Paths to the Divine:
Ecstatics and Theology in R. Dov Baer of Lubavitch

Jay Michaelson
January 3, 1997

I.   Introduction:  Experience, Ecstasy, and Theology

II.  Ecstasy and False Ecstasy according to R. Dov Baer
     A.   True Ecstasy: A Path of Contemplation
     B.   False Ecstasy: Self-Delusion

III. Theology and Ecstasy
     A.   Introduction
     B.   Theological and ontological doctrines motivating 
                   R. Dov Baer's account
          1.   Yesh and Ayin
          2.   The Natural and Divine Souls
          3.   Panentheism and the contemplation of truth
     C.   Differences in Theology, Differences in Ecstasy
          1.   Dov Baer and Aaron of Staroselye
          2.   Dov Baer and R. Nachman of Bratzlav
          3.   Dov Baer and non-hasidic theologies

IV.  Conclusion: Mystical Personalities

Paths to the Divine:
Ecstatics and Theology in R. Dov Baer of Lubavitch

I. Introduction: Experience, Ecstasy, and Theology

Why do we not all enjoy mystical experience? And how can we satisfy the nagging suspicion that some mystical experiences reported by enthusiasts -- from the Great Awakening masses in Jonathan Edwards' Treatise on the Religious Affections to the errant emotional enthusiasts in Dov Baer of Lubavitch's Tract on Ecstasy to the flocks of contemporary faith healers -- may, in some way, be false? Neither of these questions are new, of course, yet they continue to surface in academic, philosophical, religious, and literary circles.1 Perhaps because, as Eliade understood it, mysticism is religion looking at itself, the questions of veridicality and availability of mystical experience are recurrent ones both for those who seek to explain religious phenomena and those who seek to experience them.

Much of Dov Baer of Lubavitch's Tract on Ecstasy is devoted to a careful analysis of what ecstasy is, and what it is not, and he attempts to answer the pair of questions I have posed above. What is interesting about the Tract is that its answers are tied directly to the particular theological apparatus Dov Baer inherits from R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi's Tanya, with its emphasis on the oneness of the immanent and transcendent Gcd. I seek to examine in this paper the relationship between Dov Baer's account of ecstasy on the one hand and his ontological and theological commitments on the other, arguing that the former cannot be understood apart from the latter, and that systems that emphasize different aspects either of the mystic or of the universe -- and I will have occasion to draw comparisons both to classical mitnaggdic theology and to the pietistic faith of R. Nachman of Bratzlav -- will of necessity present different accounts of the truth and falsity of mystical experience.

Dov Baer's account of ecstasy is centered on the role of contemplation: indeed, contemplation is that which brings about ecstasy, and is in fact ecstasy itself, inasmuch as divine ecstasy is (non-)experience of the divine mind in an almost Aristotelian apotheosis of Mind contemplating itself. If intellectual contemplation, with its emotional side-effects, is the substance of divine ecstasy, false mystical experiences result not from sin or from divine refusal to cooperate but from error. This is indeed what Dov Baer says; the chief error of the false-ecstatics is that they mistake natural ecstasy, composed of [quote about it being from the heart and so on] for actual divine ecstasy, due to their lack of understanding of the structure of ecstasy itself, which Dov Baer painstakingly lays out. Another mistake -- that of conceiving of oneself as separate, mistaking the "nogah" for the inner kernel -- accounts for the unavailability of mystical experience to most of us. What is needed in both cases -- the false ecstatic and the non-ecstatic -- is contemplation. "Just" thinking carefully about one's situation and meditating upon it will bring about realization which opens the doors to ecstasy.

I will argue in Part III of this paper that this emphasis on contemplation only makes sense in a context of metaphysically available mystical experience. If, for example, Dov Baer were to subscribe to a 2nd Century Jewish understanding of reality, secret knowledge required to pass through the divine halls -- not introspection and meditation -- would be the key (sometimes literally) to ecstasy, and false gnosis the cause of false and dangerous experience. Or, to choose a more proximate example, if Dov Baer were to believe that a distant Gcd could only be reached through exertion of faith and pious effort, then contemplation would be useless without such avodah. But Dov Baer inherits a panentheistic, quasi-monistic worldview from his father, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who says himself that only our ignorance prevents us from seeing the truth of the Oneness of creation. Moreover, Gcd is within each person, not in some distant point, and thus all that is needed is an "uncovering" of reality. I argue in Part III that these strands are not co-incident but necessary for one another, that if the account of the world's essence or of mystical experience were changed, the other would have to change as well.

