Hasidism: Habad Hasidism

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Habad is a distinctive Hasidic school founded by Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady (17451813) and led by a dynasty of his descendants, the Schneersohn family. Because his son Dov Ber (17731827) settled in the Belorussian town of Lubavitch and established a Hasidic center there, the Habad movement is also widely known as Lubavitcher Hasidism. The most recent head of the movement was Menachem Mendel Schneerson (19021994), seventh in the line of succession. There has been no replacement. Given the movement's belief in Schneerson as a messianic figure, a future replacement is unlikely. From its New York headquarters the movement directs a vast array of religious, educational, and media ventures throughout the world.

As a theological system, Habad represents the apex of a cosmic mysticism within Judaism. Only God has real existence; all else, including the existence of the person as a separate being, is illusory. The purpose of the spiritual life, assiduously and systematically cultivated in Habad, is to bring the devotee to the realization of this truth in heart and conduct as well as in mind. Habad teaches, however, that the true conversion is first and foremost an intellectual one. Whereas other Hasidic leaders emphasized the emotional experience of God through practice, the moral life, and the virtues of simplicity, Shneʾur Zalman and his followers taught a highly abstract mystical theology and praised the virtues of contemplation and detachment. The name Habad (aBaD), which is an acronym for okhmah, binah, and daʿat (three aspects of the mental function), is indicative of this.

Habad thought teaches that divinity is equally present throughout the universe, and that the existence of the universe itself is but an effulgence of light that comes from the eternal and unchanged One. This radiance, also identified with the creative speech of God, takes on the form of creation, and through it the One dons the garb of multiplicity. It does so in order that the presence of divinity will be confirmed even in the seemingly "lowliest" places, a gradation that would have no meaning if not for the existence of the corporeal world. The spreading forth of divine energy into the furthermost corners of being is a constant process, without which the universe would lose even its semblance of reality.

The religious life is both a participation in this constant spreading forth of divinity, through the bodily fulfillment of the divine commandments, and a reversal of the process, in which all things are "uplifted" and returned to their source in God through inward devotion and contemplative prayer. Habad is in part a reaction to the extreme early Hasidic emphasis on prayer and inwardness alone as religious values. It insists that the physical enactment of the commandments, even without understanding, has cosmic implications. There is also a great emphasis on Torah study in Habad circles, including the study of Habad theological works, again in contrast to the conduct of some other Hasidic groups. Study and deed are taken as the activist side of the religious life, ever to be balanced with inwardness and contemplation.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, Habad took a leading role in the preservation of traditional piety, whose hold over Jewry was weakening, and in providing an avenue of return to tradition for Jews reared outside it. The previous Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitsaq Schneersohn (18801950), was the leading rabbinic figure in Russia after sovietization and fought valiantly for the survival of religious Jewry there. After his exile in 1927 and a period of residence in Latvia and Poland, the Lubavitch community settled in Brooklyn in 1941 and later in the town of Kefar Habad in Israel. Both centers remain vibrant. Particularly since the mid-1960s, large numbers of previously unaffiliated American Jews have joined to swell the ranks of this movement, making it the most prominent Hasidic group on the American scene. During that same period, an openness to the uses of technology, the integration of modern techniques of education and public relations, and a vague modernization of style, though carefully circumscribed within the bounds of Jewish law, have raised questions about Habad in some more traditionalist Hasidic circles.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, Habad invested much of its energy in promoting the impending messianic era, touting its leader Schneersohn as the messiah. This activity increased as their leader became infirm and no longer able to communicate. Schneersohn's own position on his messianic vocation has never been clarified. After his death on June 12, 1994, the movement underwent a spiritual crisis. One faction continued to believe he was the messiah and would "rise up" and redeem Israel and the world. Another faction took a more agnostic approach. Few in leadership positions in contemporary Habad openly state that their rebbe was (and is) not the messiah. The development and consequences of this remain to be seen.

This situation has sparked a vehement debate in Orthodox Jewish circles about whether Habad messianism now constitutes a Jewish heresy. David Berger, an Orthodox Jewish historian, penned a fiercely polemical book, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (2001), arguing that Habad messianism is indeed a Jewish heresy and should be shunned by all those who adhere to traditional Judaism. Habad countered with a book-length rebuttal of Berger's accusations, The Messiah Problem: Berger, the Angel, and the Scandal of Reckless Indiscrimination (2002). The controversy constitutes one of the most serious and substantive debates in traditional Judaism.


Habad thought is clearly summarized and presented by Louis Jacobs in Seeker of Unity: The Life and Works of Aaron Starosselje (New York, 1966), as well as in the introduction and notes to his translation of Dov Ber of Lubavitch's Tract on Ecstacy (London, 1963). An excellent and highly original presentation is Rachel Elior's "HaBaD as a Contemplative System," in the collection Jewish Spirituality (New York, 19861987), edited by Arthur Green, vol. 14 in the World Spirituality series. Several classics of Habad thought are translated into English and published by Kehot, the Lubavitch publishing house, including Shneʾur Zalman's Tanyaʾ (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1956). On the Messiah controversy, see David Berger's The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Portland, Ore., 2001), and for the Habad response, Chaim Rapoport's The Messiah Problem: Berger, the Angel, and the Scandal of Reckless Indiscrimination (Ilford, U.K., 2002).

Arthur Green (1987)

Shaul Magid (2005)