Friday, January 13, 2017

Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought, by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer

Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought, by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer, has a good book somewhere within it covers, but it takes difficult, often tedious exploration to extract it.  Granted this is an academic book, where some denseness is expected; yet even by this rubric, this work is extraordinary impenetrable.

Quietism is defined as “devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism.”  The author explains how this form of religious expression was part and parcel of Hasidism from its earliest days.  The first Hasidim, and their founder, the Besht, were "a group of decided spiritual (pneumatic) cast, which fashioned for itself a specific communal life-style built, not  around family units, but rather on meetings organized around prayer circles. As a matter of principle, this patterns served as the basis for the development of the classic Hasidic community.”

The author concedes that Hasidism stressed a this-worldly orientation, viewing such physical acts as eating and sex as holy, when performed with the right intention, but all quietism and spiritual retreat were hidden in the Hasidic agenda.  The "meeting and prayer circles" of the early days laid the seeds for Hasidic quietism.

Eventually the nullification of the ego, or the self, evolved into an Hasidic preoccupation, especially for the Maggid of Mezhirech and his followers.  The Maggid believed that “a person should not pray concerning matters of his needs.”  The Maggid was concerned with “the issue of the nullification of ‘the intellect’ and the nature of thought.”  By eradicating the ego, then “man may acquire a new intellect, a form of pure spiritual thought which is beyond time.” This kind of agenda, the author claims, is a “quietistic doctrine which equated human activity with Divine activity,” a classic definition of quietism.

The Maggid believed that only “spiritual prayer” had real meaning.  Therefore “a person cannot find the way from his own concrete personality to G-d save by way of the spirit, for it is there that G-d is revealed to him…”  The authors goes on explaining that “the Maggid advocated a spiritual life removed from the world” where “the power of the spirit [negates] the feeling of physical existence.

The thesis of this book is rather straightforward, as you can read from the above quotes.  But the tangled structure and language of this book makes it nearly unreadable.

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