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Grappling with Yitzhak Ginsburgh’s Right-Wing
Neo-Hasidism

Zev Mishell

Marathon (2) by Henry Rosenberg

Like many people, I was introduced to Hasidism by

the books of the great German-Jewish intellectual,

Martin Buber. [1] In high school, I was captivated

by Buber’s two volume series called Tales of the

Hasidim that described wonderous rebbes and

their followers, long lineages of sages and common

people sharing the simplicity and richness of a

since vanished Eastern European way of Jewish life.

[2] Buber put forward a vision of Hasidism that

was at once revolutionary and traditional; it was a

spiritual movement to preserve the forms of Jewish

practice while transforming them from within. [3]

I felt like Buber offered a Jewish direction for the sort of spirituality that some of my friends sought in different religious traditions, one rooted in nostalgia for a bygone past, interpersonal ethics, and an embodied understanding of God.

As much as I still love Martin Buber’s books about Hasidism, as I got older I realized that his selective narrative of Hasidic renewal wasn't the only one ever envisioned. In fact, during my senior thesis research about the legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane, I found that Buber’s vision of a progressive, humanistic relationship to the original Hasidic teachings has a terrifying counterpart on the Israeli far right. In my exploration of the underbelly of Israeli Jewish politics, I stumbled upon the radical and disturbing work of the “Rebbe of the Hilltop youth,” Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh.

Yitzhak Ginsburgh was born in Missouri in 1944. His family moved between St. Louis, Cleveland, and Israel, and as a teenager, he became a baal tshuva and began observing Orthodox religious customs. Ginsburgh studied math and philosophy at the University of Chicago and at 20, he abandoned his doctoral studies to commit himself to intensive Torah study. He moved to Israel to attend one of the most elite Chabad yeshivot in the world, and he developed a personal relationship with the leader of the movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994). 

At the personal suggestion of the Rebbe, Ginsburgh moved to Kfar Chabad and emerged as one of the most influential Rabbis in Israel, especially for his teachings at the intersection of religious philosophy and the political far right. He served as the Rosh Yeshiva of Od Yosef Chai (Joseph Still Lives) in the occupied Palestinian city of Nablus, an institution that educates some of the most radical teenagers in the Israeli settler community who are often active in day-to-day violence against Palestinians. He’s still president there, though the school is now based in the settlement of Yitzhar. [4] Od Yosef Chai blends a study of Hasidic sources with far right politics, and members of Chabad often sit next to settler youth in his classes. He also leads a number of educational institutions throughout Israel with a wide reach across both Chabad and Religious Zionist communities. Ginsburgh draws on the original Hasidic teachings to share his own interpretation of Neo-Hasidism; one that’s gruesome, fundamentalist, and in dialogue with the most radical and messianic fringe of the Israeli settler movement. 

Whenever I mention Ginsburgh to Israeli friends and rabbis, they always comment that he’s a genius, and it’s hard to argue with the sheer scale of his intellectual output. Ginsburgh is a prolific author who has written about contemporary applications of Hasidism and Kabbalah through psychology, music, and even marriage counseling and personal relationships. He’s published more than 20 books in English and over 50 in Hebrew. There’s also something otherworldly about his appearance: Ginsburgh has a long white beard, dark brown eyes and like most members of Chabad, he always wears a suit and black hat. 

What Ginsburgh is best known for is his Neo-Hasidic approach to Jewish theocracy and violence. By dismantling the secular components of the State of Israel, Ginsburg and his followers in the Derech Chaim (Way of Life) movement support establishing a religious kingdom governed by his conception of Torah law. [5] Controversies surrounding Ginsburgh have been a constant throughout his career. In a book several of his close rabbinic associates compiled called Torat HaMelech (The King’s Torah), they put forward “rules of engagement” against Palestinians, including condoning the killing of children and differentiating between the holiness of Jewish and non-Jewish souls. [6] Many of his followers have even alluded to supporting Ginsburgh as a future Jewish king. [7] He has been detained on a number of occasions by the Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security force, he’s been put under house arrest for sedition, and his home has been raided because of his connection to far right politics and settler violence. [8]

His most disturbing piece of writing is a pamphlet he published after one of the worst Jewish terrorist attacks in history. In 1994, after the American-Israeli doctor Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers and injured over a hundred others at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron on the Jewish holiday of Purim, Ginsburgh was the only rabbi in Israel to publish a book not only defending the terrorist attack, but affirmatively endorsing it as an act of “divine intimacy” and righteousness. He offered a religious defense for the violence, and a new way of conceptualizing the spiritual ramifications of violent revenge. He called the book Baruch HaGever.

