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Devotional practices and coping mechanisms in the Hasidic branch of Breslov

Emotions have a central role in religious contexts. Specific emotional states are associated with faith and devotion (e.g. fear or love of God) and certain rituals have emotional potential. Furthermore by functioning as normative institutions religions can also shape emotion standards. In this manner they set expectations for desirable individual emotional settings, define appropriate expressions of emotions, and provide knowledge on ways to control and manage emotions as well as information on the phenomenology of emotional experiences.

This project explores the demand for joy (simcha, שִׂמְחָה)in the Hasidic branch of Breslov, established by Rabbi Nachman from Breslov (1772-1810) as an example of such a system of emotion-knowledge and its shifts over time. Claiming that sadness disconnects believers from God, Rabbi Nachman declared that “it is a great mitzvah (commandment) to be ever joyful” (Likutei Moharan, II.24). In pursuit of this goal early Breslov literature offers various methods of inducing joy, emphasizing, for example, the importance of music, dance, and foolishness. The first stage of the project thus analyses the emotion-knowledge outlined in the early Breslov thought, ca. 1800-1840. Reading these texts from the perspective of the history of emotions, this part of the project historicizes and elucidates the relation between emotional practices and religious life and the view of the believer as an emotional subject.

The second stage addresses ideas and practices of joy among contemporary followers of Rabbi Nachman,drawing on religious classes and texts, self-help literature, and Q&A platforms, among others. Provided thatthe emotional practices of contemporary believers are not merely implementations of early nineteenth century texts but reflect a twenty-first century habitus, this helps to identify shifts in Breslov emotion-knowledge. In particular, this stage traces the dialectic relations between contemporary Breslov thought,modern psychology, and ‘the happiness turn’ (Ahmed 2010).

By investigating what makes joy appealing, its relation to the divine and the practices through which it is achieved, this research contributes both to the history of religion and emotion and to a broader understanding of the quest for happiness in contemporary societies.