Hasidism: An Introduction

Susannah Heschel and Shaul Magid on Hasidism: A New History

The history of Hasidism has been a subject of scholarly interest almost from the time of the emergence of Hasidism itself. In the eighth volume of his voluminous work The History of the Jews (1856-1870), Jewish historian Henrich Graetz (1817-1891) wrote extensively, mostly despairingly, about Hasidism. Later Simon Dubnow wrote a three-volume Yiddish work The History of Hasidism (1930). Others followed. In subsequent decades, scholarship on Hasidism has continued unabated and yet no new comprehensive history has been written even as scholars drilled deep into the wellsprings of Hasidic life and literature to produce important essays and books on Hasidism’s contribution to Jewish life and letters. This is why Hasidism: A New History is such an important and welcome addition.

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

Publication of a major book like Hasidism: A New History, a collaborative work co-authored by eight scholars in the field (all male), summarizing their methods and scholarly contributions, should be hailed as a momentous event in Jewish scholarship. And yet like every major work about such a broad topic, criticism is inevitable, and appropriate. A senior scholar in Judaica once said that any work that exhausts a subject only shows us the subject was not worth a study. In this forum, we present seven substantive assessments and critiques of this new history of Hasidism by scholars in various fields and with different areas of expertise and perspectives.

The seven reviewers of Hasidism: A New History in this forum find much to praise, but also much to critique. Important elements of Hasidism are omitted, such as the Hasidic story, which has played such a central role in the history of the movement, and Hasidism’s use of song, dance and stories as forms of prayer.

As one of Judaism’s most important contributions to the phenomenon of human piety, Hasidism requires investigation not only of its social, political, and theological developments, which the co-authors rehearse effectively, but also for the kind of religiosity it fosters, a religiosity that continues to attract Jews from around the world. Hasidism is arguably primarily about piety, devotion to God, the cultivation of an awareness of God’s presence at all times and in all circumstances. While these subjects are touched upon, a few reviewers question the historical methodology of the project and wonder whether its commitment to social history elides various aspects of Hasidism, particularly notions of piety and devotion, which can better be understood phenomenologically.

For Jews devastated by the eradication of East European Jewish life during World War II, Hasidism is both a present reality and an important memory. Some in this forum maintain that the vitality and inspiration that Hasidism brought to Jewish life is insufficiently recognized by the book’s authors, who tend to analyze the movement with the tools of the social sciences rather than giving us an understanding of its meaning to its own devotees.

Why is the omission of women scholars from this collective significant? This book was well-funded; its eight authors were able to spend two months each summer at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig to work on the project. Moreover, these scholars, all experts in their respective fields, purport to describe this highly significant, influential Jewish movement according to the latest scholarly research. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that its readers would surmise the volume reliably depicts the scholarly field as it stands today and that the volume’s findings will be lasting; indeed, such an encyclopedic study ought to have a long shelf life. Yet our reviewers note with aplomb that academic omissions exist and need to be addressed. As the reviewers indicate, crucial aspects of Hasidism are omitted or given short shrift. Equally disturbing for some of the reviewers is the failure to make use of current methods of scholarly inquiry, particularly in the field of religious studies, phenomenology, and theology.

For example, the question raised in the book’s introduction, “Is Hasidism modern?,” seems to us like the sort of question raised by scholars of religion in the 1970s. In the past forty years, sophisticated theorizing about piety, prayer, ritual, and community that have been developed by scholars in the social sciences, particularly anthropology, sociology and psychology, as well in the humanities seem not to have influenced the contributors to this volume. Nor is there a deep engagement, or even an awareness, of contemporary literary theory in regard to Hasidic texts (this is the subject of one of our reviewers). Thus, the question posed in the volume’s Introduction asks if Hasidism can be considered a “modern” movement but without considering the newer theorizing that sees “modernity” as a rhetorical device, not a moment in time or a set of principles. Presenting Hasidism as a “living alternative to modernity” misses the more complex analyses of religion, modernity, postmodernity and secularism explored by Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Charles Taylor, Edward Said, Hans Blumenberg, Jürgen Habermas, among many others, as well as by their numerous critics.

Some of the reviewers wonder why, given such a broad project, written over the course of almost seven years, such important elements of scholarship have not informed the authors? One might conclude that the contributors to the volume, most of whom were senior scholars, have not adequately been attentive to the work of their junior colleagues, now constituting two or three generations of younger, more recently trained scholars. While not unpredictable, it is still troubling when seasoned scholars do not remain freshly informed by newer developments, choosing rather to focus on a critique of their teachers rather than also engaging with their younger peers. Thus the volume spends far more time articulating critiques of older, and in some cases long discarded interpretations of Hasidism by figures of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, such as Graetz, Dubnow and Gershom Scholem, rather than pointing forward to the fresh and exciting publications of the past ten or fifteen years by a new generation of young scholars, many of whom are trained in comparative work, archival discoveries, newer hermeneutical methods of reading and interpreting Hasidic texts, and who also happen to include quite a few women. In unfortunate ways, this book is not as new a history as it might have been.

