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Hassidus in Relationship to History, Tradition, and Reform
Wednesday, November 2, 2022 @ 10:00 am - 11:00 am
An event every week that begins at 10:00 am on Wednesday, repeating until Wednesday, November 23, 2022
Ḥassidus is a religious revivalist movement which began in Central and Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century. At its outset it captured the imagination of both the masses and the scholarly. Based both on esoteric kabbalistic principles and simple ideals of piety, Ḥassidus became one of the most influential forces in Eastern European Jewry throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. At the onset of World War II and the Shoah, although the movement was in decline, large communities of Hassidim still occupied the major cities and shtetlakh (Jewish-majority villages) of Eastern Europe. The destruction of European Jewry during the Shoah completely decimated the Ḥassidische movement. It seemed as if the great influence of Ḥassidus had come to a tragic end. However, this revivalist movement refused to die and transplanted itself to the shores of America and the fledgling State of Israel.
In this course we will study the history and theology of the Ḥassidische movement and how it developed from a small grass-roots movement, to a political, institutional and spiritual force in Orthodox Judaism. We will examine how it was affected by, reacted to, collaborated, and clashed with other ideological movements of the time, such as the established Yeshiva/Rabbinic world, Enlightenment and Zionism. We will probe the modern world of Ḥassidus to see how, after losing as much as 70% of its membership to the Shoah, it has become once again a major force in the Jewish world. We will learn about modern neo-Ḥassidische movements and other Jewish spiritual movements that have been influenced by Ḥassidische thought.
Rabbinism and Kabbalism: Mutually Exclusive Systems?
Jewish life was for centuries based around halakhah (Jewish law). It still is, in the sense that Jews either live within its bounds in one way or another, or they react to it by rejecting it. But how many lawyers you know are also mystics? It would seem at the outset that there is a perhaps unbridgeable gap between the apparently hard-headed down-to-earth pragmatism of the legal profession, and the seemingly transcendent metaphysical concerns of mystics and magicians. In Hassidus, these divergent poles converged. To understand this, we must introduce Kabbalah as a system that tugged Judaism in an antinomian (anti-halakhic) way, but which was “tamed” in a mostly nomian (halakhah-abiding) manner in Hassidus.
Sectarianism and Denominationalism: What Are The Limits of Diversity?
There is a LOT of sects and parties in Judaism. This is not a typo. Jews are incredibly geographically, theologically, ethnically, and liturgically diverse. Hassidus was very successful in creating a new distinction between and among Jews that became so popular that its opponents were called, simply, Misnagdim (the opponents, the Protestants). We will explore the full range of Jewish diversity, ask what are the boundary markers of what is “Jewish,” and consider where Hassidus is situated in the complex thicket of traditions and “flavors” that constitute Jewish identity and observance.
Leadership models: Rabbis and Rebbes
What do you think of when you think of a rabbi? Someone in a robe or tallis who tells you to stand up and sit down and read responsively on page 16 when you are in shul? A preacher of sermons? A comforter in times of trouble and sadness? An explainer? A judge? If we use the term “rebbe,” an entirely different set of associations may emerge—or, we may have none at all. So what’s the difference between a rabbi and a rebbe? Does one proceed from the other? Is one more, or less intimate from the other? And where do rabbis and rebbes fit in the long list of other leadership models— from prophet to shamash (synagogue caretaker) that have existed among Hebrews, Israelites and Jews throughout their history?
Many Messiahs: Ultimate Leadership
Mashiach means “anointed one”—literally “greasy.” What’s the relationship between oiliness and leadership? Is Messiah a divine title? At the pinnacle, or somewhere else in the hierarchy of leadership? Is it a gendered term? Is the Messiah a human or a divine being? Or is the Messiah something, somehow, in between? We will investigate this term from its biblical origins to its rabbinic political reimaginings, to its further reconfiguration in Hassidus and beyond.
Winner of the 2015 Jewish Book Award in Visual Arts for Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, Marc Michael Epstein is the product of a mixed marriage between the scions of Slonimer and Lubavitcher Hassidim and Romanian socialists, and grew up, rather confused, but happy, in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently Professor of Religion at Vassar College, where he has been teaching since 1992, and was the first Director of Jewish Studies. At Vassar, he teaches courses on medieval Christianity, religion, arts and politics, and Jewish texts and sources. He is a graduate of Oberlin College, received the PhD at Yale University, and did much of his graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written numerous articles and three books on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews. His book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (Yale, 2011) was selected by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2011. During the ‘80s, Epstein was Director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of Sotheby’s Judaica department. He continues to serve as consultant to various libraries, auction houses, museums and private collectors throughout the world, among them, the Herbert C. and Eileen Bernard Museum at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, for which he curated the inaugural exhibition, and the Fowler Museum at UCLA. He is the Director of Beit Venezia, the home for International Jewish Studies in Venice, Italy.
CSP Partners: Beth Israel (San Diego, CA), Brotherhood Synagogue (Gramercy Park, NYC), Congregation Beth Shalom (Seattle, WA), Congregation B’nai Tzedek (Fountain Valley, CA), Congregation B’nai Israel (Tustin, CA), Jewish Collaborative of Orange County, CA, Shomrei Torah Synagogue (San Fernando Valley, CA), Temple Bat Yahm (Newport Beach, CA), Temple Beth El of South Orange County (Aliso Viejo, CA), Temple Beth Emet (Anaheim, CA), Temple Beth Ohr (La Mirada, CA), Temple Beth Tikvah (Fullerton, CA), Temple Beth Shalom (Needham, MA), Temple Beth Sholom (Santa Ana, CA), Temple Emanuel (Newton, MA), Town & Village Synagogue (NYC, NY), University Synagogue (Irvine, CA), Valley Beth Shalom (Encino, CA) & Walnut Street Synagogue (Chelsea, MA)