Review by Israel Drazin 



The two volume series Speaking Torah by Arthur Green collects generally mystical comments and commentaries from over forty Chassidic rabbis who lived during the first three generation of the Chasidic Movement, from 1740 to 1815. I described the history of the Chassidim during this early period and explained why they changed radically after 1815 in my review of the first volume. I will now give some examples of the Chassidic rabbis’ homilies in this review and add my comments in the notes.

Green admits that the Chassidic theology in his volumes is cased in language that “is antiquated… (and) may not be one you fully share. But hopefully you will learn to see beyond those barriers and you will find a way to take to heart those teachings that you need to make your own.” He and his colleagues aid the understanding of the rabbis’ essays with explanations after each rabbinical commentary and by a discussion at the conclusion of each of the fifty-four biblical portions. Each portion contain four to six Chassidic rabbinical comments.

In the first essay, for example, a rabbi states that Jacob’s son Joseph was sent to Egypt to spread God’s teachings,[1] to uplift the lowly rung of civilization.[2]

In the second, a rabbi states that the “creation took place for the sake of Torah and for the sake of Israel.[3]

Green tells us in one of his explanations that many Chassidic rabbis were convinced that creation is a continuous affair.[4] God provides people the raw materials of existence expecting people to shape it through their actions. Chassidim believed that God wants humans to “serve as active partners with God in perfecting creation.”[5]

Many rabbis expressed their ideas by analogy, such as: day follows night, so too the nights of life are followed by the brightness of day.[6]

Many of their lessons are derived by means of paradoxical definitions of word. For example, the Hebrew shema means “hear,” which could be understood as a metaphor for “accept,”[7] but one rabbi translated it as “assemble.”[8]

Rabbis frequently cite a belief that the world was created through the Torah.[9] They speak often of a conviction that creation occurred when God, who had been within the entire world, withdrew partially to make space for what would be created. Creation was done by emanations from the divine, but the emanations “broke” and divine sparks scatted over the entire universe. Humans, they say, need to help God collect and paste these shattered parts back together.[10]





[1] This, of course, is clearly contrary to the plain sense of the drama that Joseph’s bothers hated Joseph and sold him as a slave to get rid of him. But, we might ask, is this Chassidic deviation from the text to teach a homiletical lesson that supports their view of Judaism different from the method used by Midrashim and the sermons of many rabbis. True, the Chassidic worldview is different than most Midrashim, but the method of reading material into the Torah that isn’t even hinted in the text is the same.

Perhaps one way to justify the Chassidic interpretation here is to admit that Joseph’s brothers had one intent, but God controlled the situation and caused them to act the way they did to fulfill the divine goal. This notion of God being involved in worldly affairs and causing some events to happen is a worldview of many people, but it is contrary to the view that people have free will and can control their lives.

[2] This notion of lifting up thoughts and physical items to a higher plain is a constant theme among mystics, such as eating with the understanding that food comes from God raises digestion to a higher level.

[3] This idea is contrary to the teaching of Maimonides (1138-1204) that it is impossible for humans to know why God created the world and that God is concerned about all people, in fact all of creation, not just humans and not just Jews.

[4] This view conceives of God as being ever-present. The notion that God is forever creating smacks of the notion that God is always tinkering with what was created, as if the first creation needs constant repair. However, Mystics may mean that God is always present to help people and they may also be implying that all growth and all activities need God’s constant help: no snow flake or leaf falls unless God says fall, fall some more, fall some more….

[5] This is also rational philosophy. Maimonides said the human duty is to think, learn how nature functions, and improve one’s self and society.

[6] This is a good optimistic idea: everything can turn out well if you persevere.

[7] As the Aramaic translation Targum Onkelos frequently renders it.

[8] See note 1.

[9] Most mystics take this literally and say the Torah existed before the world was created, an astonishing view since the Torah describes human events. Proverbs 8:22-31state the world was created with wisdom, which could be understood to mean that God had a plan, although we do not know what the divine plan is.

[10] This drama was invented by Isaac Luria (called Ari) around 1530 in Safed, Israel. Rationalists see the notion as a depiction of an incompetent deity who is unable to get things right. In fact we saw that the mystics say that God needs human help to restore the broken shards.