Hasidic thought transforms Kabbalah into a psychological dimension

Hasidic Judaism is a branch of Judaism that promotes spirituality through a variety of mystical teachings and practice. It was founded in 18th-century Eastern Europe, and today exists as a wide array of Orthodox Jewish Hasidic dynasties across the world.

In the last century, many aspects of Hasidic thought have been embraced by non-Hasidic Jews, leading to a dynamic, spiritual neo-Hasidic Judaism.

Hasidism teaches that the deepest ways to understand our Bible, soul, and our universe are found in kabbalistic texts, and that we can access these teachings through the classic works of Hasidic rebbes and thinkers.

Scholars of Kabbalah have shown that Hasidism transmogrifies Kabbalah’s esoteric, cosmic teachings into the realm of the psychological.


Chaim Miller writes

Still, we do not find Zohar study encouraged with the same frequency and emphasis as in the early generations of Chabad. Apparently, when the movement was first founded there was a paucity of Chasidic texts available, and as this situation began to change, the community’s natural preference was for Chasidus over Zohar—a chasid will naturally be attracted to the teachings of his master, the Rebbe.

Also, the Zohar lacks a commentary that renders the text accessible for the nonspecialist, and for many it is barely comprehensible… This in contrast to Chabad Chasidic texts which go to great lengths to make mystical concepts relatable through parables and psychological insights.

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s “style”—which we would now call “Chasidus”—was to emphasize the inner meaning of Lurianic teachings with illustrations from the human experience, minimizing (or perhaps excluding completely) the physical symbols of Etz Chaim, which could easily be misinterpreted. Using examples from human psychology to illustrate spiritual phenomena, the Ba’al Shem Tov “rendered the physical, spiritual” taking a familiar aspect of physical life and disclosing the spiritual energy that it embodies.

Attitudes toward the Study of Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah, from the Dawn of Chasidism to Present Day Chabad, Chaim Miller, Ḥakirah, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, Ḥakirah 26, 2019

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson writes

Gamlieli’s psychoanalytic rereading of Lurianic Kabbalah shifts the focus of the divine drama (i.e., the events of tzimtzum, shevirah, and tikkun) from the cosmic arena to the psychological arena of human Self.

She argues that Luria articulated a deep theory of the Self that requires the proper relationship between the “feminine” and “masculine,” that is, between the finite and the infinite, the passive and active, the material and the spiritual. Lurianic Kabbalah was not about the evolution of the cosmos but about the formation of the Self in a way that anticipates the inter-relational insights of object-relation psychoanalysis.

Gender in Jewish Mysticism, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, in Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah: New Insights and Scholarship, Ed. Frederick E. Greenspahn, New York University Press, 2011

Prof. Yoram Jacobson writes

Hasidism is the latest stage in the development of Kabbalistic thought… But Hasidism placed new meanings upon the Kabbalistic terminology, which it took first and foremost from the Lurianic writings, and in the course of doing so the original Kabbalistic content was pushed aside and radically changed.

If one examines Hasidic writings, one repeatedly needs to distinguish between the earlier meaning of the Kabbalistic terminology and the new significance which Hasidism wished to discover therein.

This dimension, which appears most emphatically in the sources from which Hasidism flourished and drew nourishment – i.e., Lurianic Kabbalah… – almost completely disappears, as we shall see, in the teachings of the new movement, which devotes all of its intellectual effort to understanding the nature and complications of the human situation and to clarifying, its true means of realization.

The Hasidic doctrine of man likewise incorporates… a clear departure from Kabbalistic theosophy, which so exercised previous generations. In other words: unlike the earlier Kabbalistic systems, for whom the theosophic concern was the center of the world, Hasidism does not concern itself with the complicated aspects of the doctrine of Godhead and of creation and no longer deals into the secrets of the supernal worlds.

While the Hasidic teachers were concerned with various matters related to the doctrine of the Godhead and of creation, these were not a central theme of discussion per se, but merely served as theoretical background; In the center of the framework of theoretical confrontation of Hasidism stood the complexity of human existence.

[a central point of this was the] psychologization of the theosophic contents of Kabbalah, particularly those of the Lurianic school. In other words: The transfer of the theosophical processes which, according to Kabbalah, took place within the Divine realm, to the psychological realm, as expressed in the tendency of Hasidim to understand the nature of man.

As a result of this decisive change, Hasidism perceived and discovers the divine processes, not in their occurrence in the supernal realm, in the divine dimension of existence, but as occurring within man and in the depths of his soul, in the human dimension of the existence of the world.

…. What is most striking in this context is, first and foremost, the almost complete absence of the theosophic interest found in Kabbalistic writings. The kabbalist, according to this interest, turns his eyes heavenward, seeking to apprehend and to incorporate himself within the innate law and rhythm of the concealed divine life. Based upon this spiritual perception, he describes that which takes place within the divine existence, which he perceives as the metaphysical constitution of the entire cosmos.

