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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine (New York University Press) From the ardently religious young woman who longs for the life of a male scholar to the young rebel who visits a strip club, smokes pot, and agonizes over her loss of faith to the proud Lubavitcher with a desire for a high-powered career, Stephanie Wellen Levine provides a rare glimpse into the inner worlds and daily lives of these Hasidic girls.

Lubavitcher Hasidim are famous for their efforts to inspire secular Jews to become more observant and for their messianic fervor. Strict followers of Orthodox Judaism, they maintain sharp gender-role distinctions.

Levine spent a year living in the Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, participating in the rhythms of Hasidic girlhood. Drawing on many intimate hours among Hasidim and over 30 in-depth interviews, Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers offers rich portraits of individual Hasidic young women and how they deal with the conflicts between the regimented society in which they live and the pull of mainstream American life.

Perhaps counterintuitively for those who envision meek, religious girls confined within very structured roles, Levine finds that on the whole, these young Hasidic women seem more confident and have a greater sense of self than many of their mainstream peers. Levine explores why this might be the case, and what we can learn from their example for girls' positive development more generally. Along the way, she provides a fascinating portrayal of day-to-day life in the Lubavitch community.

This superbly crafted book offers intimate stories from Hasidic teenagers' lives, providing an intriguing twist to a universal theme: the struggle to grow up and define who we are within the context of culture, family, and life-driving beliefs.

From Publishers Weekly:
This absorbing ethnography acts as one subculture's corrective to Reviving Ophelia, in that it offers a refreshing portrait of adolescent girls who are far from insecure. In this refreshing portrayal of girls who are far from insecure, Levine presents a contrasting path to that of mainstream adolescent girls. While a graduate student in American studies at Harvard, Levine spent a year living as a "participant observer" in the Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, entering with the following assumption: "The possibility that these girls' lives could be anything other than the Platonic essence of feminine subjugation seemed as unlikely as a suckling pig on a Shabbos table." What she found instead is that Lubavitch culture nurtures most girls' inner and outer voices. Though they are not immune from adolescent concerns about fashion, weight, looks and cliques, the Lubavitch emphasis on each person's godly mission to bring the Messiah deepens their spiritual outlook; the single-sex environment in which they mature helps develop vibrant, expressive personalities. Those who clash with Orthodox strictures, however, experience intense and painful struggles. From interviews with 32 girls ages 13 to 23, Levine found "downright juicy" material and culled seven portraits of girls (disguised in name and background) in their "idiosyncratic splendor." The essays are sometimes repetitive within the context of the entire book, as if Levine wrote each to stand on its own, but her bright, lively narrative compensates. Levine invites readers to share the "pure delight" of knowing these girls, and challenges us to draw on Hasidism as an unexpected source in helping our own girls develop into secure, confident adults.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

The Hasidic Psychology: Making Space for Others by Mordechai Rotenberg (Transaction Publishers) Interest in the impact of ethical systems and social or religious ideologies on socio-behavioral patterns is a longstanding theme in social science research. While interest may have begun with Max Weber and his thesis of the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. it extends far beyond this. Surprisingly. few studies have delved into the socio-behavioral patterns emanating from Jewish ethics. This hook. with a new introduction by the author. fills that gap.

As Hasidic Psychology makes clear. Jewish ethics are unique in many ways. especially in that they are essentially other-centered. Man's ability to affect his own future and interpersonal relations are explained according to the theory of contraction. popularized in Hasidic thought: God. by contracting Himself to evacuate space for the human world. bestowed upon man the power and responsibility to determine his own future. and even affect God's disposition.

In the first part of the book. the sociological-structural concept of mono versus multiple ideal labeling is introduced. This concept refers to a social system in which diverse material and spiritual actualization patterns are structurally introduced as equal social ideals. In the second part. basic tenets of classic interaction and socialization are compared to the interpersonal perspective. and the contraction theory is explained as a process of "mutual emulation." whereby father and son affect each other. In the third part. a functional approach to deviance is developed through the Hasidic process known as "ascend via descend."

