American Orthodoxy

Neo-Hasidism and its Discontents

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Steven Gotlib

Review of Shlomo Zuckier (ed.), Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut (New York: Yeshiva University Press and Ktav Publishing, 2022).

“There’s a certain humility I’ve seen among the Modern Orthodox, especially the youth … they are prepared to acknowledge a sense of spiritual desolation that they’re experiencing. There was and still is a readiness to hear more about Hashem, to find out more about Hashem and develop a personal relationship with Him, as opposed to just keeping a finger on the place in the Gemara and, in a more robotic way, observing the rituals of Judaism; to seek a living relationship with God. This is not to say that’s only possible within Chassidus. But it certainly resonated hundreds of years ago, and it certainly resonates now, especially with young people.”
Rabbi Moshe Weinberger

Neo-Hasidism (alternatively Neo-Hasidut or Neo-Chassidus) is spreading across the Jewish world, investing both Orthodox and non-Orthodox ways of life with renewed fervor and passion. Rabbi Dr. Ariel Mayse has noted that both sides are united in their conviction that “the insights of Hasidism are too important … to be left to the Hasidim alone.” Such insights, however, could not easily be shared with a modern audience. Hasidic teachings that find their way into modernity are often “presented in universalized fashion, and the Hasidic wisdom … shared selectively.”[1] Hasidic views on the value or lack thereof of a Western education, perception of women’s roles, and views toward non-Jews are seen as “relics of an earlier era” and conveniently left out of many contemporary conversations about the values of Hasidism. According to Mayse, this has led to a paradoxical reality in which “we too are active participants in shaping [Hasidism’s] contemporary expression—based on our own religious personalities and moral compass. But we also allow the traditions of Hasidism to shape us and make claims upon us; the encounter with these sources is a relationship of mutuality.”[2]

Of particular interest to Orthodox thinkers, such as Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Zuckier, are “recent movements over the past twenty years or so, in Israel and America, in which Dati Leumi and Modern Orthodox individuals and communities incorporate aspects of Hasidut for the purposes of spiritual inspiration and revival” (33-34).[3] Rabbi Yitzchak Blau identifies several elements in this trend:

  1. The growth of Carlebach minyanim and the expression of ecstatic enthusiasm in prayer and ritual.
  2. A greater interest in the study of Kabbalah and Hasidut.
  3. An assumption that learning should incorporate more of a quest for existential meaning.
  4. An interest in the experiential and the emotional that at times displaces the cognitive and intellectual.
  5. A discourse that prizes hithabberut (attachment) more than hithayyevut (obligation). (483)

Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut, the latest entry into the Orthodox Forum series, examines this phenomenon from multiple vantage points, aiming to “provide sociological information regarding this trend, offer historical context, explore relevant Hasidic theology and praxis, and take stock of our community’s directions in avodat Hashem” (19).[4]

One need not look very far to identify how Neo-Hasidism has impacted the Modern Orthodox community. In his contribution to the volume, Rabbi Yehuda Turetsky identifies three categories of Modern Orthodox gap-year students meaningfully impacted by the trend:

1.    A small minority of students is overtly and fundamentally influenced by neo-Hasidut. They undergo significant changes, often accompanied by clear external manifestations, such as growing beards and peyes (sidelocks) and wearing gartels (ritual belts). The style of dress often overlaps with that of hipsters, as does their contrarian worldview. Members of this group often attend Yeshiva University upon their return, but some enroll in yeshivot or universities that afford them more flexibility and independence. A significant portion of their Torah learning involves Hasidic texts.[5]
2.    The second group is significantly larger in size. This group may also undergo some form of external change, such as growing peyes, but they by and large remain part of the mainstream Orthodox yeshiva system. The majority of their day is spent in yeshivot that have standard curricula, and the casual observer would be unable to discern a fundamental difference between these students and those uninfluenced by neo-Hasidut. What establishes this group as unique is their internal sense of connectedness to Hasidic teachings and the role that Hasidut plays for them as a primary source for their spirituality.
3.     In the third group, members undergo no external change during their year in Israel, and they may not even learn Hasidut at all. However, they are the product of a world significantly influenced by neo-Hasidut, even if they are largely unaware of that reality. Activities and events that were once perceived as exclusive to the Hasidic or Carlebach movement have become extremely commonplace in many mainstream Orthodox institutions. For example … Carlebach services on Friday night, tisches following the Shabbat meal, and inspirational singing at the conclusion of Shabbat (355-56).