I will conclude the paper in Part IV by sketching an account of Hasidism as an intellectual phenomenon not at all distinct from its social and emotional bases, suggesting that the divergent emphases of Hasidic theological homilies and Hasidic tales (or, if you like, of historically "accurate" understandings of Hasidism and contemporary, quasi-Buberian renovations of it) may be comprehensible as part of a whole, since the way the world is said to be and the way the Hasid ought to act are so necessarily related. While this may not seem to be such a novel realization, it nonetheless calls into question traditional methodologies in the study of religion, which tend to tease apart metaphysical ideas and social trends, usually suggesting that one "caused" the other. I will not take sides in this battle; rather, as an endnote to my investigation of Dov Baer, I will suggest that for integrated practitioners (and not [just] naive syncretists) of religious lifestyles, personal experience and ontotheology are all of a piece.

II. Ecstasy and false Ecstasy according to R. Dov Baer

A. True Ecstasy: A Path of contemplation

Ecstasy, or hitpaalut, according to Dov Baer consists chiefly in the comprehension of the Divine nothingness, and, since one`s intellect merges with that Divine, a form of unity with it. 2 Ecstasy is less a simple phenomenon of mystical union, as it is sometimes treated in academic literature, than a complex hierarchy of experiences of nearness to the Divine. Finally, at the end of the long and winding road is a point at which one`s self-understanding leads to a simple song of undifferentiated delight. (DB 137)

Along the path to this realization are, according to Dov Baer, numerous minor ecstasies, the categorization of which is Dov Baer`s subject matter for much of the Tract, in particular Parts II, III, and IV. Ironically, these intermediate forms of natural and divine ecstasy -- well discussed by Jacobs in his introduction to the Tract (Jacobs 15-20) -- are themselves the reason many of our fraternity are perplexed and in error. (DB 57) Their error is quite severe -- Dov Baer says that of light they say it is darkness and of darkness light (id.) -- but the core of the matter (72) is simply that they mistake these shells (nogah) of something-ness for the kernel of Divine nothingness. As Loewenthal notes, one may use as a "yardstick" to check the accuracy of one's mystical experience the degree to which one still perceives something-ness, in particular, something-ness of self. (Loewenthal 129ff)

I would like not to become side-tracked on the ten forms of ecstasy, but will instead briefly lay out Dov Baer`s schematic before moving on to how error may upset the process. Dov Baer describes ten stages of ecstasy, corresponding to nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chaya and yechidah in the natural and divine realms, and also to the sefirotic groups of malchut, the six shepherds, binah, chochmah, and keter. 3 (DB 93) Dov Baer`s discussion of mystical psychology is indeed fascinating, as he moves from a cold, intellectual understanding of the Divine (hearing from afar, p. 79) to a sense of connectedness with that understanding 4 (the goodly thought joined to the deed, p. 80) to an ecstasy of the nearness of Gcd to a unity of the mind and the heart 5 (to love and serve, p. 88) and finally an almost zen-like noncognitive union with simple will itself. 6 (It is interesting, for example, that the spokesman for the supposedly rigorously intellectualist Habad school actually places cold intellectualism at the bottom of the rung of actual ecstasies, above only ecstasy pursued for thrills.)

It is intriguing to see how Dov Baer charts out the correspondences of these ecstasies on the level of the divine soul when he maps the five stages a second time: the desire to do good deeds, or frumkeit (nefesh/malchut, p. 114); real ecstasy in thought and inner will (ruah/ "six shepherds," p. 122); 7 a total lack of self-awareness (neshamah/binah, p. 128); a point of contemplation in the mind (chayah/chochmah, p. 130) which is none other than that of the actual divine light itself (DB 132); and actual essence ascending in song (yechidah/keter, p. 136).

But I do not want to dwell on the nuances of these accounts; what is of most concern here is that there are distinctions between types of ecstasy, even between types of true ecstasy. Particularly important is the distinction between the five stages of ecstasy as clothed in the shell of the natural soul and the five as they actually are in the divine soul, but also as they exist between the very subtle forms of ecstasy Dov Baer describes.

What generally distinguishes lower from upper forms of ecstasy within types (I will discuss the differences between natural and divine ecstasy infra) is the degree of self-awareness and subsequent self-absorption that accompanies each. Given that abandonment of ego is one of the features of Dov Baer's view of the progress of ecstasy, it is not surprising that all traces of ego -- even conventional intention itself -- vanish at the stage of yechidah, the highest rung of Dov Baer's ladder. But the principle is more fully developed than that: each progression through the chain, as discussed above, seems to involve a bringing closer of the soul to a state of simplicity in which the apparent causal relationships and distances in the phenomenal world recede. Ultimately, ecstasy is an almost automatic awareness of simple will; it is an almost featureless apotheosis (or re-apotheosis, given Dov Baer's doctrines of the soul), described fully at the end of Part IV of the Tract. (DB 136-40) The final contemplation is seemingly of ayin itself.

B. False Ecstasy: Self-delusion

As I have discussed, there are many stages of ecstasy before one reaches this peak, and Dov Baer suggests that the main problem with sham ecstasy is that people mistake a lower level for the highest one. 8

     In other words, the main problem is error:
     For it appears that the chief confusion, resulting in a diminution
of the light of Torah and the service of the heart, even among those who
seek and desire the nearness of Gcd, is none other than self delusion.               

