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Hasidism and Modernity: the Hasid and the ‘Other’—by Naftali Loewenthal

By uclhwis, on 4 December 2016

Wednesday 7 December, 2016

Seminar Room, Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University College London

Abstract: This paper is part of an extensive research project on Hasidism and Modernity, initially funded by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.  A number of articles in this project have been published, and updated versions of these and new material will be collected in my forthcoming book Hasidism Beyond Modernity: Studies in Habad Thought and History, to be published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

The topic to be discussed concerns Habad perspectives on non-Jews and non-Jewish society.  It forms Chapter Three of the finished book.

The early hasidic ethos seems inclusivist, as regards its view of the Jewish community. The conventional religious stance against ‘sinners’ found widely in earlier Jewish sources is somewhat modified.  As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi puts it in a passage recommending loving the sinner, with the goal to bring him back to proper religious observance, “and if not [if one’s efforts are not successful, and he does not improve], one has not lost the reward of the Command to love one’s fellow” (Tanya, Part 1, ch,32).  Thus he recommends loving the sinner in order to get him or her to improve their behaviour, and even if this result is not attained, he states that this love is appropriate.

The emergence of ultra-orthodoxy in the middle of the 19th century led to a new deliberately enclave and exclusivist stance for large sections of the traditionalist community. Despite this  some hasidic groups stood against this trend and maintained the original inclusivist ethos of Hasidism.  In the second half of the 20th century this is especially expressed by the Habad-Lubavitch group.  All this however is as regards the ‘sinning’ or secularized Jew.  What about the non-Jew?  How does Habad-Lubavitch view the non-Jew?

We will consider the background to this in the universalist/particularist features of medieval Jewish thought, typified by the universalist Maimonides and the particularist Judah Halevi.  Habad Hasidism is strongly particularist and emphasises the singularity of the Jew, following ideas expounded by Judah Halevi that the Jew has a ‘Divine quality’, unlike a non-Jew. At the same time Habad texts seem to recognise the spirituality of the non-Jew, following the pattern of Maimonides.  This double trend within Habad began in the early 19th century but was strongly emphasised in the late 20th century.

This combination of opposites typifies the Habad stance in the 20th century, taking it beyond the simple categories of modernity.


Moshe Halamish, “The Kabbalists’ Attitude Toward the Gentiles.”Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 14 (1998): 289-311 (in Hebrew).

David Novak The Image of the non-Jew in Judaism – the idea of Noahide Law 2nd edition, Oxford: Littman, 2011.

Svante Lundgren, Particularism and Universalism in Modern Jewish Thought, Academic Studies in the History of Judaism, Global Publications, Binghampton University, Binghampton N.Y, 2001

Elliot R. Wolfson, Open Secret, Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009) 224-264.



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