One need not even open this volume to know that Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm saw Hasidism as “a preferred theological grounding for the concept of Yeshiva University” and “worked in multiple ways to include Hasidut as a part of the YU curriculum.”[6] Despite that, as David Landes zl notes, it is far from obvious that Neo-Hasidut should have found a hospitable environment within Modern Orthodoxy given its non-rationalist emphasis on “[m]ysticism, charismatic miracle-working rabbis, visiting graves of tzaddikim, ecstatic forms of prayer and hitbodedut” (403). Moreover, “[t]he emphasis on the ontological distinctiveness of the Jewish soul in Hasidut conflicts with the Enlightenment principle of the equality of man that is commonly upheld by Modern Orthodox Jews and which underlies American political and social life,” and Hasidut brings “new authority figures and a whole new library of sacred texts” that are often anti-modern, with no “notion of a neutral secular space outside the reach of religion” (403-04).

Even further, Landes explains that Hasidism is far less interested in grappling with theological issues that often are part of a Modern Orthodox identity, such as “the relationship of science and religion, the standing of secular studies, gender distinctions in halakhah, biblical criticism and scientific or academic approaches to the study of sacred texts, and the nature and substance of rabbinic authority.” Hasidut instead assumes a “bedrock faith” that “negates the urgency and relevance of these issues” (405).

Part of this gap between Hasidism and Modern Orthodoxy is naturally covered by the “neo” in Neo-Hasidism. Landes notes, for example, that “people regularly combine non-modern and modern attitudes and beliefs, the practical and mundane with the miraculous and supernatural, without a sense of dissonance.” Indeed, “Modern Orthodoxy, as its name testifies, has always been a hybrid phenomenon” (406). Furthermore, the form of Neo-Hasidism that is being accepted within Modern Orthodoxy “does not appear to challenge the neoliberal capitalist and consumerist values of American society that are shared by the Modern Orthodox, despite the strong anti-materialist ascetic values found in much classical Hasidut” (404).

But what, exactly, does Neo-Hasidism offer? There are several perspectives presented in the volume. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau highlights its counterbalance to Modern Orthodoxy’s dry intellectualism and hyper-rationalism. “Especially in today’s intellectual climate,” he writes, “a discourse highlighting the value of intuition and experience in shaping our world view becomes crucial” (485).

Similarly, Rabbi Zev Reichman offers that Neo-Hasidism fights on two fronts. On one hand, it combats the idea that “[p]ermissiveness is good, moral relativism is chic, and religious people are sometimes presented as backward and benighted individuals” (467). It also helps observant Jews who “find their observance to be sterile, … struggle to extract any religious meaning when they study God’s Torah or perform His mitzvot,” and “are certainly at a high risk of abandoning their faith entirely … reconnect to soulful practice by bringing out the religious meaning and spiritual connection that other Jewish movements don’t always emphasize” (467). Indeed, Reichman writes that “in an age of materialism and hedonism, only a great spiritual light—Torah refracted through kabbalistic insights—can serve as an antidote” and that “Hasidut is able to transmit kabbalistic teachings in a way that is accessible and spiritually edifying to the common person, not just the specialist” (461-62).

This accessibility, however, can be perceived as a bug as well as a feature. Rabbi Yehuda Turetsky, for example, points out that if “Hasidut is perceived as a body of works from which people can select the ideas they find to be most relevant, meaningful, and inspiring” while avoiding demanding passages, it can lead to “a decrease in intellectual rigor among many of today’s students” where they “prefer to attend shiurim that are shorter and less intellectually demanding” (352-53).