(DB 141)

Mistaking a lower rung for a higher rung -- or natural for divine ecstasy -- is a grievous error because it, in effect, substitutes a Thing for the Divine nothingness itself, 9 idolatry inasmuch as it places a non-divine object where the Divine should be. Worse yet, in some forms of sham-ecstasy, one is aware of the self, nothing more and is thus engaged in an egoistic form of Self Worship diametrically opposed to the bittul that accompanies true ecstasy. (DB 68) Such ego-inflation is linked by Dov Baer to avodah zara, and alludes -- according to Jacobs' interpretation, to it as a cause of false messianism such as that of Shabbetai Zevi. (DB 71) Mistakes are also problematic to a lesser degree because they are likely to confuse the Hasid into thinking he has attained ecstasy, and thus prevent him from actually doing so. Finally, it should not be surprising, given what we have said about the progression of ecstasy as paralleling a progression away from ego, that it is self delusion that causes the most problems in Dov Baer`s system. Not unlike Buddhist practices, in which removal of concepts of ego is an absolutely essential step towards enlightenment, Dov Baer suggests that ego and its projections are the prime impediment in the way of proper devekut and ecstasy. 10 Self-delusion, after all, requires a notion of self. One may measure the extent of the truth of one's ecstatic experience by the lack of ego associated with it; to err is to think that an experience "I am having" is ultimate Divine ecstasy.

What is the cause of this self-delusive error? It seems less a matter of piety or evil intention than of knowledge. 11 As Dov Baer says at the outset, this [error] is the result of insufficient effort and insufficient practice and training. (DB 57) What separates false ecstasy from true is the expertise and insight -- not necessarily (or not just) the goodness or purity -- of the Hasid. Nor is the gnosis to which Dov Baer refers a secret knowledge of a small circle of initiates -- in fact, Dov Baer scorns those who say I have a secret (DB 57) -- but is in fact reproduced in the Tract itself, and to an extent is intelligible to any one who has more than once tasted in his soul the true flavor of the words of the living Gcd, (DB 70) a phrase Dov Baer uses (with some variations) dozens of times in the Tract.

Of course, saying that "the wise will understand" is somewhat problematic in Dov Baer`s case, because one of his central points is that one can have some kind of ecstasy and be in error regarding its source. (Interestingly, Dov Baer analogizes such careless thinking to the general distinctions between the older ways of Hasidism and the Hasidic ways which our master and father . . . bequeathed to us. (DB 61) Generalized ecstasy without careful intellectual reflection on what is going on is not Habad hasidism at all, according to Dov Baer. The potential for error is too great, and the character of the ecstatic too uncontemplative, for Dov Baer to countenance.) But Dov Baer does suggest certain phenomenological characteristics that are immediately identifiable as hallmarks of false ecstasy: pride, for example, a solipsistic ego-worship, a haughtiness resembling that of ordinary snobbery. (DB 70ff) I will return to the question of why ego is so much of a problem for Dov Baer in Part III; for now, the central point is that the projections of ego along the complex road to divine ecstasy are the chief source of error. Understanding the phenomenology of ecstasy, as laid out by Dov Baer, is the solution.

III. Theology and Ecstasy

A. Introduction

Throughout the Tract, Dov Baer`s account of ecstasy is conditioned by his theological background. While this initial claim is perhaps not surprising, it is worth considering for a moment how particular Dov Baer`s theology is to Habad and whether alterations in the Habad worldview would necessitate alterations in religious behavior, and to what extent. After all, one of the salient characteristics of normative Halachic Judaism is said to be the relative devaluation of ideas in favor of action. Mitnaggdic Halachic Jews may disagree to a great extent on theological matters (within certain prescribed limits, of course) but these disagreements generally are thought to have relatively little impact on what matters, namely, performance of the mitzvot.

I argue that in both the Tanya and the Tract, the situation is quite different, and for reasons that are bound up with the inwardness of Hasidism generally, as discussed in Part IV, below. When the summum bonum depends on proper contemplation, right thinking becomes at least as important as right action. This is the case in the Tract.

B. Theological and ontological doctrines motivating Dov Baer`s account of ecstasy

1. Yesh and Ayin

First of the ontological/theological doctrines which shapes Dov Baer`s understanding of ecstasy is that of the relationship of somethingness to nothingness 12 or utter annihilation 13 in the Divine. Dov Baer notes early on, that the doctrine of the difference between the holy side and the side of Nogah is at the core of the matter. (DB 73-74) Dov Baer, following R. Schneur Zalman, explains that

     with regard to the holy, the category of the 'vessel` (the
category of the yesh of the light) is in the category of utter
annihilation.  But with regard to the 'vessel` of Nogah, the yesh is
sensed to the extent that the addition is greater to that to which it is
added, and this addition is a diminution etc.

