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Review: Speaking Torah

Read Torah like a Chasid

    Arthur Green and others
    Jewish Lights, 2 volumes, $34.99 each

    In their streimels and spodiks and long white socks, the Chasidim can seem a world apart. But they have left their mark on the wider Jewish community. The shift away from formal cantorial liturgy to sing-a-long melodies familiar to many synagogue-goers today owes a good deal to the Chasidic experience.

    The early Chasidic masters also bequeathed a profound body of teachings, a way of reading the stories of the Torah as spiritual parables to cultivate inner devotion. This two-volume anthology, compiled by one of the great scholars of our times, Arthur Green, now opens the shutters on largely previously untranslated material.

    Arranged according to the weekly Torah cycle, it presents a selection of excerpts from different sources for each sidrah, followed by a short discussion among Professor Green and fellow enthusiasts on how they might appeal to a modern mind; the Hebrew original is printed at the back.

    The pioneers of Chasidism were ready to resort to creative wordplay to unlock fresh interpretations from the text. For example, the Ba'al Shem Tov, the movement's founder, gave an alternative explanation to the verse in the Yom Kippur haftarah "Do not turn away from your own flesh" - usually understood as a warning not to shun the poor - to mean that you should not repudiate your own physical needs.

    Such bold readings entailed a rejection of asceticism and a belief that God could be worshipped through the body - a radical notion that put the Chasidim at odds with the intellectual elitism of their opponents.

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