top of page

The Reader and the Rebbe: Text Study as Relationship
in neo-Hasidism

Jonah Mac Gelfand

Dancers by Henry Rosenberg

One of my teachers often responds to our questions and

pushback by saying, “the text is in front of you just like

it’s in front of me.” But what does it mean that Hasidic

texts are in front of us at all? How are we going to study

that text? Are we engaging the text as a historian? A

seeker? A reader of fiction? A devotee? 

I would like to suggest that a neo-Hasidic way of reading

is one that sees the text as a source of wisdom with

which we want to develop a relationship. Yes, we want to

understand it from a historical-critical perspective, but

we don’t stop there — our ultimate goal is to have the

texts impact our spiritual lives. The relationship that we

seek to develop is not a static download from text to reader but is instead an active give and take between the rebbe (who manifests in the text that we can engage with) and the reader. Developing this type of relationship can act as a replacement for neo-Hasidism’s rejection of submitting to a living rebbe. After all, as Rabbi Arthur Green reminds us: “All we have left of those teachers are their books!” [1] And it is our job to find ways to integrate their wisdom into our lives.  

To model this type of relationship with the text, we will explore the experiences of four neo-Hasidic leaders. First, we will look at the relationships that Martin Buber and Arthur Green were able to develop with Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772- 1810) through the models of “later messenger” and “biographer,” respectively. Next are the relationships that Andrea Cohen-Keiner and James Jacobson-Maisels developed with Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piaseczner (1889-1943) as “translator/transmitter” and “integrator,” respectively. Where these four models diverge/intersect offers unique guidance for developing our own relationships with the texts that are in front of us. 

 

1. Later Messenger 

Reflecting on translating Rebbe Nachman’s tales, Buber describes himself “becoming freer and surer” in his willingness to modify the text as he went on. He writes that, 

 

I experienced, even in the entirely new pieces that I inserted, my unity with the spirit of Rabbi Nachman. I had found the true faithfulness: more adequate than the direct disciples, I received and completed the task, a later messenger in a foreign realm. [2]

 

This last clause is telling; Buber considered himself a “later messenger in a foreign realm.” This is to say that Buber’s engagement with Hasidism — like that of many neo-Hasidim since — was out of a belief that Hasidism contained within it gems that could be useful to Western assimilated Jews and non-Jews alike. Therefore, he restructured and represented the stories such that they would be more compelling to his non-Hasidic audience.

Scholars have already shown that many of Buber’s “translations” of Hasidic stories are in fact not faithful to his sources, but instead use their transmission as more of a foil for presenting his own theology. [3] In some ways, Buber thus acts as a ventriloquist who uses Rebbe Nachman and his stories as a model into which he can add his own thoughts. And yet it is specifically through these additions that Buber experienced becoming more connected with the soul of the deceased rebbe. He even asserted that this was a closer relationship than that of “the direct disciples”! 

As he continued his project of translating Hasidic stories throughout the rest of his life, he became ever more brazen in the changes that he made. He reflects that “the greater the independence became, so much the more deeply I experienced the faithfulness.” [4] In some sort of paradoxical way, the more Buber invested his own voice into the narratives (perhaps he would describe this as becoming “in dialogue” with them?), the more faithful he felt to the rebbe.

 

We can take from Buber’s model the confidence (audacity?) to insert ourselves into the text. If we are engaging with these texts to inform how we can live our lives, then we must let them speak to our lives. One method for doing that is finding ourselves in them. Having said that, we might also offer a corrective to Buber’s “ventriloquist” methodology by acknowledging where “what the text says” and “what we are finding in the text” diverge.

 

2. Biographer

Arthur Green’s relationship with Rebbe Nachman starts from a very different entry point but results in a surprisingly similar sentiment. His was the first academic biography of Rebbe Nachman and he describes the years he was working on it as his “attempt to stand in close proximity to Rabbi Nachman without becoming his disciple.” He reflects that “The role of biographer felt like a good vantage point from which to enter into conversation with this rebbe.” [5] He thus presents the biographer role as a method for relating to a rebbe while maintaining the distance necessitated by a liberal culture that privileges personal autonomy over submission of will.