A watering down of intellectual demand, though, is not the only thing that worries some about Neo-Hasidism’s apparent encroachment into Modern Orthodox spaces. Yirat shamayim can also be at risk. Rabbi Yaakov Nagen paraphrases Micah Goodman as saying that spirituality without religion is like love without marriage, while religion without spirituality is like marriage without love. Nagen adds that “we must be careful that the discourse of spirituality will be of love that inspires marriage and not of love that makes marriage seem unnecessary … Within the religious community, the focus on spirituality must also stress yirat Shamayim and be balanced by a stress on halakhah” (435). Reichman even notes that “by focusing [too much] on spirituality, we risk forgetting that mitzvah observance is paramount” and that “excess talk about belief in tzaddikim might lead to individuals believing in the wrong people with disastrous ultimate results” (466-67).

The most sustained voice of hesitation in the volume comes from Rabbi Yitzchak Blau. He notes that “ecstatic singing and dancing can lead to an emphasis on externals” and that “the absolute need for a feeling of exhalation may lead people to foolish measures in their desperate search for an emotional charge.” “[T]he desire for immediate excitement,” he suggests, “often stems from the negative character trait of impatience” (486, 488).[7] Blau also cautions that “an intense focus on self can lead to an indifference to others” and that “making performance contingent on a present feeling of personal connection can obscure the immense value of responsibility, commitment, and obligation” (489). The insistence that learning must provide a sense of meaning in addition to giving over information also “leads some students to follow their own daily learning schedule without valuing participating in study of the same material as the rest of the yeshiva” (448). This may lead one to “devote most of their study time to kabbalistic and Hasidic texts, even though they lack basic knowledge of Tanakh or even of Hebrew literacy” (492).

Blau’s biggest worry about Neo-Hasidism, though, is in the implicit threat of antinomianism that it contains, as “[s]ometimes the reader cannot help but feel that Hasidic writers are allowed to take positions that others would never be allowed to express” (493). The result of this is that while Neo-Hasidism may very well “help rescue us from a pan-halakhic Judaism that reduces our entire religion to laws explicitly documented in Shulhan Arukh,” it also “often encourages antinomian impulses of those eager to make sweeping changes in the halakhic system” (494). Those drawn toward experiencing the divine in their life may even “think they receive divine direction beyond the directives of Torah.” Therefore, while Neo-Hasidism has the capacity to “create religious excitement, open up important new possibilities in Jewish life, provide a balance to previous attitudes in our world, and aid in invigorating the quest for existential meaning in Jewish learning and practice,” it can also “potentially lead to shallowness, excessive emotionalism, lack of commitment, and a distortion of priorities, among other problems” and should thus be incorporated into Orthodoxy with caution (495).

Such a conclusion is hard to avoid given Neo-Hasidism’s history. Mayse points out that earlier incarnations of Neo-Hasidism actually “found little traction in Orthodox circles where halakhah is the defining feature of Jewish life and its practice is considered the summum bonum of religious experience” and that “to some degree these feelings were mutual” (233). For Neo-Hasidic exponents like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shlomo Carlebach, this was mostly “a matter of emphasis rather than essence.” Other thinkers who were ubiquitous with Neo-Hasidism such as Martin Buber, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and Arthur Green, though, “proudly embraced heterodox forms of Jewish practice that are at odds with the Orthodox understanding of obligation.” One can even make a strong argument that “the turn toward theology and spirituality at the expense of engagement with (and practice of) halakhah in some Neo-Hasidic circles has surely pushed members of the Orthodox community … to become more deeply entrenched in their single-minded focus on the study and practice of Jewish law” (233).

Despite this antagonism, Mayse argues that liberal Neo-Hasidism has influenced its Orthodox counterpart to a significant degree by combating assimilation among young people. Some even joined the Orthodox community, bringing “new styles of dress (including colorful and intercultural garments), approaches to food (vegetarian, sustainable), ritual objects, music, and, most importantly for our purposes, an embrace of mysticism and a non-rational spirituality. Many of these elements originated in the youth counterculture and were fused with the ideas of neo-Hasidism” (233-34).

