The Hasidic Story: A Call for Narrative Religiosity

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
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The paper examines the dominance of narrative in Hasidic religious life through the discourse of narrative ethics and its implications for theology, specifically feminist theology, and for religion in general. I claim that the centrality of storytelling in Hasidism reflects and constructs an essential attitude toward religious life. This attitude directs one to narrative and contextual thinking, which both focus on the specific person, circumstances, and emotions, as opposed to law, norms, and abstract determination. This centrality of storytelling is connected to a deep Hasidic awareness of the restrictive nature of normative religious life, a finite facet of the infinite paths to God.




Idel, Hasidism, 185–188.


Dvir-Goldberg, Zaddik, 12–13.


See Margaret U. Walker, Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1998), 7–9, 36–39, and passim.


Walker, Moral Understandings, 19–27.


Walker, Moral Understandings, 9, 17–18.


Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (New York: Harper and Row, 1990), 65.


Robert Cover, “The Supreme Court, 1982 Term—Foreword: Nomos and Narrative,” Har vard Law Review 97, no. 4 (1983): 4–68.


Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998), 34. For her presentation of a variety of philosophical, ethical, and religious criticisms of and objections to the law, focusing on feminist perspectives, see 34–59.


William Cutter, “Do the Qualities of Story Influence the Quality of Life? Some Perspectives on the Limitations and Enhancements of Narrative Ethics,” in Quality of Life in Jewish Bioethics, ed. Noam Zohar (Lanham, md: Lexington, 2006), 55–66.


See Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 23–24.


Cutter, “Qualities,” 63.


E.g., Shivḥei ha-Besht, 76–78, 129–131, 160, 252.


E.g., Shivḥei ha-Besht, 161–163, 241–242.


See Kauffman, In All Your Ways, 523–571.


See Gershom Scholem, “Martin Buber’s Interpretation of Hasidism,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken, 1971), 228–250.


Scholem, “Martin Buber’s Interpretation of Hasidism.” See also Buber’s direct response to the criticism of Scholem and of Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer in Martin Buber, “Interpreting Hasidism,” Commentary 36 (1963): 218–225.


See, for example, Moshe Idel, “Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem on Hasidism: A Critical Appraisal,” in Hasidism Reappraised, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1997), 389–403; Jerome Gellman, “Buber’s Blunder: Buber’s Replies to Scholem and Schatz-Uffenheimer,” Modern Judaism 20, no. 1 (2000), 20–40; M. Oppenheim, “The Meaning of Hasidut: Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem,” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49 (1981): 409–423; Steven D. Kepnes, “A Hermeneutic Approach to the Buber-Scholem Controversary,” Journal of Jewish Studies 38 (1987): 81–98. See also Ron Margolin, The Human Temple: Religious Internalization and the Structuring of Inner Life in Early Hasidism [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005), 6–40.


Buber, “Interpreting Hasidism,” 218.


Martin Buber, Hasidism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), 1. See also Buber, “Interpreting Hasidism,” 221, for the claim that Hasidism produced no new mystical doctrine.


Buber, “Interpreting Hasidism,” 220–221.


Buber, “Interpreting Hasidism,” 223. See also Buber, Hasidism, 28–29; idem, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken, 1947), 4.


Israel Koren, The Mystery of the Earth: Mysticism and Hasidism in the Thought of Martin Buber (Leiden: Brill, 2010). See also Margolin, Human Temple, 6–21.


Martha C. Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon, 1995).


See, e.g., Peter Winch, “The Universalizability of Moral Judgments,” in Ethics and Action (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 151–170. For criticism of Winch, see Lilian Alweiss, “On Moral Dilemmas: Winch, Kant and Billy Budd,” Philosophy 78 (2003): 205–218.


See Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1991): 1–21, esp. 11.


See Adler, Engendering Judaism, 34.


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