The Tisch: Hassidic Torah?

Belz yeshiva students study Torah in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Belz yeshiva students study Torah in Jerusalem.
Most early hassidic masters did not publish hassidic works; the task of promulgating hassidic Torah was generally the lot of loyal disciples, who posthumously brought their teachers’ Torah to the printing press.
In this respect, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809) was an exception: In 1798, he published his own Torah under the title Kedushat Levi.
Perhaps even more surprising is that the author published a second edition of the work in 1806.
Both editions were not published anonymously; rather, they proudly bore the name of the distinguished author. This was rare in the formative years of Hassidism.
Kedushat Levi focused primarily on themes associated with Purim and Hanukka, as well as other material. In printing his own work and choosing the title for his book, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak also selected his sobriquet, for he is often referred to as The Kedushat Levi.
After the death of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, his descendants published more of his hassidic Torah; these teachings followed the weekly Torah readings. It is unclear whether the manuscripts they used were written by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak himself, or whether they used student transcripts. These teachings were published under the same title. Thus, Kedushat Levi on the Torah was printed in 1811. In this edition, the original Kedushat Levi was relegated to the back of the book.
Since then, Kedushat Levi on the Torah is perceived as the primary work of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, rather than the author’s own published writings.
In 1868, Kedushat Levi on the tractate Ethics of the Fathers was printed from manuscripts that had survived. Modern editions of Kedushat Levi contain all of these sections. Seeking to offer the fullest possible presentation of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s hassidic teachings, publishers often add material attributed to him that they garner from other hassidic works.
In his original 1798 work, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak mentions Rabbi Yisrael Ben-Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (ca. 1700 – 1760) – simply known by the acronym Besht – as the inspiration for the hassidic movement. There are two references to the Besht in the original Kedushat Levi, though Rabbi Levi Yitzhak cannot rightly be considered his student.
The first mention is a pale reference stating that the Besht revealed something of the mysticism of Hebrew letters. This statement comes together with references to other kabbalists who also recognized the mystical valence of Hebrew letters; Rabbi Levi Yitzhak does not reveal the Besht’s unique contribution in this field.
The second mention is in connection with the biblical verse that describes God as a protective covering for humans, sheltering them from harm (Psalms 121:5).
The psalmist lifts up his eyes towards the heavens, crying out, “Whence will my salvation come?” The psalmist responds: “My salvation is from God,” and continues describing how the Almighty provides protection.
The Hebrew word for the divine protective covering is tzel. According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, the Besht noted that the word tzel can also mean “shadow.” God is a shadow for humans: Just as a shadow mirrors our every move, so too the Almighty’s conduct mirrors our actions. If we act with kindness and compassion, then God will imitate our conduct and act with kindness and compassion. This inspiring idea may stimulate individuals to consider the divine consequences of their actions.
There is something unique about this teaching as it appears in the writings of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. In the 1811 Kedushat Levi printed by his children, the idea of the divine shadow appears a further seven times; albeit twice without being attributed to the Besht. There is no other hassidic exposition that appears with similar frequency in the entire work – even in the most expansive, modern editions. Moreover, seldom is a teaching mentioned more than once in the work.
This quantitative observation suggests that for Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, the notion of a divine shadow mimicking our every move – as taught by the Besht – was a central hassidic idea.
But this conclusion is not as airtight as it might seem at first blush – as the purportedly hassidic idea appears in the writings of one of the spokesmen of the Mitnagdim, that is Jews who opposed nascent Hassidism.
Rabbi Haim of Volozhin (1749-1821) was a student of the Vilna Gaon and a renowned talmudist in his own right.
His work, titled Nefesh Hahaim and printed posthumously in 1824, might be seen as a manifest for the Mitnagdim.
In this work, Rabbi Haim related the teaching about God being a shadow that mirrors human actions. Unsurprisingly, the rabbi makes no reference to the Besht, or to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (see Nefesh Hahaim 1:7).
This startling parallel raises serious questions about the landscape of hassidic teachings: Can we suggest who was the innovator of the idea, and who copied it? Might Rabbi Haim of Volozhin have read Kedushat Levi? Perhaps the notion was a contemporary, popular idea that was picked up by scholars across the spectrum, both from the hassidic camp and the anti-hassidic camp? If this is the case, is it really accurate to consider the notion of a divine shadow an exclusively hassidic idea? This parallel prods us to pinpoint which innovations of Hassidism were truly “hassidic,” and to attempt to offer tighter definitions of the notion of “Hassidic Torah.”
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah and a post-doctoral fellow in Tel-Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.