicago Press.
minded” form of religion, and its beneficial effect on psychic life. As he puts it at the
beginning of the fourth lecture: “the more complex ways of experiencing religion are new
manners of producing happiness.”2 James later contrasts this type to that of the “sick
soul” that he himself probably belonged to. What is important here is that James, author
of A Pluralistic Universe, posits a variety of religious forms, encompassing the full range
from joy to despair. To use a Halakhic phrase, in honor of Maoz, “there is place on the
head to place two sets of Tefilin”.

However, while sharing Philip’s stress on the importance of James, one must
interject two critical comments: The first is that James is close to his contemporary Max
Weber in positing ideal, and thus a-historical, types: Thus, in this lecture, James can
move seamlessly from St. Francis of Assisi to Cardinal Newman and Walt Whitman. My
alternative approach is to regard healthy-minded and melancholy forms of spirituality as
expressing historical tides, within the ecstatic and tragic, yet almost tumultuous sea of
modernity. Therefore, it would be unwise to see these two central options as separate
figures, or even as phases, as in the early modern classic The Dark Night of the Soul, by
San Juan de la Cruz. Rather, as Wolfgang von Goethe put it: “two souls dwell in my
breast”. Or in the words of his contemporary the Alter Rebbe, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi
(Rashaz), developing the same idea of two souls: “there is no obstacle to be despicable
and disgusting in one’s eyes and broken-hearted and low in spirits at the time of joy,
literally (mamash) (Tanya, chap. 34).

James is part of a wider, pragmatist psychology, echoed in the best-seller The

Power of Positive Thinking, written by a Christian minister, Norman Vincent Peale, in
1952. Peale began to propagate his approach that has a modicum of hypnosis, in highly
popular radio talks in the 1930’s. I do not think that one cannot disassociate Peale’s talks
from the historical context of the Great Depression and the shadow of war, any more than
one can do so with the talks of the anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin at the time.
James himself mentions the “New Thought” movement as an example of “a genuine
religious power” (98). Yet he adds the following sage comment, highly relevant for some
contemporary forms of Jewish mysticism: “It has reached the stage, for example, when

P. 83 in Cosimo 2007 edition.
the demand for its literature is great enough for insincere stuff, mechanically produced
for the market, to be to a certain extent supplied by publishers – a phenomenon never
observed, I imagine, until a religion has got well past its earliest insecure beginnings.”

James, New Thought and Peale are all seen as the intellectual and discursive
antecedents for the movement positive psychology that has some strong adherents from
Israel, such as Tal ben-Shahar. Indeed, there was a strong Jewish branch of New
Thought, known as The Society for Jewish Science. Happily for me, they described God
as an energy or force, penetrating the reality of the universe, a description very close to
Hasidic formulations.

Using the Tanya text as a springboard, I shall claim today that Hasidism is a
parallel, highly complex form of positive psychology. Indeed, this is what differentiates
the movement from its many sources in the Mussar literature of the 17th-18th centuries,
painstakingly and exhaustively adduced by Mendel Piekarz. In my view, this
understanding has applications and implications that transcend the theoretical, and reach
into both the clinical and social realm. However, I must caution that “Jewish psychology”
must always rest on a firm textual basis. As we shall see in a late nineteenth century text
(thus dating from the time of the beginnings of New Thought), joy, the trademark of
Hasidism, has Torah study as its major source and avenue of expression.

The Power of Thought and Hasidic Positive Psychology

In all of its forms, as we have just seen, positive psychology is closely allied with the
power of thought. This is indeed a core tenet of Beshtian Hasidism. Famously, the Besht
is recorded as saying that where one’s thought is so one’s presence is, and in a pithy
saying: “Think good and it will be good”. Seemingly, using the Weberian terms that
Wexler has so markedly developed, this is a form of inner-worldly mysticism: As where
one is a function of one’s thought, one can readily mediate the divine presence for the
material world: To use a Beshtian scheme, the human dimension, or the soul, can bridge
the divide between divinity and the world. Linking to another Beshtian discourse,
discussed at length by Idel, the divide itself is exposed as having an illusory nature.

In other words, as all is ultimately a matter of thought, the power of thought can
expose the illusory nature of the material world, thus revealing the immanent divine
reality within it. By doing so, one reveals the illusory nature of evil that as the Besht is
reputed to have said, is merely a “chair for good”. In this reading, that tallies with a
Buberian interpretation, the gap between Beshtian Hasidism and positive psychology
narrows: External reality is malleable, evil far less compelling than in numerous
Kabbalistic accounts, and really all depends on the cognitive scheme of the individual.