First, the title. Baruch HaGever plays on Jeremiah 17:7 — “Blessed is the man (Baruch haGever) who trusts in God and God will trust in him” — by connecting the word for blessed in Hebrew (Baruch) with Goldstein’s name. More subtly, the title puns on Goldstein’s first name to suggest “Baruch [Goldstein] is the man.” This verse is included at the end of the Jewish prayer for grace (Birkat HaMazon) and in everyday morning services (Shacharit). 

In the 36 page essay, Ginsburgh empathizes a central idea of Meir Kahane, namely that religious violence in God’s name is a Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of the divine name), to argue that acts of violence on behalf of the Jewish people glorify God. [9] He offers five related justifications for Goldstein’s violence, which he begins by situating the attack as a Kiddush HaShem. He continues by falsely suggesting that because the Palestinians were planning to attack Jews in Hebron, Goldstein’s terrorism was an act of self-defense. But his most forceful argument comes later when he insists that the Goldstein attack illustrates an individual seizing their unique connection with God to engage in an act of vengeance that has supreme spiritual value in bringing about messianic redemption. [10] For Ginsburgh, “redemption” includes expelling all non-Jewish presence from the Biblical land of Israel and establishing a modern day religious kingdom.

As devastating as it is, Ginsburg’s religious politics isn't some translation of a pre-modern way of Jewish thinking; it’s a forceful and alternative perspective of how modern Jews relate to the original Hasidic sources — namely, it’s another kind of Neo-Hasidism but grounded in far right politics. First of all, Ginsburgh’s text isn't really about Jewish law; in line with some early Hasidic masters, there are instances when he insists that it’s permissible to break the letter of the law to fulfill its spirit. [11] Secondly, Ginsburgh uses Chabad Hasidism to support spontaneous acts of religious violence as a mystical technique to bring both Goldstein and the Jewish people closer to God — the act reminds Jews to uphold divine honor and respect. Like many Neo-Hasidic teachers, Ginsburgh also communicates with people mostly outside of modern day Hasidic communities, such as individuals who aren't descendants or followers of a particular modern day Hasidic rabbi, although he himself affiliates with Chabad. These are people who don't practice within a Hasidic religious community, but like progressive Jews engaging in Neo-Hasidism, they too learn from the original Hasidic sources and borrow from those texts in their own religious practices.

Unlike almost all progressive minded Neo-Hasidic teachers, Ginsburgh doesn't marginalize Hasidism’s mystical valuation of Jewish over non-Jewish life, especially in sections of Chabad’s foundational text, the Tanya, that says that Jews have a divine soul in addition to the animal soul, which all people have, including non-Jews. [12] Like Meir Kahane, who himself sometimes quotes Hasidic sources, Ginsburgh’s Neo-Hasidism gathers deeply problematic sentiments written in a different context over 200 years ago to amplify violence and Jewish supremacy as central values in his interpretation of modern Judaism.

Since learning about Ginsburgh, I have been wondering about what an honest engagement with this other narrative really looks like, and I think it suggests really fundamental problems with how Martin Buber formulated his vision of Jewish renewal over a hundred years ago. Though Buber argued that he was emphasizing the most important values of early Hasidism, like for most Jewish issues, not everyone agreed with him about what those values are. As abhorrent as it is, Ginsburgh’s religious politics are an extension of how Hasidism often relegates ethics to a secondary place opposite sometimes ecstatic and mystical personal relationships with God. [13] There isn't one branch of Neo-Hasidism, there are many, and Ginsburgh’s radical sect is far from an outlier in the landscape of Israeli Judaism.

When I started researching Kahanism and Ginsburgh’s religious philosophy, I thought I would learn about how Kahane and his followers distorted Judaism to fit their brand of Jewish power politics. But because Judaism is a multi-vocal tradition, Hasidism (and especially Neo-Hasidism) is expansive enough to include teachings that are absolutely opposed to any reasonable bar of ethics or progressive values. People like Kahane and Ginsburgh often draw from those texts to support their political projects.

It’s important to not overstate Ginsburgh’s influence; he leads a very disorganized movement that wants to topple and transform the Israeli state. But let’s not understate it, either. With the far right ascendant, he and his allies are connected to individuals with real political power, especially the National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and the Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who once called Ginsburgh a “genius and a tremendous sage with a Torah oeuvre of incomprehensible breadth.” [14]

I feel like all of this is a cause for humility about how we engage with Hasidic sources. What I loved about Martin Buber’s stories was that they offered a nostalgic and comfortable vision of Hasidism that used “old-world” Judaism to enrich my own life and religious practice. And now I understand that this made me overlook the real danger present in the parts of the Hasidic tradition that progressive Neo-Hasidic Jews rightfully put to the side. As much as we might want to contrast ourselves against them, Ginsburgh’s vision of this movement plays up perspectives that are certainly present in early Hasidism. There is no one Neo-Hasidism, and these different branches often have contradictory and competing visions of the Jewish future. If nothing else, Ginsburgh is a warning for how progressive Jews should engage with these ideas and the complicated stories of the Jewish past.

