Hasidism and the State

Rachel Manekin on Hasidism: A New History

One of the central arguments in Hasidism: A New History is that the nineteenth century was a golden age in the history of the Hasidic movement rather than a period of decline, as asserted by Simon Dubnow and other scholars. The nineteenth century witnessed a significant demographic growth as well as a geographical diffusion of Hassidim, which contributed to “varieties of religious and social expressions” and testified to the movement’s “vigor and endurance.” The large geographic spread of the movement restricted frequent visits to the leaders, the tsaddikim, and so the center of Hasidic life shifted in large part to the shtiblekh or kloyzlekh (small prayer houses) where Hasidim prayed, studied, and socialized with other followers of the same tsaddik, and sometimes with followers of different tsaddikim. The institution of the Hasidic prayer house helped the movement not only to expand its ranks but also to develop among Hasidim a conscience of a distinct group.

The chapter “Between Shtibl and Shtetl” describes in vivid detail the different varieties and functions of the shtiblekh, their daily routines, and economic upkeep. It also explains why establishing separate shtiblekh created tensions with the kahal, which viewed these houses of prayer as undermining its control and hurting its financial revenues, since the monetary donations typically pledged during the reading of the Torah would go to the shtibl rather than to the maintenance of the communal synagogue. The chapter is included in the second section of the book, which narrates the story of the nineteenth century, a section which I find most compelling. I will focus here on one aspect of the nineteenth-century story, namely, the state policies toward Hasidism.

One cannot of course speak of a common state policy toward Hasidism since the leaders and followers of Hasidism were spread across several geographic Eastern European areas, each governed by different rulers. Indeed, the book presents the different state policies and explains the context of their development. The policies analyzed in the book are those of the Habsburg Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Kingdom of Poland (Congress Poland). Establishing synagogues and private prayer houses was at the center of these policies, although they dealt also with some other issues affecting Hasidic life. Historically, building synagogues was under the authority and control of the kahal. Separate prayer houses were dealt with by the different governments following the partitions of Poland, perhaps because the spread of Hasidism made them more common. After all, the adoption of the Sephardic prayer rite by Hasidim rendered it impossible for them to pray regularly in communal synagogues.

The Habsburg Empire was the earliest to formulate policies regarding minyanim (prayer quorums) relevant mostly for Galicia, which was annexed to the empire following the Polish partitions of 1772 and 1795. After Empress Maria Theresa’s total prohibition in 1776, Joseph II allowed the establishing of private minyanim in 1788, but he required an annual imperial tax for maintaining them. This made any potential opposition by Jewish community councils inconsequential as they were kept out of the approval procedure, making the imperial treasury the immediate financial beneficiary of the growing number of private minyanim. The Galician Edict of Toleration issued a year later, as well as subsequent rulings, continued the toleration policy toward private minyanim, while changing the designated tax recipients, and even abolishing the tax altogether. Although building synagogues remained the exclusive prerogative of Jewish community councils, it was the state that opened the road for individuals to establish private minyanim providing that the legal regulations for obtaining the required permits were followed.

The final pre-constitutional ruling on private prayer places was issued in 1823, making the conditions for establishing them equal to those for establishing private Christian chapels. It added, for the first time, conditions for receiving permits, granting them only to individuals who were law-abiding and not suspected of “religious enthusiasm,” i.e., belonging to a sectarian group, and only to Jews who could not attend synagogues because of distance, old age, or illness. Maintaining private minyanim without a permit was deemed a punishable offence. A special 1824 law on the treatment of Hasidim clarified the reference to “religious enthusiasm,” stipulating that since rabbis who had been approached on the matter stated that Hasidim were not different in their religion from other tolerated Jews, the sectarianism condition didn’t apply to them. Following the new restrictions, some individuals, including Hasidim, were denied receiving permits while others were investigated and even punished for conducting minyanim without permits. After the promulgation of the 1867 Austrian constitution, the government didn’t interfere anymore in internal Jewish religious matters, leaving the issue of private minyanim exclusively to Jewish community councils who were recognized as the only institutions in charge of all matters pertaining to religion.

In contrast to the Habsburg professional bureaucracy, which was obsessed with details, the policies of the two other governments were rather chaotic and less systematic, as the book makes clear. The first Russian ruling on the subject was formulated in the 1804 Jewish statute of Tsar Alexander I, which stated in one of its paragraphs: “If in any place there arises a separation of sects and a split occurs in which one group does not want to be in a synagogue with the other group, then it is possible for one of them to build its own synagogue and select its own rabbis.” While Hasidim were not specifically mentioned here, the book surmises that this was a response to conflicts between Hasidim and Mitnaggdim. It also speculates that this was part of a broader government policy to weaken the unity of local Jewish communities. This meant that Hasidim could not only build Hasidic synagogues but also have their own rabbis. But matters deteriorated when Nicholas I ascended the throne. His 1835 statute required a formal permit for conducting private minyanim and he also issued stricter rules for establishing synagogues, limiting their number and requesting internal data and documentation. The abolishment of the kahal in 1844 didn’t ease the intervention of the Russian authorities in the internal business of synagogues.

