uniting heaven and earth: yohanan petrovsky shtern

The Pardes Yosef Hachadash suggests at least eleven possible interpretations of the “earth” and “heavens” in the initial verse of Parshat Haazinu. All the cases obviously identify a yawning gap—from that between the tzaddik and the man on the street to that between the soul and the body.  In any case, Yohanan Petrovsky Shtern in his now (in)famous article on Hasidei de’ar‘a and Hasidei dekokhvaya’” in AJS attempts to add a 12th—social vs. religious historians of Hasidism.

I am conflicted by this article. I am attracted to the picaresque, arcanizing use of Zoharic Aramaic to flavor an attempt at methodological thought endogenous to Jewish studies. But on the other hand, I wonder about the wideness of the chasm between heaven and earth. Are religious intellectual history and social history so incommensurable? Is it something about Hasidism that makes them so incommensurable? The article’s conclusion also gives me agita—somehow the earthly can incorporate the heavenly but not vice versa. Huh? More broadly, what necessitates this new terminology and what value does it add over existing conceptions of intellectual and social history imported from outside the world of Jewish studies?

To begin with the fun part, the taxonomy of Hasidei de’ar‘a and Hasidei dekokhvaya reflects an unbridled creative impulse on Petrovsky Shtern’s part.


These two trends can conveniently be classified as Hasidei dekokhvaya’ (star-struck Hasidim) and Hasidei de’ar‘a (earth-bound Hasidim), albeit there are no hasidic groups with such names and the Aramaic quasi-Zoharic wordings are my invention.


What do we gain from this strange use of language? I would say that the terminological innovativeness speaks to what Martin Heidegger called jemeinigkeit—in each case mineness. If Petrovsky Shtern’s creativity points to anything beyond wordplay, it should be to an argument that these two camps of interpreters of Hasidism cannot be understood with regular terminology like social and intellectual history. Rather, they need special terms because they represent logics endogenous to their field, and incommensurable with other fields. In other words, it’s a special problem of Hasidism. Additionally, calling scholars Hasidei dekokhvaya’ and Hasidei de’ar‘a implies a special closeness between the object of study and its students. This affinity presumably bears a resemblance to the patterns of Hasidim themselves vis a vis their Hasidut.


Do the descriptions of the two kinds of Hasidic scholars bear out this contention? We should begin by looking at as Hasidei dekokhvaya’—the scholars who can’t take their eyes off the specificity of the phenomenon. At first, the ascription seems promising.


By yet another metaphor, Hasidei dekokhvaya’, “star-struck Hasidim,”I refer to a very different informal grouping of scholars who study Hasidism as a new stage in the development of Jewish mysticism and as a groundbreaking social phenomenon. Whereas Hasidei de’ar‘a underscore the context and the dynamics of the movement within this context, Hasidei dekokhvaya’ emphasize its place within the Jewish tradition.


I don’t see why talking about context implicitly excludes “the Jewish tradition.” I would argue that “the Jewish tradition” constitutes a vivid and engrossing context. Beyond this, though, there does exist a bias among the Hasidei dekokhvaya’ for the specific Jewish context. According to Petrovsky Shtern


they seek to integrate it into grand historical narratives such as Jewish messianism. Hasidei dekokhvaya’ claim that in order to study Hasidism, one needs to engage an entire corpus of Jewish mystical texts written over the span of five or seven centuries. Hasidei dekokhvaya’ maintain that this corpus of mystical texts is indispensable for making sense of Beshtian

Hasidism. Concerned about the diachrony, they emphasize the continuity among the twelfth-century German pietists (Hasidei Ashkenaz), the Abulafian ecstatic Kabbalah, the late thirteenth-century Zohar, the sixteenth-century Lurianic liturgy, and the homiletic writings of the eighteenth-century Polish religious revivalists. They analyze in great depth the ways in which Beshtian Hasidism developedsuch notions as devekut (cleaving to God), zadik (righteous one), hafshatat ha-gashmiyut (liberating oneself from corporeality), nizozot (divine sparks), tikkun (fixing or improvement), yihudim (unifications), and other key kabbalistic notions. For them, Hasidism is first and foremost a new system of ideas stemming from Kabbalah. Placing Hasidism within Judaic mystical tradition allows Hasidei dekokhvaya’, star-struck Hasidim, to trace parallels between what they term the theology of the Besht and the mysticism of Abraham Abulafia, Isaac Luria, or Yosef Karo. To critically reconstruct a historical picture of the Besht, Hasidei dekokhvaya’ remove him from his immediate sociohistorical context and place him firmly within the context of an abstraction named “Jewish mysticism,” wherein he takes his place among the other great “Jewish mystics” of the previous centuries. The Besht becomes paradigmatic as a reincarnation of the Jewish mystical paradigm.


