Hasidism: Reflections on the New Narrative

Tsippi Kauffman on Hasidism: A New History

One of the most central concepts that Hasidism adopted from Kabbalah is that of “yichud” (literally, “unification”). Hasidism applies this kabbalistic theurgic concept in a wide range of contexts: unification between thought and action; between the material world and the Divinity that resides within it, etc. It is therefore entirely appropriate that Hasidism: A New History is itself a “unification”: a collaborative effort in a most unique project. In the academic world it takes courage to produce a book together with even just one other co-author. In this instance, the collaboration among no less than eight scholars was maintained from the very outset, from the mapping of the material and the difficult decisions as to organization and structure, all the way to the finished product. While the reader is occasionally able to identify the voice of one or another of the authors, the overall impression is unquestionably one of teamwork, and the whole is incomparably more impressive than the sum of its parts.

This book is more than just an anthology of research by eight important scholars, enriched by the work of their respective colleagues. It offers a new narrative that connects all the various pieces of the puzzle. It is evident that much thought was devoted to the structure of the book. It includes diachronous chapters, which trace the development of different Hasidic groups from the birth of the movement in the eighteenth century until the present time, along with synchronous chapters that address general themes: ethos, ritual, leadership, the Hasidic court, literary culture, and so on. This structure results in a stunning interwoven fabric that fits snugly around the elusive concept of “Hasidism.”

I believe the authors made a wise choice in refraining from citing contemporary scholars anywhere in the body of the text, while appending an annotated bibliography to each chapter that provides a broad and detailed picture of the research in the relevant area.

The new narrative: politics and power struggles

One of the important contributions of the book is its shift from the old research narrative, which tried to define the essence of Hasidism (mainly in terms of its early period), to a new narrative according to which the essence is, to a considerable extent, non-existent. The old narrative identified a point in time in the early nineteenth century where Hasidism (whether conceived in terms of the theological perception of a Divine presence; the practical implementation of the idea of Divine service through corporeal existence; spiritual and mystical experiences; a social movement of equality and simplicity; or a general essence of religious innovation and radicalism) began to atrophy and decline. According to the new narrative, there is no “essence of Hasidism”; the phenomenon lacks any essential definition. And if there is no essence, there is no atrophy. On the contrary, the perception of atrophy is replaced by diversification. According to this narrative, the nineteenth century might be characterized not as a period of deterioration and decay, but rather as one of growth and flourishing – demographically, geographically, hagiographically, and more. The spread and development of Hasidism in different directions produced a proliferation of forms and styles of leadership, handing down of tradition, homiletics, and literature, in view of which the nineteenth century deserves to be viewed as the “golden age” of Hasidism. While the new narrative has made appearances in previous works by the authors, here it represents the backbone of the work as a whole.

The absence of essence pertains not only to content and claims regarding Hasidism, but also to methodology. If Hasidism has an essential inner nucleus, then we will seek it mainly in Hasidic texts. This nucleus will also express itself outwardly in various ways. If Hasidism has no essential inner nucleus, then we must look in from the outside. In other words, everything that Hasidim say about themselves, and all that the Mitnagedim, Maskilim and scholars say about Hasidism, is regarded as a system of images, structures, and discourse. A significant component of the definition of Hasidic identity will therefore be found at the dividing line between Hasidism and whatever or whomever it is in conflict with. Thus, conflict will be central to defining the identity of those involved in it, since a multi-faceted discourse develops around it.

This perspective – which, of course, is post-modern in many respects – offers depth and maturity in relation to the old essentialist narrative. However, it gives rise to problems of its own. One problem is that when conflict is perceived as central to understanding phenomena, figures, or events, then we find ourselves looking for conflicts, and the discourse is drawn again and again in the direction of power struggles, control, and dominance. This vocabulary is ubiquitous throughout the book, sometimes portraying the political aspect as the be-all and end-all, prompting us to ask whether this perspective is simply a more updated version of essentialism.

