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A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters, by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-YepezJewish Publication Society of America, 406 pages, $45

A friend interested in Hasidism, who saw me reading "A Heart Afire," commented lukewarmly: "Do we really need another book about the Hasidic masters?"

It's a question worth taking seriously. Indeed, a previous collaboration by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the grand old man of the Jewish Renewal movement, and his student, Netanel Miles-Yepez, a comparative religion scholar and spiritual counselor, already covered the topic, seemingly. In this case the overlap is not major, for the earlier work, "Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters" (2003 ), is wide-ranging, whereas this one is limited to examining three specific 18th-century masters and their circles: the Baal Shem Tov (Israel Ben Eliezer, the "Besht," founder of the Hasidic movement ); Dov Ber (the Maggid ) of Mezritch; and Elimelech of Lizhensk.

There is, however, no lack of illustrious predecessors writing in the same genre as "A Heart Afire," namely not from an academic-critical perspective but from an insider one. They too charted the tales, and in some cases the teachings, of the major players in the early Hasidic movement. To name just a few: Elie Wiesel ("Souls on Fire" ); Martin Buber ("Tales of the Hasidim" ); and more recently, Abraham J. Twerski, scion of the Hasidic Chernobyl dynasty ("Four Chassidic Masters" ), and Rami Shapiro, whose "Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained," was dedicated to Schachter-Shalomi, his rebbe. So my friend's question, even if meant rhetorically, appears to be a legitimate one.

It may, however, be rebutted on several fronts. Upon a first dip into these books, all the Hasidic stories may look alike, but there is actually some art to their telling. And "A Heart Afire" does it elegantly, using plain yet vivid language, and attempting to present the most authentic of the multiple extant versions of these stories. Here Hasidic insiders such as Twerski and Schachter-Shalomi, who was ordained as a Chabad rabbi but split with the movement in 1968 over his opinions on LSD use and other subjects, have the advantage. They are able to share stories of Hasidim they knew personally or stories heard from their rebbe, who heard them from his rebbe, all the way back to their origin -- reliably, if fleetingly, opening a door on the vanished world of pre-Holocaust European Jewry. For this reason alone, the aficionado may indeed wish to purchase yet another book on Hasidic masters, to hear the stories as Schachter-Shalomi and Miles-Yepez tell them. For one's subjectivity, the way in which one puts something across, we are told, is at the heart of Hasidic storytelling.

From Buddha to Jung

But the book is more than a collection of tales. It also incorporates ideas from non-Jewish sources of wisdom, ranging from the Buddha to Jung to the Greek-Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the syncretistic approach of Reb Zalman, as Schachter-Shalomi is known by his followers. His unusual life story begins in Poland in 1924, and proceeds via a stint with Viennese Belzer Hasidim to the United States, where he was ordained as a Chabad rabbi and became close to the sixth Lubavitch rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. After his split with Chabad, Schachter-Shalomi experienced a mounting interest in world religions, not only in theory but on the level of praxis.

Believing that Judaism -- indeed, the world -- was in the midst of a paradigm shift to a more expanded consciousness, Schachter-Shalomi founded what was later to become the Jewish Renewal movement, aiming to infuse Judaism with universal spiritual and creative practices. Clearly, he loves to bring together disparate elements -- what he refers to as "the unity of paradoxes" -- and "A Heart Afire" is no exception: Buber and Scholem, Eastern Europe and the Far East, Schachter-Shalomi and Miles-Yepez (who is descended from a Sephardi family of crypto-Jews ) -- all meet and carry on a dialogue therein.

