Jewish Thought and History

Theologically Speaking: God, Language, and the Maggid of Mezritsh

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Review of Ariel Evan Mayse, Speaking Infinities: God and Language in the Teachings of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritsh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”[1] Speaking Infinities, an intellectual and theological study of R. Dov Ber Friedman (“the Maggid”) of Mezritsh by Stanford University’s R. Dr. Ariel Evan Mayse, can be said to strive toward demonstration of the inverse: that unlocking the infinite divine potential contained within finite human language allows humanity to transcend the limits of our physical world. Indeed, Mayse argues that the Maggid’s unique vision of the hidden potential within all language can overturn the very dichotomy between sacredness and mundanity that so many historians and sociologists of religion seem to take for granted.

Mayse opens his exploration with a biographical portrait of the Maggid that does much to demystify the story that many readers may initially expect, beginning with a clarification that details of R. Dov Ber’s life can only be gleaned “from scattered anecdotes, legends, and occasional historical sources.”[2] This unfortunate lack of information forces any biographical attempt to differentiate between the historical R. Dov Ber Friedman, whose life left behind little verifiable information, and the legendary figure of the Maggid whose legacy emerged from various textual and oral traditions. Mayse’s biographical methodology here is similar to that applied by his teacher, R. Dr. Arthur Green of Boston’s Hebrew College Rabbinical School, in the latter’s own critical study of the life and teachings of R. Nahman of Bratslav.[3]

Unlike the popular telling by Elie Weisel and others in which R. Dov Ber is presented as the disciple, witness, and foremost apostle of the Baal Shem Tov who “went so far as to authenticate the most incredible stories [about the BeSHT] by stating: “I was there,”[4] Mayse clarifies that “the notion of the Maggid succeeding the BeSHT as the leader of early Hasidism is hopelessly anachronistic.” Indeed, “their interactions were likely very few in number, and they seem to have met only toward the end of their lives.”[5] The common perception of an intimate, sustained relationship between the two, then, seems to fall away.

Contrary to many other early Hasidic masters, very few of the Maggid’s homilies quote the Baal Shem Tov by name or seek to invoke him as a source of authority. Mayse argues, therefore, that R. Dov Ber should be viewed as inheriting “an ethos, a sensibility, or an approach to the religious life” rather than a corpus of specific teachings.[6] R. Dov Ber then developed that ethos further by reinterpreting many aspects and adjusting it to fit his unique religious personality and philosophy. It was, in fact, R. Dov Ber who established himself as the leader of a loosely knit circle of figures who shared a theological project of religious renewal “that emerged from their own religious personalities and creativity and the legacy of the Maggid.”[7] The Hasidic movement as we now know it was “built around the memory of the Maggid by personalities from among Dov Ber’s immediate circle of disciples.”[8] As other scholars have pointed out, it was the Maggid who formed the first formal Hasidic court to which Hasidim and other admirers could make pilgrimage in order to receive blessing and hear teachings directly.[9] His disciples then went on to found their own courts elsewhere in Europe. Therefore, rather than being handed a centralized position of leadership over Hasidism by the Baal Shem Tov, Mayse argues that the Maggid himself might very well be “the true founder of Hasidism and the foremost innovator of its early theology.”[10]

In establishing the R. Dov Ber as the founder of the formal Hasidic movement rather than the Baal Shem Tov, Mayse places him in a central position which allows the Maggid’s theological positions to be seen in conversation with the broader development of Jewish thought as opposed to only as one of many different followers of the Baal Shem Tov. This relocation will prove to be particularly helpful to the broader claims that Mayse discerns from the Maggid’s teachings. With this new context in mind, we can now explore the details of R. Dov Ber’s theological contributions with a particular focus on the nature of language and divine revelation alongside several contemporary voices who express similar notions.

At the center of the Maggid’s theory of language, Mayse argues, is “a vision of God as dwelling in the heart and mind of the mystic, embodied in the faculty of language and expressed through our words.”[11] The ability to articulate words, in R. Dov Ber’s sermons, is portrayed as a divine gift through which Godliness is made manifest in the created world. In other words, language is itself a form of revelation. Before examining this notion further, it is worthwhile to read the process in Mayse’s words:

God emerges from silence through the pathways of language. All divine revelation, from creation to the theophany at Sinai, originates in a preverbal inner realm that gradually unfolds. The cosmos was formed through the divine word, perhaps even through the Torah itself. God’s creative utterances continue to inhere in the cosmos, animating all existence and causing the world to shimmer with divine linguistic power. This process took on a different form at Sinai, as God’s endless wisdom became cloaked in the mantle of words… Rather than one-time events whose significance is relegated to historical memory, these processes continue as God―and God’s language―is reborn through the power of human speech.[12]

Since the entire cosmos is illuminated and created by God’s words, divine immanence directly fills the very faculty of human speech, allowing it to serve as a nexus between the finite and the Infinite. Because of the fact that human beings are continuously immersed within and animated by divine language, it is possible to sustain communication with our divine Creator. Torah, the most sacred of religious texts, is the result of God’s infinite wisdom finding expression through the structures and limitations of human language via such communication.

