Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer

Degas and Hasidism: Why Impressionism Matters

On a recent trip to Melbourne, Australia, I visited the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) art museum to see an exhibit on the nineteenth-century French artist Edgar Degas.

Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas

Degas was a man of strong opinions and he took exception to his Impressionist contemporaries and their rapturous painting in the open air. This had partly to do with his sensitive eyesight and discomfort with the bight outdoors. But it was also a principled rejection of the instinctual form of painting that renders impressions.

He preferred to spend as little time as possible outdoors taking essential notes, tracing the overall lines of a landscape and sketching colour schemes. The real work began when he was back in his studio where aided by his notes he would work from memory, decanting as it were his sensations and calling upon his imagination to complete the painting.

Degas and the Impressionists disagreed about the human ability to render truthfully a perceived experience. There is a significant gap between what the eye beholds and what the mind perceives. The Impressionists strove to capture the eye’s immediate perception. Degas distrusted such fleeting impressions and sought to ground his art in a more truthful depiction of reality, one that could only be arrived at after careful reflection at a distance. This he called Realism.

These two opposing views about art and human perception find their parallel in religion.

R. Shneur Zalman of Liady

In the late eighteenth century, the nascent hasidic movement split over the nature of religious experience. On the one side were the Polish hasidic masters who emphasized a form of ecstatic religious experience akin to impressionism. The key to such experience was not through the mind but rather through the heart. Music, nature and pithy aphorisms served as emotional triggers bringing one to a state of religious fervour. On the other side was the Lithuanian R. Shneur Zalman of Liady who challenged such ‘impressionism’ as being insubstantial and fleeting. He argued that genuine religious experience can only come about through cerebral contemplation which then leads to an emotional experience that is both true and enduring.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s hasidut became known as HaBaD; the Hebrew acronym for hokhmah, binah, and da’at (wisdom, knowledge and understanding) the intellectual triad. The opposing school became known as hasidut HaGaT; the acronym for hesed, gevurah and tiferet (love, fear and compassion) the emotive triad.

The literature and music of the two schools of hasidism reflect this central point of disagreement. HaBaD literature is copious and highly systematic, requiring considerable intellectual effort to extract anything of value. Its music is also highly complex and contemplative. HaGaT literature is, well, impressionistic. It is spare in style and its content is readily evocative. HaGaT music, with some notable exceptions, is simple and highly accessible.

As the child of an ardent HaBaD Hasid and scholar of HaBaD hasidut, I couldn’t help but think of hasidut HaGaT as the movement’s poorer sister. I viewed it in much the same way Degas viewed Impressionism; as shallow, subjective and self-indulgent. I saw it as a pale version of the muscular HaBaD hasidut I grew up with and dismissed it accordingly.

But then something changed. I began to study the work of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, one of the great Polish hasidic masters and I was hooked.  While his work lacks any systematic scheme (it consists of short isolated teachings on the weekly Torah reading), if one studies enough of it, rich patterns of thought begin to emerge.  It is indeed impressionistic but impressionism, I discovered, can be highly inspiring. There is something immediate and urgent about his work that the more subtle hasidut HaBaD lacks and it speaks readily to my heart.

Yet, I still hear a little voice in my head saying that what I feel is not anchored, it is a fleeting illusion, and that unless my religious experience is filtered through the cerebral process of hasidut HaBaD it is illegitimate.

But is it really so? Is a painting by say, Monet any less true than one painted by Degas? Must an art lover choose between the two?

As Impressionism and Realism depict different aspects of reality and perception, so too do the different schools of hasidut.  Some individuals are deeply wedded to one while others are committed to the other. And then there are those like myself, in between, who have come to appreciate both as genuine paths towards a more inspired religious life.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is the Neubauer Executive Director at Tufts Hillel, and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University.
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