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A Life Apart - Hasidism in America Image Loading...

ESSAYS ON HASIDISM
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  • Additional Essays on Hasidism

  • INTRODUCTION: AS A CITY UPON A HILL?

    "The real essence of community is to be found in the fact, manifest or otherwise, that it has a center. The real beginning of a community is when its members have a common relation to the center overriding all other relations ..." --Martin Buber

    Until their world was shattered by the Holocaust, only a small number of the most traditional Jews of Eastern Europe joined the many other Jews who were streaming across the ocean to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of the very religious Jews not only chose to stay in Europe; they had a strong aversion to the very idea of America, which was known as the treyfe medina, the unclean country. According to Arthur Hertzberg in his book The Jews in America, the Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews who did emigrate after World War II differed radically from all previous Jewish arrivals because "This was the first group of Jews in all of American history to come not primarily in search of bread but to find refuge for its version of Jewishness." (Certainly they did also come in search of a chance to earn a livelihood. And we should also note here that large numbers of Orthodox survivors emmigrated to Israel after the holocaust, not because they were Zionists, but because U.S. immigration restrictions left them little choice.)

    Different as they were from previous Jewish immigrants, however, these refugees in some ways bore a striking resemblance to an earlier American immigrant group. In Hertzberg's words,

    "The new ultra-Orthodox were reenacting, in mid-twentieth century urban America, and mostly in New York, what the Puritans had done three centuries before in the New England wilderness; they were escaping a hostile Europe and coming to the New World in order to create their own separatist theocracy. Their neighborhoods in Brooklyn were being fashioned as their own 'city on the hill.' .... One meaning of American freedom was the right not to participate in American culture. Other Jews who did not share this view were excluded from their fellowship. This, too, was reminiscent of the Puritan attitude, three centuries earlier, toward all other Protestants."

    Some may find this analogy inappropriate or strained, as the differences between the Hasidim and the Puritans, or Protestants in general, are many and striking. But Hertzberg's comparison is provocative and intriguing, as it challenges us to note some similarities among the incongruities. The basic Hasidic vision, like the Puritan ideal, is the achievement of a righteous life, a life that can only be lived in a sanctified community of like-minded souls. And this shared notion of community, which finds its center in its special relationship to God, is binding on every member. For just as the personal piety of one individual reflects back on others in the community, so the sin of one individual also damages the rest.

    Living as in a city upon a hill not only means living an elevated life, a life closer to God, but a life visible to all, a model for the rest of the world. The Hasidim share with the Puritans to a degree a sense of cosmic responsibility. For Hasidim, this special mission of the community is expressed in the Jewish mystical doctrine of tikkun olam (repair of the world): by keeping the divine commandments, they hope to recover and bring back together the "lost sparks" of God that were dispersed upon His creation of the world, thereby helping to bring about the coming of the Messiah--whom all Jews await--as well as a better world.


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