By Shaul Magid and Noam Zadoff
Fifty years ago, on Aug. 25, 1969, one of the world’s most promising scholars of Hasidism took his own life. His name was Joseph Weiss, and although little is known of him today, Weiss was referred to by his teacher, the great scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, as Scholem’s “closest” and most talented disciple. A great mind in his too-brief life, Weiss was also fascinating to behold, and worth recalling today, in his sickness and his death. His condition was characterized by radical shifts between an Orthodox lifestyle and secular nihilism, and indeed rumor has it that in his moment of death in his London apartment he chose to wear a tallit and tefillin.
As Kabbalah and Hasidism continue to attract the attention of both scholars and nonscholars alike in the study of Judaism and the study of religion more generally, and as questions regarding boundaries between scholars and their subject continue to occupy the attention of scholars and their readers, Weiss’ work is arguably more relevant today than it was when he was alive. His investment in questions of faith and doubt and his interest in religious radicalism and heresy, remain very much a part of the discourse in the study of Hasidism and Jewish spirituality.
Joseph Weiss was born in Budapest, on Aug. 10, 1918, an only child to a Neolog-Reform Jewish family. Neolog Judaism was a mild form of Reform that emerged in late 19th-century Hungary. Neolog Jews favored integration into Hungarian society coupled with light Jewish learning. They were generally a bit more traditional than German Reform Jews of the time. Weiss’ father died when he was 18, leaving a vacuum in his life. After his secondary education, Weiss’ interest in Jewish texts led him to rabbinical seminary, where he studied before enrolling in university in Budapest. Weiss arrived in Jerusalem in 1940 to study medieval Hebrew poetry and literature at the Hebrew University. Once there, he attended Scholem’s Kabbalah seminars and quickly became one of his most devoted students. More than two decades his senior, the childless Scholem filled for Weiss the role of his missing father, and this attachment characterized their complex relationship over the years.
Never much of a Zionist, Weiss was unable and ultimately unwilling to adapt to the difficult life in Mandate Palestine in the 1940s, and after serving as a delegate of the Jewish Agency to the Jewish detention camps in Cyprus in 1949, he was doing all he could in order to continue his stay abroad. In a diary entry from January 3, 1948, Scholem wrote, “My student Weiss is trying to find a way (and a job) in order to leave the Land as soon as possible. He does not tell what is on his mind, but it is easy to guess.” While Scholem was not happy with his student’s decision, the correspondence between the two shows that he did what he could to help him.
Weiss left Israel suddenly in 1950 for Leeds, England, only days after submitting his dissertation to Scholem. He left without telling Scholem of his departure, which caused a breach in their relationship that arguably contributed in part to Scholem’s rejecting the dissertation, titled “The Dialectic Doctrine of Faith of R Nahman of Bratslav.” In order to complete the dissertation, Scholem demanded that Weiss return to Jerusalem and discuss some of the chapters; Weiss refused.
Scholem wrote that he was bothered by the third part of Weiss’ dissertation, “The Dialectics of Self-Consciousness,” writing in a letter in March 1951 that the work was a “deviation from the ways of correct research for seeking after imaginary nonsense.” In truth, as we will see below, Weiss’ work did sometimes veer into uncharted territory, particularly in his psychological and existential readings of Hasidism. Setting aside the cruelty of the remark, Scholem wasn’t fully mistaken in his assessment.
Weiss’ dissertation in its entirety remains unpublished. And for Weiss, Scholem’s rejection had a deep psychological impact. But with help from Scholem, who organized a prestigious scholarship for him and recommended him for a lecturer position at University College London, Weiss managed to establish himself over the following years as one of the most prominent Jewish studies scholars in England and in the world.
In 1961, Weiss eventually received his doctorate from University College London, with Scholem’s encouragement but under the supervision of another scholar, Chimen Abramsky. In the same year, he married Erna Mai, whom he met during Scholem’s lecture he attended in Marburg, Germany, and shortly afterward their only son, Amos, was born. Amos (who took the Hungarian spelling of the name: Weisz) became a poet and inherited from his father his sensitivity for language and penetrating observation. Unfortunately, he was also bequeathed his father’s mental Illness. In 2008 Weisz jumped from his 12th-story flat, taking his own life after years of struggle. A posthumous book of his poetry, edited by Ian Fairly and titled Worksongs was published in England in 2015.
Joseph Weiss was a man of enormous talent. His scholarship sparkled with insight, creativity, and depth. He was also a person who confronted tremendous emotional struggles and challenges that shine through darkly in his scholarship. While the relationship between the scholar and his or her subject is always complicated, with Weiss it was almost codependent; each needed the other to breathe.
