Open Orthodox Symposium IV

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A Radical Theology and a Traditional Community: On the Contemporary Application of Izbica-Lublin Hasidut in the Jewish Community

by David Bashevkin

A Controversial Introduction and Introducing Controversy

The specter of misinterpretation of Izbica Hasidut was already clear in 1860 with its first published work, the Mei ha-Shiloah. When introducing his grandfather’s published work, R. Gershon Henoch Leiner appended a brief note which includes the following caution, “Though I am aware that in a number of instances the words of the Mei ha-Shiloah are difficult for the untrained ear to bear, I have only gathered his teaching for the sake of our intimates who understand their true value.”1 Aside from this acknowledgement, scholars have pointed out several other controversial curiosities that marked the publication of Mei ha-Shiloah. As noted by Morris Faierstein, the pioneering scholar of Izbica Hasidut, unlike most other Hasidic works, Mei ha-Shiloah was published without rabbinic approbations and was printed by Anton della Torre, a non-Jewish printer.2 Some even report copies of the Mei ha-Shiloah being burnt.3 The significance of some of these perceived controversies has rightfully been questioned,4 but the existence of elements within the Hasidic tradition of Izbica that can be misunderstood and misapplied cannot be denied.

What follows is a brief presentation of the history and ideology of Izbica Hasidut. For that, however, we stand on the generous shoulders of giants who have given this strand of Hasidut, the attention it deserves. My contribution, I hope, will be a consideration of the parameters in which Izbica’s radical theology can be applied within the contemporary Orthodox community. More specifically, how was their theology intended to be applied, how is it actually applied, and how should it be applied? These considerations will shed light on R. Gershon Henoch’s request that his grandfather’s Torah only be shared with the intimate members of the community who can appreciate their value.

First, some historical background is in order.5 Izbica Hasidut was a tripartite revolution, emerging from the revolutionary world of Przysucha, which in turn was predicated on the Hasidic revolution initiated by R. Israel Baal Shem Tov (c. 1700-1760). Although scholars have struggled to define what made the movement of the Baal Shem Tov innovative, and in fact whether it can be considered a movement at all, such precise historical definition is not necessary for our purposes. Instead, we will rely on the simple characterization of their movement by Michael Rosen, who describes the revolution of the Baal Shem Tov as a “God-intoxicated people – who felt a sense of God’s energy in everything.”6 The ‘movement’ of the Baal Shem Tov spread by means of his disciple, R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch who brought the teaching of Hasidut to, among other eminent disciples, R. Elimelech of Lyzhansk (1717-1787). This iteration of Hasidic teaching supported the spiritual needs of the commoners by establishing the ‘zaddik’ as the spiritual center of the community. Through the efforts of a zaddik, those with more quotidian spiritual sensibilities could still connect to otherwise inaccessible loftier metaphysical realms.7 The shift towards a zaddik-centered community reached its peak within the Hasidic court of R. Elimelech’s disciple, R. Jacob Isaac, known as the Chozeh (trans: Seer) of Lublin (1745-1815). As his sobriquet suggests, the court of the “the Chozeh” saw the centrality of the zaddik further elevated to mystical, nearly prophetic, levels. The ascension of the zaddik in the court of “the Chozeh” marked the apex of the first revolution in Hasidic history and neatly laid the groundwork for the next: The individualistic emphasis in the Hasidic court of Przysucha.

In contrast to the prophetic undertones of “the Chozeh,” the leader of the Przysucha revolution, R. Jacob Isaac Rabinowcz (1766-1813), became known simply as “the Yid Hakadosh” – “the Holy Jew.” In Przysucha, spiritual experience did not have the miracle-working zaddik or the royal Rebbe at its center, but rather the individualistic journey and discovery of each Hasid.8 R. Simha Bunim (1765-1827), the famed successor of the Yid Hakadosh, who possessed a remarkably cultured background, further developed the Przysucha program, which has been rightfully characterized as placing “the supreme value of personal authenticity”9 at its center. Following the death of R. Simha Bunim, the movement of authenticity gravitated towards R. Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859), known as the Kotzker, whose Hasidic court focused on the importance of truth and internal honesty.10 And from this world emerged the revolt most relevant to our discussion: the Hasidic court of Izbica.

The Hasidic court of Izbica was created on Simchat Torah in 1839 when, dramatically and mysteriously, R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner left Kotzk to establish his own community. A range of explanations have been posed as to why R. Mordechai Yosef left Kotzk, but the eschatological import of the year was likely a factor.11 R. Mordechai Yosef led the Hasidic community of Izbica until his passing in 1854. A reformation from the individualistic revolution perpetuated in Kotzk, which in turn was a response to the initial leader-centric Hasidut, Izbica Hasidut continues to have innovative and radical implications within the Jewish community.