The Polish authorities in the Kingdom of Poland first considered their policy toward Hasidim in 1817, when the Polish government decided to uphold the Austrian policy of religious toleration in the recently annexed regions to the Kingdom, including the right of free worship in private prayer houses. The book explains that after becoming more aware of the spread of Hasidism, the Polish government first issued in 1824 a decree prohibiting Hasidic prayer gatherings. This was a result of a report on the means to “civilize” the Jews, in which Hasidim were viewed as requiring greater government efforts for achieving this goal. However, in the wake of Hasidic protests, an investigation concluded that Hasidim should be tolerated and be granted freedom of public worship. According to the authors, “The investigation was a turning point in the history of Polish Hasidism, since it resulted in granting the movement fully legal status. Hasidism had become the only Jewish group whose freedom of meeting was specifically guaranteed by the state. This explicit writ of toleration set the direction of political relations between the Hasidic movement and the kingdom’s authorities for the years to come.”

While the book synthesizes the recent scholarship on state policies towards Hasidic prayer houses, it does not discuss the impact of these policies (other than the attitude of Hasidim to the state) on the Hasidic movement, especially in the first decades of the nineteenth century. More research is needed to find out whether these policies actually contributed to the increase in the number of Hasidic prayer houses, and as a result, also to the spread of the Hasidic movement at a crucial time of its development. It is plausible to speculate, that had the issue of private prayer houses remained under the authority of the kahal and not that of the state, the number of Hasidic prayer houses would have been much smaller and the conflicts within the Jewish communities would have intensified, although not necessarily on theological grounds.

Interestingly, in the early decades of the long nineteenth century, the Habsburg Empire, which had the most progressive religious toleration policy, especially in regard to Galician Jewry, did not recognize Hasidism as a group for the purpose of establishing private prayer houses. Requests for private minyanim could be submitted only by individual owners (or renters) of a space citing convenience and later distance from synagogues, illness, or old age, as a reason, but not adherence to Hasidism. It was the policies of the Russian Empire (before Nicholas I) and the Polish Kingdom that granted Hasidim the right to establish synagogues and private prayer houses as a distinct group.

While Hasidic prayer places were treated in the context of religious toleration, other Hasidic activities were not protected under this category. Such activities included the wearing of prohibited Polish-Jewish dress, the wandering around of Hasidic leaders without necessary papers, the collecting of public money without a license, blocking government efforts aimed at spreading education, and publishing or owning books banned by the censor. All these activities were treated as violations of civil or criminal laws regardless of whether they were committed by Hasidim or non-Hasidim.

Regarding dress, the Habsburg Empire gave Jews in 1788, and later in the 1789 Galician Toleration Edict, a period of three years by the end of which they had to give up their traditional clothing. Rabbis were to be exempt from this requirement. But a few months later, in 1790, Leopold II rescinded this requirement in response to many Jewish protests. The issue of dress was treated later, although much harsher, by the Polish Kingdom and the Russian Empire. According to what became known as the “Dress Decree,” Jewish men and women were forbidden from wearing traditional Jewish dress. Initially there was an option of paying a fee for an exemption from this prohibition, but this was stopped in 1850. As the book explains, while this decree didn’t apply specifically to Hasidim, it was particularly difficult for them since they perceived the traditional Polish-Jewish dress as part of their identity. Indeed the book records lobbying activities of Hasidic leaders, as well as open defiance, in response to this decree.

Rulings that were directed specifically at Hasidim and Hasidic leaders in the Habsburg Empire included an 1816 directive to maintain a watchful eye over efforts of Hasidim to block the spread of enlightenment. This was issued in response to a suspicion that Hasidim were behind a pronouncement of a ban against Maskilim who established schools. In 1823 local Galician authorities were instructed again to keep a watchful eye on Hasidim, this time on those who roamed around the country without the necessary papers, collected large sums of money, and spread superstitions and fanatical customs. The directive emphasized that such activities, which have nothing to do with religion but are rather violations of the civil law, should be swiftly dealt with by the authorities. Indeed, Maskilim saw in this directive fertile ground for denunciations against Hasidic leaders, some of whom were subsequently interrogated by district administrations and even imprisoned, but most were able to avoid adverse consequences after appealing to Vienna.