But why would an infinite God compress Their will into finite language in the first place? On the most basic of levels, God’s unfiltered will “was too expansive and luminous; its brilliance would have been overwhelming, so God diminished its light by contracting it into specific words.”[13] Put more clearly, the human language of Torah is a filter which prevents reality from being overwhelmed by God’s light. In Mayse’s understanding of the Maggid, the Torah’s wording “conceals the enormity of the divine essence while at the same time allowing for human beings to perceive―and engage with―that sacred cosmic light through the intermediary framework of language.”[14]

Yet if the Torah can be said to represent a limited version of limitless divine knowledge, why does it contain so many narratives that seemingly have little to do with the theology, philosophy, and commandments that the Torah is meant to reveal to humanity? Mayse suggests that the Maggid would answer that the Torah is eternal precisely because its stories constantly take place within each human being. Torah is eternal “not only because of the constant relevance of its words and injunctions, but because the narratives of Torah are constantly unfolding in the ongoing experiences of human devotion.”[15] Indeed, “certain narratives were included in Scripture as a part of the ultimate quest to redeem human language by raising it up to God.”[16]

The Torah, then, appears to be both deeply human and meaningfully divine according to Mayse’s understanding of the Maggid. Not only do “human beings have an active role in shaping the linguistic fabric into which the infinite divine wisdom is contracted,”[17] but “human deeds, even if physical and coarse, may… become part of the Torah”[18] with the right intentionality and a strong divine intuition (as demonstrated by many biblical narratives). It is then no wonder that “Moses’[s] unique mastery of language and contemplative attachment to God enabled him to bring forth the Torah from the realm of divine thought into speech.”[19]

Must such translation have been limited to the biblical Moses though? Mayse concludes his section on revelation by arguing that the Moses which R. Dov Ber spoke about may very well have been a stand-in for “the Maggid himself, an inwardly driven mystical thinker whose rich spiritual life leads him to meet the Divine in the murmuring depths of the mind. He is called on, however, to reach into this sacred ineffable and shepherd forth the insights and cloak them in language for his students.”[20] Mayse even argues elsewhere that R. Dov Ber passed this understanding of “revelation as an unfolding process in which the ineffable divine is continuously translated into human language” onto several early Hasidic masters including “Menaḥem Naḥum of Chernobil, Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, and Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev.”[21] Such a view, though, did not stop with early Hasidic thinkers. One might even argue that ongoing revelation through the medium of human language finds itself quite common in contemporary Jewish theological discourse.[22] The primary question nowadays, though, is if such a revelation actually requires a literal voice of God to be revealed or not once contemporary biblical scholarship is taken into account.

For example, Professor Tamar Ross of Bar-Ilan University famously wrote that God’s voice can only be said to have been perceived “through rabbinic interpretation of the texts, which may or may not be accompanied by an evolution in human understanding, and through the mouthpiece of history.”[23] While claiming that such an understanding “allows for the very possibility of divine communication, despite the inevitability of cultural bias,”[24] it is unclear what such communication can really look like if God’s words are only heard through human interpretation. This is especially so when Ross writes elsewhere that “God is not a person or an object that exercises agency on the world from without” and that “the meaning and significance of the belief in revelation, divine accommodation, and all religious doctrine making metaphysical claims, is best understood in light of its function in the life of the believer”[25] rather than as truth claims.

Similarly, R. Dr. Samuel Lebens of the University of Haifa recently suggested that the principle of revelation can be boiled down to a minimal claim of God giving an endorsement to the religious tradition that would eventually become Judaism. Although, such a view means that “we should relate to the Pentateuch as if it were dictated word for word by God to man” and that “it is as if God has now appropriated the text of the Pentateuch as his own.”[26] Neither Lebens’s nor Ross’s views necessitate literally viewing the text as God’s actual words in a meaningful sense.