Aside from its founder, R. Mordechai Yosef, who are the primary personalities who fashioned the theology of Izbica? For our discussion, there are three leaders who merit special attention: R. Yaakov Leiner (1818-1878),12 R. Gershon Henoch Leiner (1839-1891)13 and R. Zadok of Lublin (1823-1900).14 Following the passing of R. Mordechai Yosef, the court of Izbica amicably divided into two parts. One community remained in Izbica and was led by R. Mordechai Yosef’s son, R. Yaakov, and afterwards by his son R. Gershon Henoch, who moved the Hasidut to Radzyn. The other community, initially led by R. Leible Eiger (1816-1888),15 respective son and grandson of the famed Lithuanian rabbinic leaders R. Shlomo and R. Akiva Eiger, moved to Lublin where, following R. Leible’s passing, it was led by R. Zadok HaKohen Rabinowitz. Though each of the aforementioned leaders certainly had their own unique style and approach to the radical elements of Izbica theology, together they comprise the essential intellectual legacy of this profound Hasidic movement.

To be sure, each of these thinkers differed significantly, particularly regarding the presentation of the more controversial elements of the theology that receive the most attention and have been most questionably applied. Still, for our purposes, we will discuss their school of thought holistically, referring to a general Hasidic school of Izbica-Lublin. We will stay mindful of each individual’s unique approach, but our focus is more on its current application than the important theological distinctions that can be drawn between each thinker within the legacy of Izbica-Lublin.

Before examining the theology and its current applications, another important caveat bears mentioning. Anytime an author isolates some controversial aspect of a larger Hasidic corpus for examination you should be suspicious. This has almost become an academic-Hasidic Heisenberg principle: the narrow focus on controversy within a larger body of work can overly sensationalize or even alter the rightful context of the Hasidic idea under consideration. As nicely stated by Wiskind-Elper, “[w]hile identifying provocative, even iconoclastic thought is an important scholarly pursuit…it risks obscuring a larger picture.” In many respects, the following will be overtly guilty of violating this warning. I hope that this acknowledgement will mitigate, however much, the potential for misunderstanding and remain faithful to intent of these works.

Dangers of Determinism

Explaining the essential source of controversy within Izbica-Lublin Hasidut is fairly simple; the complexity lies in how these controversial ideas should be applied. The controversy stems from the re-purposing of the Talmudic phrase, “All is in the hand of heaven, except for the fear of heaven,” wherein Izbica Hasidut the refrain is decidedly found “All is in the hands of heaven, including the fear of heaven.”16 This raises the old problem, both in general philosophy and specifically in Hasidic thought, of determinism. The reason this seemingly deterministic formulation is so controversial is because it can be understood to pave the way towards antinomianism, the abrogation of the law. As neatly presented by Fairstein:

There is an inherent danger in Mordecai Joseph’s teaching that the purpose of the mitzvoth is to bring man to an awareness that all is in the hands of God. For example, is the person who has already attained this level of understanding still required to fulfill the obligations imposed by the commandments?17

Or, as presented by R. Herzl Hefter, “beyond a doubt, from the Orthodox perspective, we have here a potentially dangerous doctrine of radical Divine immanence which at times justifies antinomian behavior.”18 If all action and thought derives from God, can sin be deemed an appropriate religious expression?

The allure of antinomianism within Izbica thought was acknowledged by its leaders. Several biblical and Talmudic personalities are explained within Izbica Hasidut as mistaking the doctrine of divine immanence with an allowance (or even encouragement) of antinomian behavior. Of note are the stories of Adam and Eve, Korach, the death of the sons of Aaron, the nation of Amalek, Pinchas’s confrontation with Zimri, and the heresy of the Talmudic sage Acher,19 all of which are stories that are re-imagined as cautionary tales in properly negotiating between a personal spiritual intuition invested with divine significance and the antinomian tendencies that can arise from such an intuition. Each of these personalities were left to grapple with the question that if, indeed, the personal revelations I experience are also part of God’s will, then how should I respond when my intuition conflicts with God’s will as expressed by the Torah?

While the theological rationale for positing such a radical conception of divine immanence varies among the different leaders within Izbica-Lublin, with R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner appealing to
internal religious phenomenology20 and R. Zadok grounding this conception in Lurianic kabbalistic doctrine,21 the normative world they construct is still decidedly halakhic. In fact, no one, scholar or Hasid, disputes the halakhic nature of Izbica life giving cause for many writers to wonder why this radical theology gave rise to such a traditional community.

Radical Theology in a Traditional Community

In his 2006 review of Magid’s work on the theology of R. Gershon Henoch Leiner, J.H. Chajes, concludes with the following observation and question:

Many readers will want to know more about the contexts in which these fascinating texts were written and read. After all, texts are not radical only in relation to previous texts; they are (or are not) radical in relation to their readers. What is radical to one community is a given to another. We cannot fully understand these texts, then, without knowing more about the Izbica/Radzin community and how this community received (and lived by?) them. What did it mean to be a part of an ultra-Orthodox community led by “soft antinomian” masters who granted individuals the authority to act outside the law?22

The importance of this question, particularly in relation to contemporary trends in the modern Orthodox community, cannot be understated. Essentially, Chajes is noting a dissonance of sorts between a radical theology and what he, rightfully assumes is a traditional community. Were the deterministic notions, and the related antinomian potential, manifest in the Izbica community? And, if not, why not?