And yet simultaneously, this is also where it becomes complicated. Green reflects that “Through studying his works and the accounts of his life, I sometimes felt as though I were interviewing a living being.” [6] He echoes a similar sentiment that his forebear Buber conveyed when he writes:

 

More than once I felt him stretching forth to reveal something of himself to me, helping me in the process of writing about him. He was doing this, of course, because he understood that as long as I was working so hard on him, he would have a chance to work on me as well. And he did. I accepted the gift of that closeness with silent gratitude; it has helped to sustain me over many years. [7]

 

It is precisely through his academic historizing of Rebbe Nachman that Green was able to permit himself to open to the spirit of Rebbe Nachman. 

When I asked Green about the difference between his role of biographer and the traditional role of devotee, he explained that his version is “wanting to understand him as a human being. Which is to say, with all his fallibilities.” He went on to say that he “tried to form … a different kind of intimacy. Which was the intimacy of biography.” [8] By seeing him more as a person and less of an infallible saint, Green was able to open himself to this closer relationship. [9] 

 

Green’s method offers us two models to follow. First, learning the historical context of the rebbe can help us to really understand what they are saying. Sometimes the radicalness of a statement is only apparent if we know about their cultural milieu. Secondly, Green teaches us that we need not let go of our modern skepticism and liberal sensibilities in order to open ourselves up to the possibility of being in relationship with these rebbes.

 

3. Translator/ Transmitter

Rabbi Andrea lives in a different stream of the neo-Hasidic world than our previous two figures. Firmly in the Jewish Renewal world, she describes her writing and teaching as for an audience that have strong understandings of psychological/spiritual language but less comfort in the original sources. Reflecting on the years that she was translating the Piaseczner Rebbe’s B'nei Machshava Tovah [10], Rabbi Andrea relayed that after she first wrote a “slavish” word-for-word translation, she received the feedback from scholar Nehemia Polen that although it was faithful to the text, she had not yet “run him through my kishkes.” [11] So, she went back and tried to figure out how to convey the Piaseczner to her Jewish Renewal peers. 

To do this, she would wake up at 4am every morning, sit at her table with the book open in front of her and ask, “what are we saying here?” This communal phrasing of “we” is a fascinating manifestation of the sentiment conveyed above about the translator’s unique relationship to the rebbe’s soul. When I pressed her on it, she said the question was not directed to the Piaseczner per say, but that she “formulated that question towards what he had written” and then would “download something… and write down what [she] heard.” She even relayed one instance of receiving what she experienced as a direct message from the rebbe. One morning during the translation process, she was holding Bnei Machshava Tovah in a moment of interpersonal tension with someone and the book “leapt out of [her] hands.” Rabbi Andrea experienced this as the Piaseczner responding to what was happening in the room and telling her it was time to end that relationship.

She described the final product of her translation as “baby bird food” that is “predigested” to make it more accessible to her audience. That meant “clean[ing] up the language a lot … [and being] a little bit vernacular in everything.” She justified this casualness by pointing towards moments in his writing where he seems to speak vernacularly, saying that “when I read him, I just wanna be in the room [with him].” [12] 

 

Rabbi Andrea teaches us how we can conceive of ourselves as in close dialogue with the text. Her sentiment of “what are WE trying to say here” shows that we are not only trying to hear what the text is saying, but we are trying to find what it is saying to US, in our time.