The new narrative: flat characters

A second problem is that when we proceed from the fundamental idea that everything that has been said and written is subjective and one-sided imagery, and that the outside radiates inward, rather than the other way around, then we exempt ourselves from having to listen to those on the inside. While reading some of the chapters I had a sense that the authors had a clear preference for the external, estranged perspective. While the authors admittedly pointed out that what they were discussing was indeed an image, created by parties that had a particular purpose in presenting it in this way, they still chose to spotlight the biased image and imprint it on the reader’s consciousness rather than examining a representation offered by a figure closer in time, place, and identity to the subject of the research.

A case in point is the treatment of the Rebbe of Kotzk – an extreme figure by all counts. Of the approximately three pages devoted to him, a lengthy text is cited, portraying the Rebbe in his solitary seclusion. The writer describes the sequestered Rebbe surrounded by mice and toads that jumped around him, nibbled on the hem of his coat, and ate leftover food from his hand, hypothesizing that these were in fact souls of departed Hasidim that the Rebbe healed and repaired. The text, written by Yehiel Yeshaya Trunk in the twentieth century, arouses not only disgust and revulsion, but also a question: what could so many Hasidim find in such a man? For according to the authors themselves, who also rely on (non-Jewish) Polish sources, the Rebbe of Kotzk was indeed extremely popular.

The work Yad Avi Shalom (Warsaw, 5642) was written by R. Meir Zvi of Zamość, a disciple of the Rebbe of Kotzk. In the introduction to the book, he writes:

I have lived in close proximity to the Admor for several years now… For some years already my thoughts have not left the Admor for a moment… Rather, my heart is constantly bound up with him with cords of love, and his image is before me that I might obey him, for his service, and performing his bidding, is service of God… Nevertheless, I have countless matters in the recesses of my heart… that I myself know not whether they originate with the right side of truth, or, heaven forfend, the left side of falsehood, nor whom I might turn to, to ask… I could say, “I shall go to the man of God, the Admor, and place my matter before him, and he shall surely judge me, for he is the teacher of Israel” – but all this time his guidance is [in the form of] a “hiding of his face,” owing to our many sins, like God’s curse. For this reason my innards perish within me; I know not what to do.

This is the first-person account of a Hasid who became a follower of the Rebbe at a young age. After some years in which he felt that under the Rebbe’s influence he was progressing from one spiritual level to the next (as described at the beginning of his introduction, which was omitted above), the Rebbe suddenly concealed himself and secluded himself in his room. The anguish described by the Hasid, who cannot tell whether what troubles his heart is a matter of truth or of falsehood, is a faithful representation of the Rebbe of Kotzk’s radical quest for inner truth, which he passed on to his followers. With the seclusion of his guide, the Hasid feels lost and abandoned. Further on in his introduction he writes that for this reason he decided to help himself by writing what he feels in his heart when he is in a state of “expanded consciousness” (gadlut) and is able to engage in inner renewal, and then to use what he has written at other times, when he finds himself in a state of “constricted consciousness” (katnut). In other words, he becomes his own Rebbe and a Hasid of himself.

This text represents a wonderful first-hand account that portrays the Rebbe of Kotzk as a complex and conflicted figure – a charismatic tsaddik who drew a large following of Hasidim, and who later turned his back on them and abandoned them as he chose to isolate himself.

This text should not be viewed as the whole truth. It is one of many perspectives on the Rebbe, by a single author, who weaves his life-story out of facts and images, and shares the resulting picture with his readers. To my mind, this sort of complex narrative has far greater historical value than an image reconstructed in the twentieth century, at a distance of time and space, and from a judgmental, scornful and univocal perspective.

Other figures, including for example R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha and R. Baruch of Mezhibuzh receive similar treatment. It is as if there is no one who might offer a closer, more intimate account, shedding light on the worthy inner essence that these figures possessed, alongside their interests, politics, and power struggles. The authors adopt a similar approach with regard to other topics that offer no shortage of authentic Hasidic sources. For example, in addressing the tsaddik’s grave and the commemoration of his yahrzeit, the authors focus on the testimony of a Maskil as their central perspective.