"...a stimulating contribution in the field of the sociology of religion....This scholarly, well-based approach is a breakthrough in the social and psychological study of Hasidic ethics."David Flusser. author. Jewish Sources in Early Christianity

"In remarkable insights [Rotenberg] intertwines the old and the new. the theological and the scientific. the mystic and the pragmatic. to produce brilliant new insights into our most pressing current social problems." Bernard L. Diamond. author. The Psychiatrist in the Courtroom

Excerpt: Twenty-five years ago, shortly after my book Damnation and Deviance was published, the editors at the Free Press urged me to write about the psychology inherent in the Hasidic Ethic. This encouragement seemed to emanate from the fact that while Damnation and Deviance focused on exposing the "Protestant bias" underlying western psychology, the book nonetheless ended with a chapter contrasting the Calvinist and Hasidic Salvation Ethic. It thus contended that while Western "retrospective therapy" is grounded in a deterministic overindulgence in one's past, Hasidic "prospective therapy" en-tails an open-communal future-oriented life perspective that forbids the egoistic self-indulgence in one's past.

Being a descendent of two Hasidic dynasties, I even took pride that Buber found it appropriate to cite, in this respect, one of my forefathers, the Rabbi of Ger, who stated that: "He who has done ill and talks about it and thinks about it all the time does not cast the base thing he did...one's soul is wholly and utterly in what one thinks and so he dwells in baseness.... Rake the muck this way, rake the muck that way, it will always be muck. Have I sinned, or have I not sinned...? In the time I am brooding over it, I could be stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven. That is why it is written `Depart from evil and do good'...do not dwell upon it and do good" (in M. Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, pp. 164, 165).

While at the time I should have instantaneously immersed myself in the effort of developing enthusiastically the psychology of "stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven," I felt utterly stultified and petrified at the thought of undertaking such an immense project upon myself. I kept torturing myself with the question, "what can I say about Hasidism after Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber...?" and the thought that "I am neither a philologist nor an historian..." kept haunting me. But then all of a sudden, "relief and deliverance arose from elsewhere" (see the Book of Esther, 4:14).

In 1978 I was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania and used to commute between New York and Philadelphia. Thus, while riding on the Amtrack train, which almost became my second home, the "secret" of tzimtzum (contraction) was revealed to me. I felt that this kabalistic paradigm, according to which God contracted Himself into Himself to evacuate space for the human world, comprises a most powerful socio-psychological model that humans are urged to emulate. I felt, accordingly, that from the socio-psychological perspective, it is possible to develop a comprehensive paradigm that is not competing and not available to scholars who studied Hasidism via the text-based research methods.

Riding on the train, in Hebrew rakevet, thus turned metaphorically into a merkava (literally, chariot), referring to the mystic chariots which, based on the phenomenon described in Ezekiel (chapter 1), comprises the famous kabalistic body of literature known as the Ma'aseh Merkava.

In order not to lose my "train of thought," I rushed to the university in a floating manner and, since it felt like an attack of "grapho-diarrhea," I asked for paper in order to outline the four parts of the tzimtzum theory, which entails the sociological, socio-psychological, psychological, and socio-philosophical perspectives.

The endeavor to develop these perspectives is obviously embedded in the assumption that the human being is an imitatio Dei creature who molds his behavior according to the Godly divine image, which is internalized in the course of socialization. It was hence the conviction that it is insufficient to study Hasidic ethics by examining only written texts, and not put them to test in living contextswhich provided the impetus to plunge into the unceasing work of constructing the systematic foundations of a Hasidic psychology. In lifelong disputes with colleagues on our differential research emphases I have often quoted the clever song that tells of how the person who took swimming lessons via correspondence drowned instantly when he finally tried to swim in the real ocean.

Summarizing a twenty-year training project in dialogical psychotherapy that we constructed at the Hebrew University by deriving its principles from the tzimtzum paradigm, I was invited to write the entry "psychology and Judaism" for The Encyclopedia of Judaism, published in 2000 (edited by J. Neusner et al., Leiden & Boston: Brill). The four dialogical dimensions presented in this essay were divided into two time-oriented dimensions and two dimensions relating to space. These dimensions of tzimtzum, which were extracted from the books I wrote subsequently, will be described else-where. But very briefly, the two time-oriented dimensions present an en-counter between the Oedipal theory of intergenerational conflict and the Akeida (binding of Isaac) theory of intergenerational continuity. Similarly, the intrapersonal psychology of cyclistic teshuva (repentance, literally "return") introduces a theory of biographic rehabilitation that challenges the deterministic psychology following from an "original sin" conception of life.