Another complicated thinker about these issues is R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose famous line that “as a report about revelation the Bible itself is a midrash”[27] has been the subject of a fierce debate amongst thinkers within the Conservative and Halakhic Egalitarian scholarly orbits. The late R. Dr. Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, for example, assumed that Heschel viewed revelation as lacking linguistic content. In his words, “even the Bible itself is a human interpretation of some prior, or more primal revelatory content that is beyond human comprehension.”[28] In that same vein, Professor Benjamin Sommer, also of JTS, wrote that for Heschel “the Bible remains holy as a response to God’s [silent] self-manifestation, but its wording (or most of its wording) is the product of human beings.”[29]

On the other hand, R. Dr. Shai Held of the Hadar Institute has emphatically argued that viewing the Bible as midrash is acknowledging the depth and symbolism of its language as opposed to making a statement about its divinity or lack thereof. Heschel’s reference to the Torah as a midrash is to say that it “cannot ultimately provide for a full understanding of that which is inherently ineffable.”[30] In other words, “the language that emerges from the moment of revelation will always be allusive rather than exhaustive, indicative rather than descriptive, but… the humanness of the words does not entail, for Heschel, the sheer humanness of the ideas conveyed.”[31] This reading of Heschel is much more in consonance with that of his Hasidic forebears, as understood by Mayse, and necessitates objective divine content beneath the human language. However, it still leaves room for a purely human casing around the divine core.

Is it even possible, then, to argue that the entirety of the Torah can still be viewed as a linguistic revelation from God to humanity in the way that the Maggid seems to have done? Or has the contemporary scholarly situation rendered such a view completely untenable? Professor Sam Fleischacker of the University of Illinois at Chicago recently attempted to present such a position in his “Defense of Verbal Revelation,” which serves as an excellent way for modern readers to envision R. Dov Ber’s position playing out in the contemporary world. He begins by noting that the idea of non-verbal revelation (in which “Words are human, God is beyond words, and the Torah is a human attempt to grasp what the encounter with God might be like”[32]) fits well with the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship and allows for easier pathways toward halakhic change. Fleischacker goes on to argue, however, that such an approach is inherently at odds with a tradition in which God so consistently is presented as expressing Their will to humanity through speech. His response, taking into account scholarly conclusions of the Bible’s multiple authorship and redaction, is to suggest the following:

God encounters us, first and foremost, in language… The aspects of language that are beyond our control can of course be explained naturalistically. Social scientists can and do put forward plausible explanations of the emotional, sociological, and historical factors about language that prevent individual speakers from fully mastering what they say. But it is perfectly reasonable for a religious believer to take these factors of language as, in addition, ways by which God shapes our world and destiny: vessels or vehicles through which God works. If God shapes nature and history, as the Jewish tradition believes, then God also shapes language. And if God can be present in trees and waterfalls and horses, then God can also be present in language: God can speak.[33]

Much like Mayse’s understanding of the Maggid, Fleischacker’s argument is essentially that language is a divine gift through which revelation is made possible via humanity’s channeling of the divine. Though superficially similar to Ross or (Held’s interpretation of) Heschel, Fleischacker’s position allows, as the Maggid does, for each and every word of the Torah to be seen as a real expression of God’s personal presence in the world, even in the face of scholarly challenges.

Torah is the vehicle by which humanity allows divinity into the world within. God speaks to all of us through it once we are ready to listen―not despite the limited human language which crafted it, but because of that language, the limits and nuances of which are defined and contain within them God Godself. In the Maggid’s words, God “focused Himself into the letters [of Torah] and created the world… A person is not entirely separate from the letters that he speaks; his physical body is distinct, but not his life-force. So it is with the blessed One, Who is not separate from the letters [of Torah].”[34]

With this understanding of what it may mean for the Torah to be divine communication literally through the medium of human language, how should one view learning it? Mayse, noting that the Maggid’s conception of devotional study is directly tied to his understanding of Torah as a linguistic expression of the divine presence, writes that “reading the words of Torah with love and awe draws new vitality into the physical realm”[35] and cultivates “attunement to God’s presence in all aspects of the cosmos.”[36] Mayse cautions, however, that activating the divinity within the words of the Torah is not an automatic process. Studying Torah by rote, for example, drains Scripture of its power. But at the end of the day, Mayse notes that “both soul and Torah are cast in the divine image, as it were. As like finds like and the words of the text echo within the heart and mind of the worshiper, together they journey back to the source.”[37]

The Maggid of Mezritsh’s teachings truly demonstrate the importance of language in all of its forms. Each and every word we speak contains worlds of meaning within. Revelation itself is contained within human language, and that grants humanity a wondrous divine power alongside the responsibility to use it well. Mayse concludes Speaking Infinities by noting that R. Dov Ber imagines a future in which all speech is linked to the divine and uttered for the sake of God alone. “Each person is commanded with the task of uplifting his own words, but all of these infinitesimal changes link together into the monumental transformation.”[38] Mayse’s study begs the question: What are YOU doing with your speech to aid that goal?