Regarding the former question, there is little disagreement. The Izbica community and its associated communities in Radzyn and Lublin were quite halakhic. This, no doubt, relates to the clear allegiance to the traditional life actually lived by the hasidic leaders of the community. R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, we are told, was careful to tie his shoes according to the procedure laid out in Shulchan Aruch.23 R. Zadok of Lublin authored two volumes of responsa known as Tiferet Zvi, but any vestiges of his radical theology are nowhere to be found in his halakhic analyses or conclusions. Even R. Gershon Henoch, whose initiatives have been viewed by many as the most radical, never relied on extra-halakhic theological considerations to justify new halakhic norms.24

As noted, the radical theology of Izbica, and in many cases of Hasidut in general, has been embraced by new-age movements that do not associate with the mainstream Orthodox community. Magid writes:

It is therefore no surprise that contemporary Jewish Renewal, a movement that, in effect, combines liberal religious critique, neo-Sabbatean religious reform, and Hasidic pietism, views itself as the spiritual inheritor of these Hasidic texts. While one can certainly argue whether and to what extent these reformers are accurately reading and interpreting these texts, it is certainly the case that these texts at least lend themselves to be read in such an expansive fashion.25

Recently, however, the radical theology of Izbica in particular, has received new calls for consideration in forming policy within the Orthodox community. Most vocally, R. Herzl Hefter has invoked the thought of Izbica as a framework to consider a more progressive approach to Biblical criticism26 as well as a basis for the ordination of women.27 The halakhic and theological issues associated with each of these important issues have been discussed by many and fall far beyond the scope of this article. However, as it relates to Izbica theology, it is important to note that Hefter’s views are a clear departure from his earlier well-reasoned presentations of the boundaries Izbica theology. In his 2013 article, which successfully presents a “balanced and more complete picture of the thought of R. Mordechai Yosef of Izbica,” he cautions those who want to recast Izbica thought as a license for radical innovation by exclusively focusing on passages “which lend themselves to convenient interpretations and theological headlines.” Instead, he concludes that “[i]n the weltanschauung of the MH (Mei HaShiloah), the fear of Heaven as embodied in halakhic observance is a condicio sine qua non for the attainment of any form of spiritual perfection and consciousness of the Divine.” This is a far cry from his more recent writing which invokes the clarification, or beirur, of subjective spiritual intuition as a basis for halakhic innovation.28

Though the aforementioned examples regarding biblical criticism and women’s ordination may be more prominent, the use of Izbica-Lublin to justify Orthodox communal innovation is not new. While it is rarely in print and it does not always single out Izbica-Lublin in particular, Hasidic thought has long been seen as a more welcoming proof-text with which to consider progressive practice. Izbica-Lublin Hasidut is seen as particularly fertile textual ground on which to advocate for constructing new communal boundaries and structures. Sexual orientation,29 feminist theory,30 and secular education31 are just some of the very important modern issues in which Izbica-Lublin Hasidut has been applied. My concern is not to interpose my views on any of these important policy discussions, but rather to consider how Izbica-Lublin in particular, and Hasidic theology in general,32 are marshalled and applied in these contexts.

Though Izbica leaders did not advocate for progressive halakhic innovations, this does not necessarily discount invoking their texts as support. Within the thought of Izbica-Lublin itself there is ample precedent for invoking texts regardless of the actual authorial intent. R. Zadok especially acknowledged that the interpretations of texts that have become of a part of the collective Jewish canon are no longer beholden to the initial intent of the author. Nonetheless, even given R. Zadok’s relatively progressive views on revelation and free-will, he was still quite forceful in his objections to halakhic interpretations that fell outside of the pale of rabbinic consensus. Aside from his conservative approach to Halakha, evident from his responsa, one of the most emphatic criticisms in his writings was regarding Abarbanel’s controversial view about the authorship of the book of Joshua. Though it is from his pre-Hasidic period, his words bear consideration as they relate to current invocations of his theology and school of thought. He writes:

Behold, I am not destructive, because I am justified in my anger at [Abarbanel]. He forgot with whom he was speaking, thinking that he was addressing his friends with whom he studied in school and could push off their questions with simple words just as one pushes off an ordinary person. He forgot that it is with the Sages, the masters of the Talmud, whose every word is like a flaming coal…33

Communal innovators, however justified, would do well to consider this reminder; lest we forget with whom we are speaking when we cast aside halakhic processes in favor of personal revelations. At the very least, a more honest invocation of Izbica theology in the call for halakhic innovation would acknowledge the marked departure from the original intent of the author.

