Excluding the Hasidic Tale

Hannan Hever on Hasidism: A New History

For years, Hasidism has been a subject of study for the great scholars of Jewish history. Originating in Eastern Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century, this pietistic Jewish movement presents researchers with extremely complicated issues, some still awaiting in-depth clarification. Now, however, after years of work in a variety of directions – historical, political, philological, literary, and theological – an ambitious project has come our way aiming to summarize the history and evolution, so far, of the research on Hasidism. Even a first cursory look at this large volume impresses us with the size of its contribution.

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

On closer inspection, though, the reader – or at least this reader – finds quite disappointingly that the project does not include any real discussion of the genre of the Hasidic tale, which peaked in the early nineteenth century with the publication in close succession of the two leading collections of Hasidic tales: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (1815) and The Tales of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1815).

Including an extended discussion of the Hasidic tale, so central to Hasidic life, could have been a great opportunity to probe the aesthetic, cultural, and political phenomena that its texts expose. This is not merely a matter of clarifying the material, concrete context of the Hasidic tale, but also, and more crucially, the way we think of it as an aesthetic and political act directed, among other things, against the Haskalah movement. A detailed discussion of the Hasidic tale would have referred to the tense (and sometimes even violent) relations between the Haskalah movement and Hasidism. Adherents on both sides appear to have been reading the literature produced by the opposing side in the effort to recruit its literary output for its own needs. This was one way in which the struggle between the Haskalah and Hasidism also took the shape of a literary debate between two political movements.

The late, renowned scholar Shmuel Werses already stated the need to study Haskalah literature in terms of its contrast with Hasidic literature, when he pointed out the stimulating effect the latter had on the former. It will, therefore, be hard for any scholar of Jewish culture in Europe to gain an in-depth understanding without reference to the Hasidic tale.

Thus, for instance, a discussion of the Hasidic tale would have helped us observe how the venerating style typical of Hasidic hagiography, which mainly consists of narratives in praise of the Tzadikim, the Hasidic Rabbis, and the genres rejecting Haskalah parody and irony of the Hasidic Tzadikim, and their followers, both emerge as part of this dialogue. The discussion of the few literary excerpts which come to illustrate the conflict between the two camps – satirical Haskalah writing and Hasidic tales aimed against the Maskilim – do not include a literary analysis, thus reducing a rich and varied cultural phenomenon like the Hasidic tale into a historical document rather than dwelling on it as a broad phenomenon of extensive dimensions.

An examination of the literary and political wrangles between the genre of the Hasidic tale, and that of Haskalah satire – a genre which usually functions as a weapon of the weak – is a fine tool of an assessment of the force field of Jewish culture and literature. Indeed, the Maskilim often wrote their trenchant satire against the Hasidim from a position of political weakness. One example is the famous satire “Hasidism and Wisdom” [hasidut ve-hokhma], by the Galician Maskil Isaac Erter, whose affiliation with the Haskalah brought about persecution and much suffering.

Because the conflict between the two movements was reflected in their respective literary output and issued in generic differences, it led the Hasidim to evolve a poetics to counter Haskalah satire: in contrast to Maskilim’s satire, the Hasidim wrote tales, a genre that does not admit satire as such. In doing so the Hasidim declined and subverted the authority of Haskalah modes of representation. By evolving as a mirror image of Haskala satire, the genre of the Hasidic tale could develop by way of a story whose hagiographic authority leans, among other things, on the strong criticism the Rabbi in question is said to have voiced against the Maskilim. Hence Hasidic criticism, which at time borrows motifs taken from Haskala satire, illustrates how the Hasidim appropriated Haskala satire. One such tale, discussed in the project at hand, appeared in 1911 in the book “Miracles of the Rabbi” [niflaot ha-rabbi], a collection of tales by Moshe Menahem Walden. But the current project only notes that the story is unreliable, an anachronistic tale, since “The future tsaddik Ya’akov Yitshak Horowits of Lublin visited his teacher Elimelekh of Lizhenks.” Missing are analyses of the literary phenomenon of the appropriation of motives typical of the opposing side’s literature, as well as the foremost artistic question of the role of anachronism in this tale.