Similar directives were issued in the Russian Empire. In 1854 Russian provincial authorities were instructed to tighten control over Hasidic leaders and prohibit Hasidic assemblies in places were no appropriate permits were issued. Russian authorities conducted investigations of Hasidic leaders (mostly following denunciations by Maskilim) accused of similar violations in the Habsburg Empire. In 1865, Hasidic leaders in the Russian south-western regions were prohibited from leaving their places of residence (“Tsaddikim Decree”). While the prohibition was abolished only in 1896, some Hasidic leaders found ways to get around it. In late nineteenth century the Russian government changed its view on Hasidism, considering them now “as a possible conservative ally working against revolutionary movements.”

Last but not least of government policies affecting Hasidim were those concerning the censorship of books. In the Habsburg Empire a special directive was issued already in 1814 instructing Galician district authorities to pay special attention to Hasidic books and check whether they were violating censorship regulations. These regulations included banning books (not specifically Jewish) that spread superstitions and religious enthusiasm. So while the Habsburg Empire dismissed religious enthusiasm as a reason for denying a permit for a minyan by a petitioner who was a Hasid, it put many Hasidic books under the category of religious enthusiasm and prohibited printing, selling, or keeping them.

Hasidism: A New History discusses also the closure in 1836 of all Hebrew printing houses in the Russian Empire, except two (the “Printing Decree”). These presses, however, continued to sell books remaining in their stock, including Hasidic books. In the Polish Kingdom the government reissued in 1822 censorship regulations for Jewish books, making them stricter following the 1831 Polish uprising. Some of the restrictions were lifted after the death of the Maskil Avraham Stern, a fierce critic of Hasidism. As in Galicia, Hasidim in the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Poland found ways to purchase and spread Hasidic books, mostly by smuggling and violating censorship regulations.

The book claims that “although it is hard to call the authorities’ policies toward Hasidism benevolent, they were not particularly anti-Hasidic either. Indeed […] the authorities in the different states with large Hasidic populations often refused on the grounds of religious toleration to acquiesce to demands by the Maskilim to suppress Hasidism,” but this should be qualified as pertaining mostly to synagogues and private prayer houses, but not to laws which, as the book itself shows, the authorities suspected to be typically violated by Hasidim. Since Hasidim learned quickly the limits of imperial power and found ways not only to protest, but to circumvent or completely disregard state laws, one is left wondering whether this response, justified or not, had lasting effects on the attitude of some Hasidim to state laws.

Another issue over which the state had much influence was female education in Hasidic families, but other than a brief mention in the chapter on interwar Poland it is not discussed in the book. The chapter titled “Hasidic Education” discusses only the education of males. This issue was particularly relevant to Hasidim in Habsburg Galicia, where in 1873 a local version of the 1869 Austrian compulsory education law mandated schooling for boys and girls between the ages of 6 and12. (The Austrian law mandated education between the ages of 6 and 14.) While Hasidic fathers were ready to pay fines and keep sending their sons to cheders, they willingly sent their daughters to public or private Polish schools, despite the consequences for the daughters’ Jewish identity and the Hasidic community. This became an accepted practice among Galician Hasidim until the First World War.

According to the book, Galician Hasidim, more than Hasidim in Russia and Poland, rejected any influence of modernity on their lives and “reacted aggressively to every attempt at change.” This raises the question of how Galician Hasidim managed to square such a seemingly fierce opposition to modernity with the school education they provided to their daughters and their willingness in some cases to pay high tuition fees for prestigious private Polish girls’ schools, something that surely had an impact on their homes. Even if one accepts the book’s claim that there was not such a thing at this period as a female Hasid, the decision on the type of education given to daughters in Hasidic homes was made by fathers. Taking into consideration the education of girls would have made the argument about the attitude of Hasidim to modernity more complex and nuanced.

This criticism does not at all minimize the remarkable achievement of the authors of Hasidism: A New History. Their ability to present as one story the complex, 250-year history of a movement that was far from unified, and whose followers and leaders were spread over many geographical areas, is an impressive one, as is their ability to synthesize into a coherent narrative the work of many scholars from the last half-century. Anybody interested in the Hasidic movement will wish to consult this work.

Rachel Manekin is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland. She is the author of The Jews of Galicia and the Austrian Constitution: The Beginning of Modern Jewish Politics (Jerusalem: Shazar Institute, 2015) and the forthcoming The Rebellion of the Daughters: Jewish Women Runaways in Habsburg Galicia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).