Of all the sources of wisdom included, Sufism is particularly prominent. This too is not unexpected, both due to some shared history with Judaism (for example, Abraham Maimuni, the son of Maimonides, who recommended adopting certain Sufi practices, believing them to stem from the Hebrew prophets ), and to Sufism's open-hearted mystical approach. But the penny drops when we read on the cover that Miles-Yepez and Schachter-Shalomi co-founded the Inayati-Maimuni Tariqat, which is an inter-spiritual fellowship of seekers committed to both the Sufi and Hasidic paths, and the world's only Jewish order of Sufis. At this point we realize that the proportion of outside material present in "A Heart Afire" is not, in fact, so considerable, in light of where the authors are coming from. Whether this is a plus or a minus depends on the reader's enjoyment of such interjections. Sometimes they add clarity; but they may also serve as an abrupt, even gratuitous, yank out of the compelling world of Hasidism created in these pages.

Another difference between the other works and "A Heart Afire" lies in the latter's intelligent blend of teachings and tales. The authors commendably refuse to let go of either the intellectual or experiential dimensions; they claim that the two realms are inextricably entwined. The different fonts used for stories as opposed to teachings make it easy to navigate. The authors are expert instructors, leading us safely through the creative interpretations of verses for which Hasidim are famous, and murky theological waters, with the stories serving as beacons -- full of wisdom, humor, riddles and miracles.

For example, Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz teaches: "To disperse the clouds you need wind. There are 'clouds' that hover over the mind as well. The 'wind' to disperse them comes from the movement of prayer, the in and out of the lungs ... " Here the authors note: "Today, this seems like an obvious reference to breathing meditation, which creates tranquility and insight, but because he mentions 'the movements of prayer,' we also think of a more refined style of davenen [prayer], in which shuckelen [swaying in prayer] is linked to breath. This might be akin to the Sufi practices of zikr [remembrance of God through the use of a sacred word or phrase] and fikr [putting the sacred word or phrase on the breath ], both of which are often accompanied by bodily movement."

We are also, on occasion, challenged to find personal relevance, the authors turning to the reader directly with statements such as: "This is a good question for all of us to ask ourselves. 'What is it that I have done for God alone -- that no one else in the world knows -- that is simply my own special love gift to God?'" Such invitation to growth and reflection is another sign of the authors' highly contemporary pedagogy.

Insider language

Caveat emptor, however: "A Heart Afire" is not a simple book. Those less familiar with Hasidism and kabbala are explicitly directed to read "Wrapped in a Holy Flame" and several other works before approaching this one. Fine pedagogy notwithstanding, the language is ultimately insider language, and the neophyte will struggle to fully comprehend -- certainly on the first read.

Now in his 80s, and armed with funding, Schachter-Shalomi greatly desires to complete as many projects as possible in his lifetime. He terms his religious worldview "neo-Hasidism," by which he refers to an interplay of Hasidic and highly liberal sensibilities. Reading his latest book with this in mind, major questions of continuity are raised. Who are the true heirs to the original Hasidism -- today's ultra-Orthodox proponents, preservers of the lineage, rebbe-worship and halakhic commitment; or the Jewish Renewal movement, which, arguably, maintains Hasidism's dynamic iconoclasm and "mohin degadlut" (expanded, inclusive awareness)? To their credit, the authors are expansive enough to be interested in giving a hearing to both sides.

As it turns out, the two camps are not as distant from one another as they appear. It is marvelous to see how the left and right ends of the Jewish spectrum can meet in powerful spiritual materials.

Someone who was blindfolded and heard a random story read aloud would not necessarily know which book the story came from, for the tone of "A Heart Afire" is often extremely heimish, striking a folksy Yiddish note . Indeed, one wonders if this indicates that Reb Zalman, in his old age, is returning to more traditional roots.

However, a closer look at "A Heart Afire" soon reveals some significant divergences from the books emerging from the religious right: not only the eclectic sources, or the revealing spelling of phrases like "oy nebukh" (normally oy nebuch -- the kh a dead giveaway for academic publication ), but also a sensitivity to concerns like race and gender that are often absent in such publications. This is one of the book's most refreshing aspects for the Hasidism-enchanted yet thoroughly modern reader: the feeling that the authors may be trusted, not only to provide the genuine article, but also to recognize the places where Hasidism, beloved and amazing as it might be, might wound and offend. Far from overlooking women, the book devotes an entire chapter to Adel, the Besht's daughter, and demonstrates an awareness of the potential dangers in cult-like behaviors and rebbe-worship. The very existence of this book teaches us to abandon an either-or attitude about Hasidism ("either this belief system is 100 percent true or I can take nothing from it" ), and, in general, to accept an imperfect world in which good is frequently mixed in with bad.

