A Handbuch to Hasidism?

François Guesnet on Hasidism: A New History

A little over one hundred years ago, in 1919, Yoel Wegmeister, a prominent member of the Warsaw Jewish community and of the Gerer Hasidim, passed away in his hometown. Death notices published by his family as well as by a number of charities he had founded and directed took up whole pages in the Jewish daily press. After a successful career in business, he had taken up communal and charitable activities, similar to countless other qlal tuers in Jewish communities of the eastern European diaspora. Much of his charitable work and his activities on behalf of both his Hasidic context and the wider Warsaw Jewish community were steeped in traditional patterns. But perhaps more clearly than others he stressed that these traditional patterns were no longer adequate. The emergence of very large Jewish communities – such as his own, Warsaw, community, with over 340,000 officially registered Jewish residents shortly before World War One – put traditional forms of philanthropy under considerable strain. A further complication was the deterioration of Jewish-non-Jewish relations in the wake of the 1905 revolution, leading to a growing fragmentation in civil society, including philanthropic activities. The liberalization of Tsarist legislation on voluntary associations which came in the wake of the revolution carried all the marks of a deliberate political strategy to keep communities apart.

Hasidism: A New History. David Biale, et al. Princeton University Press, 2017.

How did a communal leader and prominent Hasidic qlal tuer such as Wegmeister navigate these choppy waters? While the material challenges to provide help to his poor fellow Jews certainly limited the efficiency of these philanthropic efforts, Wegmeister was exceptionally successful in others – most importantly, in the political realm. As probably the closest advisor to the Gerer Rebbe, Abraham Mordehai Alter (1866-1948), Wegmeister harnessed the political, societal, and cultural potential of this Hasidic community with great skill and to great success. Most notably, while the German army occupied Poland during World War One, and the German-Jewish community established a close cooperation with the military administration to gain influence and leverage among Polish Jews, it was the political savvy of Wegmeister who yielded considerable control over much of German-Jewish access to the local community. Equally important, he also positioned the Gerer Hasidim in a position that resembled a quasi-monopoly of speaking to the occupier on behalf of the Polish-Jewish community. He became one of three representatives of the Polish-Jewish community in the Council of State, a constitutional assembly formed in November 1916.

And here, this review finally starts to think about the volume under consideration, the multi-authored Hasidism: A New History. I expected that a new history of Hasidism would investigate structural aspects of how Hasidic communities were actually functioning, in the social and political meaning of the word, and that it would go beyond the well-known descriptions of Hasidic courts and the summary descriptions of the entourage of the tsaddik. Based on my research on Wegmeister, I had expected that the authors would look at the reconfigurations of these structures and delve more deeply into the role of the leading figures in these communities who were not tsadikim. Glenn Dynner has contributed a lot to our understanding of how patronage worked in Warsaw around 1800, identifying the financial and political reach especially of army contractors.

Wegmeister is a telling example how differently things worked around 1900. In Hasidism: A New History, Wegmeister is mentioned on two occasions. First, his biography is briefly summarized, identifying him as “the most important agent” of the Gere Rebbe, and his membership in the Council of State is emphasized on another occasion. For this reviewer, this treatment is unsatisfactory from three points of view. First of all, the existing research literature is not acknowledged through references. While one might accept the argument that a summary presentation of the entire history of Hasidism simply does not allow for an acknowledgment of each individual item that has been written on the subject, not to mention the only extant research on a matter which seems relevant enough to dedicate an entire paragraph to is surprising. Secondly, as a historian looking at the history of Hasidism very much from the point of view of social history, de’ar‘a, to take up the fortuitous formula by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, the entire mighty volume misses the opportunity to look at these structurally relevant “agents” or “facilitators” not as a mere peripheral element of how a Hasidic community was organized.

These patrons in the Hasidic communities were, as the case of Wegmeister demonstrates, far more than a mere tool of their spiritual leader. They shaped the fate of both their closer Hasidic community, and that of the wider community of observant Jews, and even beyond these, patrons such as Wegmeister, one of three representatives of the entire Polish-Jewish community towards the state, helped helped shape Polish society. Their reach extended even further as Wegmeister also dealt with the German military administration as well as the well-intentioned but overall clueless German-Jewish doktorim-rabanim. Wegmeister was undoubtedly not the only leading figure in Hasidic and more generally, observant Judaism who would have taken up such a role. A well-known misnagdic counterpart was Ya‘acov Lifshits (1838-1921), the “agent” of Yitshak Elhanan Spektor from Kovno (1817-1896) involved in multiple efforts to bolster observant (rabbinical) Judaism and contributing to national and international observant networks in much the same way as Wegmeister and others. Thus, not only does the volume miss the specific role of the Hasidic qlal tuer; it also overlooks its similarities to the role of qlal tuer in other observant spheres.

The third point of criticism this reviewer would like to make is a corollary of the first two, and points to a more fundamental issue which somewhat limits the obvious merits of this monumental survey. Footnotes in it are kept to a minimum, with many pages offering no references to sources or scholarly literature. This greatly contributes to the flow of the text, but for an academic reader, the annotated bibliography of some thirty pages at the end of the volume does not provide the precise steppingstones to the existing research one would expect from an authoritative publication of the Handbuch type.

What is the task of an academic handbook? To believe a leading publisher of historical handbooks, “this historiographic genre should reflect the current state of academic research in the most comprehensive manner, but simultaneously present in clear and reliable form the dynamic of academic debate. An academic historical handbook has to convey to both academics as well as the interested general public an understanding of historical processes, a swift access to the most important facts in the context of academic debate, as well as to further literature.” As a genre of academic literature, it emerged as the answer to the multiplication of sources of academic knowledge, and transformed the various academic disciplines to Handbuchwissenschaften, to use Ludwik Fleck’s (1896-1960) influential terminology. At least from the point of view of the aspect mentioned above, the volume discussed here stops short of providing these insights. It does not offer a clear understanding where it summarizes commonly received wisdom about Hasidism, and where its authors would identify what could indeed be defined as a “new history of Hasidism.” Using the volume as a research tool is further complicated by the fact that there is no overall alphabetic bibliography and names of academic authors are not indexed. These editorial decisions lead to the fact that its authors – whose unique expertise is beyond doubt – interpose themselves between the reader, on the one hand, and the academic literature, on the other. The basic role of the handbook, to provide reliable factual or instructional knowledge and indicate solid or canonical knowledge is undermined. The reviewed volume offers a rich and well-written, encyclopedic narrative of what this thing “Hasidism” was at different moments in time and in various places. To combine this with editorial decisions which make it difficult to assess, and even less accept, the “new” in the title is regrettable. While this volume deserves a wide readership and will inspire its readers for years to come, these are limitations a reader should keep in mind.

François Guesnet is a Reader in Modern Jewish History at University College London and specializes in East European Jewish history. He has published one monograph and numerous chapters and articles on the history of Jews in Poland during the nineteenth century, and has edited several books on the topic, including Warsaw: The Jewish Metropolis (with Glenn Dynner). He is also co-chair of the Editorial Board of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry.