Charismatic Hasidic Passions.  By Dan Scott

Charismatic Hasidic Passions. By Dan Scott

Hasidic Jews can be roughly compared to Charismatic Christians. Like Charismatic spirituality, Hasidism is a passionate and expressive expression rather than the orderly, dispassionate affair of mainstream rabbinical Judaism. Abraham Joshua Heschel makes this point several times in his book, God in Search of Man.

One important difference between the Hasidim and Christian Charismatics is that Hassidic Jews value the cultivation of the mind as a spiritual practice. Whereas Christian Charismatics tend to view intellectual pursuit as alien to the exercise of spiritual life, Hassidic Jews see the intellect as a discerning tool for evaluating and refining the insights of scripture and spiritual experience.

Heschel’s Hassidic upbringing left him convinced that an aroused heart was as important to his faith as a keen mind. He was, however, no fan of intellectual sloth. For Heschel, scripture and prayer were the lenses through which one understood one’s world. These lenses allowed the “eyes” of one’s head and heart to see and interpret reality.

For example, his daughter’s introduction to his book, The Prophets, reveals how her father anguished over the failure of Jews to see the SPIRITUAL power behind the civil rights movement, a failure common to most American Pentecostals and Charismatics at the time. Like most Jews, Pentecostals saw the civil rights movement mostly as a political concern. Although early Pentecostalism had been noted for its racial inclusion and for affirming African-American leaders (often with deep affection and respect), racial divisions had emerged within the movement after a generation or two, especially in the South.

During the Civil Rights Movement, many American Jews, just as American Pentecostals, were either apathetic or hostile to its aims. Heschel saw this as a failure of spiritual discernment – an inability to connect the head and heart of Biblical teaching and Spiritual guidance.

Today, Pentecostal churches are among the most racially diverse churches in the country, however. We can attribute this, as well as to the much more inclusive stance of Pentecostals toward women in ministry, to the Pentecostal emphasis on spiritual gifts. Joel’s prophesy, quoted by the Apostle Peter in the first Christian sermon and requoted often by Pentecostals, pointedly eliminates gender and social class as barriers to ministry of any sort.

Yes, I know: the Apostle Paul did not allow women to serve as governing elders. I believe that this was a missional concession on his part to the realities of Greco-Roman culture. My Pentecostal upbringing left me with a deep conviction about the Spirit’s radical reorganization of societal norms within the Kingdom of God, a community in which there is no longer Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female. I just don’t get the resistance to this prophetic insight.

Anyway, American Pentecostalism cultivated global relationships among its people, despite it having begun as a movement among the working poor. I have always had Black and Hispanic friends. They were usually the children of my parent’s friends. I know people in multiple nations who are grandchildren of people my grandmother knew. My extended family members come from a variety of racial backgrounds. That is not common among American Evangelicals as a whole, but it is not uncommon among Pentecostals.

This gathering of all kindred, tribes, and peoples into a common community is notable in the light of Joel’s prophecy. It should evoke more attention than it does.

Without glossing over the faults one can find with Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement then, what can other Christians learn from it? What do even its excesses say about the faults of historical Western Christianity, faults that sometimes have provoked overreactions?

For one thing, the deficient Pneumatology of the Western churches (doctrine and experience of the Holy Spirit) has led to a kind of intimacy-impaired, dispassionate preference for form over performance. Preoccupations like choosing the right color of stole, or the precise wording of a rite, or the ‘correct’ translation of scripture, have often hindered Protestant worshippers from experiencing the Presence of God. In some forms of Protestant fundamentalism, the absence of emotion in religion has been deemed virtuous, like wearing a suit while trying to make love with one’s wife. If at least his tie matches his socks, he believes nothing is amiss.

The Charismatic movement’s reaction to this Protestant intimacy impairment, on the other hand, has produced a cult of performance. Common sense became a hindrance to its embrace of spiritual anarchy. Self-appointed ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets’ increasingly spew out political idolatry as the congregation hops about for an hour and a half to rhythms without content. The culture of early classical Pentecostalism had little in common with such mindless hype. Unfortunately, though, it has slowly become the norm in a rootless form of Charismania that has supplanted much of the original Pentecostal approach to worship and Word.

The model of Hassidic Judaism – in which a rigorous intellectual life is included as a part of human life that can be ‘anointed’ — offers a needed midcourse correction for the Charismatic movement. The price of genuine spiritual life should not be submitting oneself to a lobotomy. There is simply no call for the endless jumping around in every service, for example. This spastic insanity leaves little room for the deep, penetrating work of the Spirit that can pierce the human heart and bring about lasting change. There has to be a place in worship for thought — for godly, mindful wrestling with scripture and the preached word. Otherwise, there is no way to discern the meaning (or Biblical validity) of one’s experiences in the Spirit.

Today’s Charismatic leaders are astounded when I insist that early Pentecostals would not have related to much of contemporary Charismatic culture. Our Pentecostal grandparents occasionally danced when they were filled with joy. They did not dance because it was religiously obligatory. Also, they were hungry for knowledge. Coming from quasi-literate backgrounds, they traded books about scripture and theology. At conferences and camp meetings, they met and talked well into the night about what they had read and what it might imply. They did not think ignorance of science, math, or history was a mark of holiness. It was a facet of their social deprivation to overcome.

Hasidic Judaism represents to me a “road not taken” for American Charismatics. The Hasidic culture of warm-hearted intellectual life was the path of early Charismatics of the sixties and seventies. Today though, too much of it is driven by false prophets, dishonest profit, and shamanistic chicanery. Autocratic showboats unaccountable to no one gather flocks of innocent people whom they fleece and control. That is not the majority, of course, but neither does the majority do much about it.

Lent may be a time for a bit of sober reflection about what a warm-hearted, intellectually honest, Spirit-directed life ought to look like, for both Charismatics and mainline Christians of all kinds.

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