 

4. Integrator

All this sentiment is conveyed succinctly by Rav James Jacobson-Maisels, who is writing and teaching for a mostly Hebrew literate audience of Jewish meditators who specifically want to ground their mindfulness practice in deep engagement with Jewish texts. He uses the phrase “rebbe from a text” to describe his nontraditional relationship with the Piaseczner Rebbe. [13] Since the Piaseczner was killed by the Nazis many years before Rav James was born, a lived relationship between rebbe and hasid was not possible, and thus all that was left were the texts. [14] And instead of this “rebbe from a text” being the authoritative top-down relationship of traditional Hasidism, Rav James describes it as having 

 

organized the way I think about and approach the world in my spiritual practice. [His teachings] become mine in many ways […] I’ve developed them. I’ve changed them. Maybe [he’d] be like, ‘that’s not what I said at all!’— I have no idea. But from my perspective, I’ve sort of internalized them; integrated them into the way I view the world and the way I approach it, and the way I think about it […] From my perspective, my teaching is very much channeling [him]. [15] 

 

Rav James expands on this idea in his PhD dissertation, where he writes that to truly understand Hasidism, one must engage in what he terms a "methodology of practice." [16] This argues that to internalize a text’s spiritual teachings, the reader must explore how the practices described therein impact them. “We check our experiences and understanding against those of the text's,” he writes, “seeing if they help us make better sense of the text or not." [17] Thus the line between the text and the practice blurs, [18] and we learn that “performing the practices described in texts can dramatically enhance our understanding of these texts.” [19]

Thus the “internalizing” is not merely a cognitive understanding of what the text says but is an applied “living out” (or at least “trying on”) of the practices or mindsets laid out in the text. It is not enough to ask, ‘what does this text mean?’ Rather, you must ask ‘how does this text impact my lived experience in the world?’

 

Rav James offers the final point: these texts are most useful when internalized and incorporated into your life. They were not written to be merely studied, but to be a framework for living. So, if we want to develop a substantive relationship with the text, we must try on what they describe.

 

Give and Take:

If we borrow Buber’s classic theological language of “I and Thou,” we must ask: what does it mean to learn the book as a Thou, rather than as an It? Steven Kepnes explains that doing this means not only encountering it and affecting it, but having it confront and affect you. Kepnes explains that it 

 

…requires us to face the work as we face another being. We open our senses to it, to its particularities and to its total [whole]. We allow it to move us, to confront us, to speak to us. We try to perceive its special message and disclosure of reality. And we also respond to it. [20]

 

Thus our “rebbe from the text” relationship is not only one of submitting ourselves to its wisdom, but of learning the teachings deeply and internalizing them such that they change us, and we change them. We saw this in Buber’s “faithfulness” manifesting in his willingness to change texts, in Art’s “work and be worked” mentality, and in Rabbi Andrea’s asking of “what are we trying to say here?” Finally, Rav James taught us that sometimes this internalization diverges from the original intent of the author and to have that creative right one must “try on” their teachings. And this is precisely what makes it a neo-Hasidic way of reading: the goal is to uncover fodder for our spiritual lives, not submit ourselves fully to its authority. Our role is to respond to the texts that are in front of us.

And one part of our generation’s response to the texts should be an acknowledgement that although a “rebbe from the text” is static, a reader is anything but. And although the rebbe assumed a certain identity from the reader (most specifically, maleness), our neo-Hasidism strives for a more diverse readership that acknowledges that unique positionalities provide unique readings and that no two readers will read the rebbe in the same way. By increasing the diversity of responses to the text, we only add kindling to the fire of meaning that burns from its pages. 

And yet another part of our “give and take” must also be the humility to “take”: to assume a student’s role in relation to the text. We are not reading in the university. There is no illusion or intention of “scholarly objectivity.” There is a place for that. And as Green showed us, sometimes it can support our learning. But our goal is the spiritual, and the scholarly is a tool to reach that goal. While we do not submit our will to the text fully, we do uplift it as a unique source of wisdom. 

And we learn into having a relationship with the text. [21] It is through our studies that we get closer to the rebbe. Our learning is not merely out of a longing to know what the sources say (although we obviously want that to), but out of a longing for a connection. And when we attain it, our relationship to the text is loving, but it is not casual. Similarly, it is revered, but not idealized. We permit ourselves to be in a “give and take” with it, while acknowledging where our readings start and what’s actually written ends. 

And how do we practically obtain that relationship? First off, we must start learning. Find one rebbe who you are drawn to and get your hands on their book. Find someone to learn it with. Really spend time with it. Just like with a human relationship, quality time is a primary love language. Then walk through our four models above. Try to find yourself in the text. Learn about the rebbe’s historical context to understand how they might have been thinking. Share the teachings with other people. And try to integrate it into your life. The most meaningful relationships should change how you walk through the world. 

But first things first, you need the text in front of you. 
 

Endnotes:

[1] Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table (Volume 1), ed. Arthur Green, Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse, and Or N. Rose (Woodstock, VT, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), xvi.

[2] Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, trans. Maruice Frriedman (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2015), 62. Emphasis mine.

[3] For one such example, see Sam Berrin Shonkoff, “Sacramental Existence: Embodiment in Martin Buber’s Philosophical and Hasidic Writings” (PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2019).

[4] Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, 62

[5] Arthur Green, “A Rebbe for Our Age?: Bratslav and Neo-Bratslav in Israel Today”, A New Hasidism: Branches ed. Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 372.

[6] Green, “A Rebbe for Our Age?” 372-373.

[7] Green, “A Rebbe for Our Age?” 373.

[8] Rabbi Arthur Green, personal interview with the author, June 8, 2021. This was originally conducted for the author's Master’s research at Graduate Theological Union.

[9] This understanding of Rebbe Nachman might have informed Green’s own neo-Hasidic leadership style, wherein he refuses to be uplifted to a infallible rebbe figure and instead becomes charismatic by virtue of how he is imperfect. For more on the neo-Hasidic preference for fallible leadership, see Jonah Mac Gelfand, “Fellow Travellers Along the Path”: Charismatic Fallibility in Neo-Hasidic Leadership,” Arc: The Journal of the School of Religious Studies, McGill University, Vol. 50 (2022).

[10] Conscious Community: A Guide to Inner Work, trans. Andrea Cohen-Kiener (Maryland: Jason Aronson, 1999).

[11] Personal conversation with Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, February 22, 2023.

[12] Personal conversation with Cohen-Kiener.

[13] Personal interview with Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, Aug. 30th, 2021. This was originally conducted for the author's Master’s research at Graduate Theological Union and some of this content was first published in Jonah Gelfand, “Finding Egalitarianism in a neo-Hasidic Reading of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov,” Berkeley Journal of Religion and Theology Volume 8, Issue 1.

[14] This move to hold up the text as a replacement (or at least placeholder) for the rebbe can perhaps first be found in its articulation by R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi in the introduction to Likkutei Amarim Tanya, where he writes: “no longer will one need to press for a private audience [with the rebbe], for in these Likkutei Amarim, one will find tranquility for their soul and true counsel on everything that they find difficult in the service of G-d.” [Schneur Zalman, Lessons in Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, trans. Nissan Mindel. 10th ed. vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Kehot Publication Society, 2017), 27.]

[15] Personal interview with Jacobson-Maisels. Emphasis mine.

[16] James Maisels, “The Self and Self-Transformation in the Thought and Practice of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira” (PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2014), 84.

[17] Maisels, “The Self and Self-Transformation,” 114.

[18] Maisels, “The Self and Self-Transformation,” 119.

[19] Maisels, “The Self and Self-Transformation,” 90.

[20] Steven D. Kepnes, The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 25. Emphasis mine.

[21] This phrasing was used by Rabbi Ebn Leader in a personal interview, June 14, 2021. This was originally conducted for the author's Master’s research at Graduate Theological Union.

Jonah Mac Gelfand

Jonah Mac Gelfand (he/him) is the co-founder/editor of Gashmius Magazine. He got his Masters in Jewish Studies from the Graduate Theological Union, where his research focused on neo-Hasidic leadership. He has spent time studying at Yeshivat Hadar and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and will be starting his first year at Hebrew College Rabbinical School this fall. He has been published by Tikkun Magazine, the Lehrhaus, and Hey Alma, and his academic research has been published in McGill University's The Arc, The Berkeley Journal of Religion and Theology, and the UCLA Journal of Religion.

bottom of page