As a few reviewers in this forum note, Hasidism: A New History repeats several times, in rather stern language, that women had no role in Hasidism, so that there is no need in the book to talk about women. One reviewer shows with ample evidence that this simply is historically not true, and others express surprise that the alleged absence of women from the movement was not analyzed in the book as a form of masculinist construction. At stake is not simply an all-male collaboration but more substantively the way gender is addressed or ignored when reconstructing the history of Hasidism. One reviewer suggests that if women had been part of the project, that problem would likely not have occurred. Moreover, female scholars may well have challenged that gap and created a more complex overall analysis. Ultimately, the exclusion of attention to women’s lives still leaves unanswered the question of how the maleness of the Hasidic movement is constructed. The all-male celebrations, study houses, and praying spaces generate forms of masculinity that must then be reconciled with marriage to a woman, a challenging task for some Hasidic men and women. Attention to the gender constructions of intense religious communities is by now common in scholarly analyses, yet oddly missing from this volume.

The volume’s greatest strength lies in its reconstruction of the history of Hasidism during the nineteenth century, with the rise and spread of numerous different Hasidic communities, rebbes, publications, religious practices, and self-understandings. The authors note that by mid-nineteenth century, “Hasidism was the dominant form of Judaism in more than a few places in Eastern Europe, particularly eastern Galicia and parts of Ukraine.”

Surprisingly, the volume is weaker on the eighteenth century, ignoring some of the recent studies by younger scholars on the medical and spiritual healing practices, especially of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), and comparing them with those of Christian healers of Ukraine. The omission is striking, given the very important prior work of one of the volume’s authors, Moshe Rosman, who was the first to uncover vital information about the Besht in Ukrainian archives. Chapters on the twentieth century are similarly disappointing, focusing on the fate of various rabbinical courts when rebbes fail to produce heirs, giving us interminable details regarding the clothing of different Hasidic communities, and describing in endless salacious detail their sexual practices and proscriptions. Describing Hasidism today, the book focuses extensively on institution-building, especially on “family dynamics” and “problems of succession” that the authors call “a riveting melodrama.” But does the melodrama lie with the occasional delay in selecting a replacement for a deceased rebbe or in the imagination of the authors?

Another important aspect to our understanding of Hasidism that is not given sufficient space in the volume includes the publications undertaken by Hasidim themselves. Hasidism is, as is known, both a social and a literary movement, and Hasidic printing is a major force is Jewish printing more generally and has been for almost two centuries. The past half century has seen a growth of Hasidic publications and printing houses around the globe that have brought to light private letters and manuscripts that could have been consulted. Indeed, in writing about a religious movement that still exists with such vitality, the volume’s authors could have yielded important insights simply by talking to its leaders and adherents.

Today there is a large audience for a new history of Hasidism beyond the academic guild. All sorts of people are fascinated by its piety, especially as Judaism more generally is undergoing new stages of renewal. Yet the basic question that informed earlier scholars on this movement remains: why are people drawn to Hasidism? What kinds of religious experiences are offered by Hasidism? Why be Hasidic when so many other options are available, ranging from modern Orthodoxy to secularism to other religions? Particularly in the final chapter, dealing with contemporary Hasidism, the question of motivation is especially conspicuous by its absence. What is so meaningful to those who choose to live a Hasidic life, and how might we, as outsiders, gain an understanding of their religious observance, sense of community, adherence to a rebbe, and, especially, Hasidism’s emphasis on the centrality of prayer and constant closeness to God even in the most mundane aspects of life? A new history of Hasidism, in addition to making an important and necessary contribution to Jewish scholarship, also has the responsibility, in our view, to engage such questions that are asked both within and outside the orbit of the academy. Most important, how will the Hasidim themselves read this book – will they see themselves reflected in its pages?

There was an era, long ago, when historians did not think it necessary to consider the theological ideas of a religious movement when writing its history, let alone its appeal to adherents beyond the movement’s political and social consequences. The contributors to this volume are historians, not scholars of religion, but do not seem fully cognizant of newer scholarship by historians that integrates religious ideas and experiences into social history, exemplified by the work of the Russian historian Laura Engelstein, the medievalist Caroline Bynum, the Americanists Jon Butler, Amy Kittelstrom, Leigh Eric Schmidt, Kevin Schultz, and Ann Taves, among many others. To write about a lived religion such as Hasidism would benefit from scholarly categories developed in the fields of anthropology, sociology, ethnography and religious studies that integrate the self-understanding of religious people into their analyses. The writings of David Hall and Robert Orsi, two highly acclaimed historians focusing on American Christianity in the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, respectively, illustrate how lived religion, as religious practice and religious subjectivity, might be addressed by social scientists and historians. Such approaches would have greatly enriched this study of Hasidism.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, historians such as Graetz and Dubnow had very specific reasons for writing about Hasidim as part of their broader projects advocating the complex integration of Judaism and modernity. Standing on the other side of that modern project, Hasidism: A New History bears the responsibility of addressing the seemingly ever-renewing phenomenon called Hasidism. In many ways, it has done so with great erudition and deserves much praise. But as with any project of this scope, part of its contribution is precisely the places where it falls short, thereby giving colleagues voice to expand its program by offering critiques that can move us forward toward an even deeper understanding of its subject. Therefore, we have decided to convene a group of distinguished scholars to address the contributions of this work and also inform us of its deficiencies, all in the spirit of a greater and deeper understanding of Hasidism and its byproducts. If, as someone once said, critique is itself praise, perhaps the highest praise, we hope these substantive reviews will serve the constructive function we intend.

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, and she recently co-edited Muslim Responses to European Orientalism.

Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His two latest books are The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels (2019) and Piety and Rebellion: Essay on Hasidism (2019). He is presently completing a cultural biography of Meir Kahane entitled Meir Kahane: An American Jewish Radical.