Contemporary innovations aside, we are still left with one of our original questions, namely, what accounts for the dissonance between Izbica theology and practice? Magid emphasizes the importance of this question, though he admits that it remains unresolved:

The question that looms large above all of the previous scholarly studies in Hasidism in general and Izbica/Radzin in particular is how and why these radical thinkers were able to remain within the halakhic tradition and not take the route of Sabbateans, who either repudiated the radical antinomian doctrines of Sabbatei Sevi and Nathan of Gaza and became reabsorbed into traditional communities or, like the Frankists, abandoned Judaism altogether.34

Three important distinctions have been made. First, as Brill points out, much of the conservatism of early Izbica-Lublin Hasidut is a product of their historical context. The more radical applications of Hasidut in everyday life only flourished as a rejection of the “bourgeois morality in the 1930s.” In this view, subversive extra-halakhic notions only emerged when “the traditional way of life began to break down in confrontation with the libertine secular life of the cities.”35

Hefter presents two additional considerations. The first assumes that the conservative lifestyle within Izbica Hasidut was a public policy consideration. As Hefter writes, “The mass awareness of ‘All is in the hands of Heaven’ would be detrimental to the stability of the community, which requires normative behavior by its members.” This “conspiracy theory” approach is belied in most respects by the publication of Mei HaShiloah. Even given its introductory cautionary note, to which we will return, if the leaders of Izbica wanted to withhold these ideas from the masses they surely should not have published them. Censorship in order to prevent misinterpretation was actually employed in the publication of R. Zadok’s works,36 but, nonetheless, the Izbica notion of ‘All is in the Hands of Heaven’ was still cleared for publication.

A second consideration presented by Hefter, quoting Magid, attributes cognitive dissonance to R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner. Hefter writes, “perhaps the MH was simply ‘too frum,’ that is to say, in the end he was emotionally unwilling to countenance in practice the far-reaching ramifications of his doctrines.”37 This suggestion also seems untenable. Aside from casting R. Mordechai Yosef as lacking the courage of his convictions, it doesn’t seem to have a historical basis. R. Mordechai Yosef had already been ostracized by much of mainstream Polish Hasidic leadership for his theology. Why would he shy away from embracing the full implications of his beliefs? It seems more likely that the radical interpretations which seem to create a contradiction between R. Mordechai Yosef’s actions and his beliefs are the creation of the modern reader.

Instead, I would like to present other frameworks for considering the question of the divide between Izbica theology and practice. My chief concern is not resolving this particular historical question, but rather how addressing this question can provide some perspective on incorporating the theologically rich, and oftentimes radical, aspects of Izbica Hasidut into the contemporary Orthodox community.

The Floor and the Ceiling

Religious life has both a floor and a ceiling. The ceiling is built upon the ideals and values we reach towards, which we may never attain. The floor, however, is the framework and perspective with which we deal with failure and those still mired in sin. Much of religious life is spent vacillating somewhere in the middle. The more radical deterministic elements of Izbica-Lublin can provide cushion and comfort on the floor of Judaism without altering the ceiling. Sometimes, when religious life feels closer to the floor, there may be a feeling that Godliness and spiritual meaning is unattainable. It is here that Izbica theology is most instructive, reminding us that “Wherever a Jew may fall, he falls into the lap of God.”38

Applying a deterministic theology as a retrospective means of making spiritual sense of religious failure can be done without insisting on a deterministic perspective that undermines the ideals we are working towards.39 For instance, the encouragement and strategies we develop for someone struggling with the Halakhic observance of Shabbat, need not become the ideal way in which we present Shabbat observance. Failure and sin may indeed both be intractable parts of religious life, but the theological means with which we soften our ‘floor’ doesn’t have to become the theological ends with which we secure our ‘ceiling.’ The communal world of Izbica-Lublin likely remained traditional because they adapted this distinction in applying their radical theology.

A fascinating presentation on the need for an aspirational ceiling in Judaism, despite the failures and inconsistencies of those on the floor, is given by R. Elliot Cosgrove. R. Cosgrove, a Conservative Rabbi, presents Chabad as a model for Conservative Jewry to focus less on Halakhic accommodation and instead realize that part of the allure of religion is that its aspirational ideals make people uncomfortable. His words, which I will quote in full, should give pause to those calling for ritual innovation in more progressive factions in the Orthodox community. He writes:

There is, and we shall explore this a bit further, a theory that people come to religion to feel the comfort of home, to see their values given expression in prayer, ritual and community. By this formulation, religion is a form of self-affirmation in that religion must accommodate the values we hold dear. There is, however, another side of the discussion, a side that says that when people come to religion, whether it is here in the sanctuary, in their homes or elsewhere, they do so not to affirm the familiar, but just the opposite. People come to religion because it engages a totally different muscle group and set of expectations. The rites and rituals of any faith tradition are supposed to be a bit irrational, they are intended to make us feel out of place. After all, what is the point of religion if not to give expression to the sacred, the unfamiliar, or to use the technical term the numinous.40

Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld’s 2008 dissertation on sexuality in the Modern Orthodox community, serves as a fine example of the contemporary application of Izbica-Lublin theology, balancing its more radical elements with traditional ideals. Her presentation of the thought of Izbica-Lublin, which relies heavily on Brill’s scholarship, provides a paradigm for the application of Izbica thought to address a contemporary struggle without jeopardizing the communal ideal. She addresses those who are failing in the areas of sexuality and, through the work of R. Zadok, provides encouragement in dealing with the guilt and shame that can result from shortcomings in life. What she doesn’t do is say that R. Zadok abrogates the need to continue to make an effort towards living a sexually pure life. She writes:

