A Heart Afire is a book about early Hasidism, coauthored by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Natanel Miles-Ypez. I read it last summer and knew I wanted to review it somewhere; and back in the fall, before the baby was born, I also had the chance to interview Reb Zalman for a sidebar piece intended to accompany the book review.
The review and the interview are now both online at Religion Dispatches. Here's a taste, first of the review:
The book presents “diverse stories and teachings from across the spectrum of Hasidic spirituality” and the authors’ desire is to “lead the reader up to [these stories], like an attendant at a mikveh (ritual bath)—waiting while one dips—then providing them with a towel as they are led out.” This isn’t an academic exploration of Hasidism; these stories are meant to be an immersive experience.
...Schachter-Shalomi’s ecumenism peppers these pages despite their intensely Jewish focus. In a digression from an early chapter about the Baal Shem Tov’s life and “enlightenment,” Schachter-Shalomi writes that people often ask him about his own theophanies and he always wants to answer, “I’m not Rinzai, I’m Soto!” (In Zen Buddhism, he goes on to clarify, “the Rinzai school talks about ‘sudden enlightenment,’ whereas the Soto school recognizes gradual enlightenment[.]”) The Hasid who uses Zen parables to make a point about his own spiritual life: that’s Reb Zalman in a nutshell.
And here's a related tidbit of the interview:
I’m struck by the “deep ecumenism” here — how you draw on Buddhist, Christian, Sufi, Hindu teachings in order to illuminate Hasidic thought. Do you think that risks alienating more traditional readers?
It was a conscious choice. We could have eliminated these things and gotten more kudos from the frum [Orthodox] world. But the frum world has this material available! Along with exhortations for switching back to an older paradigm, to more halakhic behavior and so on. I was not interested in that.
When I was reading things like Aldous Huxley’s perennial philosophy or William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I noticed that those people have good material from Buddism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, but nothing Jewish...
Read the whole thing here: Better Hasidism Through Zen Buddhism (And Sufism and Science Fiction...) And once you've read it, feel free to leave a comment either there or here!