How to Read Hasidic Texts: A Quick Guide
Ariel Evan Mayse
Art By Judith Joseph
Learning how to read Hasidic texts is a challenging but rewarding enterprise. The following short outline is intended to help illustrate the process in a step-by-step manner.
1. Look It Up - As you read, look up the biblical verses cited throughout the text and read them in their original context. Whenever possible, do the same with the rabbinic passages or those from earlier kabbalistic sources. Try to locate the question or difficulty in the verse or story which becomes the point of departure for the homily. Then consider: How is the Hasidic teacher reinterpreting the plain-sense meaning of the passage, and to what extent does this teaching amplify preexisting elements already present?
2. Vocabulary - Hasidic books often use words and terms with specific definitions, and it’s very easy to get lost! Don’t despair. The limited vocabulary invoked by Hasidic thinkers to describe complex psychological processes and interior mystical experiences was inherited from medieval Kabbalah and philosophy. One of my teachers used to say, “Ideas ride on the back of words.” We’ll work together to develop a shared vocabulary for understanding these sources.
3. The Point - After you've read the text and are satisfied that you understand the basics of its language, think about the deeper ideas the author is trying to convey. Hasidic teachings always have a personal message meant to concretize abstract theology into spiritual practice. Similarly, what underlying question(s) is the author trying to answer? What are the tensions, contradictions, or ambiguities of this message? The Hasidic authors stand on the shoulders of many generations of Jewish thinkers (philosophers, Kabbalists, Talmudists) who have continuously engaged with the existential and spiritual questions by reinterpreting earlier sources. Hasidic texts should be read as a part of this conversation.
4. The Context - Now reflect on the source in two ways: First, try to read the text on its own terms. How might this message have sounded to its original audience, and why might it have been an appropriate teaching for that time and place?
5. Personal Reflection - Second, step back for a moment and examine it once more from a personal perspective. What do you find meaningful in its words, and what do you find challenging or difficult? What are the rifts or divergences between our world and that of the original Hasidic homily? But also, how could the spiritual and ethical issues at the forefront of the text be relevant to your own journey, and how might this source speak to the central moral, social, and philosophical struggles of our day?
6. The Big Picture - Hasidism emerged from the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, but each Hasidic teacher since then has lent their own unique voice to its theological chorus. Consider how the teachings of different Hasidic teaching compare to and contrast with one another? Do they agree on all points of theology? Do they articulate the same vision of spiritual growth and mystical experience?
7. The Teacher - As you read more teachings from a particular teacher, think about how they relate to one another. Do the teachings of a Hasidic thinker return to certain themes again and again? And how do these written teachings relate to any stories you may have heard about this figure?
8. The Event - Remember that in most cases the written text was originally a homily delivered orally in Yiddish. Hearing these sermons was a special experience for the Hasidim, and these texts are only a transcribed echo of that original event. Be mindful of this original context!
9. Teach and Translate - Think you understand? Now it's time to take one (or both) of the challenging next steps. First, teach the text to someone else! Second, try translating it, first for yourself and then for someone who wouldn't be able to read it in the original Hebrew.
Ready to try to read a Hasidic text on your own? Check out our selection HERE.
Ariel Evan Mayse
Ariel Evan Mayse joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2017 as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies, after previously serving as the Director of Jewish Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, and a research fellow at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Michigan. His current research examines the role of language in Hasidism, manuscript theory and the formation of early Hasidic literature, the renaissance of Jewish mysticism in the nineteenth and twentieth century, the relationship between spirituality and law in Jewish legal writings, and the resources of Jewish thought and theology for constructing contemporary environmental ethics.