The new narrative: women are not Hasidot

There is one exception to the central theme of the book, which in general increases the perspectives on and diversity with regard to every aspect of Hasidism: the subject of women.

I would say that if there is just one essentialist message in this work, it is the profound conviction on the part of the authors that women are not Hasidot. This is a recurring theme that manifests itself as an objective truth that is not a matter of image, discourse, or politics. It is a fact, in the good, old-fashioned sense of the word.

Of course, I accept the assertion that there were no women in the Hasidic leadership, they were not members of the Hasidic court, and they had no part in the male Hasidic fraternity. Still, I find it strange that the authors feel a need to reiterate that women were not Hasidot every time the discussion points to some connection between women and the tsaddik, Hasidic practice, values, or philosophy.

To cite just a few examples: after mentioning that women were also part of the kloyz in Galicia, the authors take pains to note that “women were not counted as Hasidim.” On the subject of education, they mention that up until the end of the nineteenth century there existed no Hasidic educational institutions; nevertheless, children absorbed their Hasidic identity at home – exclusively from their fathers, according to the authors, since women were not Hasidot and thus supposedly had nothing to pass on to their children. Charity, as we know, is an important Hasidic value in the context of the Hasidic court, the tsaddik, and male Hasidim, and the “pidyon” (token gift to the tsaddik) is a well-known Hasidic practice. But where women extended financial support to the tsaddik – even in the case of a wealthy benefactress such as Temerl Sonnenberg-Bergson, or a devoted women follower in Galicia who would walk eight kilometers every Friday in order to bring money and wine to the tsaddik – their gestures fall under the category of “ordinary” charity that has nothing to do with Hasidism, since women are not Hasidot. In a discussion about Sochachov Hasidism the authors include a testimony relating to Tsine, the wife of R. Avraham of Sochachov, who was the daughter of the Rebbe of Kotzk. The introduction describes how Tsine “became a female adherent of the Kotzker,” following her father’s example with regard to her values and behaviour. Since this description does not sit well with the narrative propounded by the authors, they reiterate once again that women were not Hasidot, and explain her behaviour by proposing that she “acted boldly as if she herself was the reincarnation of her father”!

What makes this issue all the more puzzling is the fact that in relation to men, the authors fully embrace the complexity and fluidity of the definition of a “Hasid.” Consequently, they explain, it is difficult to offer any clear and unequivocal answers with regard to Hasidic demographics. Men can be semi-Hasidic, partly Hasidic, or Hasidic-influenced: there are those who only travel to the Rebbe, or to several Rebbes; those who come to “have a peep” only when an Admor visits their town; and so on. But in relation to women, the definition is very clear: women are never Hasidot. Even the wife of Yehezkel Kutik, who “discusses Hasidism” with her father-in-law and urges her husband to remain a Hasid, is not herself a Hasida. Her sole desire is to be the wife of a Hasid.

Admittedly, the authors are willing to entertain the possibility that women did identify or affiliate themselves with the ideals of Hasidism, but they argue that there is no way of gauging the place of Hasidic values in the women’s world-view. I believe that this claim is altogether inaccurate. If we look for Hasidic values in the world of women, we will surely find them. If we read the story of Gittel, wife of R. Avraham ha-Malakh, as a cultural product, rather than merely as evidence supporting some or other factual detail, we can learn much about her Hasidism and her values. The same can be said of Malka Shapiro’s book, The Rebbe’s Daughter, or the stories about the women in R. Nachman of Braslav’s family, or the book about Rabbanit Rivka Schneersohn of Chabad. Tips of icebergs abound, pointing to all that is not documented concerning the religious life of women, some of which occurred and was experienced not solely in relation to the men in their lives, and not within formal frameworks, but rather in relation to their God, and even in relation to other women.