If this reading was correct, Hasidism would be susceptible to the critique of

positive psychology in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is
Undermining America. Ehrenreich has indeed noted the presence of the mystical notion
of transforming external reality through the power of thought within the cultural cluster
that she critiques for being a form of denial of discomforting external realities, often of a
political nature. At least for Habad, it is very hard to uphold such a reading: Here is
Rashaz in Tanya chapter 24, quoting R. Itzhak Luria, “all the occurrences of this world
are harsh and bad and the wicked overcome in it”. Yet surely, one will ask, the seventh
rebbe, whose passing we are commemorating here, balanced this quote (in the discourse
delivered on Tammuz 13, 1959) by the Rabbinic saying: “One hour of repentance and
good deeds in this world is more beautiful than all of the life of the World to come”. Part
of the answer will unfold when I move soon to the nomian, and it can be reinforced by
the brilliant analysis by Elliot Wolfson, who wrote, in his Open Secret: Postmessianic
Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson, that for the
rebbe, repentance surpasses the perfection of the Torah, as it enables the transformation
of evil into good (167). As for good deeds, Wolfson, while showing that in the absolute
one “opposites are no longer distinguishable”, including those of good and evil, there is
“no challenge here to Schneerson’s commitment to the world of rabbinic halakhah, which
might suggest superficial comparisons to hackneyed portrayals of some earlier forms of
Jewish utopianism, most notably, Christinaity, Sabbatianism and Frankism”. However, in
the non-dual state, “the human will is so aligned with the divine will… that acquiescence
to ritual is no longer predicated on command and obligation” (186-187).

However, I wish to pursue a different track here, by going back to the Besht: In
his Pillar of Prayer, now released in a meticulous annotated translation. The Besht

“At times a person works only in smallness, that is to say he does not enter the
supernal worlds at all, but rather thinks that ‘all of the earth is full of His glory’
(Is. 6, 3), and that He is close to him, and at that time he is like a child, that his
intellect is only slightly large, and yet even though he works in smallness he
works in great adherence”.3

In other words, the state of “smallness”, where Kabbalists locate the forces of judgment
and restriction is the much vaunted immanent dwelling of God, often presented as the
core Hasidic doctrine. In this state one needs to use the power of thought to bring God
close, rather than simply ascending to God, a practice found already in his famous Epistle
on Soul Ascent, much analyzed in scholarship. Likewise:

When one is in “constricted consciousness” it should also be with great adhesion

to the Divine Presence [Shkhinah]; Then, in one instant one can think of the
Higher worlds, and immediately find oneself in those higher dimensions, for in
accordance with where a person thinks, this is where one finds oneself, and if he
or she (sic, ‫היה‬, see translators preface xii) would not be in the higher world, he or
she (sic‫ ) היה‬would not have been able to think [in that dimension[ at all”. 4

Adherence or Dvekut (again presented as a central tenet of Hasidism), to the immanent

Sekhina is smallness, while in the state of greatness one realizes the true power of
thought by instantly ascending, and it is here that the Besht introduces his famous saying,
and adds that ontology precedes epistemology, (as one can also learn from Wolfson): if

“Pillar of Prayer,” #52, printed in Besht on the Torah. Here I have used my own translation, as the
translator (Kallus (ed.), Pillar of Prayer, 29–30) changes the meaning, inter alia, by adding terms of
Buddhist origin.
Ibid. #56, p. 32 in the Kallus edition,
one where not already in the higher world, through the grace of God, as I shall soon
show, one could not even think of it.

In this reading, the goal of Hasidic practice, perhaps only intended for the
mystical elite,5 is other-worldly rather than inner-worldly. This world is harshly
dominated by evil, and the Hasidim share the aspiration of many mystics to go beyond it,
in the words of the Pslamist, in the song sung with many melodies at the climatic third
Sabbath meal, to dwell in the house of the Lord, beyond the valley of the shadow of

The Pleasure of the Law

A second major difference between Hasidic thought and positive psychology is the
salience of the nomian, so often sidestepped or minimized in Buberian readings. In a
work in progress,6 I have discussed the pleasure of the law (echoing Ronald Barthes
title Le plaisir du texte), in what I term “the branches of Lublin”, as in R. Tzvi Elimelekh
Shapira of Dinov’s introduction to his Bnei Yissaskhar, writing of the “friendly,
delicious, pleasant flow of the influx of holiness” according to the seder zmanim, order of
times (here re-interpreted as yearly and nomian, not cosmic time). Another important text
from R. Avraham Borenstein of Sochatchov, is prominently positioned in the
introduction to his Eglei Tal on the laws of Sabbath:

I have heard some people straying from the path of reason with regard to the holy
Torah in saying that however studies and innovates and take delight in this is not
studying Torah “for its own sake” as much as one who studies for the sake of the
commandment without pleasure, for one who takes delight is mixing in his own
pleasure. But this is a well-known mistake. And to the contrary, this is the basis of the
commandment of studying Torah, to be happy and joyful and take pleasure in one’s

This is a possible reading of the epistle on ascent.
Now published. See in this site:
learning, and then the words of Torah are absorbed in one’s blood-stream. And since
he enjoys the words of Torah he becomes adhered to them… and when one studies
for the sake of the commandment and also takes pleasure in one’s study, this is study
for its own sake, and is entirely holy, for the pleasure is also a commandment.