Mayse goes on to argue that it is “impossible to imagine the contemporary interest in Hasidic thought in American Orthodox communities without the writings of liberal Jewish scholars.” When students with such interest “wish to read compelling, nuanced theological works that speak to modern issues of the inner spirit, they often turn to the works of thinkers like Heschel, Buber, and, to a lesser degree, Schachter-Shalomi and Green” (235). For these reasons, and more, Mayse states that although the theological writings of liberal Neo-Hasidic thinkers have met some opposition within Orthodoxy, their influence “has indeed extended to the Orthodox community and rabbinate in ways both subtle and direct” (236).[8]

Such influence, Mayse argues, is a good thing for Orthodoxy. After all, the Orthodox approach to Halakhah has “led to an exclusively practice-oriented definition of religiosity, in which performance itself is the height of spiritual experience” and many in the Orthodox world “portray halakhah as if it were a self-justifying system with an internal coherent logic and a matrix of values that exist untouchably beyond time and space” (238). Neo-Hasidism, though, reminds us that Halakhah is “best understood not as law per se, but as … a sacred path of obligation that brings us into the presence of the Divine.” This approach is “grounded in the ideals of spiritual creativity, compassion, and personal integrity” and “must inform the way that we decide the halakhah in the contemporary world” (238). Mayse notes that Orthodox figures influenced by Neo-Hasidism have been working toward this and that “the discourse in centrist and left-leaning Orthodox communities has already begun to shift” (239).

And yet, if we look at what Mayse and others have written about Neo-Hasidism elsewhere, we can see an undercurrent that pushes toward greater halakhic change. Mayse, for example, discusses what happens when halakhah appears to violate moral sensitivities, writing that in his opinion, there cannot be “a situation in which every fiber of my being, including my moral barometer and my spiritual sensibility (both deeply informed by my engagement with Torah), tells me to act in one way and the halakhah commands another.”[9] In such moments, Mayse writes that “either I have failed to hear correctly the values expressed by the classical halakhah or, alternatively, the halakhah as it has been interpreted is either no longer appropriate or, at the very least, does not apply to this particular situation.” Put directly, “when such intolerable moments of confrontation ensue, we are obligated to change or reinterpret the halakhah in some way.”

Rabbi David Hartman articulates a similar approach in which halakhah “should be engaged as an open-ended educational framework rather than a binding normative one.” Hartman identifies such an approach, which advocates selective religious observance, with “powerful trends within the Hassidic tradition … interpreting mitzvot to mean ‘suggestions’ or ‘counsel’ about how most fully to experience the presence of God in one’s life.”[10] Hartman admits that his understanding of halakhah, if taken in its natural direction, “would undoubtedly lead to fundamental reinterpretations of the sources … and to an evolution of halakha itself.”[11] Indeed, when faced in his rabbinate with the question of a Kohen congregant of his who fell in love with a convert, Hartman writes as follows:

My response was immediate, drawn from a clear moral intuition. I felt compelled by this middle-age man who had finally found a woman he loved and wanted to start a family with. Refusing marriage seemed to cause him pain unjustly. Moreover, I could not in good conscience allow the incoherent, morally problematic designation of Susan [the convert] as promiscuous to permeate the way I thought about her or influence my decision in this most delicate and meaningful moment of her life. The notion of telling these two very serious Jewish seekers that they must deny themselves the happiness of marriage because of this now-obscure, ancient principle seemed unacceptable as the ground for destroying their dream to build a new life. I told Peter that I would be honored to perform the wedding.[12]

In response to such concerns, Mayse goes out of his way to acknowledge that “change must employ the indigenous language and the chorus of voices in halakhah, which hold all the seeds for future evolution” and that “key to this enterprise is an expansive and penetrating expertise in classical Rabbinic literature.”[13] Furthermore, he notes that Neo-Hasidic halakhah “does not always incline to leniency, and certainly does not unfasten our commitment to obligate in hearkening to the divine command.”[14]

Still, given attempts at using Neo-Hasidism to reshape halakhic practice, it is hard to say that the concerns raised by Blau and others are completely misdirected. On the contrary, one may agree with a point raised by Rabbi Shmuel Hain in the preface of the volume under review, which sees Neo-Hasidism as “a potentially destabilizing force emerging from the ‘outer rim’ of the [Modern Orthodox] community” (18). At the same time, it is undeniable that contemporary Orthodox Jews are missing something that Neo-Hasidism has to offer, namely, “to be open to heartfelt spiritual experiences, to talking about God, and to exploring the vast richness of Jewish theology, to reclaiming the emphasis on Jewish life as a quest to stand in the presence of God.”[15]