R. Zadok’s message of teshuvah – what repentance is and how it can reframe a person’s life-is critically important for those who are at a point where they can hear this message. For those who are at a place in which repentance and return to full halakhic observance in the sexual realm is not an option at this point, R. Zadok’s message must at least stand in the background, as a hope for the future if not the present.41

What is most notable about her work is not her analysis of Hasidic thought, but rather the maturity and discipline of her application. Izbica-Lublin thought is not used to replace the aspirational notions of sexual purity and holiness, but rather are artfully used to address those who are already struggling. As she notes, R. Zadok couches much of his approach to sin in the Talmudic phrase, “A person cannot stand on words of Torah until they have caused him to stumble.”42 In some contemporary applications of Hasidic thought, not even exclusively as it relates to matters of sexuality, the idyllic notion of “standing” becomes obscured in the effort to validate the preliminary falls. Such interpretations, however, ignore how the theology was applied within the community of Izbica-Lublin; in Izbica-Lublin, radical theology did not beget radical communal innovation. The floor was carpeted, but the ceiling remained in place.

 “Intimates who understand their true value”: On Divorcing Theology from Community

In 1994, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik published his renowned article “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” which addressed many of the sociological changes in the Orthodox community in the second half of the twentieth century.43 Soloveitchik describes a community that has shifted from a mimetic tradition, one that “is not learned but rather absorbed,” to a text based tradition. As it relates to the mitnagdic community, which by his own admission is Soloveitchik’s focus, the mimetic and textual traditions are considered in terms of the community’s halakhic observance. Among other communal innovations, Soloveitchik notes how the over-reliance on text has contributed to the development of a more radicalized Orthodox community. He writes:

Fundamentally, all of the above – stringency, “maximum position compliance,” and the proliferation of complications and demands – simply reflect the essential change in the nature of religious performance that occurs in a text culture. Books cannot demonstrate conduct they can only state its requirement. One then seeks to act in a way that meets those demands.

Aside from the descriptivist elements within the article, it also serves as a lament. Soloveitchik is concerned that the “new and controlling role that texts now play in contemporary religious life” has irrevocably altered Jewish life itself. The article concludes with a haunting epitaph on the direction of the Jewish community:

It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy. Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they now seek solace in the pressure of His yoke.

If discarding the mimetic tradition in favor of textuality, as it relates to Halakha, has such a broad-range of communal results, what lessons can be extracted from such a bifurcation in the realm of theology? If accessing Halakha through text alone, without the accompaniment of a mimetic tradition, created such radical results, should we not be suspicious of theological textual interpretation wholly divorced from the immersive tradition within the community that created it? Therein lies the danger of communal innovation based on the radical theology of Izbica-Lublin.

Yes, there were elements of the theology within Izbica-Lublin that were radical. But, as recognized, the community remained consistently traditional. Is that a contradiction? The answer is, to echo Soloveitchik, “at times, yes; at times no.” But what is certain is that whatever radical elements existed in the textual tradition of Izbica, they were not given precedence in dictating the overall lifestyle. Izbica-Lublin was not radicalized because, like any tradition, there were simultaneous traditional values imparted that tempered the radical components of the theology. Meaning, the perceived dissonance between Izbica-Lublin’s textual tradition versus their communal lifestyle is a product of our over-reliance on text as the arbiter of communal values. If Soloveitchik is to be believed, a community’s environment can provide an equally rich and, oftentimes, more powerful repository of tradition than that which emerges from their texts alone.

As mentioned earlier, Mei ha-Shiloah, the first publication of Izbica theology, begins with a cryptic caution. The ideas contained within, cautioned R. Gershon Henoch, are only published “for the sake of our intimates who understand their true value.” Based on the lessons from Soloveitchik’s Rupture and Reconstruction, this preface is given added significance. What was R. Gershon Henoch’s concern? Our original understanding of this warning, and that advocated by R. Hefter, relates mostly to theological misunderstanding; however, its true intention may also be directed at theological misapplication. Namely, without the accompanying immersive experience of being an “intimate” within the traditional Izbica-Lublin community, the texts will inevitably become radicalized. Theology, like Halakha, when transmitted exclusively through text, cannot be transferred without some sort of rupture from its original intent.  ((There is a category of rabbinic texts which, I believe, more faithfully balances theology as presented within classic texts with the more holistic approach to theological matters as embodied by communal practice and policy, namely, rabbinic correspondence. Rabbinic correspondence, or, as it is classically called Iggros, can capture the practical advice rabbinic figures offered to people who struggled with theological or communal issues. As opposed to classic rabbinic commentaries, rabbinic correspondence exists on the nexus where abstract theology meets practical communal policy. In regards to Izbica-Lublin there is a dearth of Iggros, but those of R. Hutner deserve far more attention when evaluating communal policy based on the theology of Izbica-Lublin. R. Hutner of course, was not an actual Izbica Hasid, but scholars have already noted his embodiment of many elements of Izbica Hasidut, including some of the more radical doctrines; see, for instance, Steven Schwarzschild, “An Introduction to the Thought of R. Isaac Hutner,” Modern Judaism 5:3 (1985): 235-277. Though a careful examination of his letters falls far beyond the scope of this article, the collected volume of his writing is of vital importance for those looking to forge a path where the radical theology of Izbica-Lublin can seamlessly coexist in a traditional communal structure. For an example of the application of R. Hutner’s letter in the consideration of communal policy, see my article “What to Wear to a Sin,” Torah Musings, July 21 2013: ))