While the authors respect their material enough to avoid Wiesel's apologetic tone when he wrote, "naive and childish, these tales are bound to make us smile," they are aware of the potential pitfalls in hagiography, a genre to which these miracle-saturated stories essentially belong. They shun pretense of accurate historical analysis, protesting that Hasidism by its nature must be written about subjectively (quoting Wiesel's declaration, "An objective Hasid is not a Hasid!" ); yet their very self-awareness in discussing this matter places them in a different, more critical camp. And in these kinds of balancing acts, the authors cater to a population attracted to Hasidism, thirsting for its spiritual depths, yet needing it to be translated into contemporary terms. This group appears ever on the increase, especially in Israel, and includes many who would not consider themselves neo-Hasidic.

This is not the first book Schachter-Shalomi has written with a disciple. He also wrote a book with Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, the spiritual leader of Nava Tehila, a Jewish Renewal community in Jerusalem. "Kirvat Elohim" ("Jewish Renewal: Integrating Heart and World" ) described in Hebrew, for an Israeli readership, some of the movement's ideas and practices. Such joint projects between Schachter-Shalomi and one of his students work well because Reb Zalman brings his powerful tales and teachings to the collaboration, while the disciples bring their own ideas and do the writing, said Gan Kagan, who was ordained by Schachter-Shalomi. "A Heart Afire" was the result of three years of dialogues and learning (or farbrengen, the Yiddish term for Hasidic gathering, as Reb Zalman affectionately terms such sessions ).

Kagan notes that in "Jewish Renewal," the resultant voice is sometimes Reb Zalman's, sometimes her own, and sometimes a blend that cannot be differentiated. Similarly, even though the first-person language of "A Heart Afire" tempts us to hear only the colorful Reb Zalman speaking, this is not quite the case. The personal snippets he does reveal are fascinating, though. For instance, he tells the reader: "There have been some people who have asked me to serve them as Rebbe and I have had to say, 'No, I don't have your shoresh ha-neshamah'" ("soul root," as the book defines it ). Explicit traces of Miles-Yepez are much rarer, however. Much of the book is in the amiable undifferentiated voice of what the authors call their "common subjectivity."

Jewish Renewal, with its non-halakhic and highly spiritual approach, makes many people uncomfortable. Yet Hasidism, we learn in "A Heart Afire," is all about opening one's heart, about overcoming the pride that prevents learning, for "it is not the critical mind with which the Hasid listens and contemplates." So dubious readers are invited to be swayed, if only a fraction, by the stories of arrogant rabbis who turned up at the Besht's or Maggid's court determined not to be converted, and walked away humbled and awed, "the enemy turned into a friend." "A Heart Afire" offers a spiritual journey for those who wish to take it.

Besides being an intelligent, readable and sensitive addition to the collection of works making Hasidism accessible to moderns, the book makes the world of Hasidic masters so magical that at times we feel -- pardon the poetic license -- as if we are wandering through an alternative version of "Lord of the Rings." Gandalf, Aragorn, hobbits and rings have been replaced with Reb Yisroel and Rav Pinhas, Holy Names and a bear in the forest, wagoneers and prideful mitnagdim, shortenings of way and lengthenings of Torah discussions; and all are infused with the light of the world to come. May these authors and others treat us to more wonderful unities of paradoxes, where old Jews speak to new and new Jews to old, in a voice that began at Sinai and that we hope shall never cease.

Yael Unterman is a writer and educator. Her book "Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar" (Urim Publications ) was a finalist for a 2009 National Jewish Book Award.

Haaretz Books, February 2010, haaretzbooks@gmail.com