This exclusion of the discussion of the structure of the Hasidic tale from the legitimate study of Hasidism severs it from the cultural and social context that gave rise to it: The theological, cultural, political and aesthetic history of East European Jewry. The various languages the Hasidim used could have also contributed to the research on the Jewish languages of Eastern Europe, especially as it pertains to the Hasidic tale. The latter actually constituted the scene for a heated struggle around the diglossia and the relations between Hebrew and Yiddish. The linguistic style of the Hasidic tale, which was often – mistakenly – perceived as barbaric, also illuminates the Haskala style which countered it, and the important political role the language of the Hasidic tale played in the encounter with the literary language of the Hebrew Haskala, a style which was fundamentally biblical, and created, as a result, an effect of linguistic harmony.

The Hasidic tale, on the one hand, constituted a popular reading public, while the Haskala literature, on the other, coalesced around an elitist readership. The analysis of the aesthetics and politics of the Hasidic tale is also indispensable to an understanding of the material nature of the social and political structure of the Hasidic court, including the phenomenon of the ritual of Hasidic magic. Thus research with a focus on the material, literary, and political frame within which the Hasidic tale was written and told will clearly help us expand our understanding of the political rules that give rise to this structure, and especially the patterns of the Tzadik’s authority.

The book does include, though, a discussion of the Hasidic tale’s presence in modernist, neo-romantic Hasidic literature, mainly in Hebrew literature. The masterpiece of this type of writing is Martin Buber’s collection and edition of Hasidic tales, Hidden Light (Or Ganuz). The choice to refrain from any real discussion of the long history of the Hasidic tale, while zooming in only on its modernist adaptations, seems to rely on a methodological misconception that contemporary research, so as to not risk anachronism, should steer clear of Hasidic tales that were printed, for instance, in the early nineteenth century. Given the fact that the authors do not avoid dealing with other aspects of Hasidism, their decision to keep Hasidic literature out of the present research first and foremost, it must be said, reflects a prejudice against literature itself. The belief that the historian can undo anachronism by dealing with the facts themselves, without reference to their textually mediated and embedded nature, is illusory. Any discussion of text, whether literary or not, will involve some degree of anachronism. The difference between how nineteenth-century readers as opposed twentieth-century readers understood the Hasidic tale, is not unlike any other anachronism when it comes to reading any text, Hasidic or otherwise. A contemporary reading of Crime and Punishment will obviously be unlike one performed in the nineteenth century. If we did not accept anachronism as a fundamental given which we must always again confront because there is no way of avoiding it, the heaps of secondary literature on Dostoyevsky would be redundant. The anachronism of textual interpretation is inherent, and this may be taken to clarify that it is the task of the scholar of Hasidic literature to register the sequence of tensions between readings produced at different historical junctures, and most definitely not to ignore the structure and the art of the Hasidic tale as part of the legitimate field of study. If, from time to time, the literary function of the Hasidic tale changes this should be seen as part of a more general phenomenon of change in the functions of texts of different types, something which the historical philologist will have to make sense of. More than anything the historical philologist will have to follow the internal semantic movement of these changes, as well as the structure of the dynamic underlying them, which time and again situates and constitutes her or him as a reader.

Before concluding, I would like to point out some further possibly productive directions for thought: their absence in the present book should not discourage scholars from addressing them – and this includes the authors of the present volume. First, there is a fascinating aesthetic phenomenon that is deeply associated with the changing presence of the Hasidic tale in literary and political fields. This is a hybrid dynamic, present at the very root of every hagiography, between its reading as an historical document and as fiction. Investigation of this dynamic can contribute both to the analysis of the poetics of the Hasidic tale as a printed text, as well as to its performance as a political narrative, realized as oral art. To this I would add a discussion of the dialectics from which the exclusion of the Hasidic tale originates. Such a dialectic reading of the act of exclusion, the far-reaching reduction of the Hasidic tale’s presence in this comprehensive collection of studies, may have the result of contributing to its power. Indeed, it may well be precisely this present, ostensible powerlessness that makes it the more appealing and enriching to the study of Jewish literature and culture. Which leads me to conclude with the dialectical optimistic note suggested by a saying attributed to Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk: “Whoever believes in the stories of the Baal Shem Tov is a fool, and whoever does not is an epikoros [heretic].”

Hannan Hever is the Blaustein Professor of Modern Hebrew Language, and Literature, and Comparative Literature at Yale University. His most recent book is Hebrew Literature and the 1948 War: Essays on Philology and Responsibility.