The new narrative: the marginalization of narratives

This unequivocal position with regard to the non-Hasidism of women is related, to my mind, to the book’s very modest statement regarding the role of stories: only a brief paragraph in the chapter on ritual is devoted to Hasidic stories. This paragraph conceals more than it reveals about the very significant place of stories in Hasidism as part of the ethos, as conveyors of ethos, and as molding perceptions, values, and education. It is clear from many different sources that women communicated their Hasidism to themselves and to the younger generations through stories. Of course, it was not only women who told stories: telling stories was a matter of ritual, performance, and often even moments of ecstasy, as documented in some of the testimonies.

The book itself contains a great many Hasidic stories, but they are read as historical documents, each revealing some or other detail or portraying some or other image. To my mind, the authors could and should have shown, by means of at least one example, how a careful and complex reading of a Hasidic story as a cultural product and as discourse in its own right – a reading taking into account its multiplicity of facets – can speak to us in multiple Hasidic voices. Such a reading can function as a sort of micro-history. Alongside analysis of testimonies for the sake of extracting the social, cultural and conceptual history underlying the major, overarching categories and structures, it is well worth listening to the unique voice of the Hasidic story, which often exposes inner conflicts and presents contradictory systems of values.

The marginalization of the story as a cultural resource is thus reinforced by this book. The Hasidic story is not awarded the place that it deserves – neither in the description of Hasidic praxis, literature, and thought, nor in the use that could be made of it to learn about the world of Hasidism. In this regard, Gershom Scholem’s (old) methodological narrative still has the upper hand.

All of the above notwithstanding, there is no denying that this is a magnificent, rich, and incomparably important work. It is a trove of knowledge and insights covering the range of Hasidic courts and the movement’s different periods.

There is much to be gained from the mature perspective of these contemporary historians and their new narrative, in comparison with the less sophisticated views that created the old narrative concerning Hasidism. As noted, the new narrative forgoes a measure of inner connection and identification with the subject matter, but it is all-encompassing in its scope and offers a broad and diverse range of contexts in space, time, and discourse.

The book offers a range of perspectives on every issue. On one hand, the authors take pains to avoid resorting to generalization (Ukrainian Hasidism vs. Polish Hasidism; the first generation vs. later generations; dynastic inheritance vs. charisma, and so on). On the other hand, they propose more modest and balanced characterizations that offer the student and researcher tools for further study, and major categories of thought on questions such as the definition of a modern movement; identity; leadership; the relations between a religious movement and the political entity within which it operates; the relations between the spoken word, the written word, and print; and more. Furthermore, alongside the skillfully-drawn bigger picture and the overarching systems of axes, the book also offers a wealth of smaller details and day-to-day images: how the Hasid would travel to the tsaddik, and the impact of the train on the connection between the tsaddik and his Hasidim; what the Hasidim ate at the tsaddik’s court; how they supported themselves; how individual encounters between the tsaddik and Hasid were conducted, and the degree of privacy that actually characterized such encounters; and so on. In addition, there are some truly astonishing anecdotes, such as how the gabbai (beadle) of the Rebbe of Chortkov prevented what might have been an historical meeting between the Rebbe and Theodor Herzl, or the encounter between Ahad HaAm (Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg) and the Rebbe of Sadigora where, after shaking hands, the Rebbe wiped his hand on his coat. Without question, anyone wishing to write about Hasidism in any place and during any period would do well to consult this important work. For the lay reader, Hasidism: A New History offers an organized and enlightening roadmap.

Dr. Tsippi Kauffman (1970-2019) was a Senior Lecturer in Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University. She was the author of numerous studies of Hasidism, published in Hebrew and English, examining Hasidic understandings of God, worship through the body, and the construction of gender in Hasidic texts, including her book, Be-khol derakhekha daʻehu: tefisat ha-Elohut ṿeha-ʻavodah be-gashmiyut be-reshit ha-Ḥasidut  [In All Your Ways Know Him: The Concept of God and Avodah Begashmiyut in the Early Stages of Hasidism].