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A Secular Alchemy of Social Science

The Denial of Jewish Messianism in Freud and Durkheim

Philip Wexler

This essay presents a reading of the work of two central figures of modern social theory that locates their work within not simply mainstream Jewish thought, but a particular Hasidic tradition. Further, I argue that lying behind this, in a repressed form, is an even older tradition of Jewish alchemy. I make no claim to have evidence that either Freud or Durkheim were directly influenced by Hasidism or alchemy, but I examine the parallels between the structure of their thoughts and those of the two traditions. Both Freud and Durkheim display a social psychology that is analytically similar to the dualism of Hasidism's Tanya and the general transformational models of alchemy. This formal model is in opposition to the messianic tradition in Jewish thought and analyzes Freud and Durkheim as anti messianic social psychologists. Hasidism offers a template for modern theories of social psychology, social interaction and the relation between the social and the individual, that is, collective identity. This essay also considers more generally how modern social theory might make sense of contemporary social phenomena by opening itself to the messianic and mystical traditions in Jewish thought. I suggest that the social and structural transformation associated with the information or network society requires new analytic tools that allow us to explain social energy differently to the way Freud and Durkheim have guided social theory. Contemporary analyses of individualization, social movements and sacralization as forms of and reactions to alienation are inadequate. Instead, I ask whether we should not 'restore a messianic, truly utopian "lost unity", which the alchemical, secular gnosis of modern social science displaced, and so renew social theory?'

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German Displaced Persons Camps (1945-1948)

Orthodox Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

Gershon Greenberg

Orthodox Jews in postwar German Displaced Persons camps experienced the Holocaust's rupture of God's covenantal relationship with history and the eclipse of sacred reality. They sought to recapture that reality, even though the continuity of tradition that held it had been shattered. This was done by voluntarily reviving tradition, as if by doing so the sacred could be invoked. Following momentary suspension, they sought to restore ethnic-generational purity and traditional ritual. They invested holiday celebration with Holocaust meaning. On the level of thought they expanded Israel's metahistory to include the unprecedented tragedy and intensified their own contributions of Torah and Teshuvah to the higher drama, and recommitted their trust that divine light was implicit to reality's darkness.

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Mindfulness and Hasidic Modernism

Toward a Contemplative Ethnography

Don Seeman and Michael Karlin

; Kudesia and Nyima 2015 ; B. Ozawa-de Silva 2016 ; Sharf 2015 ). We want to push this scholarly intervention further still by showing how mindfulness language is being adopted in a completely non-Buddhist context—Chabad Hasidism—where lived experience

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Otherwise than Meaning

On the Generosity of Ritual

Don Seeman

The thought experiment ‘ritual in its own right’ implies a suspension of dominant interpretive paradigms in anthropological research. This essay begins by juxtaposing the foundational accounts of Weber and Geertz—both of whom associate ritual with the quest for meaning in suffering—with the phenomenological account of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that suffering is inherently “useless” and therefore resistant to meaning’s claim. All three theorists are then juxtaposed with the Warsaw ghetto writings of a twentieth-century Jewish mystic, Kalonymos Shapira, whose work exemplifies the tension between meaningful and useless suffering in a real social setting. Shapira’s work bears comparison with Levinas’s, and lends support to the idea that our preoccupation with meaning may stem from a particular religious genealogy of social theory. Ritual can be analyzed as a ground of intersubjectivity or transcendence rather than meaning, which makes it more akin to medicine, in Levinas’s terms, than to theodicy.

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Byron L. Sherwin

In the Bible, God commands Noah to enter the ark. The Hebrew word for ‘ark’ is teivah. The Hebrew word for the letters of the alphabet is also teivah. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught that in prayer and in study, a person must enter the letters. The letters of holy words are each like a door.

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Edmée Kingsmill

Maurice Friedman, Buber's biographer, writes of the controversy between Buber and Scholem that it 'touches on the soil of tragedy'. I will attempt to suggest some reasons why this was so. And then I will look at three pieces on Buber by Scholem, first, 'Martin Buber's Conception of Judaism', second, Scholem's tribute given 'At the Completion of Buber's Translation of the Bible', and third, 'Martin Buber's Interpretation of Hasidism'. I shall begin by giving some account of the early years of each which provides the background for the conflict between these two great but incompatible men.

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Ada Rapoport-Albert

(26 October 1945–18 June 2020)

Joanna Weinberg

In June 1988 a cluster of students from Leo Baeck College made their way to University College London to attend a very special event, a conference entitled ‘The Social Function of Mystical Ideas in Judaism: Hasidism Reappraised’. This conference

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Dancing in Solidarity and Dissent

JCM 2015, Wuppertal

Mark L. Solomon


In this deeply personal article, Mark Solomon explores the universal dichotomy between group solidarity and individual dissent by reflecting on two formative experiences of his own life. The first was his inspiring teenage encounter with Lubavitch Hasidism and his revulsion at its extreme, particularistic views about Jewish souls, which led to a loss of faith in Judaism and a four-year spiritual struggle over whether to convert to Christianity. Later, as an Orthodox rabbi, he had to deal with a growing awareness of being gay and the need to come out, once again leaving the solidarity of the traditional Jewish family structure for a dissenting way of life. Individual dissent can create a new sense of community and bring with it a solidarity among outsiders. The challenges of belonging and personal freedom are part of the perpetual rhythm of life and can be a source of growth and energy.

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London's Haredi Periodicals in Yiddish

Language, Literature and Ultra-Orthodox Ideology

Bruce J. Mitchell

An analysis of Yiddish language periodicals destined for a haredi reading public is fraught with difficulty. First and foremost, the very existence of such reading material is paradoxical. On the one hand haredim strongly discourage wasting time reading anything not directly related to Torah, yet on the other hand Yiddish newspapers have a much stronger readership among haredim than among secular Jews. Even the Forverts, the most widely sold secular paper in Yiddish, has a distribution of 5,000 copies per week, which is far below that of most haredi papers. As one hasid explains, it's a waste of time to read secular papers, but it's a mitsve to read the haredi news publications.

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Steven Sher

plagues again filling our lungs. Commentary on the Crown Heights Riots on the 20 th anniversary As one anonymous Hasid said amid the boarded stores and shattered glass, “Their women wear less on the street than my wife wears in our bedroom.” Police