But on top of those feelings is my belief that we need to insist on our interpretive power against people like Ginsburgh — they don't earn the right to continue defining Judaism unchallenged. His Neo-Hasidism illustrates exactly why progressive Jews should bring their political values to their engagement with Hasidic texts and Jewish learning. When grounded in a practice of authenticity and compassion, progressive Neo-Hasidism can continue offering nourishment to communities and people all over the world. 

But while we defend what’s worth preserving, let’s be perfectly honest with what should be left behind and the consequences that are at stake. Facing up to how the far right summons the Jewish religious tradition for their own ends is one of the deepest ideological ways to combat them. 

 

Endnotes:

[1]  Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[2]  Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (The Early Masters / The Later Masters) (United States: Schoken, 1991).

[3]  Martin Buber. Hasidism and Modern Man, ed Maurice Friedman (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016). 

[4]  Hayim Katsman. "Reactions Towards Jewish Radicalism. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg and Religious Zionism" in Jewish Radicalisms: Historical Perspectives on a Phenomenon of Global Modernity, ed. Frank Jacob and Sebastian Kunze, 269-298 (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2020), 269.

[5]  Motti Inbari. “Chapter 6: Yitzhak Ginzburg and “Od Yosef Chai” Yeshiva: Theocratic Messianic Revolutionism,” in Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount: Who Will Build the Third Temple? (Albany: State University of New York Press,) 160.

[6]  Noah Feldman, “Violence in the Name of the Messiah,” Bloomberg, November 1, 2015, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2015-11-01/violence-in-the-name-of-the-messiah#xj4y7vzkg

[7]  Natan Odenheimer, “The Kabbalist Who Would Be King of a New Jewish Monarchy in Israel,” Forward, October 14, 2016,  https://forward.com/news/352016/the-kabbalist-who-would-be-king-of-a-new-jewish-monarchy-in-israel/

[8]  Ibid

[9]  Yitzhak Ginsburgh, Baruch HaGever (Blessed is the Man), in Michael Ben Horin (ed.) Baruch is the Man: A Memorial Book for the Holy Dr. Baruch Goldstein, May God Avenge His Blood (Jerusalem: Medinat Yehuda, 1995), 19-47.

[10]  For a really insightful analysis of Ginsburgh’s political theology and metaphysics, check out Tessa Satherley. "The Simple Jew: The ‘Price Tag’ Phenomenon, Vigilantism, and Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s Political Kabbalah" Melilah: Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies (1759-1953) 10, no. 1 (2014): 57-91. 

[11]  Motti Inbari. “Chapter 6: Yitzhak Ginzburg and “Od Yosef Chai” Yeshiva: Theocratic Messianic Revolutionism,” in Jewish Fundamentalism, 141.

[12]  One can read about this distinction in the Tanya’s first chapter and at the beginning of its second. At the beginning of the second section, it’s written: “The second soul of a Jew is truly a part of God above.” To be clear: this idea has long roots in Kabbalistic sources that predate the rise of Hasidism. In their collection of texts, Neo-Hasidism: Roots and Branches, Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse write that “a universalism unimagined in previous decades has become possible in the early twenty-first century,” suggesting that the way to deal with these texts is to universalize them and reject these texts’ distinction about Jewish and non-Jewish souls.( Introduction, xxvi) Arthur Green has said elsewhere that this type of idea in Hasidism is “intolerable unless you universalize it.” (Lecture at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies as part of Hasidism Old and New series, 3/15/23)

[13]  For really in-depth reflections on this tension in Hasidic thought, see these two essays by Don Seeman. Don Seeman, “Violence, Ethics, and Divine Honor in Modern Jewish Thought,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 73, Issue 4, December 2005, 1015–1048 and Don Seeman, “The Anxiety of Ethics and the Presence of God” in A New Hasidism: Branches, ed. Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse, 73–104 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

[14]  Jacob Magid, “Ministers to honor rabbi who praised Hebron massacre perpetrator,” Times of Israel, August 4, 2019. https://www.timesofisrael.com/ministers-to-honor-rabbi-who-praised-hebron-massacre-perpetrator/

Zev Mishell

Zev Mishell (He/Him) is a graduate student in Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School. His research into the life and legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane won the Princeton Department of Near Eastern Studies award for best undergraduate thesis. He researches the Israeli far right, modern Jewish thought, and more recently, Midwestern regional history.

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