I feel that while R. Avraham in his time, responding to pietistic views of Torah study
prevalent in the Hasidic world, had to stress that pleasure is also a commandment, today
one sometimes needs to stress, even in the academy, that study is also a commandment…
and that being commanded is also a pleasure.

Spontaneous Emotion

A final difference between positive psychology and Hasidic psychology lies in the very
question of human agency, or what Ehrenreich has diagnosed as a harsh insistence on
personal responsibility. In my reading, as in that of Rivka Shatz-Uffenheimer, Hasidism
belongs to the “quietist” branch of the mystical family, together with the Catholic
movement known by that name, the earlier allumbrados movement in Spain and Pure
Land Buddhism. In other words, while for positive psychology all is up to the individual
and her thought, for many branches of Hasidism one can only open oneself to divine
grace. Before demonstrating this point in detail, I wish to address the possible resistance
that this comparison to extra-Jewish movements may arouse amongst some. Let me bring
a quote:

“regard thyself as a son who has left his Father and wandering far has at length
fallen in with the army of His enemies. They have made thee a miserable captive and cast
thee into the filthy dungeon…. Thy Father Himself, moved with pity for thee, has left His
household… and willingly become an exile and a wanderer in search of thee”.

Had I cited this in isolation, what would most students of Hasidism cite as a
source? Most likely a variation of Tanya, chapter 46. Yet actually the source is the
Spiritual Exercises and Devotions of Blessed Robert Southwell, a sixteenth-century

Returning to Hasidism, again let me adduce a final quote from the “Pillar of Prayer”:

There are those who pray in despondency, due to an excess of black bile
overcoming them and think that they are praying with Great Awe. Likewise, there
are those who think that they have prayed out of their Great Love of the Creator-
but it was due to their overworked [this word is absent in the text though fits the
context] red bile. However, if one is in a state of love-of-God and out of this, a
sense of self-effacement [shame-‫ ]בושה‬descends on him or her (sic, ‫ …) עליו‬then it
is good…
Observe how it is that Awe befalls you; [I refer here] not [to] the fear and awe
that you arouse within yourself…
The true Awe, however, is experienced as being seized by a shuddering-
trembling; and out of the awe of sudden realization [this Buddhist term is
entirely absent in the text], one loses orientation momentarily, and does not know
where one is… at times tears well up by themselves. But when it is not like this…
it is nothing.8

Contrived melancholy or ecstasy in prayer is merely biochemistry, and thus is nothing,

and true love and fear of God is manifested in “falling”, or a spontaneous shift, tears that
fall by themselves. One recalls here Ehrenreich’s critique of the forced nature of positive
psychology that constantly needs to be “pumped up” by seminars, self-help books and
other products.

One can brings much supporting evidence from the text by the Mitler, or second
rebbe of Habad translated by Louis Jacobs as The Tract on Ecstasy, or a text by Rashaz,
also focusing on shame, that shall be analyzed in another study,9 yet I wish to widen our
scope, again through one of the schools of Lublin that my own paternal ancestors

Quoted and analyzed in L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation, New Haven and London 1978, p. 29.
Pillar of Prayer, #59, translation according to Kallus ed. 37–8, with my corrections in brackets.
“Shame as an Existential Emotion in Modern Kabbalah”, forthcoming in Jewish Social Studies.
belonged to: R. Yaakov Leiner of Izbiche-Radzin writes in his Beit Yaakov: “as
sometimes desire and joy enters the heart of a Jew without any reason and in truth this
grows from God beginning to build good and from this his heart was moved towards


As Wexler has taught us, using Hasidism as a resource does not mean reinforcing
prevalent trends in Western culture. While positive psychology well serves the powers
that be, as Ehrenreich has incisively shown, the emphasis on the Law, on the written text,
on divine grace, on other-worldly cosmology, all of these can inspire a critical stance
towards dominant views. The Schneerson family was renowned for its fiercely
independent stance while never shirking the burden of civic engagement, and this carries
over to all affiliated with them, as Jan Feldman has shown in her important work
Lubavitchers as Citizens: A Paradox of Liberal Democracy. The sixth, or Freidiker rebbe
combated Soviet tyranny, and while R. Menachem Mendel supported Israel in its trials he
never sanctified the state and often questioned the policies of its leaders. It is fortunate for
the study of Hasidism that due to Scholem’s relative disinterest it is still in what the
famous historian of science Thomas Kuhn described as a pre-paradigmatic state. Thus,
we are not in the position of challenging a dominant doxa, but rather respectfully and
collegially engaging in an open discussion, whose openness is actually ensured by joining
scholars inside and outside of the academy.

Jethro, p. 214 in the Jerusalem 1998 reprint of the detailed commentary on the Torah.