The same can be said about his relation to Scholem, whom he often referred to as “Rabbenu Gershom,” an allusion to R. Gershom ben Yehuda Me’or Ha-Golah (960–1040), the medieval German rabbinic luminary. The relationship between the two had been complex from the beginning, but it became tortured after a deterioration in Weiss’ mental condition in 1964. In the correspondence from these years, Weiss sought Scholem’s help, which he viewed as a kind of salvation, but at the same time he granted Scholem a central role in his paranoiac hallucinations. Scholem’s helplessness is evident from his long and patient answers to Weiss’ confused letters.
Weiss was not the only one of Scholem’s companions who struggled with fragile mental conditions and took his own life. In fact, four of Scholem’s closest friends—Walter Benjamin, George Lichtheim (a scholar of socialism), Peter Szondi (a comparative literature professor at the Free University in Berlin), and Weiss—committed suicide.
As someone who also fought periods of depression, Scholem never quite seemed to overcome these losses, particularly of Benjamin and Weiss. The experience of the love of friendship and death was not strange to Scholem. But only in Weiss’ demise is Scholem a central part of the story.
Fifty years after his death, it seems that revisiting Weiss and his legacy is appropriate, and there have lately been numerous articles and volumes published dealing with his life and work. Weiss’ combination of scholarly acumen and a deep personal investment in his subject continues to inspire younger scholars in search of the meaning of relevance of Hasidism.
The most recent of these is an excellent new volume in Hebrew titled Likkutim/Joseph Weiss, edited by two young scholars, Avinoam Stillman and Yossi Schweig, that has just appeared with their new Jerusalem press, Blima Books. This beautifully printed, small, soft-cover volume includes a series of relatively short yet potent essays on Hasidism and Weiss’ more general reflections on Jewish spirituality. Most of the essays appeared in the Israeli daily Haaretz in the 1940s.
One short essay, “A Pleasant Drash on the Manner of God’s Love for God’s Creations,” was found in Weiss’ personal archives and now appears in print for the first time. In many of these essays, we see a reflection of a more personal, if also tortured, side of Weiss, struggling with doubt, death, and faith in a way that resonates more than in most of his scholarly essays.
Weiss struggled mightily for decades to work through his own spiritual travails by means of scholarship, in ways that illustrate how he thought his Hasidic subjects were doing the same. Weiss can be viewed as the exemplar of a scholar who almost erased the barrier separating himself and his subject. And therein lies the power, beauty, and tragedy of Weiss’ contribution.
In the last lecture he held before his death in England in May 1969 Weiss analyzed a Kafkaesque nightmare of R. Nahman of Bratslav printed in the book Hayei Moharan. In his dream, R. Nahman was suddenly abandoned by his followers, mocked and outcast by his surroundings, because of a sin everyone claims he committed, but about which he did not know, nor could he remember.
R. Nahman tries in his dream to run away from his new fate, but the situation follows him and leaves him with no place in the world in which he can be free from being blamed for disgracing his forefathers. Weiss’ choice of bringing this passage, which reflects a paranoid worldview, and his subtle yet penetrating interpretation, makes the identification of the researcher with his topic of research evident.
Weiss writes: “Nahman of Bratslav speaks in his own name of his own religious and social predicament. There emerge three powerful themes: the problem of guilt, which is religious, that of shame, which is social, and that of succession of generations, which is genealogical. The three are so closely related in the nightmare that it is hardly possible to disentangle them.”
For Weiss, “shame” and “guilt” were emotions that accompanied his condition. “Succession of generations” was directly related to Scholem and their close but tense relations. When Joseph and Erna Weiss’ son was born in 1962, they named him Amos Gershom.
Twenty years before this lecture, Weiss wrote a short satirical essay for Scholem’s 50th birthday. It is about his teacher, but seems also directed at himself—although Weiss was less adept then Scholem at hiding behind the facade of his work:
Scholem’s scholarship should be viewed as a camouflage, through which he hides the true and most vital interests of his spiritual existence. Since he does not wish to put them up for all to see, he hides them in the cracks and crevices of his scholarly texts, and by that he reduces the image of the metaphysicist down to the level of an academic.
Scholem, often prickly and critical about things written about him, liked the essay. He knew that Weiss saw behind his mask. Weiss’ work more generally is written in a distinctive mellifluous Hebrew style, poetic and suggestive, often alluding to scriptural and rabbinic sources. There is a subtle and dark beauty in Weiss’ Hebrew that exceeds the more workmanlike Hebrew of his teacher. These were the early days of modern Hebrew prose, and Weiss’ Hebraism should not go unnoticed. As a result, at times one thinks Weiss is not writing a work of scholarship but rather composing a primary text built on an analysis of his subject.
Weiss was, from his youth until his death, a scholar par excellence. But he was not a purely scientific thinker and also not an apologist. He was essentially a religious heretic. We do not mean to use those terms in any conventional way. We mean religious heretic in that his work was about uncovering the truly religious and spiritually radical elements of his subject.
