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What is Hasidism?
What is neo-Hasidism?

Gashmius Staff

In the mid-18th century, in the impoverished Jewish

communities of what is now Ukraine, a spiritual revolution

was brewing.

Centered around an enigmatic preacher and healer named Reb Israel ben Eliezer, or the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the

Good Name, often referred to by the acronym BeShT), this revolution became the religious movement known as Hasidism, which soon spread across Eastern Europe, attracting adherents to its populist presentation of mystical piety.

Central to Hasidism’s vision is the idea that God can—and must—be found everywhere, in every creature, place, and  moment of existence. As written in the Zohar, the central text of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, leit atar panui minei, “no place is devoid of Divine presence.” This claim became central to the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, and to the practices and theologies his followers developed. 

One of his parables tells: “A certain king built himself a castle fortified with countless walls, partitions, and gates. At each gate, by command of the king, treasures and gold were distributed freely to pilgrims, increasing in bounty as the gates became more inward and closer to the king. Many such petitioners who came to see the king accepted such riches readily at the outer gates and, delighted, set off on their way. A few persistent souls, however, burning with desire to see the king himself, ignored the proffered treasure and, after many travails, came into the presence of the king himself. Once in the royal presence, each one suddenly saw, as if a veil had lifted, that all the walls and partitions presented only an illusion of separation. The walls themselves were the very substance and essence of the king.” [1]

God’s perceived absence and distance are only an illusion, according to this parable. Even those boundaries which seem to separate divinity from particular beings are none other than divinity itself. As a popular children’s song in the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement goes, “HaShem is here, HaShem is there, HaShem is truly everywhere.” Every Hasidic insight can be traced back to the fundamental claim that “HaShem is truly everywhere.”

If all of creation is a manifestation of Divinity, then everything, even what is seemingly mundane or seemingly awful, could be uplifted to holiness. The worship of God could take place through even the basest physical activity when that activity was undertaken with a holy kavannah (intention) and with a simple simcha (joy). Contrary to the ascetic piety that has been in vogue at various times among Jewish mystics, the BeShT taught that serving God through joy was in fact among the highest religious values.


This inclusive approach to religious practice was called avodah b’gashmius, (worship in corporeality), and it saw every aspect of human experience as an arena for the loftiest spiritual labor. Suddenly nothing was too mundane to be a sacred manifestation of the Divine. As the Ba’al Shem Tov wrote, every object, however lowly, “contains holy ‘sparks’ that relate to the very root of your soul…. When using some thing or eating food, therefore, even if you did so only to fulfill your bodily needs, you elevate those ‘sparks.’ A person, therefore, must be concerned about his objects and everything he has, because of the holy sparks they contain.” [2]

In classic Hasidic fashion, these heady ideas are perhaps better communicated through a story: 

The great Rebbe Levi Yisthak of Berditchev notices a coachman in tallis and tefillin leave his house and head towards his carriage. To the rebbe’s surprise, he begins going through the morning prayers while greasing the wheels of his carriage. Is it right that a person should be engaged in such mundane activity while speaking holy words? Let alone get grease on their holy garments?! And yet, the rebbe does not chastise the man. He does not embarrass him. Instead, he just smiles. He turns his head to heaven and says “Look at Your people, G-d of Israel. What does this man do while working on his cart? He prays. Can you imagine a people who has You so completely in its thoughts?” [3]

For the Hasidic teachers, everything in existence is a manifestation of divinity, and thus contains holy sparks waiting to be reunited to their only seemingly separate source in God; these sparks, and the work of elevating them to Divinity, are accessible to every person in every moment of their lives. This idea had far-reaching consequences for Hasidic practices and theologies.

One such consequence was the relative democratization of Jewish mysticism. Through its emphasis on corporeal worship within the mundanities of everyday life, Hasidism took Judaism’s esoteric traditions out of the exclusive province of the highly educated rabbinic elite, and transferred them into the sphere of the Jewish masses.

A second consequence was the rereading of Torah, and of the Jewish mystical lineage, through a psycho-spiritual lens. No longer did the Torah describe only actions that took place centuries ago, or abstruse cosmological processes interpreted through the doctrines of Kabbalah. Now the text of the Torah, and the esoteric teachings of Jewish mystical traditions, were also understood to portray the psycho-spiritual processes occurring in every person.

The Exodus from Egypt, for example, described not only the ancient Israelites leaving slavery in Egypt, but also individuals liberating themselves from the psychic slavery of fear, delusion, doubt, and shame. In the words attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and a profound Hasidic teacher in his own right, “The Exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year, and in every day.”

By the mid-19th century, Hasidism was a dominant form of Jewish religious life in Eastern Europe, as Hasidic teachers spread their revolutionary ideas and practices and attracted new disciples who sought a less elitist path of embodied mysticism. And yet this egalitarian impulse did not extend beyond the realm of the theological, and the place of women in this new movement was left largely unliberated. The specifics of this exclusion will be discussed further in Jericho Vincent’s article. 

Similarly, contemporary Hasidism is usually known more for its conservatism and insularity than for the radical spirituality of these early generations. This turn towards traditionalism was undertaken by both the Hasidim and their opponents (known to this day as the misnagdim, opponents) by the early 20th century in response to a modern trend they agreed was much more dangerous: the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment). Whereas the establishment originally disliked the Hasidic disposition towards what they saw as frivolity and laxity, the Hasidism still fully  observed halakha (Jewish law). The new Enlightenment movement from the West threatened to upend the entire Jewish social order through secularizing assimilation, and the Hasidim and misnagdim banded together to form the bloc that we now call “haredi” or sometimes “ultra-orthodoxy.”

Yet, in the early 20th century, as many Hasidic sects began to ossify around these hierarchical social structures and reactionary responses to modernity’s upheavals, a new approach to Hasidic teachings began to develop. This approach rejected insularity and conservatism, but was reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It recognized the spiritual value in Hasidus, and began to explore Hasidic teachings from perspectives outside traditional Hasidic societies.

This loose movement became known as Neo-Hasidism, and its adherents have spent the last century playing in the fruitful tension of how best to honor its spiritual forebears while divesting from those aspects of their world views which do not align with a more universalist ideology. Rabbi Nancy Flam justifies this “outsider” engagement by simply stating that ​​“Hasidism is an inheritance for the entire Jewish people.” [4]

So what exactly is neo-Hasidism, and where does Gashmius position itself in this heritage?


What is Neo-Hasidism?

Gashmius understands “neo-Hasidism” to be a big tent. As we see it, “neo-Hasidic” can refer to anyone who is not sociologically part of a Hasidic community, but who nevertheless engages with the texts, practices, and/or traditions of Hasidism. This is predicated on a belief in the value of Hasidic spirituality, and simultaneously on a disagreement with many of Hasidic community’s traditional values. “Of course, neo-Hasidic readings of Hasidic sources are selective and creative,” writes Rabbi Ariel Evan Mayse (who is featured later in this journal). He goes on:

Certain elements of the Hasidic tradition are amplified, whereas others are ignored or actively rejected. For example, Hasidic attitudes toward gender, secular thought, and non-Jews are consciously rejected or heavily reinterpreted. Most expressions of neo-Hasidism have included elements of universalism, for these writers have long envisioned a reawakening of Jewish life that will inspire a similar revival of the spirit among the rest of humanity. They see the legacy of Hasidism and the wisdom of Jewish spirituality as too expansive and valuable a treasure to be restricted to the Jewish people alone. But neo-Hasidic writers and teachers also display their creativity by linking Hasidic and non-Hasidic texts together in new ways, and by translating traditional terms or concepts expansively, such that they speak to modern issues of the spirit and existential meaning. Neo-Hasidism may thus be described as an interpretative moment; it is a mode of reading texts through “Hasidic” eyes, through a lens of devotional or spiritual engagement. [5]


The origins of this brand of neo-Hasidism can be traced to such diverse places as the theological writings of the pre-war journalist and mystic Hillel Zeitlin, the philosophy of Martin Buber, and the Yiddish stories of I.L. Peretz, but this movement received new lifeblood in the post-Shoah spiritual revolution of the American sixties and seventies. Figures like Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Green, and (the problematic and abusive, yet influential) Shlomo Carlebach [6], as well as the youth-led movements of Jewish Renewal and Havurah, crafted a Judaism in their own image that was empowering and spiritual. Although the original leaders and communities of neo-Hasidism often maintained patriarchal leadership structures, they were integral in the first steps of taking down both real and symbolic mechitzas, work which their students and students’ students have continued to deepen.