Hasidism, by contrast, No longer has any real interest in Kabbalistic Theosophy. Hasidic Teachers do not concern themselves with a hidden and mysterious processes occurring within the divine being. In its manifest and dynamic sense (i.e., the world of the Sefirot and the divine configurations – partsufim), but with the revelation of the Godhead and its reflection within the human soul.

One repeatedly perceives within Hasidism, by comparison with Kabbalah from which it stemmed, the uprooting of the center of gravity of its spiritual world, in the realm of the Godhead, to that of man. As we already noted in the first chapter, Hasidism is first and foremost a teaching concerning man, and not one of the Godhead.

Even though we have expounded at some length its doctrine of the Godhead and the nature of Creation, primarily on the basis of Habad Hasidism, we may confidently state that the central subject of interest of Hasidism, even within this school, is man – his being, his wills, and longings, his path towards religious ethical perfection, his goal, and the ways towards its realization.

…. Hasidism transferred the discussion of the revealed aspect of the Godhead from the theosophical realm to the psychological: Whatever takes place within the divine world of the Sefirot, in the description of the Kabbalists, henceforth takes place within the world of man: man is portrayed and understood as the realm of dynamic revelation of the hidden divine reality. It is therefore clear that the true significance of the highly complex process of the creation of Being from Nothing and its negation therein is to be found, in terms of viewpoint of Hasidism, within the world of man.

Hasidic Thought, Yoram Jacobson, MOD Press, Tel Aviv, 1998

Professor Moshe Idel writes

One of the main scholarly explanations for the shift from Lurianic Kabbalah to Hasidism is the psychological interpretation of Lurianic theosophy offered by the Hasidic masters. Indeed, there are numerous examples of such a psychological orientation in the writings of most of the eighteenth-century Hasidic figures. However, though this is an indisputable fact, a deeper understanding of this phenomenon would take into consideration more than one factor.

In other words, in addition to the inner drive of the Hasidic masters to interpret their sources in a particular manner, we must also take into account extant Kabbalistic trends, which may have contributed to the Hasidic emphasis on the reflection of the divine attributes within man, thus reducing to a certain extent the novelty of Hasidism.

First, it is a fact, pointed out recently, that at least in one case, that of qatenut and gadelut, a psychological interpretation is inherent in the Lurianic sources.

Second, psychological interpretations of theosophical-hypostatic entities are found since the thirteenth century in two different Kabbalistic schools, a fact that requires a substantial qualification of the sharp distinction between the psychological understanding of the theosophical system of Hasid ism and that of the early Kabbalah.

In other words, just as magic and ecstasy, which were already in existence in Kabbalistic thought, were given a much more prominent role in Hasidism, so also the psychological understanding of Kabbalah was already present in certain earlier sources without coming to the fore. In the absence of an appropriate recognition of these facts, it will be difficult to understand one major aspect of Hasidic hermeneutics.

The psychological understanding of the whole range of Jewish canonic texts has allegories of the inner life of the mystic and his spiritual achievements is much more common than the experiential reading described above.

This fact was indeed prominent in the eyes of the opponents of Hasidism among the Kabbalists, who protested against this transformation of Divine attributes into human ones.

Although this accusation might be considered an indication that the Hasidic move constitutes an innovation, this argument is part of an assault that does not pay attention to historical truth; It is similar to what occurred when Hasidic thought was accused of pantheism, a view already found in Cordovero, as the Hasidim themselves pointed out in their response.

Moshe Idel. “Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic,’ Appendix A: Psychologization of Theosophy in Kabbalah and Hasidism

Gersom Scholem writes

While the Hasidim never lost or forsook their enthusiasm for the teachings of the Zohar and the Lurianic Cabbala, and while no page of a Hasidic book can be understood without constant reference to these traditions… They use the old formulas, terms, and ideas, adding only a new twist.

Thus Buber is right in saying that gnostic theologumena when taken over by Hasidism are transformed. Into what are they transformed? Into statements about man and his way to God.

Cabbalistic terminology which originally referred to divine mysteries is interpreted by the Hasidic writers as referring also to values of the personal life of man and his relation to God, and great emphasis is placed on this “moral” reading of the old vocabulary.

In the writings of Rabbi Baer of Mezritch—the 18th-century pupil of the Baal-Shem who actually organized the movement—we find a whole string of pages where Cabbalistic terms are almost systematically taken up with a view to explaining what they mean if understood as guiding principles in the personal life of the devotee. They are not robbed of their original meaning, which indeed continues to play its part; rather they acquire an additional one.

Gershom Scholem, “Martin Buber’s Hasidism: A Critique,” Commentary 32, no. 4 (October 1961): 305–16. Reprinted in, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, Schocken Books, 1971



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