The space-oriented dimensions include the collective interpersonal psychology of areivim (mutual responsibility), which is encountered in the Darwinian psychology of the ego-centered "survival of the fittest." Finally, the superpersonal psychology constitutes the fourth dimension, and pertains to people's needs to a) communicate with the transcendental world, b) deal with ecstatic eroticism, and c) balance corporeal ritualism with creative spiritualism.  

THE LANGUAGE OF TRUTH: The Torah Commentary of Sefat Emet by Judah Aryeh Leib Alter, translated and commentary by Arthur Green ($34.95, hardcover, 408 pages, Jewish Publication Society; ISBN: 0827606508)

One of the great works of pastoral mysticism is made available in the selection, an excellent translation of a Hasidic classic. Arthur Green, the noted interpreter and translator of Jewish mystical tradition, has again written a work that is sure to become a classic in the field of English-language translations of Hasidism. He has taken the "Sefat Emet" of the Gerrer Rebbe, shortened it,
faithfully translated it into English and written his own comments after each sermon. For those capable, the Hebrew original is provided at the end of the
book. As one would expect, Dr. Green provides an informative and scholarly introduction to Polish Hasidism, of which the town of Ger is certainly one of the better known. This book is a must for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of Hasidism by studying a primary source. The book should find a ready audience for any who wishes to enhance their Torah and Talmud study with a subtle devotional hermeneutic.

GOD’S MIDDLEMEN: A Habad Retrospective: Stories of Mystical Rabbis  by Reuven Alpert, Betsalel Naor ($17.95, paperback, 124 pages, White Cloud Press; ISBN: 188399117X )

Moshe Idel, author of Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic, says "GOD’S MIDDLEMEN is an inviting, illuminating, and intriguing work. It is sure to provoke interest in a wide range of readers, from beginning students to scholars of Hasidism."
MIDDLEMEN is a brief and highly readable history of the Hasidic movement through the Habad lineage, with a major section of stories about great rebbes and their followers." Tamar Frankiel, author of The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism. Bezalel Naor has written a helpful and reliable introduction to the Habad tradition.

GOD’S MIDDLEMEN is a fascinating collection of stories of Jewish mystical rabbis from the Hasidic tradition know as Habad. Reuven Alpert has journeyed among the Hasidim and GOD’S MIDDLEMEN presents his meetings with remarkable rabbis and recollections of earlier masters of the Habad way. From Crown Heights, Brooklyn to Jerusalem, from White Russia to the Andes, we encounter well-known rabbis and unknown holy men through short, poignant stories of faith, exile, and hope. Running through the stories is the melancholic anticipation among the Habad faithful of the appearance of the long-awaited Messiah, particularly the expectations centered on the legendary Schneersohn dynasty of rabbis, culminating with the intense messianic fervor recently focused on the late Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn (d. 1994), the last of the Lubavitcher line of rabbis.

Reuven Alperts stories read like good fiction, providing intimate details of the rhythms, cadences, and flavors of Jewish spirituality, taking the reader into the heart of this vibrant mystical tradition. GOD’S MIDDLEMEN provides us with a glimpse into the essence of the Habad tradition through the lives of Jews who have experienced the ineffable of the Infinite within the inevitable sufferings of human experience. GOD’S MIDDLEMEN is introduced by Rabbi Bezalel Naor, who provides a succinct survey of the Habad movement.

About the Authors: Reuven Alpert is a spiritual seeker and freelance writer. Bezalel Naor is a leading scholar and interpreter of Kabbalistic and Hasidic thought. He is the translator and commentator of OROT by Rav A. Y. Kook and the author of numerous scholarly articles, reviews, and essays in the field of Jewish Studies.

The Kabalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism
Rachel Elior
Jeffrey M. Green, translator
SUNY, State University of New York
$59.50, hardcover; 279 pages, notes, index
Habad Hassidism is one of the most vital and dynamic forms of Jewish mysticism thriving today in many shapes, from ultra-orthodox to loosely knit modernist "study groups." Elior presents a philosophically informed analysis of basic and central Habad mysticism, showing the divine economy that governs this approach to community and the Ultimate. See Origins of the Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem, R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, & Allan Arkush. It is a primary resource on the historical basis of Jewish mysticism.


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