This chapter examines the teachings of Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, two of the most important and influential Hasidic leaders in post-Holocaust America. In exploring Teitelbaum’s and Schneerson’s subtle but unmistakable attempt to refashion the legacy of Hasidism for an American audience, my work rests upon their treatment of two interrelated issues. The first is their understanding of Revelation and the rabbinic tradition that the Torah was translated into the languages of the world. The second is the incident of the Golden Calf, the paradigmatic sin of idolatry that came to stand for modern heresy. Close reading of their sermonic exegesis—and counter-exegesis—will demonstrate that Teitelbaum and Schneerson offered a very different perspective on religious life in post-War America that was grounded in the legacy of Hasidism.
This study explores an important Hasidic manuscript rediscovered among the papers of Abraham Joshua Heschel at Duke University. The text, first noted by Heschel in the 1950s, is a collection of sermons by the famed tzaddik Judah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (d. 1905). These homilies are significant because they were transcribed by one of his disciples, in many cases capturing them in the original Yiddish. Comparing this alternative witness to Alter’s own Hebrew version (called Sefat emet), printed shortly after his death, reveals substantive differences in the sermons’ development, structure, and themes. But the manuscript’s importance extends beyond a critical new perspective on Alter’s teachings. It offers a snapshot of the processes behind the formation of Hasidic books, and calls for scholars to consider the unavoidable divergences between Hebrew and Yiddish, between orality and textuality, and the transmission of ideas from a teacher to his disciples, vectors of change that inhabit all Hasidic literature.
This essay interrogates the legal discourse of Shulḥan ha-Tahor, a curious—and curiously understudied—work of Hasidic halakhah written by Rabbi Yitzḥak Ayzik Yehudah Yehiel Safrin of Komarno. The book is, at heart, a systematic reformulation of Jewish law in light of Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the quest for personal mystical experience. Shulḥan ha-Tahor offers a rare case study for the interface of mystical experience, Hasidic devotional values, and kabbalistic doctrine as they explicitly shape the codified forms—and norms—of halakhah. The essay reveals a different side of Jewish modernity through a close reading of an exceptional nineteenth-century legal code.
The present essay seeks to offer a conceptual framework for grappling with climate change from within the sources of Jewish law (halakhah), a discourse rooted in the Hebrew Bible but developed in the rabbinic literature of Late Antiquity and then in medieval and modern codes and commentaries. Halakhah reflects deeply-held intellectual, theological, ontological, and sociological values. As a modus vivendi, rabbinic law—variously interpreted by Jews of different stripes—remains a vital force that shapes the life of contemporary practitioners. We are interested in how a variety of contemporary scholars, theologians, and activists might use the full range of rabbinic legal sources—and their philosophical, jurisprudential, and moral values—to construct an alternative environmental ethic founded in a worldview rooted in obligation and a matrix of kinship relationships. Our essay is thus an exercise in decolonizing knowledge by moving beyond the search for environmental keywords or ready analogies to contemporary western discourse. We join the voices of recent scholars who have sought to revise regnant assumptions about how religious traditions should be read and interpreted with an eye to formulating constructive ethics.