Central to this new image of Judaism was a complication, or outright rejection, of submitting oneself to the authority of a rebbe. Acknowledging the potential danger and real harm that this type of hierarchical relationship has caused, modern neo-Hasidism prefers instead to draw the best from diverse Hasidic schools and from many Hasidic leaders. This pick-and-choose mentality could be seen as appropriative—and perhaps it is— but we prefer to align ourselves with Flam’s assertion that we are playing in the sandbox that is our heritage, and therefore our birthright includes reinterpretation. The avenues and degrees by which this reinterpretation occurs vary among different neo-Hasidim and over time.

It is also important to note that to describe neo-Hasidism as a “neo-Hasidic movement” at all is to group together disparate strands of thought and widely varying communities. Neo-Hasidic tendencies can be found all across the spectrum of Jewish identity—from Reform to Orthodox to non-denominational and beyond. The only unifying factor is our seeing Hasidism as an essential treasure trove of Jewish spirituality from which to draw. And yet, we insist on maintaining our position outside of lived Hasidic communities.

“We come to modernity as full participants in the modern and postmodern world,” says Mayse’s teacher and neo-Hasidic pioneer, Rabbi Arthur Green. “But we come with this very deep rerooting in those essential values. ‘Avodat ha-Shem— we are here to serve the One.” [7] Just like traditional Hasidism, neo-Hasidism holds the cultivation of spiritual life as its primary mission, but asserts that it will use all the tools at its disposal to live it, including influence from other faith traditions and the secular world. Jewish scholar Shaul Magid describes this neo-Hasidism as “explore[-ing the] material outside its own claims,” in an effort to enable “it to speak to contemporary issues and concerns” [8] and that is much of what Gashmius will attempt to do in the following pages.

We know that this explanation for neo-Hasidism was much shorter than that for Hasidism—and that both were anything but exhaustive. For those who are interested, our further reading lists can help fill out more of the specifics around history and development of these two movements. Additionally, our neo-Hasidic starter pack contains hours of podcasts and videos from top scholars and rabbis about how Hasidism and Jewish spirituality are applicable by the broader world. 

We hope that this journal can be a place where neo-Hasidic history can be traced, and where a neo-Hasidic future—or at least part of it—can be imagined. In these pages you will explore the diverse contours of how Hasidism can inform a progressive, Jewish religious life. 

First, Sam S.B. Shonkoff shares a homily exploring what it means to remain fresh and open at every moment in our spiritual lives. Jericho Vincent provides a framework for engaging with this patriarchal system while holding onto feminist values. David Seidenberg explores the difference between understanding the holiness in the world to be in a state of “gestation” versus a state of “imprisonment”—and the environmental implications of these metaphors. Eva Sturm-Gross pulls us out of the world of text through a beautiful comic re-telling of a Hasidic story of Malka of Belz. Diving into the Talmud, Laynie Soloman explores an understanding of halakha (Jewish observance) that does not depend on nationalism, and instead understands that everywhere Jews are Jew-ing is a place of holiness. The work of three poets–Aviya Kushner, Yehoshua November, and Jake Marmer–follows. Lastly, Ariel Evan Mayse provides a simple (but not easy) step-by step guide for learning Hasidic texts.

We hope you will join us on this adventure of neo-Hasidic learning and spirituality. We want to hear from you, and eagerly invite your participation in this magazine. What do you think about neo-Hasidism and progressive Jewish spirituality? What teachings, art, ideas, and questions do you have to share? Please consider this an invitation to submit your work to Gashmius.


This is your journal; read, share, write, and respond.


We can’t wait to hear from you.


[1]  Translated/adapted from Toldot Yaakov Yosef by R James Jacobson Maisels

[2] Tzavaat HaRivash 109. See David Seidenberg’s essay in this volume for more on this.

[3]  For one neo-Hasidic telling of this tale, see Elie Weisel, Souls on Fire, 89.

[4]  Nancy Flam, “Training the Heart and Mind toward Expansive Awareness: A Neo-Hasidic Journey” in A New Hasidism: Branches, eds. Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2019), 246.


[6]  (Content Warning: Sexual Assault) For the expose of his abuses, see Sarah Blustain, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side” in Lilith Magazine, March 9, 1998. Accessed HERE.  For scholarship exploring his current reception, see Sarah Imhoff, “Carlebach and the Unheard Stories,” American Jewish History 100.4 (2016).

[7] Arthur Green’s comments in Jordan Schuster, “A Closing Conversation with the Editors,” in A New Hasidism: Branches, eds. Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2019), 429.

[8]  Shaul Magid, Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism (Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2019), xxxvii.

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