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Review: Hasidism Incarnate by Shaul Magid

What’s the difference between Christianity and Judaism? When one considers the shared cultural heritage of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call “the Old Testament”), it seems in the end an easy question: Jesus. Christians believe in the divinity of a Jewish holy man who died two thousand years ago, while Jews still await their messiah. But as Shaul Magid’s fascinating new book Hasidism Incarnate shows, the deep religious structures of the two religions may not always be as different as that first glance might suggest.

Maggid’s book takes on the thorny issue of incarnation, of the becoming human of the divine. Historically, many Jewish writers have taken incarnation as the dividing line between Judaism and Christianity: Jews don’t believe in incarnation. Magid argues that this line was upheld as strongly by Jews as by Christians, with Jewish writings written “under a Christian gaze” working tirelessly to keep incarnational theology away from Judaism. Magid cites a quote from Leo Strauss, a philosopher and scholar of medieval Judaism, who argued that “there is no reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity; Judaism is the anti-Christian principle pure and simple.”

Yet as Magid patiently shows, that dividing line on incarnation is a little more blurry than has previously been believed. Magid takes as his subject Hasidism, the movement that swept through eighteenth and nineteenth century Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, which grew away from the Christian gaze and the need for apologetics. Against the excessively arcane Talmud scholarship called pilpul popular at the time, Hasidism promised an egalitarian approach to Jewish spirituality. Hasidism made the mysticism of the kabbalah, as encoded in holy books such as the Zohar, accessible to ordinary people, an everyday rapture that saw the divine in the immanent–that is to say, in the materiality of life itself.

Hasidism was spread by charismatic holy men called zaddikim, who gathered followings around them to form particular sects of Hasidism–many of which are still in existence today. It is in the figure of the zaddik that Magid persuasively argues that Hasidism brings an incarnational theology into Judaism, with his research excavating many Hasidic writings talking about the semi-divinity of the zaddik. Though Magid is at pains to distinguish this incarnational theology from the high Christology of Christianity, he nevertheless shows clearly that incarnation is very much a strong current in Hasidism, right up until the present in the form of the messianic quality ascribed to the last Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

In a strong chapter, Magid talks about the kenosis of the zaddik, the emptying of the divine often referred to in Christian theology. Citing the Jewish theologian Elliot Wolfson, he argues that in kenosis, “God’s presence is experienced as absence, that is, consciousness of God as negation is the core of the mystical experience.” Like the suffering Christ on the cross, the zaddik draws divinity into humanity. Magid draws on the difficult material of kabbalah to tease out the theological implications of the zaddik’s incarnation.

This is all heady stuff, with Magid expertly charting a path through the kabbalistic and Hasidic primary material, as well as its contemporary interpretations in Jewish thought, and even the odd pinch of critical theory. It’s clear though that this is a book for scholars of Hasidicism, with Magid rarely stopping to introduce key terms of Jewish discourse. People looking for a basic introduction to Hasidic thought would be best to look elsewhere.

But for those with the patience to work through the material, Hasidism Incarnate offers a sophisticated approach to the thorny question of the differences between Jewish and Christian religious theology and practice. Magid situates his work alongside other Jewish writers like Daniel Boyarin who have problematised some of the easy (and ahistorical) platitudes that mark out the Jewish/Christian divide, and that seems right to me. Hasidism Incarnate is a solid book about an important subject.

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