He wanted to show that his subjects shared the same anxiety of being human that he did, and that they had something to teach him, and us, about that. His heresy was reading existential and psychological tropes into Hasidic literature and exposing Hasidism’s insides as a complex web of emotional exercises to sharpen the mind and heart to see the world differently. Hasidism was, for Weiss, a stark illustration of the fight against human darkness, Nahman of Bratslav its great exemplar.
Some years ago, Noam Zadoff and Jonatan Meir discovered unpublished manuscripts in Weiss’ archive in which Weiss argued that he found hints of the heretical doctrines of Jacob Frank in the teachings of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. One wonders how much this was a projection of himself. Weiss was also attracted to other Hasidic masters, such as R. Hayim Hayka of Amdura, R. Dov Baer the Maggid of Mezritch, and Mordecai Yosef of Izbica, because each in his own way occupied the margins of Hasidic creativity and spirituality by pushing the limits of normative thinking about God, life, and the human.
In order to get a sense of Weiss’ significant contribution to the study of Hasidism, we will touch on three central themes of his work—doubt, faith, and death—from three of the essays included in the new volume, Likkutim, edited by Stillman and Schweig This forum does not allow for in-depth analysis of these essays, but we hope to evoke Weiss’ personal and scholarly voice, so influential to those who engage in Hasidic scholarship.
The question of “the (existential) question” or in Hebrew, kushia, occupied much of Weiss’ work on Nahman of Bratslav. In Haaretz, on Sept. 10, 1946, Weiss published an essay titled “In the Thicket of the Question of Nahman of Bratslav,” which was an abridged version of his much longer essay on this topic. The question of “the (existential) question” for Weiss is what he calls “the way of contradiction and resistance,” “a spiritual response that comes after the crisis of the rationalization of religion.” Weiss was writing at a time when existentialism was seen as a serious critique of the disenchantment of the world that placed science at the forefront of modern understandings of religion. Weiss presents Hasidism and its focus on the breach between knowing and believing as an intervention of the modern thrust toward rationalizing reality.
As Weiss reads Nahman of Bratslav, the “question” (kushia) is never resolved, because it is the very fabric of human experience and the world in its entirety. “Nahman,” says Weiss, “is the true dialectician and his teaching can be rightly called a metaphysics of the question.” Intentionally twisting a rabbinic phrase that states, “God is the place of the world but the world is not God’s place,” Weiss writes, channeling Nahman, “The world is not the place of the question but the question is the place of the world … the place in which we all dwell until the coming of the redeemer.”
Here and in other essays, it is often hard to separate Weiss from his subject; he so deeply embodies the subject matter that he slips from giving a scholarly evaluation to making a theological claim. One senses not only Nahman’s “entanglement” with not knowing but Weiss’ as well. In his conclusion, Weiss writes, “This [dialectic of the question] is the formulation of the ideal person of faith who overcomes heresy not through verbal arguments but rather through the true experience of the human; faith is not what h/she has but rather belief and the believer are one thing.” And yet for Nahman, and Weiss, that faith is never certainty but only the realization of unknowing and its psychological hazards, seemingly a self-diagnosis.
Faith was another subject on which Weiss expended a great deal of effort. In May 1947, he published a eulogy in Haaretz for R. Areleh Roth (1894-1947), the founder of the radical Jerusalem Hasidic sect Toldos Aaron. Roth immigrated from Ungvar, Hungary, to Mandate Palestine in 1924 and founded what would become the largest Hasidic sect in the new neighborhood of Meah Shearim. Radically anti-Zionist—in his youth Roth had a community in Satu Mare, the home of R. Joel Teitelbaum, later known as the Satmar Rebbe—Roth was one of the more innovative Hasidic thinkers on the question of faith, provocatively claiming that “in our time,” in the modern era of secularization, faith is all but impossible for anyone.
As Weiss writes, “The negative diagnosis of the fall of faith [in our time] moves from concealment to disclosure in the work of R. Areleh Roth … in a ‘Protestant’ register this fall [from faith] should be the foundation of all devotion because ‘we are all damaged in our faith.’ This blemish is not only among the ‘free-thinkers.’”
According to Weiss, Roth includes himself as well in this fallen state. This fallen state, the inability to truly believe, is not something that can be seen, but discovered only through deeply rooted self-examination. This, Weiss argues, is the core of Roth’s writings. Weiss laments that Roth’s incisive analysis never got the treatment it deserved, but Weiss does not mention that Scholem noted that Roth was one of the four authentic mystics of his time: The other three were Rav Kook, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—the sixth or seventh, it’s not clear—and Nathan Birnbaum (the Austrian intellectual, not the comic better known as George Burns).