Interestingly, while the separation of text from experience in Halakhic tradition has cultivated some extreme tendencies in the hareidi world, the opposite seems to be true regarding Hasidic theology. When Hasidic theology is extricated exclusively from text, divorced from its communal context and ambiance, radical suggestions suddenly become more plausible in liberal circles. Without the tempering effect of the communal environment, Hasidic texts can seem deceptively radical. However, it cannot be forgotten that whatever textual radicalism existed in Izbica-Lublin, there was a concomitant experiential tradition among the “intimates” that assured communal radicalism did not develop. Some have chosen to ignore that distinction and now use the theologically pregnant texts of Izbica-Lublin to create a new community. Such communal innovations are not a continuation of the Izbica-Lublin community. At best they are misguided attempts at authenticity, at worst they can become perversions of legitimacy. For those who misapply and misrepresent Hasidic thought it seems that having cast off the pressure of His yoke, they now just seek solace in the touch of His presence. Unfortunately, for sound communal policy, both are needed.

About the Author: David Bashevkin is Director of Education for NCSY. He studied in Ner Israel Rabbinical College and completed his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). While in Yeshiva University, he completed a Master’s degree focusing on the thought of R. Zadok of Lublin, under the guidance of Dr. Yaakov Elman. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Public Policy and Management at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs.

  1. I am very grateful to the many friends and mentors who helped fashion my view of Izbica-Lublin Hassidut. A special thank you to Rabbi Eliyahu Krakowski for his helpful comments on an earlier draft and to R. Nosson Nochum Englard, the Rav of Radzin of Jerusalem for his insight into the traditional nature of the Izbica-Lublin communities and for helping me navigate through some of their lesser known writings.

    [1] Translation is from Rabbi Herzl Hefter in his “’In God’s Hands’: The Religious Phenomenology of R. Mordechai Yosef of Izbica,” Tradition 46:1: 43-44.  

  2. See Morris Faierstein, All Is in the Hands of Heaven (1989): 7-8. See also Ora Wiskind-Elper’s Wisdom of the Heart (The Jewish Publication Society, 2010): 202 n. 9. 

  3. Shragai, S.Z. “Hasidut ha-Ba’al Shem Tov be-Tefisat Izbica-Radzyn,” Sefer Baal Shem Tov (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1960): 166. 

  4. See Shaul Magid’s ‘A Thread of Blue’: Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner of Radzyń and his Search for Continuity in Response to Modernity Polin (1998): 44-45 

  5. As the historical background is only necessary for contextual purposes, I will keep citations brief and, for the purposes of brevity and clarity, only focus on the major transitional figures leading up to the school of Izbica. For those looking for more historical details of the emergence of Polish Hasidut, I suggest Glenn Dynner, Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society (Oxford University Press, 2008). 

  6. Michael Rosen, The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2008): 27. For some of the relevant academic discussions as to the precise contribution of the Baal Shem Tov see ibid., ft. 1. 

  7. For more on role of the zaddik in the thought of R. Elimelach of Lyzhansk, see Immanuel Etkes, “The Zaddik: The Inter-relationship between Religious Doctrine and Social Organization,” in Hasidism Reappraised (ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996) esp. 165-166. 

  8. See Men of Silk, 28. For more on the contrast between the Hasidut of Lublin and that of Przysucha see The Quest for Authenticity: 27-46. 

  9. The Quest for Authenticity, 136. 

  10. See The Quest for Authenticity, 23-24, which discusses whether or not Kotzk can, in fact, be considered a continuation of Przysucha. For more on the nature of truth in the Hasidic court of the Kotzker see A.J. Heschel’s A Passion for Truth

  11. See Shaul Magid, Hasidism on the Margin: xx, esp. n. 18 Morris M. Fairstein, All is in the Hands of Heaven: The Teaching of Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Liener of Izbica (New York, 1989); and idem, “Kotsk-Izbica dispute: Theological or Personal?” Kabbalah 17 (2008): 75-79 

  12. For decades, the role of R. Yaakov Leiner, author of the Beis Yaakov, was overlooked in the academic and religious community, a sentiment I personally heard bemoaned years ago by the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, R. Mendel Blachman. The academic community is indebted to Ora Wiskind-Elper whose Wisdom of the Heart: The Teaching of Rabbi Ya’akov of Izbica Radzyn masterfully presents the Hasidic approach of the Beis Yaakov. 

  13. As opposed to his father, R. Gershon Henoch has received careful attention regarding his role in radicalizing Izbica Hasidut. The messianic activities of R. Gershon Henoch, including his efforts to renew the practice of wearing techelet, as well as assembling a Talmudic commentary on the Order of Tahorot, which deals with ritual impurity, brought additional controversy and attention to Izbica Hasidut. For more on his life and theology, see the Shaul Magid’s, “‘A Thread of Blue’: Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner of Radzyń and his Search for Continuity in Response to Modernity” Polin 11 (1998) as well as his more comprehensive Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). 