Neo-Hasidism, then, comes with both great risk and great reward. If utilized correctly, it can revitalize Modern Orthodox engagement with theology and empower greater connection with observance. If utilized incorrectly, it can very easily pull many away from traditionally accepted halakhic norms. Hain, then, is undoubtedly correct that Neo-Hasidism has “significant influence on the Modern Orthodox community” and is “surely worthy of critical attention” (18). Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut truly does an excellent job at empowering readers with knowledge of this fascinating, albeit precarious, world.

Thank you to Yosef Lindell and Ashley Stern Mintz for masterfully editing and copy-editing this review, to Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Zuckier for encouraging me to examine this volume, and to Rabbi Dr. Ariel Mayse for first introducing me to the wonderful world of Neo-Hasidism and continuing to guide my exploration of it.

Note: At the end of January 2024, R. Arthur Green faced controversy over allegations of sexual misconduct. Rabbi Daniel Landes previously warned that Green’s Neo-Hasidic theology, taken to its conclusions, seemed insufficient in preventing such a situation. In Landes’ words, 

There are dangers lurking in the kind of rhetoric that Green and like-minded thinkers employ. When Green urges, for instance, that we must “let others know that we and they are part of the same One when we treat them like brothers and sisters, or like parts of the same single universal body,” he is perhaps contributing to the arousal of energies that may prove difficult to control. The dismissal of clear legal norms as nothing more than a transitory response to a wordless call, or the replacement of a firm prohibition of adultery with nothing more than self-selected boundaries (“make sure that all your giving is for the sake of those who seek to receive it”), is a failure to reckon with the power of temptation and the function of law, human or divine.

Given the influence that Green has had on so many aspiring Neo-Hasidim across denominations, and given how integral his theology is to who he is and how he acts in the world, I felt this note deeply necessary to include.

[1] Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse, eds., A New Hasidism: Roots (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2019), xvii.

[2] Ibid, 425.

[3] All in-text citations are to the volume under review.

[4] While most of the collected articles focus on areas that are unambiguously Hasidic or Neo-Hasidic, three of the opening ones locate the mystical and Hasidic underpinnings in the thought of Rabbis Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Yitzchak Hutner, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

[5] Turetsky goes on to note that “although no formal data is available, informal interviews suggest that out of all the mainstream yeshiva programs in Israel, fewer than five to eight males per year undergo such an intense form of change. Several educators report that even fewer, if any, women experience this kind of transformation.”

[6] Shlomo Zuckier, “Study (of Hasidut) is Great, for It Leads to Action: Two Generations of Hasidut at Yeshiva University,” Tradition 53, no. 3 (September 2021): 297.

[7] A similar point is made by Rabbi Dr. Nehemia Polen, who notes that “the attempt to infuse life into synagogue services simply by adopting a few ‘Carlebach niggunim’ may not have as much impact as some hope … If there is no communal commitment to ambitious goals of personal and collective transformation, then the effort to ‘add ruah’ is less likely to have long-term success … as for every spiritual practice, avodah is work, demanding focus, seriousness of purpose, accountability to goals, benchmarks to measure progress, and the ability to start anew after perceived failure. Shortcuts and artificial boosts generally are of little help, and may be dangerously self-deluding” (274-75). This point has been hammered in elsewhere by Don Seeman, who wrote that “the literature of mystical rapture and divine immanence does not lend itself very well to the plodding but oh-so-important elaboration of limits and taxonomies upon which ethical life depends” and that “any religious phenomenology that is focused too closely on the immediacy of Divine Presence will tend to undervalue the complicated human multiplicity that calls for balance and adjudication” (Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse, eds., A New Hasidism: Branches [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2019], 79).

