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Martyrdom, Emotion and the Work of Ritual in R. Mordecai Joseph Leiner's Mei Ha-Shiloah

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 March 2004

Don Seeman
Affiliation:
Ma'ayan Initiative, Boston and the Pardes Institute, Jerusalem
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Extract

Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica (1800–1853) has been described as “the most radical of the Jewish mystics” and as a religious anarchist.Joseph Weiss, “A Late Jewish Utopia of Religious Freedom,” in David Goldstein, ed., Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 211. Along similar lines, see Rivka Schatz, “Autonomy of the Spirit and the Law of Moses” (Hebrew), Molad 21 (1973–1974), pp. 554–561 and Rachel Elior, “The Innovations in Polish Hasidism” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 62 (1993), pp. 381- 432. This position has already been moderated to some extent in Morris M. Faierstein, All is in the Hands of Heaven: The Teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica (New York: Ktav, 1989). Other works on R. Mordecai Joseph include Jerome Gellman, Fear and Trembling, and the Fire (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1994) and Shaul Magid, “Hasidism and Existentialism? A Review Essay,” Modern Judaism 15 (1995) pp. 279–294. Some scholars have wondered how he managed to resist the antinomian pull of his own doctrine, and to “suffer the chaotic without perishing within it.”Weiss, A Late Jewish Utopia, p. 245. Yet this characterization bears witness to a profound tendency in much of the academic scholarship on Hasidism—and on religion in general—to privilege doctrine over practice, or to frame the object of study in theological and philosophical rather than ritual and hermeneutic terms.See Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and Byron J. Good, Medicine, Rationality and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), each of which treats the difficulty associated with “belief” as an analytic category in the study of culture and religion. Moshe Idel's Hasidism Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995) provides a welcome correction to the doctrinal focus in Hasidic studies, but the specific ritual models he describes (i.e. ecstasy and magic) are inadequate to R. Mordecai Joseph's oeuvre. It neglects, for instance, the fact that Hasidic texts are often devoted to the elaboration of ritual cosmologies, and that ritual “work” (including the management of emotional dispositions) almost always takes place over time. As the anthropologist Victor Turner has shown, this means that ritual symbols can take on different or even contradictory sets of meanings depending on where in an ongoing ritual process they are deployed.Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1967). An influential statement on the role of ritual in promoting religious dispositions can be found in Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973). For a critique of Geertz with special reference to Hasidic sources, see Don Seeman, “Ritual, Emotion and ‘Useless Suffering' in the Warsaw Ghetto” (in press). When R. Mordecai Joseph makes seemingly contradictory statements about the existence of free will or the place of anger in religious experience therefore, it is in ritual process rather than anarchy or inconsistency that an explanation should be sought. He was moved by a distinctive understanding of divine glory (kabod shamayim) to reevaluate ritual strategies that promoted ecstasy, emotionalism, and self-annihilation or martyrdom as religious ideals in Hasidism, and to suggest new forms of ritual work in their stead. In short, R. Mordecai Joseph sought to reconcile divine glory with divine law, and to do so at the level of the individual human will.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
© 2003 by the Association for Jewish Studies

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