God is present to us. We are present to God. Yes, this presence is mysterious. But it is also personal. How do we recognize and respond to this eternally present personal reality? The Hasidic movement initiated by Rebbe Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) gave us one answer to this question. A century later Hillel Zeitlin (1871-1942), born into the same movement, provided us with another similar answer but written in the language of the early 20th century. This book is an account of how he came to write and live that answer and some prayers that demonstrate its re-creation into what is known as the neo-Hasidic movement.
The spirituality of Hasidic Judaism is marked by prayer, the centrality of a spiritual master (Rebb), a tight-knit community, and dedication to those in need. The mutual presence of God and believer is central to its beliefs, rituals, moral actions, and communal formation. Hillel Zeitlinís deep experience of this presence at an early age was the marker, it seems, for all his further spiritual development Ė no matter how far he may have initially roamed from his traditional beliefs by immersing himself in the philosophers and biblical critics of his era or experienced the breakup of his community (shtetl) through destruction or re-location.
The readerís expectations, naturally, are important for the reception of this text. What she or he will get are three excellent introductions to Zeitlin by Arthur Green, Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Rosenberg. Arthur Green sets the neo-Hasidic scene, Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi puts Zeitlinís life and thought into the perspective of Jewish intellectual development and Joel Rosenberg introduces us to Zeitlinís spirituality as expressed in his prayers. The result is about one-hundred and thirty pages of Zeitlinís philosophical/theological challenges to early twentieth century intellectual developments and proclamations of how to see Hasidic /Jewish life differently in this new age. They were translated from Hebrew or Yiddish as were the thirty pages of prayers.
These thoughts and prayers articulate a spirituality deeply dependent upon experiences similar to pantheism and Gnosticism. Many times the images are the same. Kabbalistic spiritual images and processes are also important for understanding Zeitlinís thought and prayers. Yet more essential, and not as easily accessible as these writings, is the tight knit community (yavneh) he envisioned and attempted to form. For it was within this Jewish Hasidic community that one was to discover the necessary conditions to always be conscious of the mysterious God who loves these people in a special way.