  14. The works of R. Zadok were first presented in English to the academic community by my teacher R. Yaakov Elman. See Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakah,” Tradition 21:4 (Fall 1985): 1-26; Yaakov Elman, “Reb Zadok Hakohen of Lublin on Prophecy in the Halakhic Process,” Jewish Law Association Studies 1 (1985): 1-16; Yaakov Elman, “The History of Gentile Wisdom According to R. Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin,” Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 3:1 (1993): 153-187; Yaakov Elman, “Progressive Derash and Retrospective Peshat: Nonhalakhic Considerations in Talmud Torah,” in Shalom Carmy, ed., Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), 227-87; and Yaakov Elman, “The Rebirth of Omnisignificant Biblical Exegesis in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Jewish Studies Internet Journal 2 (2003): 199-249. Two other crucial works on R. Zadok bear mentioning, Alan Brill, Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2002) and the incisive dissertation of the Amira Liwer, “Oral Torah in the Writings of Reb Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University, 2006; Hebrew). 

  15. My decision to exclude R. Leible Eiger from this collective Hasidic legacy is deliberate. The style and focus of his works is markedly different than the other Hasidic leaders mentioned. Nonetheless, his scholarship and contextual role within the larger Izbica tradition merits attention and sadly remains a glaring desideratum within the academic community. For more on the life of R. Leible, see the three volume work Yehudah leKadsho (Tel Aviv, 1999).  

  16. For example, see Mei ha-Shiloah (Mishur, 1990), vol. 1 p. 27, 245. For instances of this phrase in the work of R. Zadok, see Reseisi Layla (Machon Har Bracha, 2002), #41, 50. See also his Dover Tzedek (Machon Har Bracha, 2007), #9. 

  17. All is in the Hand of Heaven, 36 

  18. “In God’s Hands”: The Religious Phenomenology of R. Mordechai Yosef of Izbica, 50  

  19. All of the former examples are discussed by Hefter, “In God’s Hands.” The story of Acher is interpreted in this context in R. Zadok’s Sefer Zichronot (Machon Har Bracha, 2002) p. 293 #11. 

  20. See “In God’s Hand’s,” esp. pp. 52-54 for interesting parallels in the writings of Rudolf Otto. For a much more comprehensive examination of the role of free will in Izbica see Aviezer Cohen, “Self-Consciousness in Mei ha-Shiloah As the Nexus Between God and Man” (PhD dissertation, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2006; Hebrew). 

  21. See for instance R. Zadok’s Tzidkat Ha-Tzadik #40 which cites the Lurianic work Arbah Me’ot Shekel 91b. It is interesting to note that R. Zadok, rather than citing his Rebbe, invokes this Lurianic work as a basis for the more radical determinism found in Izbica. See also Likkutei Maamarim (Machon Har Bracha, 2007), p. 183. In some instances R. Zadok also cites a parable of the Baal Shem Tov to explain this concept, see Pri Zadik Bamidbar, Rosh Chodesh Av.  

  22. J.H. Chajes in The Journal of Religion 86:1 (2006): 143-45. 

  23. “In God’s Hands,” ibid. nt. 29 citing R. Yerucham Leiner’s Maamar Zikkaron la-Rishonim, (Jerusalem, 1997), 8. 

  24. Some may argue that reintroducing techelet was based on extra-halakhik considerations. However, while his motivations may have been theological, R. Gershon Henoch was careful to argue for this innovation on halakhic grounds. See ‘A Thread of Blue,’ 46-48. Aside from his more famous work on reinstating techelet, R. Gershon Henoch was also involved in another somewhat controversial endeavor, namely, the publication of Sidrei Tahorot, which gathered all of the relevant Talmudic discussion on the Mishnaic Order Tahorot, which lacks a Talmudic commentary of its own. However, when some factions of the traditional community were concerned that this could confuse readers into believing this was an actual Talmud on Tahorot, he added a note of clarification on the bottom of each page. See Magid, ‘A Thread of Blue’, p. 43 n. 40. For more on the controversy surrounding the publication of Sidrei Tahorot see Meir Amsel, Zichronot HaMaor: 677-678 and “The Pitfalls of Disagreeing with the Gra,” Seforim Blog, Tuesday October 2, 2007:

    See also R. Gershon Henoch’s important introduction to Orchot Chaim which includes examples of his clearly conservative communal sentiments. 

  25. Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, p. 253, quoted in Hefter, “In God’s Hands,” 45n9. 

  26. Herzl Hefter, “The Challenge of Biblical Criticism: Dogma vs. Faith,” Morethodoxy: Exploring the Breadth Depth and Passion of Orthodox Judaism, 

  27. See Herzl Hefter, “Why I Ordained Women,” Times of Israel, July 19, 2015, 

  28. The incorporation of subjective moral intuition into the halakhic process may have some precedent, most notably in the writings of R. Samuel Glasner who, in his introduction to Dor Revi’i, invoked a similar notion when discussing the moral basis for treating prohibitions such as cannibalism and public nudity with more gravity than they would have otherwise carried in halakha. The distinctions between Glasner’s application of moral intuition and R. Hefter are numerous, but suffice to say that even Glasner’s application received criticism. R. Ezra Altschuler, in his unpublished emendations to Dor Revi’i, specifically criticizes Glasner for this idea. For more on Glasner’s halakhic innovation, see R. Yehuda Amital’s Jewish Values in a Changing World, p. 39. For more on the halakhic philosophy of the Dor Revi’i, see Yaakov Elman, “Rabbi Moses Samuel Glasner: The Oral Torah,” Tradition 25(3), Spring 1991: 63-69. It is intriguing that aside from this article, nearly all of Elman’s other early writing was focused on the thought of R. Zadok of Lublin.  