[8] One can argue, though, that Orthodox rabbis have also impacted the liberal version of Neo-Hasidism. Philip Wexler, for example, has argued that Neo-Hasidism is “a philosophical movement, a literary movement, and a spiritual movement” whose representatives include “Martin Buber, I.L. Peretz, Hillel Zeitlin, Abraham J. Heschel, Elie Weisel, Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, and Shlomo Carlebach. The last three notably, were all profoundly influenced by [Rabbi Menachem Mendel] Schneerson.” Some forms of Neo-Hasidism “openly embrace and appropriate Hasidic texts and practices” while others “borrow more selectively or more surreptitiously.” In every form, however, “the spirit of the Hasidic ethos continues to disseminate outward into broader culture and echoes beyond the particular confines of Judaism in the broader phenomena of new-age decentralized and non-denominational religiosity or spirituality.” It is implied that this dissemination is, in no small part, due to the Rebbe zt’l’s influence. Philip Wexler, Eli Rubin, and Michael Wexler, Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2019), 231.

[9] A New Hasidism: Branches, 174-175.

[10] David Hartman with Charlie Buckholtz, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2014), 50.

[11] Ibid, 109.

[12] Ibid, 129. One might compare this with the famous story told by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik:

The Torah summons the Jew to live heroically … We cannot permit a giyores to marry a kohen, and sometimes the cases are very tragic, I know from my own experience. I had a case in Rochester, with a gentile girl, she became a giyores, the woman became a giyores, before she met the boy. She was a real giyores hatzedek; she did not join our fold because she wanted to marry somebody – giyores hatzedek. And then she met the Jewish boy. He came from an alienated background, had absolutely no knowledge of Yahadus. She brought him close to Yahadus, and they got engaged, and he visited the cemetery—since he came closer to Yahadus, he wanted to find out about his family, about his family tree, so he visited the cemetery in which his grandfather was buried, and he saw a strange symbol – ten fingers like that. So they began to ask; he thought it was a mystical symbol. So he discovered that he is a kohen. What can you do? This is the halacha, that the kohen is assur b’giyores. I know the problem. We surrender to the will of the Almighty.

On the other hand, to say that the Halacha is not sensitive to problems and not responsive to the needs of the people, is an outright falsehood. The Halacha is responsive to the needs of both the community and the individual. But the Halacha has its own orbit, moves at a certain definitive speed, has its own pattern of responding to a challenge, its own criteria and principles. And I come from a rabbinic house; it is called beis harav, the house into which I was born, and believe me, Rav Chaim used to try his best to be a meikil. However, there were limits even to Rav Chaim’s skills. When you reach the boundary line, it is all you can say: “I surrender to the will of the Almighty.” There is a sadness in my heart, and I share in the suffering of the poor woman, who was instrumental in bringing him back to the fold, and then she had to lose him. She lost him; she walked away.

Hartman himself acknowledged that Soloveitchik “would have disagreed in the strongest possible terms with my decision to marry Peter and Susan. He would not have seen it as a joyous occasion, but one of mourning for the loss of something far greater than the love of two people. I can say this confidently because he once described, in a lecture, his response when a parallel case had come before him” (Hartman, 131). Hartman, for his part, felt that “notwithstanding [Soloveitchik’s] profound influence on me and my profound gratitude to him as a student, I must part company with a view of halakha that takes it out of history and out of human experience. Is the price of loyalty to deny what I know to be true? Does it tell me I have to put on different eyes? I do not think that loyalty to and love for this tradition requires exiting history, or exiting life” (Hartman, 155).

[13] A New Hasidism: Branches, 177.

[14] Ibid., 178.

[15] A New Hasidism: Branches, 432.

Steven Gotlib is Marketing Manager at RIETS and Director of the Capital Jewish Experience. He is the incoming Associate Rabbi at Mekor Habracha - Center City Synagogue in Philadelphia and has held a number of rabbinic positions in Ottawa, Toronto, and New York. A graduate of Rutgers University, Rabbi Gotlib received ordination from RIETS, a certificate in mental health counseling from the Ferkauf School of Psychology in partnership with RIETS, and a certificate in spiritual entrepreneurship from the Glean Network in partnership with Columbia Business School. He can be reached for questions, comments, or criticism at