Cover of Laws of the Spirit by Ariel Evan Mayse
Laws of the Spirit
Ritual, Mysticism, and the Commandments in Early Hasidism
Ariel Evan Mayse


May 2024
424 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503638273
Ebook ISBN: 9781503638983

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The compelling vision of religious life and practice found in Hasidic sources has made it the most enduring and successful Jewish movement of spiritual renewal of all time. In this book, Ariel Evan Mayse grapples with one of Hasidism's most vexing questions: how did a religious movement known for its radical views about immanence, revelation, and the imperative to serve God with joy simultaneously produce strict adherence to the structures and obligations of Jewish law? Exploring the movement from its emergence in the mid-1700s until 1815, Mayse argues that the exceptionality of Hasidism lies not in whether its leaders broke or upheld rabbinic norms, but in the movement's vivid attempt to rethink the purpose of Jewish ritual and practice. Rather than focusing on the commandments as law, he turns to the methods and vocabulary of ritual studies as a more productive way to reckon with the contradictions and tensions of this religious movement as well as its remarkable intellectual vitality.

Mayse examines the full range of Hasidic texts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, from homilies and theological treatises to hagiography, letters, and legal writings, reading them together with contemporary theories of ritual. Arguing against the notion that spiritual integrity requires unshackling oneself from tradition, Laws of the Spirit is a sweeping attempt to rethink the meaning and significance of religious practice in early Hasidism.

About the author

Ariel Evan Mayse is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

"Laws of the Spirit brings profound attention to the 'spirit of the laws' in the legal ritual practices of Judaism, as cultivated by the masters of early modern Hasidism. Integrating a mastery of the sources and contemporary theories of ritual, old polarities fall to the wayside and the inner-world of Jewish spirituality is revealed for all to see."

—Michael Fishbane, author of Fragile Finitude: A Jewish Hermeneutical Theology

"Required reading in Hasidism and Jewish ritual, Laws of the Spirit offers an experiential reinterpretation of many core themes of Jewish thought, and is a groundbreaking contribution to religious studies in general. This is one of those exceptional books in which all the parts are excellent and the whole is greater than their sum."

—Jonathan Garb, author of A History of Kabbalah

"Laws of the Spirit seeks to view Hasidic attitudes towards Halacha not primarily as law but as ritual. Weaving together Hasidic sources with insights drawn from the field of ritual studies, Ariel Evan Mayse shows how spiritual meaning is gleaned from and developed through devotional ritual behavior. This book takes the study of Hasidism into a new dimension in its fresh thinking about halakhah, relevant for our study of the past and towards a future vision."

—Melila Hellner-Eshed, author of Seekers of the Face: Secrets of the Idra Rabba (The Great Assembly) of the Zohar