(DB 74)

This discussion is quite similar to the passage in the Tanya in which R. Schneur Zalman states how precisely that which seems real to us -- material things -- is in fact nothing, whereas that which appears to be ayin -- God -- is in fact the only something. (RSZ 293-95) Essentially, seen from the Divine perspective, that which appears to be yesh in the universe is actually ayin v`efes mamash, whereas that which looks to us like ayin (Gcd) is the true yesh. Dov Baer elaborates this statement with several examples and interpretations of Biblical verses, but it is clear what the relevance is for his theory of ecstasy: if one is in the category of nogah, which in Kabbalistic terms is linked to the evil side of existence -- not just the material world -- one mistakes what is something for what is nothing, and vice versa. Indeed, the deluded would turn the darkness into light and light to darkness (DB 71) because the simple error of mistaking the human for the divine is actually an ontological reversal of the proper ordering of the universe: the human projection is thought to be yesh, when actually it is ayin, and the Divine ayin/yesh is never glimpsed.

Thus, the interplay of yesh and ayin is directly connected to the way Dov Baer conceives of errors of misappropriation in ecstatic practice. False attribution of ecstasy, whether by a Hasid or a Kabbalist or an LSD aficionado, is in fact a categorical error, because it attributes reality to something which is not really Real. Phenomenologically, it is difficult to know that this experience is false without some other information; Dov Baer does not suggest that the experience is self-contradictory or itself destructive (in the way that false gnosis in the maaseh merkavah sense of the words immediately brings about ruin). Rather, one must have the theological background that Dov Baer provides in order to properly contextualize a low or intermediate form of ecstasy. But Dov Baer`s understanding of yesh and ayin make misappropriation of ecstatic origin a grievous categorical error.

2. The Natural and Divine Souls

A second philosophical principle that animates Dov Baer`s Tract is the doctrine of the divine and natural soul. Of course, this somewhat troubling doctrine, derived from the Tanya, dictates the structure of Dov Baer`s analysis itself. But the influence is more than taxonomic. Dov Baer states that because the natural soul, including her ten powers of will, intellect and qualities and thought and speech etc. (DB 97), is but a garment of nogah, its contemplation of the Divine, and ecstatic contact with It, are thus veiled by that garment. (Id.) It is impossible, in such a context, for a truly unmediated experience of the Divine, or even for an experience of the divine not tainted with an admixture of evil. 14 (DB 97ff)

Like Dov Baer`s treatment of yesh and ayin, the opportunity for error presents itself in the context of mistaking illusion and reality. One might believe that the five sorts of contact with Gcd discussed in Dov Baer`s account of ecstasy are real, that there are different faculties of the soul at work, and that the names given the soul accurately describe an entity divided into portions. Dov Baer argues that while true for the soul as clothed in natural garments, this is not true for the soul itself. (DB 99) Dov Baer observes that the natural soul is moved in different ways for the Divine, noting that the diversity of responses to Gcd is a wonderful thing. 15 (DB 105)

3. Panentheism and the contemplation of truth

Hasidism according to Martin Buber was said to emphasize the constant availability of revelation, that the ultimate good was available 'here and now.` While this claim is no longer quite sustainable, Habad hasidism, at least in the Tanya, does propose a rigorous panentheism that proposes first that the world is one, second that it is one with Gcd, and third that the ayin may be uncovered within every yesh. Gcd is everywhere, yet No-where, and the Tanya`s monotheism proposes a radically depersonalized conception of the Omnipresent Infinite, a view more in consonance with Romantic notions of a motion and spirit that impels all thinking things and runs through all things (Wordsworth) than a more traditional Jewish concept of a personalized participant in history. While one should not overplay the radicalism of the Tanya`s theology, it is the case that the Tanya's panentheism is rigorously developed by R. Schneur Zalman, who seems at pains to point out the necessity of understanding its consequences.

The consequences of Tanyaesque panentheism for a theory of mystical experience are many. First, mysticism will not be about ascent to some other place as about uncovering or revealing the true nature of the reality in which one stands. This trend runs throughout the Tract. For example, Dov Baer states of the capacity for an immediacy of the whole soul focused on one point of will, the stage of yehidah in the divine soul, though not found at all among most men, that there is a little of it in every spark of Israel. (DB 139) It is (only) a matter of stripping away false layers of illusion and ego to get to this latent ability. In unconcealment it shines in the perfectly righteous: (DB 140) not in perfection or change in the nature of the soul, but in elimination of the nonessential and subsequent revelation of the true essence. Of course, I do not want to exaggerate the claim; perfection of some sort is necessary to uncover reality, if only improvement on laziness and similar character flaws that impede one`s progress. (DB 142-44) But there is no essential change in the soul that takes place in Dov Baer's system, because essentially, the Divine soul is already, always at one with the Divine itself, and the world is already, always at one with God.

