By Shmuel Boteach. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1993. 273 pages. $30.00.
At a time when the Lubavitcher Hasidim have nearly proclaimed their leader, Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, as the Messiah, Jewish believers would do well to understand something about Hasidism, the mystical variety of Orthodox Judaism that has existed for the past two hundred years or so. Shmuel Boteach is the rabbi and director of Chabad House of Oxford University, one of many such Chabad Houses found worldwide and sponsored by the Lubavitchers. The fact that Boteach ministers in one of the most prestigious academic environments in the Western world may help explain the depth he presents in this work on Hasidic theological thought. While parts of this work may be inaccessible to the general public, and other parts are clearly addressed to the theologically trained Jewish reader, there are important aspects to this book which would benefit all who seek to better understand the Hasidic Jewish community.
The book is divided into three parts and an epilogue. The first and most extensive part of the book examines the importance of the Jewish belief in the coming of the Messiah. Grounding his authority in the Thirteen Articles of Jewish faith enunciated by Maimonides (the well-known medieval rabbi), Rabbi Boteach explains the centrality of the faith in a personal and human messiah. In fact, he argues that the belief in the coming of the Messiah is more central to Judaism than even the observance of the Sabbath or Yom Kippur” (p. 7). This belief in the coming of the Messiah then leads into an explanation of the conditions necessary for the Messiah’s return. Boteach declares that Jews are responsible for creating those conditions. In the end, Boteach states that “in the final analysis, the Messiah must come as a result of human initiative” (p. 243). His argumentation is worth reading, if for no other reason than to understand the basics of Hasidic thought.
Boteach tackles the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead in the second and third parts of the book. The importance of the belief in the resurrection of the dead is established by a quote, again from Maimonides: “Resurrection of the dead is one of the fundamental principles in the Torah of our master Moses. There is neither Jewish faith nor any attachment to the Jewish faith, for an individual who does not believe in this” (p. 111). As these chapters unfold, we gain insights into the mystical thought system of Hasidism. Boteach explains the relation between the body and soul, the superiority of the body, and expounds a decidedly unbiblical doctrine that many would be surprised to learn is common in Hasidic Judaism, namely the need for the Jewish soul to experience reincarnation. Boteach leaves no stone unturned in tackling the puzzle posed by resurrection and reincarnation: with a single Jewish soul inhabiting multiple bodies, how will the determination be made as to which body the reincarnated soul will inhabit at the time of the resurrection of the body?
Much of what Boteach brings in this work bears little value in matters of faith or practice for mainline Judaism or for Jewish believers in Jesus. However, there are some important lessons to be learned from this book. First, there is a rich philosophical base for many of the customs of Hasidic Jews which may seem strange to an outsider. We can commend Boteach for helping us through the basics of this thought world.
Second, we can see the importance of extra-biblical literature in the formulation of Hasidic doctrine. Those seeking to witness to the Hasidic Jew would do well to learn something about the key texts, such as the Thirteen Articles of Maimonides mentioned above, or the classic textbook of mystical Judaism, the Zohar. It is inadvisable, however, for believers to immerse themselves in the mystical writings of Judaism; Boteach’s book serves as an excellent introduction to those items and will suffice.
Third, evangelical Christians would do well to capture the excitement one senses from these Hasidic Jews. Boteach calls his readers to live in such a way that they expect Messiah’s personal return. Their sense of the imminent return of Messiah at any time is something to which many followers of Christ pay only lip service.
Fourth, while the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is central to orthodox Christian theology, how many of us live with that living hope in mind? While much of what Boteach has to say on this subject is pure fantasy based on Jewish mystical writings and speculations, the Bible does speak authoritatively on the subject. While we do not know some of the details Boteach tries to answer, we do know that there will be a bodily resurrection.
Finally, in his epilogue Boteach calls for the highest ethical standard of living. The behavior Boteach calls for should be heeded by believers in Yeshua, but the motivations are completely different. We seek to do good works that God has prepared for us beforehand (Ephesians 2:10), not in order to bring the Messiah down to earth, but to bring glory and honor to His name (Matthew 5:16).