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Home page> Resources> Jewish-Christian Relations> SIDIC Periodical> 1982/3>Kurt Hruby (Interviewed by Renée De Tyron-Montalembert

SIDIC Periodical XV - 1982/3
Francis and Hassidism (Pages 18 - 19)

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The Hasidic Movement and Franciscan Spirituality - Similarities and Differences
Kurt Hruby (Interviewed by Renée De Tyron-Montalembert


When Hasidism is under discussion, it is often shown as having characteristics of other renewal movements, especially the spiritual renaissance which gave rise to the mendicant orders, particularly the Franciscans. Is this impression correct?

Yes, this impression is correct as long as the emphasis is put in the right place. It should be remembered always that the terminology we use, quite rightly, in the realm of spirituality, is a terminology colored by Christian theology.

In Judaism, on the other hand, things are a little different. Hasidism is a renewal movement in so far as it has directly inherited the spiritual renewal of the mystical, kabbalistic movement. In particular, it is heir to the mysticism of the Safed school which grew up around Rabbi Isaac Luria who died in 1572. There is one aspect of Hasidism, nevertheless, which is specifically its own: while Rabbi Luria, in his spiritual doctrine, put the accent on the permanent spiritual purification of the human person, the Baal Shem Toy, founder of Hasidism, insisted above all on the element of spiritual joy and the opening up of our hearts in the service of the Creator. Given the fact that Judaism is by definition fidelity to the will of God as expressed in the commandments of the Torah, it has been always threatened by a certain rigidity, even a certain legalism, without using that word in a pejorative sense. But practically all the renewal movements in Israel, including those which arose from very early times around the great prophets, were not so much reactions as an attempt to re-establish a balance. I would like nevertheless to underline the fact that Hasidism, like all the mystical movements and renewal movements within Judaism, was also based on absolute fidelity to the Torah, to this divine requirement which is the very foundation of the Covenant. Obviously what is needed is a spirituality which goes beyond this, yet is at the same time faithful to it. Then I think, having stressed the essential elements, we can quite legitimately bring together what happens in Hasidism on the one hand, and what happens in Franciscan spirituality on the other, simply because all authentic spiritual movements, whatever their origin, and especially movements founded on the Word of God as revealed to us in scripture, show similarities, affinities and related ideas.

Certain aspects of the biography of the Baal Them Toy bring to mind more than one episode from the Fioretti and also the life of Saint Seraphine of Sarov who, although not a Franciscan, is in many ways very similar to Saint Francis. Are such comparisons legitimate?

Yes, I would simply repeat what I have already said in answer to your first question. The rediscovery of nature is a characteristic of the life of the Baal Shem. This rediscovery has been neglected because of a traditional interpretation which goes back a long way. In fact, it is written in the Pirke Aboth, the Sayings of the Fathers, that anyone who meditates on the Torah while walking along, and stops to look at a beautiful tree or even a field of grain, will have no part in the world to come because he has allowed himself to be distracted by the wonder of the created Universe. But the mystical revelation of the Baal Shem (I believe it to be an authentic mystical revslation and we may justifiably describe it as such) took place during his sojourn in the Carpathians. During the week, with the exception of the Sabbath, he lived in close contact with nature; here we have a very obvious link, both with Franciscan spirituality and with the great orthodox mystic, Seraphine of Sarov.

Is it not in Hasidic joy and Franciscan joy that the two spiritualities find their real point of contact?

This is undoubtedly true. There again I remind you that the special characteristic of Hasidic spirituality in relationship to Kabbalistic and Safed spirituality lies in the fact that the Baal Shem, and after him all the great masters of Hasidism, emphasized the need to serve God not by constraint but with joy; they interpreted in a new and yet traditional way the verse of the psalm: "Serve the Lord with gladness!" (Ps. 100). At the same time I believe that all true mystical approaches come to the same conclusion, achieve the same result, by rising above all constraints and everything which still binds the soul to earthly things. True spiritual freedom, whether Franciscan or Hasidic, expresses itself in this spiritual and lasting joy or gladness.

If the common elements in Hasidic and Franciscan spirituality are many and obvious, nevertheless the differences must not be neglected. How do they manifest themselves?

It is also necessary to return to the roots to understand the differences. In spite of all that they have in common, there are essential differences between the Christian vision on the one hand and the Jewish vision on the other; this is because whatever the form taken by Christian spirituality it can only be centered on the person of Christ.

This element of union with God has to be understood very differently in Judaism because, although in mysticism one speaks of union with God — and there is a very concrete terminology — such a union can never, as in certain currents of Christian spirituality, give rise to a true "spiritual merging". (The term is too strong, I know. That is why I put it in inverted commas.)

In Judaism the distance — I do not want to speak of a chasm — the distance which always exists between the Creator and his creature, this distance which is written into the order and working of creation, is safeguarded. To use a terminology dear to the mystic, he "clings close to God". There is therefore question of a movement towards union which is very strong, but which always respects limits and a certain distance. Nevertheless, it is true when speaking of some currents of Christian spirituality. I am thinking above all of a certain type of Christian mysticism pushed to the limitsand which is perhaps not altogether authentic, like the mystic who loses himself so as to be almost mistaken for the divine light emanating from Christ, a type to be met with in the writings of Master Eckhart.

One hears of a present renewal of Hasidism. How can this renewed vitality, this great movement of Jewish spirituality, concern us as Christians, and more especially as disciples of Saint Francis?

The Hasidic renewal is a reality if you take into account the fact that the centers of Hasidic life which existed up to the moment of the Holocaust in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, were wiped out by the tragedy. A few of the masters survived, and they have succeeded often admiraby in recreating true centers of spiritual life, expecially in the United States, but also to a certain extent in Israel.

In this arena one must eliminate certain elements of folk lore and look for the true depth of spirituality. Personally I think that Hasidism has a message for today. Allow me to quote the movement of Lubavitch which adapts to our world, which takes into account the realities of life today and which tries to exercise a true spiritual influence at every level, thus promoting real resourcefulness.

I believe that all current Christian spirituality — and still more, Franciscan spirituality — is very directly concerned with this kind of phenomenon in Judaism for the simple reason that, despite historical divisions, despite all the secular misunderstandings, the profound link which the apostle Paul called the "common root" of Judaism and Christianity has never been broken. We know that we must move towards (and we must say this yet again with Paul) the entry of the plenitude of the nations, that is to say, towards eschatological times, on a parallel line with Judaism; Judaism which keeps its authenticity, its mission and its task at the level of God's plan. And this mission also includes, in every age, what we have said concerning the origins of the Hasidic movement, this return to an authentic spirituality which we need so much in both Judaism and in Christianity.

* Father Kurth Hruby is Professor of Judaism at l'Institut Catholique, Paris and a well-known scholar in his field. He is responsible for the editing of Judaica (German) and FAS d'Israel and is a member of the Board of Consultants of the SIDIC Review.


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