C. Differences in Theology, Differences in Ecstasy

As a means of illustrating the linkage between Dov Baer's phenomenology of mysticism and his theological commitments, I will briefly try to suggest ways in which his account of ecstasy would necessarily differ if it were aligned with two different schools of Hasidic thought, one the relatively close Habad school of R. Aaron of Staroselye, the second a somewhat more distant Hasidic approach of R. Nachman of Bratzlav. In each case, different answers to questions of theology and ontology lead to different phenomenologies and taxonomies of ecstasy as a religious phenomenon.

1. Dov Baer and Aaron of Staroselye
As Loewenthal has discussed in some depth, R. Dov Baer's account of ecstasy, which places emotional "enthusiasm" towards the bottom of the ladder, is in many respects a polemic against the sort of emotionalism advocated by his rival for leadership of Habad, R. Aaron of Staroselye. (Loewenthal 101-3) Although I cannot enter here into a detailed comparison of these two streams within Habad, it is fair to say that R. Aaron advocated a much more active, much more emotive form of prayer that R. Dov Baer's almost quietistic contemplation. Loewenthal suggests that the ideal Hasid for R. Aaron is "an enthusiast for whom contemplation leads invariably to inspired ecstasy," whereas for R. Nachman the Hasid is "a person drawn from the broad literate class of the period, transformed in some way by immersion in the intellectualist Habad teachings." (Loewenthal 101) It is probably also true that R. Aaron was more charismatic and extroverted than the somewhat quiet Dov Baer, as shall be discussed more fully in the concluding portions of this paper. The very sorts of external signs -- weeping, great movement, and so on -- which R. Dov Baer said lead to an egoism that prevents true bittul are encouraged by R. Aaron, and traced to R. Schneur Zalman and earlier figures. (Loewenthal 111)

Corresponding to this difference in personality type and form of worship, Elior notes that R. Aaron and Dov Baer emphasized different aspects of Habad theology. (Elior 100ff) R. Dov Baer's bittul may be seen as a way of removing the veil of nogah, materiality, from the ayin that underlies and pervades all, as I have discussed before. R. Aaron, on the other hand, minimizes the importance of bittul in favor of devekut, which is "truly to the living God." (Loewenthal 132) Elior and Loewenthal map this distinction onto a distinction between "'Upper Unity,' in which the world is dissolved in the One," represented by R. Aaron, and "'Lower Unity,' in which the world--as world--expresses the One." (Loewenthal 137; Elior 25ff) Elior has gone so far as to label Dov Baer's approach "anthrocentric" in contrast with R. Aaron's "theocentric" model, although I think this shortchanges the unity R. Dov Baer sees in the Divine and the individual's Divine Soul. Elior has a point, though. Dov Baer's anthropology, which states that there is indeed a core of Divinity within the human soul, allows and encourages a methodology of introspection and contemplation, as distinct from R. Aaron's methodology of striving for ec-stasis, the going out of one's soul from itself into God.

In sum, Dov Baer's mystic praxis depends on an ontotheology which posits an immanent God; Aaron's on one which posits a transcendent God. Of course, one of the central points of the Tanya's Shaar ha-Yichud v'ha'Emunah is that this is one and the same God. And, as an aside, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, has called this point "the essence of Hasidism." 16 But as different aspects of the Godhead are emphasized, different approaches to and results from ecstatic contemplation are presented.

2. R. Dov Baer and R. Nachman of Bratzlav
A more extreme example of variation among theological doctrines is Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. Not only does Rabbi Nachman have a strongly emotional sense of the human-divine relationship (as perhaps R. Aaron did), R. Nachman works from a different understanding of the Divine itself, without the yesh/ayin polarities of R. Schneur Zalman. Even when R. Nachman's worldview is worked out, it emphasizes not so much the ontological Otherness of Gcd but the distance of the theistic deity from humanity. At the same time, R. Nachman does not engage the sort of panentheistic eternity-in-a-blade-of-grass type of ecstatic mysticism as R. Schneur Zalman and R. Dov Baer. This may seem contradictory, but -- to borrow a mode of discourse from Dov Baer -- upon contemplation, it is not so. Dov Baer and R. Schneur Zalman maintain that Gcd is both within every thing and surrounding every thing; Gcd is thus as much a part of and apart from one thing as anything else. With the right insight, a kind of acosmic bittul not just of ego but of all ontological yesh other than Gcd occurs. In contrast, R. Nachman sees Gcd as an entity which is not the true inner reality of everything but is a somewhat unapproachable figure towards whom the Hasid speaks, cries, and longs.

Consequently, R. Nachman emphasizes those religious practices which tend to purify and direct the soul towards a proper understanding of its relation to God, in contrast with R. Dov Baer's contemplation of the soul's ultimate unity with God. Since the relationship in R. Nachman is one which can be either closer or more distant, activities such as sin and repentance carry mystico-ecstatic significance as well as the traditional Jewish significances that mitzvot always carry. There is also in R. Nachman an eschatological strain absent in R. Dov Baer; the pneumatic activities of the tzaddik in his community bring about not just changes in realization but changes in reality as well. One does not really bring about redemption through R. Dov Baer's contemplation; at most, one can recognize the proximacy or distance of the redemption "already at hand." Not so in the activist practices of R. Nachman.

