Response to the Forum on Hasidism: A New History

The Authors of Hasidism: A New History Respond

We welcome the Marginalia forum on our collectively-authored work, Hasidism: A New History. We are especially pleased to receive the praise of many of the contributors to this forum, such as Elliot Wolfson’s comment that the book “will undoubtedly stand for many years as the most comprehensive survey of a phenomenon that fundamentally altered the social and religious history of the Jews from the eighteenth century to the present,” or Lea Taragin-Zeller’s appraisal that “this new book will be a must-read for scholars of Judaism, history, religion and modernity.” And even one of the authors of this forum’s introductory essay, which is highly critical (and to our mind tendentious), wrote of our book in a different context: “This extensive and authoritative volume is unprecedented in its scope, breadth and depth.”

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

We are equally grateful for the serious criticism many of the contributors offer. Covering such a vast and, in places, understudied subject our book could not be exhaustive, and the progress of scholarship will surely benefit from the kind of civil discourse and critical dialogue the Marginalia forum has made possible. Our commitment to the collective authorship of our book extends beyond the eight of us to a wider community of scholars engaged in a collegial enterprise.

We want first to join the editors of this forum in commemorating our late colleague, Tsippi Kauffman, from whom we, too, have learned a great deal. Kauffman’s research on avodah be-gashmiyut (“worship through materiality”) has informed our own writing on the eighteenth century. Elliot Wolfson’s contribution to this forum advances even further our understanding of this paradoxical concept, serving to solve in a novel way the famous historiographical debate between Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber.

We are less persuaded by Kaufmann’s claim that our book focuses mainly on power relations and uses primarily external, rather than internal Hasidic sources. We have certainly used Hasidic sources liberally where available and the specific source that Kauffman brings for Kotzk Hasidism, while not referenced explicitly in our discussion, is no proof of her point. It is, in fact, the type of source we did use.

Kauffman also makes a very interesting intervention with respect to the identity of women. We do indeed argue that there is no clear-cut or essential definition of who was a Hasidic man in the nineteenth century. The fluidity of identity in this period (as well as later) could, as she argues, be applied also to women, who may have identified and engaged with Hasidism in their own ways, at times, perhaps, unique to women and at others, similar to men’s, such as coming to the court of the tsaddik to ask for blessings or remedies (Glenn Dynner makes a similar argument). Since, however, Christians also occasionally visited rebbes, such behavior by itself would not indicate affiliation with Hasidism.

In any case, our book hardly ignores the question of women (the index has twenty-one separate entries, in addition to a number of cross-references). We treat extensively the role of Hasidism in family dynamics and we demonstrate in particular the role of wives and daughters of certain rebbes. We also describe how Shivhei ha-Besht, a text from 1814, gives literary license to female actors, even if they did not have such a role in reality.

The questions of whether women counted as Hasidim (or, more properly, Hasidot) and, if so, when, are still open and one needs to weigh the evidence, as we try to do in the section on the family in the chapter on the nineteenth-century shtetl. There, we bring evidence on both sides, but tend toward seeing women as more often identifying through their husbands. Some of the examples to the contrary that Dynner brings, such as Temerl Sonnenberg, are already in our book; others are certainly worthy of consideration.

We reject, however, the tendency on the part of some of the authors in this forum to see this question polemically. We have no particular stake in either excluding or including women from Hasidism. We try to follow the sources wherever they lead us and are open to additional evidence. For example, Rachel Manekin helpfully draws our attention to the surprising fact that Hasidim in the Habsburg Empire in the late nineteenth century at times sent their daughters to secular schools, although that would tend to distance those daughters from Hasidism, not reflect their active inclusion. In any case, this phenomenon was limited to a very few wealthy Hasidim and not the rank-in-file.

Lea Taragin-Zeller correctly points out that more ethnographic study of contemporary Hasidic women and of the meaning they give to Hasidic rituals is very much in order. In our treatment of the postwar Hasidic movement, we take pains to show how many Hasidic women now see themselves as fully Hasidic, a striking contrast to earlier periods. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the fact that we selected two wonderful photographs of contemporary Hasidic women – one of the rebbetsin of Belz and her daughter-in-law, the other of a Toldot Aharon Hasidic woman at prayer – demonstrates that we take seriously Hasidic female piety in the postwar period.