For Roth, and for Weiss as well, the fallenness of faith is what makes religious devotion so difficult in our time, and also so necessary, and should be a major subject of inquiry. Weiss writes that “the subject of faith is a powerful individual and subjective phenomenon. This principle is rarely heard: Every individual has to build one’s own life of faith and carve out an individual culture of faith [for oneself].”
Faith for Weiss is not something one has or does not have; rather, devotion should be primarily about the “aspirations of faith” since, in fact, in our day, faith is all but impossible. For Roth this requires a deep, unyielding, and uncompromising submission to a stringent devotional life, not as an expression of faith but as an articulation of its absence. Turning ultra-Orthodoxy and Haredism on its head, Roth suggests that piety does not confirm belief but protects one against the experience of a world awash in unbelief and doubt.
In his quasi-heretical way, Weiss would agree, although he chooses another path, the path of faithless devotion. He ends his eulogy of Roth as follows: “One who desires to fulfill the will of the creator and says to his or her soul ‘I will live in devotion [to God]’: for that person there is no distinction if he or she receives reward or hell for that devotional life. For that devotee, everything becomes equal, because that devotee chooses to live as a simple servant of God, as the Seer of Lublin explained the words of the Shema “with all your soul”: “Sometimes it is necessary to descend to hell (gehenom) for God.” For the one who truly submits to God, according to this reading, reward and punishment become irrelevant, one accepts whatever comes in whatever form. Given Weiss’ life and struggle, these final words, and Roth’s theory of the fallenness of faith more generally, deeply resonate. The Hasidic world for Weiss was not one of light and joy, but one of struggling to find a way out of the darkness. Faith is not the way, but it may be the path. The world remains for him a thicket of uncertainty. Faith does not show one the path to the light but simply enables one to survive in the dark forest of doubt.
The subject of death also occupied a significant place in Weiss’ writing in various essays. It seems there is an unspoken connection in Weiss’ work between faith and death, Without the former, the latter looms as an ever-present possibility. Death is a subject that Weiss explores in great depth. In a piece titled “Sanctifying God’s Name and Sacrificial Death,” published in Haaretz in August 1947, Weiss notes, “Even though today there is no serious study of the death-experience in the Jewish religion … exploring this question does not seem to have been taken seriously and thus requires scholarly examination.” By death, or the “death-experience,” Weiss is clear that he does not mean what happens after death but the experience of death itself. In many cases in Hasidism, following earlier traditions, death is viewed as the “sweet yearnings of the soul’s true nature” to reunite with its source.
Weiss will have none of that. Death is predicated on fear; it means something, and it does something, and Weiss wanted to explore that both academically and personally. Sacrificial death, or Kiddush ha-Shem, may be a holy act, but it is also a lonely act, whereby the individual rejects the world and all religious meaning except for that which stands in relation to God. For Weiss, Kiddush ha-Shem requires the following question: If God is all there is, is being in this world worth it? Focusing again on Nahman of Bratslav, in opposition to the teachings of the founder of the Hasidic movement, Israel Baal Shem Tov, Weiss says that the relationship between loneliness and death is strong. Even when one dies for the sake of the world, the loneliness of rejecting the world remains. In the last year of his life, stricken with incurable tuberculosis, Nahman pondered death in a way that few other Jewish thinkers have. Nahman viewed himself as a “sacrifice,” stating in his tale “The Master of the Field,” “there are souls whose fixing can only occur through the death of another, and there are souls who are unable to complete their role in this would except through death.” In Weiss’ estimation, even that purposeful sacrificial death never erases the utter fear of death itself.
Here as elsewhere, Weiss seems to be talking to himself. And here specifically, he confronts that which will eventually take him from us. No one quite knows the loneliness required to reject the world so completely that death becomes a real—perhaps the only—possibility. And even the belief that somehow one’s death will make the world better does not, cannot, erase the fear that such loneliness entails.
Joseph Weiss, more than most scholars of Hasidism, allowed its intricate and complex world to become a part of his own flesh; not to bring joy but to explain fear, not to fix, but to understand destruction, not to liberate but to understand human estrangement and emphasize the brokenness of human existence. For Weiss, Hasidism captured Nietzsche’s rendering of Human, All Too Human. In the end, Hasidism could not dispel his darkness, his loneliness, nor stabilize his faith.
On Aug. 25, 1969, Weiss came to know all he needed to know—that the world, in all its beauty, majesty, and glory, simply did not have a place for him. And so, enveloped in a prayer shawl and with words of Torah wrapped on his arm and forehead, he bid us farewell.
Noam Zadoff is Israel Institute Visiting Faculty at the University of Munich. He is the editor of The Hebrew Correspondence between Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss, and the author of Gershom Scholem: From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back.