This study examines the respective theological assumptions of two major forces in nineteenth-century Judaism—the Musar and the early Hasidic movements, and the way in which the budding concept of the unconscious illuminates both. Often translated as an ethical approach, the Musar movement originated from Lithuania and focused on Torah study as it deemed Talmud insufficient to create a deep, emotional attachment to Judaism; yet, despite their shared emphasis on emotions and their criticism of talmudic studies, the Musar movement was at odds with Hasidism, the mystical Jewish current that swept Eastern Europe from the eighteenth century onward. Through an examination of the biblical motif of the binding of Isaac, and the reaction of Abraham, this article will probe both movements’ analysis of the patriarch’s psychological make up. Such a comparison of their understanding of the pre-conscious psychic states will illustrate the nature of their theological opposition.
Perhaps the key term in musar writing is yir’ah. In early modern musar texts, usually incorporating kabbalistic discourse, this term is rendered as ‘fear.’ A striking exception is R. Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim, arguably one of the canonical texts of Jewish modernity. A close reading of the chapters devoted to yir’ah reveals that Luzzatto frames this term as ‘awe,’ moving away from the discourse on punishment and hell typical of early modern musar. An examination of the psychology behind this move shows that Luzzatto associates fear with the lower instinct of self-preservation, calling for its sublimation into self-abnegation in awe of divine presence. Mesillat Yesharim then became foundational for similar moves in later Jewish modernity. Without wishing to venture into claims as to inter-religious influence and response, it is instructive to compare Luzzatto’s approach to that of his Christian contemporaries, the ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers of the Great Awakening.
Isaac ben Moshe Halevi (Isaac Satanow, 1732–1804) serves as an interesting example of how Jewish intellectuals offered alternative ways of entering the new era. Unlike other authors, Satanow does not explicitly concentrate on secularization or assimilation in his writing, but instead intends to revive traditional values and writing by putting them into a new cultural and intellectual framework. Satanow combines relevant topics from Jewish tradition with scientific discoveries, philosophical reasoning, and kabbalistic thought. An analysis of Satanow’s unique combination of literary and intellectual corpora from various periods and backgrounds offers a more nuanced picture of European Jewish intellectual history and challenges the grand narratives of scholarship. Furthermore, an awareness of the deep impact of German philosophy and natural science on Satanow’s thought provides insight into his relationship with the majority culture and his Eastern European background and also shows how his concept of modernity seeped in via complex networks.
One of the most notorious early modern musar compilations, Sheveṭ Musar, challenges its readers with an obscure and gory imagery that can be classified as horror. This article proposes an exploration of these horrific images of death, decomposition, and hell. In order to contextualize a selection of passages from Sheveṭ Musar, a state of the art concerning research on Jewish horror will be provided and integrated with references to horror scholarship in areas of literature where this topic has received more investigation. What characterizes horror in Sheveṭ Musar appears to be the didactic functionality of exciting negative emotions such as fear and disgust. This moralizing rhetorical mechanism will be illustrated through four different topics appearing throughout the tractate: (1) the literary strategy of terror; (2) the description of the physical and metaphysical processes of death; (3) a memento of the caducity of human life; and (4) anticipation of infernal damnation.
This essay will examine the viability of a kabbalistic ethics from the vantage point of what I have identified in previously published studies as the hypernomian foundation of the nomos, the grounding of the law in the ground that exceeds the law of the ground. Contrary to Scholem, who put the emphasis on an antinomian impulse that is in conflict with the tenets of the tradition, I argue that the hallmark of religious nihilism is the promulgation of the belief that impiety is the gesture of supreme piety. In the ensuing analysis, I will explore the subject of hypernomianism by a close analysis of what may be called in Derridean terms the law beyond the law, which he identified further as the nonjuridical ideal of justice, the gift of forgiveness, the aspect of pure mercy in relation to which it is no longer viable to distinguish guilt and innocence.