Concurrent with the reality- and Divine will- altering potentials of R. Nachman's praxis is a greater danger of wrong action. In R. Dov Baer's system, at least as presented in the Tract on Ecstasy, the worst danger facing the Hasid is error. While this error may indeed be grievous--turning "black into white," as we noted before, and an idolatrous confusion of created matter with Divine antimatter--it is not said by R. Dov Baer to have any effects other than leading people astray from the correct path of worship. For R. Nachman, on the other hand, mystical activities require tremendous will as the tzaddik -- and because of the difficulties involved, only the tzaddik -- intercedes on behalf of the community to plead with God for redemption, or protection, or revelation. As discussed in detail by Green and others, this path is fraught with obstacles, the overcoming of which is most of the battle. These are obstacles not of ignorance or subtlety, as in R. Dov Baer, but of will, and, if we accept Green's reading of R. Nachman's pilgrimage to the Land of Israel, material events as well. And of course, when the tzaddik is responsible for the material well-being of his community, the risks of failure are obvious.

None of this would be the case if R. Nachman shared with R. Dov Baer the core belief that one is always in touch with the Divine, and is (merely) unaware of this fact. Nor would the forces of evil take on such a reality and separateness as they do in R. Nachman if they were thought to be mere shells of unreality concealing Divine effluence. Conversely, Dov Baer could not justify contemplation if there was an extra-personal aspect to contacting the Divine. For R. Nachman, "anthrocentrism" is simply unthinkable.

3. Dov Baer and non-Hasidic theologies
Of course, and by way of conclusion to this comparative portion of the paper, Dov Baer's account of mysticism and mystical "truth" would be radically different with radically different Jewish theologies. I suggested in the introduction that Dov Baer as Gnostic would have very different prescriptions for mystical practice than (mere) contemplation on the emanations of God. 17 Rather, one would expect the deployment of divine names, or concentration on letters (or even images) to make use of their efficacy. One would also not expect to find an intellectual hierarchy of ecstatic states; for a Merkavah mystic, for example, it is not a matter of differing degrees of understanding and awareness but differing degrees of expertise that condition a veridical mystical experience. Finally, one would not expect in a theological context of world abnegation any exhortation to discover the truth "within" the kernel of materiality, for truth and materiality are total opposites. Likewise for any system that does not emphasize the unity and Godliness (or God-shadow-ness) of the created world.

IV. Conclusion: Mystical personalities

I have attempted in the body of this paper to link the theological and mystical aspects of R. Dov Baer's brand of Habad Hasidism. I have suggested that the particular emphasis Dov Baer places on contemplation is a consequence of his (inherited) onto-theology that states that the world is ultimately God, and that the human soul has a Divine core to it. This theological understanding informs Dov Baer's mystical praxis and makes "right action" basically a matter of properly understanding reality through a series of contemplations on general points of theology and detailed expositions of Lurianic thought. Concurrently, error -- particularly, thinking some 'thing' of ecstasy, such as the projections of one's own ego are actually the Divine Itself -- is the most grievous failure in mystical praxis, and Dov Baer roundly condemns the ego-infatuated emotional enthusiasts (including, probably, R. Aaron of Staroselye's followers) of his time. I have suggested that changes in theology would necessitate changes in mystical practice, because a "theocentric" model of a soul-identity seeking to merge with an Other God-identity (R. Aaron) or a Bratzlav-type model of a Tzaddik trying to affect Divine wills and actions would require more than (just) contemplation, and would present dangers more dire than misunderstanding.

But I want to conclude this paper on one further point, and that regards the manifestations of these doctrines in "real" life. Loewenthal spends some time discussing how doctrines of the esoteric are "communicated," and notes that in the Tract on Contemplation and his Siddur, Dov Baer presents detailed manuals of meditation, including proposed subject matters and practical advice. (Loewenthal 157-63) But it is not only communication that takes place in the development of Dov Baer's thought; there seems to be a more complex, and interesting, interplay between Dov Baer as a person/leader and Dov Baer as a religious thinker. I would like to suggest by way of pointer towards further thought that not only theology but psychology may play a crucial role in the structure of Dov Baer's esoteric work.

It seems at times as though the differences in theology and ecstatic methodology are almost traits of character rather than aspects of philosophy. This point has been argued most elaborately by Green, in his biography of R. Nachman, but a milder form of the argument may serve as a useful breaking-off point here. One wonders to what extent R. Dov Baer's intellectualism is part of a greater "way of life," in contrast with R. Aaron's emotionalism or R. Nachman's constant wrestling with God. Loewenthal at one point dramatizes the point by describing what it would be like to be a part of R. Dov Baer's minyan, with its still, quiet contemplatives, compared with R. Aaron's circle of wildly gesticulating, swaying ecstatics. (Loewenthal 134) He even, at one point, suggests that R. Aaron's method of worship must have seemed "unseemly" to R. Dov Baer, (Id.) perhaps not entirely unlike the reaction an educated mitnaggid might have had to the embryonic Hasidic movement itself.

