Beyond the Letters: The Question of Language in the Teachings of Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch
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CitationMayse, Evan. 2015. Beyond the Letters: The Question of Language in the Teachings of Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis thesis examines the philosophy of language of Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch (d. 1772), one of the most influential and creative early Hasidic masters, and the teacher whose students effectively created the Hasidic movement. I argue that Dov Baer offers an innovative approach to the role of language in religious life and its relationship to the inner workings of the human psyche. In contrast to scholars who emphasize aspects of Dov Baer’s thought that idealize silence, my research demonstrates that he embraced words as a divine gift, even describing the faculty of speech as an element of God imbued within humanity. Dov Baer does refer to a realm of creativity and inspiration that lies beyond words. It is into this region that the mystic journeys in his contemplative prayer, tracing spoken words back to their roots in the mind, and then the ineffable beyond. Yet this realm is restricted by its silence, for flashes of insight have no expression until they are brought into language. Indeed, says Dov Baer, all conscious thought occurs within the framework of words, even before it is spoken aloud. A similar transformation characterizes all acts of divine revelation, including Creation and the giving of the Torah, which originate in a pre-verbal inner divine realm and then spread through the pathways of language.
My dissertation is a diachronic study illustrating the ways in which Dov Baer’s sermons creatively interpreted and developed conceptions of language in rabbinic, philosophical and kabbalistic literature, but devotes careful attention to his social and historical context as well. This project models a novel approach to the study of mystical texts that interfaces with contemporary issues like the study of language and epistemology, as well as broader methodological questions of the relationship between orality, authorship, and textuality. Dov Baer did not transcribe any of his own sermons, and all homilies attributed to him were recorded in writing by his disciples. Instead of attempting to reconstruct the historical sermons that have been forever lost, my dissertation draws upon the full spectrum of his teachings as they appear in printed books, manuscripts, and quotations by students in the decades after his death. The task is not to determine the veracity of these traditions in order to reconstruct Dov Baer’s “authentic” sermons, since no such Urtext ever existed in written form. I examine his theology of language as presented in early Hasidic literature, acknowledging their diversity while tracking their consistency, seeking to understand the ways in which they shaped emerging Hasidic thought.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:17463960
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