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 68.

[2] Ariel Evan Mayse, Speaking Infinities: God and Language in the Teachings of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritsh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 18.

[3] Green framed his methodology as follows:

The critical biographer does not seek to destroy or to debunk, but merely to understand. In order to achieve an understanding of his subject, however, he will indeed have to brush aside the web of pious fancies that so encumbers the sources in order to see whether, first of all, there remains sufficient authenticable material out of which to fashion a life of the one who interests him. If such sources do exist, it is a wide-ranging series of skills and sensitivities he must bring to them in order to bring his work to completion. When the subject is the founder of a sect or order which still flourishes in his day, or when he writes of a figure who is still widely venerated for some other reason, his task is doubly sensitive. He can only seek to reassure the faithful that the true greatness of their master may in fact stand out in clearer relief once the circumstances of his life are as fully elucidated as possible. (Arthur Green, Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1992], 2.)

[4] Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 55.

[5] Mayse, 24-25.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ibid., 43.

[8] ibid., 33. Some readers may find it interesting to compare Mayse’s description of the formalization of Hasidism around the Maggid’s personality and legacy with Michael Cohen’s articulation of the formation of the Conservative Movement around the unifying figure of Solomon Schechter. According to Cohen, the early graduates of ‘Schechter’s Seminary’ “shared a deep desire to see Schechter’s vision actualized. This group identity… would be instrumental in holding the group together and preventing their movement from splintering” (Michael Cohen, The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement [New York: Columbia University Press, 2012], 7).

[9] See David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński, Hasidism: A New History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018). They note that the Baal Shem Tov did not run an organized group like the Maggid did. In fact, according to them, even the Maggid only initially convened a formal gathering of a group of his followers a year before his death to devise a strategy to counter opposition to Hasidism.

[10] Mayse, 3.

[11] ibid., ix-x.

[12] ibid., 1.

[13] ibid., 135.

[14] ibid., 139. Similarly, in the words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm:

Torah is not only God-given; it is also Godly. The divine word is not only uttered by God, it is also an aspect of God Himself. All of the Torah―its ideas, its laws, its narratives, its aspirations for the human community―lives and breathes Godliness. (Norman Lamm, Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith, Volume One [Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2002], 93.)

[15] ibid., 141.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] ibid., 143.

[19] ibid., 151.

[20] ibid., 157.

[21] See Ariel Mayse, “The Voices of Moses: Theologies of Revelation in an Early Hasidic Circle,” Harvard Theological Review 112, no. 1 (January 2019): 101–125, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0017816018000366.

[22] How (or if) any such perspectives fit with Maimonides’s Eighth Principle of Faith is beyond the purview of this review.

[23] Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004),. 197-198.

[24] ibid., 210.

[25] Adam S. Ferziger, Miri Freud-Kandel, and Steven Bayme, eds., Yitz Greenberg and Modern Orthodoxy: The Road Not Taken (Brookline, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2019), 126-127.

[26] Samuel Lebens, The Principles of Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 274.

[27] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1955), 185.

[28] Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992), 24.

[29] Benjamin Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 30.

[30] Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 108.

[31] ibid., 112.

[32] Steven Kepnes, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 425.

[33] ibid., 444.

[34] Dov Ber of Mezritsh, Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov, ed. Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1976), 126. Translated in Mayse, 139.

[35] Mayse, 168.

[36] ibid., 169.

[37] ibid., 173. It may be worthwhile to compare this sentiment with Mayse’s articulation of R. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno’s view of studying Talmud:

The study of Talmud is in fact two quests that appear to be coterminous: the search for God among the ordinary markers of human experience expressed in talmudic dialectics and the hunt for hidden elements of the self that are revealed in this encounter with the ancient text. (Don Seeman, Daniel Reiser, and Ariel Evan Mayse, eds., Hasidism, Suffering, and Renewal: The Prewar and Holocaust Legacy of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira [Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2021], 98.)

[38] Mayse, 230.

Steven Gotlib is an avreikh at Beit Midrash Zichron Dov and Rabbinic Educator at the Village Shul. He previously served as Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany and as Beit Midrash Coordinator at Congregation Shearith Israel: The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. Steven received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, a certificate in Mental Health Counseling from the Ferkauf School of Psychology, a certificate in Spiritual Entrepreneurship from the Glean Network in partnership with Columbia Business School, and a BA with majors in Communication and Jewish Studies from Rutgers University. He lives in Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Ruth Malkah Rohde, and can be reached at sgotlib@torontotorah.com.