What does "unseemly" really mean? I think it is a significant, though subtle, comment. To label something 'unseemly' is to suggest that it is just not part of a properly virtuous life. There may not be anything wrong per se with swaying wildly during prayer, for example, but it just is not what a mentsch does. It may not be against halacha or even minhag to retreat to a cave at night and shout at God, as was R. Nachman's practice, but it is just not in accord with the kind of lifestyle that a correct weltanschauung would promote.

Of course, whether the "lifestyle" question is prior to the weltanschauung is a different debate; I am not arguing, nor am I refuting, the assertion that R. Dov Baer is constructing an elaborate rationale for a simple preference for decorum. My point here is that there seems to be a greater harmony in which the "cold fish" R. Dov Baer constructs a consistent worldview and lifestyle in accord not just with theological and philosophical ideas but with basic intuitions about what is right and basic character traits about what is proper. So does the ecstatic R. Aaron and the tortured R. Nachman (accepting Green's basic point for the moment).

Some Hasidic sources, particularly in Hasidic tales as publicized and discussed by Martin Buber, seem to echo this point. The famous story of a hasid who went to learn from a tzaddik not words of Torah or mystical wisdom but "how he ties his shoelaces" suggests that there is much in the character of a person that is worth observing for religious purposes. Particularly in the case of the tzaddik who is in close (if not direct) contact with the Divine, such mundane actions are charged with Divine radiance itself. There is no such thing as "just" a matter of taste.

This point is not unique to Hasidism, of course. From the Talmud to present day yeshivot, the way in which a teacher conducts himself is often seen as proof of whether he is truly learned or not. And given Jewish learning's focus on ethical behavior and the norms governing it, this should not be at all surprising. If one does not act like a mentsch, one has obviously not understood Torah properly.

R. Dov Baer himself offers the "yardstick" of egoism to separate true ecstatic experiences -- and thus, true ecstatics -- from false ones. How more clearly would such egoism be shown than in the pride and arrogance Dov Baer decries early in the Tract? (DB 57-58) And, from the opposing point of view, how more dramatically could non-ecstasy be presented than in the silent, still, inward-looking "cold fish" of R. Dov Baer and his followers? To R. Aaron, they have not even begun properly to dream.

I might conclude, then, by suggesting a closer linkage between the hagiographical and historical presentations of Hasidic personages and the theological and mystical writings the figures themselves produce. Buber's "strong case," that Hasidic teachings, and teachers, were resolutely focused on the 'here and now,' cannot be sustained, certainly not in the case of Habad. But a more nuanced version of the observation may yet be possible: that the theological and methodological writings of Hasidic masters are in some close way tied to the kind of daily lives they felt were appropriate. The sense of proper mentchlichkeit may govern even the tzaddik's encounters with the Infinite.


     Primary sources

R. Dov Baer of Lubavitch, Tract on Ecstasy (Jacobs trans. 1963)

R. Schneur Zalman of Liady, Tanya (Kehot ed. 1981)

     Secondary sources

Buber, Martin, My Way to Hasidism, in Essential papers.

Elior, Rachel, The Paradoxical Ascent to Gcd: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of
Habad Hasidism (Jeffrey Green trans., Albany, 1993)

"Essential Papers" = Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to Present
(Gershon David Hundert ed., NYU, 1991)

Green, Arthur, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav

Heifetz, Harold, ed., Zen and Hasidism (Quest 1978)

Jacobs, Louis, notes and introduction to Tract on Ecstasy (1963)

Jacobs, Louis, Hasidic Prayer (Schocken 1977)

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge 1985)

Loewenthal, Naftali, Communicating the Infinite (Univ. of Chicago 1990)

Proudfoot, Wayne, From Theology to a Science of Religions: Jonathan
Edwards and William James on Religious Affections, Harvard Theological
Review, Vol. 88, at 149-68 (1989).

Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On Religion (Richard Crouter trans. 1988)

Schneerson, R. Menachem Mendel, On the Essence of Chassidus (Kehot 1987)

Scholem, Gershom, Devekut, or Communion with Gcd, in Essential Papers

Scholem, Gershom, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism(Schocken 1946)


1. The general question of true and false religious experiences is one which I shall touch upon only briefly in this paper, although it frames the questions of what criteria R. Dov Baer sets up to distinguish between the two, and what motivates those criteria. See Proudfoot at 152 (discussing Schleiermacher, Edwards, and James on veridicality of religious experience).