  29. See Yaakov Ariel, “Gay, Orthodox, and Trembling: The Rise of Jewish Orthodox Gay Consciousness, 1970s-2000s,” Journal of Homosexuality 52.3/4 (2007) which cites R. Zadok as having a more permissive attitude towards homosexuality. See however the thoroughly fascinating article by Shaun Jacob Halper, “Coming Out of the Hasidic Closet: Jiří Mordechai Langer (1894-1943) and the Fashioning of Homosexual-Jewish Identity,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (2011): 207n59, which points out that this is a mischaracterization. See also R. Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004): 239 which considers homosexuality in light of the thought of R. Mordechai Yosef. On this work, see R. Asher Lopatin’s review, “What Makes a Book Orthodox?” The Edah Journal 4:2 (2004), who questions R. Greenberg’s application. 

  30. See the works of Dr. Tamar Ross which make use of R. Zadok’s views on progressive revelation to argue for a reformed approach towards gender related issues in the Orthodox community. 

  31. See Thinking God, pp. 43-47. 

  32. Although it is far beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that aside from Izbica-Lublin, the works of R. Kook also feature prominently in these contexts. In general, the similarities between the thought of R. Zadok and R. Kook has already received serious consideration, though there is room for more academic analysis; see Chaim Hirsch’s Ahavat Tzedek (Jerusalem, 2002). 

  33. Translation is from Thinking God, 337 

  34. Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, p. 248 

  35. Brill, Thinking God, p. 199-200. 

  36. Notably, in R. Zadok’s first Hasidic work, Tzidkat HaTzadik, passages #162-163 were censored by his students. For more see Brill p. 181. For other examples of students censoring the work of their teacher, see Marc Shapiro’s Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites its History: 160-183, which discusses this phenomenon in the works of R. Kook. 

  37. See Hefter, p. 52 

  38. Pri Zadik, Nasso #15 citing R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner. 

  39. For a similar distinction, see Wisdom of the Heart p. 102-103 

  40. R. Elliot Cosgrove, “Religion Beyond the Limits of Reason Alone,” Go Forth! Selected Sermons by Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove (Park Avenue Synagogue, 2013). The sermon is available in full online here: 

  41. Jennie Rosenfeld, p. 122 

  42. See ibid. 108-109 where Rosenfeld notes the centrality of this phrase in R. Zadok’s thought and also mentions the strange context, a discussion around the marriage right of a woman who is half-slave and half-free, in which this appears in Tractate Gittin. See my B’Rogez Rachem Tizkor, 2015, #4: 47-50, for a suggested explanation of this phrase’s strange contextual appearance as well as a discussion on the permissibility of voluntarily entering into situations of religious struggle. 

  43. Soloveitchik, Haym. “Rupture and reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” Tradition (1994): 64-130. 

About David Bashevkin


  1. I don’t see how Izhbiza is antinomian, considering that nowhere does he suggest that sins cease to be sins just because God wills us to commit a sin. The standard remains and give us the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of teshuvah.

  2. Interesting piece, but I think I noted some errors while going through it.

    1) “As she notes, R. Zadok couches much of his approach to sin in the Talmudic phrase, “A person cannot stand on words of Torah until they have caused him to stumble.”

    That seems like a reference to the teaching in Gittin 43a that אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל בהן, correct?

    If so, it appears to be a mistranslation of the plain meaning there. I understand that Reb Zadok may have darshened it differently, but to give some kind of creative interpretation as if it was the plain meaning, when it is clearly is not that, is out of order.

    To translate the passage as “until they have caused him to stumble.” rather than something like “until he stumbled over them” seems wrong, changing the meaning a lot, as it points a finger at the gemara for tripping him up.

    2) “R. Leible Eiger (1816-1888), respective son and grandson of the famed Lithuanian rabbinic leaders R. Shlomo and R. Akiva Eiger”

    Neither R. Akiva nor R. Shlomo Eiger was Lithuanian.

  3. In several places the author asks the question: How is it that the borderline expressions of “antinomism” in the Mei Shiloach had no expression in the lives of the communities of Izbica or later in R Tzadok’s Lublin. the simple answer is that given in the introduction of “Mei Shiloach” which states clearly that it was meant only for those who could make the distinction between theological chiddush and its application to normative religious life. For this reason it is in my humble opinion totally irrelevant to questions relating to Modern Orthodoxy such as egalitarianism for women or accptance of homosexuals. As far as I know such questions were never considered by chassidut Izbica-Lublin-Radzin.

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