Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Magic in being Mystical

Hasidism is not traditional Judaism as recorded in the Torah.

It is a system created by the Hasidic revolution that swept across Eastern Europe due to the inspirational and almost Messianic efforts of the Baal Shem Tov, Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760). It was born in a time when Judaism in Eastern Europe was at a low spiritual ebb and needed mystical support.

Ongoing pogroms (Cossack Uprisings 1648-1654) in Russia and violent unrest in Poland, the invasion of the Ottoman Empire of 1672-76 and the ongoing conflict over large areas of Poland by the Russian Empire lead to a chaotic and dangerous time for minorities in Eastern Europe. The influence of local strongmen and vast military campaigns tore up the contract of normality that had existed in Jewish Eastern Europe for over 100 years.

At the same time as this physical danger, spiritually rocking the Jewish world was the failed Messiah and apostasy of Sabbetai Zevi; the Messianic and eventually anti-Jewish movement of Jacob Franks and conflict between different schools of thought over Kabbalah and mysticism during the 17th and 18th Centuries. All of this lead to a chaotic and spiritually draining time for Yisrael in Eastern Europe.

Hasidism is at its core a Ashkenazim movement; as the rest of Yisrael did not experience the same pressures and situations. It is the result of the unique conditions, culture, language and experiences. The most obvious thing that non-Hasidic Jews point out as the difference between Orthodoxy and Hasidism is the role of the Rabbi, or Rebbe as he (always a he!) is called in Yiddish. These men are almost revered as living links to Hashem and provide spiritual, financial, personal and all types of advice to their followers.

One of the core lessons and skills of the Tzaddik's was the telling of profound and intensely deep lessons within the provision of stories. Stories of the activities of the Rebbes, stories of miracles they had performed, lesson they had given and conflicts with the sins of Yisrael. These stories are told, retold and examined for their spiritual and religious lessons. I am currently taking a course in the stories of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov run by his Hasidism. Many of these stories are very complex, many are simple. Some of them can even be as short as a few sentences or chapters in length. I have a number of collected sayings in my library and I'll often spend a lot of time reading through them, trying to find the core of their teachings.

By spending time with the Rebbe's and trying to reconstruct their lives and teachings we are projected into a time where Torah became part of everyday life. Instead of the complex theological and dry debates of the establishment, Hasidism gave ordinary uneducated and poor Jews the opportunity to engage in the bringing of Mosiach and the end of suffering on Earth. Hasidism emphasised the presence of Hashem in the everyday. Simple daily chores and actions became mystical when imbued with the theories and mystical attitudes of the Rebbes, recalling Hashem and dedicating everything to contemplating Hashem. The act of working a field or another trade were thus filled with a mystical power that connected the Jew to Hashem and his plan for the world. Charity was a key, in thought and deed, Joy was another and was the watchword of many Hasids. By joyously following the Halakha and rulings of their Rebbe; Hasids were able to cleave to Hashem in a mystical, almost magical relationship that gave them hope and purpose in life. The presence of Kabbalah and other magical formulas were inherent to the Hassidic way of life. Rebbe's were capable of great miracles, could ascend to the Holy Seat and beg on behalf of lost Jewish souls. They could identify souls that had returned to Earth to fulfil a certain role or perform an act that was essential to Hashem's plan. Rebbe's could open the gates of Heaven to allow the blessings of Hashem to descend on their congregations. They could say a word to an individual and change their whole life journey and purpose. They were magical because of their intense cleaving to Hashem and understanding of his plan and Creation. Many of the miracles that Rebbes and their followers have attributed to them can be moved into and likened to ceremonial magic. Rituals, prayers, working with aspects of creation that are behind the scenes, linked to specific ceremonial dates, festivals and astronomical events. Their miraculous relationship can be linked to that intricate life long commitment to trying to focus all of their acts to Hashem and giving thanks for ALL situations no matter whether they are good or bad, feast or famine.

Modern Rebbe's are not always considered in the same way as the original Rebbes as many scholars track a decline in the quality of Rebbes equal to the increase in quantity of Rebbes over time. Stratification, splits, conflict and an increasing authoritarian approach by some Rebbes has caused a decline in the overall appreciation of Hasidic life by non-Hasidic Jews; but this is not necessarily true for all Hasidic Dynasties (and many of them are dynasties with formal Courts similar to autocratic rulers of the 'old country). There are still true Tzaddik's building their communities links to Hashem and being real leaders of Hasidic thought.

My favourite story collection is a relatively new text of Hasidic tales from the Shoah (the Holocaust) and how the faith and miraculous works of Tzaddik's managed to help carry and support many of the Hasidic believers through this event. Some of the greatest stories (in my opinion) are about Yisrael Spira z'l the Bluzhever Rebbe. He observed such great power amongst Jews in the camps that he had to tell their stories as testaments to their lives and belief. He was a true Tzaddik.

The Baal Shem Tov, the Arizal, DovBer, Nachman of Breslov, the Angel there are hundreds of individuals with amazing lives and relationships with Hashem.

Also, a modern approach to this idea is examined in Radzyn which is an amazing combination of art, animation, storytelling and mysticism staged at the start of WW2 and the Shoah. Please, visit this site and explore. The stories of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in any form are too amazing to ignore, especially the annotated versions available through the Breslov Institute.

Please, please, please spend the time to explore these amazing individuals and their stories.