2. Unio mystica is of course a highly controversial subject in the study of Hasidism and Jewish mysticism generally, and I will not attempt to enter into the debate here. (See Scholem Major Trends at 5-7, claiming absence of mystical union is one of characteristic features of Jewish mysticism). But as even the term yechidah itself suggests, the experience of this portion of the divine soul is not a dualistic one: Dov Baer describes it more as a coming-together of the aspect of the Divine-in-itself and the Divine-in-the-soul or rather, a realization that the human and divine were always thus linked. Surely this essential binding and attachment is more than very proximate nearness (which Dov Baer identifies as the third of his five mystical stages. Nor is this the spark being drawn to the flame (cf. DB 67) -- that is also a lower stage. This seems more a subsuming of the spark within the flame, accompanied by a recognition that the two are of the same substance, although later in the Tract Dov Baer speaks about yechidah of the Divine soul as being more about unification of one`s own wills and desires in accord with the v`ahavta line of the Shema. (DB 139-40)

3. In addition to these ten grades of true ecstasy, there is also the gross ecstasy of the fleshly heart done merely for the enjoyment of the feeling, which Dov Baer initially suggests is a preliminary form of ecstasy but eventually rejects completely. (DB 78) Dov Baer later seems to propose that excitement over doing something that feels spiritual is a similarly base matter, New Age motivations notwithstanding. (DB 106) He also, on the level of the divine soul, corresponds a piety as a result of miracles to a piety as a result of true belief. (DB 119)

4. Dov Baer interestingly analogizes the comparison between these first two stages to someone learning of a great treasure and appreciating it in the abstract versus someone learning that he personally stands to inherit a great fortune. (DB 82)

5. Dov Baer notes that, in contrast to the fifth stage, there is still a causal relationship between the love of Gcd and the desire to act properly, that there is not complete unity of experience and response. (DB 87)

6. Dov Baer analogizes this ecstasy to instinctively clapping one`s hand in joy: experience, response, and intention are instantaneous. (DB 90)

7. Dov Baer states that the holiness of martyrs is of this type. (DB 124) As in natural ecstasy, the stage of Ruah has an inner vitality associated with the deed, rather than just a conception of the deed itself. (Id.)

8. Dov Baer notes that, actually, the main problem across the masses is that people are too fully absorbed in business matters, which Dov Baer identifies with vanity, to even muster up the will to devote themselves to mystical practice to begin with. (DB 141-42) Many, he notes, are all too ready to make up excuses for laziness. (DB 143) But our concern here is not with those who do not attain ecstasy at all, but with those who attain some sort of false ecstasy -- and how to sort out their experiences from true ones. 9. Cf. Tanya 253ff. Like mystical union, the role of ayin, mystical nothingness, is well discussed in the literature and I will not recapitulate the helpful comparative analyses of Matt, Forman, Katz, and others.

10. It is interesting, as an aside, to note that discarding identity has some interesting valences for modern-day Jewish ecstatics as well. Noted Buddhist poet Gary Snyder remarked in a volume entitled Zen and Hasidism (Heifetz ed.) that ultimately one could not practice Zen Buddhism as a Jew because:

                    In Zen all concepts are destroyed--
                    "If you meet the Buddha, slay him."
                    Self is destroyed.
                    The very notion of "existence" itself 
                    is discarded.
                    How could "being a Jew" be of
                    importance to one on such a 

11. This is not true of ecstasy for kicks, however, which is pursued because of a flaw in the individual's ethico-religious nature.

12. For clarity`s sake, I will use the term yesh and ayin rather than somethingness and nothingness, because all four terms have different valences which should be kept distinct.

13. This is Jacobs` translation, and I was unable to secure a Hebrew copy of the Tract. I assume the original is ayin mamash, or ayin v`efes mamash the phrases R. Schneur Zalman uses in the Tanya, which preserves the symmetry of the statement in question.

14. I confess to not understanding the role of admixtures in discussions of psychological or ontological phenomena, and will not attempt a comprehensive analysis of it here, an analysis which I believe would be unable to wrest coherence from the idea in any case.

15. As an aside, Dov Baer gives an interesting, quasi-Cartesian account of why contemplation on matters Divine invariably moves the soul. He argues that the stirring of the soul cannot be due to the simple profundity of the matter, because other activities (tax law, crossword puzzles) are more complex. Thus there must be something greater than the soul which moves it when it contemplates Gcd, in contrast to these other activities. (DB 95)

16. R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, On the Essence of Chassidus (1987).

17. I have attempted not to enter into a discussion of the subject matter of Dov Baer's contemplative exercises, primarily because it is not discussed in the Tract on Ecstasy but in the volume known as the Tract on Contemplation. Dov Baer's remarks there are quite interesting; he likens thought to a river, which varies in length, width, and depth. (Loewenthal 149) Within the permutations these dimensions allow, Dov Baer describes both "general" and "detailed" contemplation, the former being a meditation on a few general matters such as "a flow of radiance emerging from the Infinite," the latter being a complex meditation on "each created thing, on each of the different levels of the order of the downchaining of worlds" according to the Lurianic system. (Id.) Dov Baer also included in his Siddur subject matter for both general and detailed contemplation, usually following a Lurianic model.

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