Hasidei dekokhvaya’, are seen as unable to disentangle specifically Jewish context from a wider historical paradigm of “Jewish mysticism.”  Instead, they prefer to compare Hasidism with other expressions of “an abstraction named Jewish mysticism.” The complaint that a notion of “Jewish mysticism” already does more to color our perceptions of the things it’s meant to explain than it does to explain them has become an increasingly common remonstration against putative typological efforts to generate such an entity. That having been said, such an expressivist paradigm (Besht as expression of the wider phenomenon of JM) seems to dominate the study of Kabbalah only as a strawman, a theme I have explored in several other posts.

Hasidei dekokhvaya’ and their expressivist view aren’t uniquely Jewish and don’t merit a neologism. After all, the main complaint against the expressivist school seems to be that they reduce Kabbalah to the typologies of religion. One cannot embrace the view that there is a pernicious, homogenizing and reductive discourse of religion that produces the expressivist paradigm and then willy nilly coin neologisms which seem to say the opposite.

Beyond this, some of Petrovsky Shtern’s specific complaints against the expressivist view seem overblown. For instance, in the name of restoring cultural specificity to Hasidism, he fulminates


Their Besht is not entrenched in any grassroots reality. He could emerge in seventeenth-century Salonika, eighteenth-century Podolia, nineteenth-century Bobruisk, or twentieth-century Monsey. Hasidei dekokhvaya’ readily refer to Międzybóż or Kuty, yet the Besht for them is a heaven-dweller who transcended his earthly reality.


I will not speak to the example of Monsey. However, there are important parallels between Hasidic literature and homiletical and Kabbalistic literature from across the Jewish world. To say that Jews in Salonika and Podolia didn’t share an imaginary with the Besht and his circle is to deny reality in favor of some misbegotten notions of “Ground” (Hasidei de’ar‘a!). Indeed, Podolia and Salonika were both part of the same Empire until 1649. Salonika was a center of Hebrew printing and the dissemination of Kabbalistic ideas. Furthermore, without treading on the old debate between Scholem and Idel about Lurianic Kabbalah as the cultural force driving Sabbateanism, it turns out that in 1666 the Jews of Podolia, Salonika (and Livorno and Amsterdam) reacted in similar ways. For Petrovsky Shtern’s complaint to work, he needs to commit himself to the notion that a broader Jewish culture didn’t exist beyond local variations and flavors. And he needs to substantively deny the linkages of trade, marriage and even Kabbalah which tied together early modern Jews.

My problems with Petrovsky Shtern aren’t meant to imply that studying Hasidism as an intellectual phenomenon risks abstracting out social factors. Indeed, Petrovsky Shtern correctly points to the underappreciated efforts of scholars like Dynner


A follower of Hasidei de’ar‘a, Dynner has published what is most likely to become the standard book on a previously underresearched subject. His Men of Silk is a meticulously documented revision of the received common sense regarding hasidic leadership as an antimercantile, anti-aristocratic and democratically oriented institution seeking to recruit followers among the needy, the poor, and the uneducated. The opposite is the case, maintains Dynner. To challenge the romanticized historiography of hasidic masters, he traces their social functions, patterns of behavior, genealogical links, and economic ties… Dynner proves that the Polish hasidic leaders came from aristocratic families, recruited followers from among the rabbinic elite, and were the populists rather than democratic leaders.


What was especially salutary about Men of Silk, for me, was less its rebuttal of the idea that Hasidic leaders were anti-aristocratic proto-socialists (although it bears repeating that some populists are extremely well funded and have political agendas!) but its view of Hasidism as a process of cultural dissemination and negotiation of mystical ideas. For Dynner, Hasidism shatters the old Kabbalists, who moved in restricted social circles, and makes Lurianic tikkunim and “basking in the divine by proxy” available to a new mercantile elite.

What bugs me about Petrovsky Shtern’s account of Dynner is that he says Dynner brings Hasidei dekokhvaya’ methodology into Hasidei de’ar‘a. This echoes the conclusion of the piece, where Petrovsky Shtern tells us that Hasidei de’ar‘a can incorporate Hasidei dekokhvaya’ but not vice versa. This conclusion reminded me of the story, recently repeated in the New Yorker about Derek Parfit who


attended a lecture by a Continental philosopher that addressed some important subject such as suicide or the meaning of life, but he couldn’t understand any of it. He went to hear an analytic philosopher who spoke on a trivial topic but was quite lucid. He wondered whether it was more likely that Continental philosophers would become more lucid or analytic philosophers less trivial. He decided that the second was more likely, and returned to Oxford.


Whatever the merits Parfit’s choice, Petrovsky Shtern’s choice isn’t compelling. For example, if someone were to perform an analysis of how Hasidic masters subtly shift their teachings to suit their audiences, or how Hasidic metaphors draw on populism but appeal to the nouveaux riche, what would that be? Just proclaiming that you have brought the best of Hasidei dekokhvaya’ into Hasidei de’ar‘a doesn’t really suffice. At some point, aren’t the typologies at least overwrought, if not misleading?

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