Readers need to understand something of the history of this question. In the early twentieth century, S.A. Horodezky romanticized Hasidism as a movement that liberated women. Our colleague, Ada Rapoport-Albert, who was involved in our project from its inception until close to publication, demonstrated that Horodezky had it wrong and that women played little or no role in eighteenth-century and even nineteenth-century Hasidism. We are open to the possibility that this definitive judgment may need to be qualified, but we resist the temptation to return to Horodezky’s romantic falsification. In general, as Glenn Dynner notes, the extensive space we do devote to women in Hasidism is itself a real advance over earlier histories, which either romanticize or ignore the question. That more needs to be done does not contradict what we have achieved.

Readers might assume from the fact that four of the eight essays included here focus partly or primarily on the gender question that this is the only or the main issue for scholarship about Hasidism. While we, too, consider it an important question, we reject the disproportionate attention given to it here, as if the rich tapestry of other issues we discuss was not of much value.

With respect to storytelling, which we treat in a section in our chapter on rituals as well as in other chapters, we agree with Hannan Hever that we might have devoted even more attention to the Hasidic tale as a unique literary creation. However, we made a conscious decision not to deploy literary criticism of these tales, since this was a twentieth-century invention that occurred outside of the Hasidic world (we make this point explicitly in dealing with neo-Hasidism). As to Hever’s claim that nineteenth-century Hasidic tales were influenced by Haskalah satires (the reverse was obviously true), while there are a few examples of this, it was hardly a central phenomenon in the history of the tales.

We are disturbed, however, by the dismissive and even nasty tone of the introductory essay to this forum. The authors of that essay repeatedly make numerous erroneous claims about what is missing from the book. Since the introduction will frame how readers approach the essays, it is worth pointing out some of their many errors. The errors start in the first paragraph: Dubnow wrote his 1931 (not 1930) history in Hebrew (not in Yiddish); Graetz wrote on Hasidism in his eleventh volume (not his eighth). They claim that we ignore more recent scholarly trends because we are mostly senior scholars. In reality, three of the eight of us were either graduate students or untenured junior faculty and one a mid-career scholar while we were writing the book.

They further assert that because we are historians (not all social historians, as they imply, by the way: three of us are historians of Jewish thought and one a social anthropologist and ethnographer), we do not bring to bear the methodologies of anthropology or religious studies. However, chapter eight, on Hasidic rituals, as well as the several places where we deal with pilgrimage, all treat what is properly in the domain of anthropology. The eight pages on contemporary Hasidic society, which the authors find “interminable,” describe the way the Hasidim “perform” their identities by how they dress, a subject that is classically anthropological. They claim that we don’t deal with the Hasidic rituals of music, dance, and storytelling, but all of these topics are covered in separate sections of the ritual chapter, as well as elsewhere.

The same goes for religious studies. In the chapters on the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezeritch, Hasidic ethos, rituals and institutions, as well as on postwar Hasidic theology, we describe both the devotional theory and the experiential practice of Hasidism. So, too, does Arthur Green in his Afterword.

The authors claim that the eighteenth-century section of the book ignores the medical and spiritual healing practices of the Besht and eighteenth-century Hasidism generally. Our colleague, Moshe Rosman, has written about these very matters in our book. We are not persuaded by arguments that the Besht was influenced in these matters by Orthodox Christian holy men, but not because we are ignorant of such arguments.

They go on to attack us for “endless salacious” descriptions of Hasidic sexual practices. “Salacious” implies that such descriptions are for purposes of titillation. Nothing in those passages – which are anything but endless – could be possibly construed in that way. On the contrary, if one wants to understand the role of women in Hasidism (about which the authors of the introduction hector us), Hasidic ideas about sexuality are essential, as they are, indeed, for understanding Hasidic attitudes toward the body and the feminine-masculine dichotomy in general. The “holiness regulations” of Ger, Toldot Aharon, and Slonim in postwar Israel are fascinating case studies in how certain contemporary Hasidic groups distinguish themselves from others in their values and behavior. It is also fascinating that in Ger, which has the strictest regulations separating men and women and restricting sexuality, women are surprisingly freer in their dress and their involvement in the work force than in other groups. All this material might, of course, be interpreted differently, but it cannot be dismissed as “salacious.” Indeed, in this dismissal of our analysis of sexuality in Hasidism, the editors, who seem to be so current on other academic fashions, appear to be prudish throwbacks to a less sophisticated era before the emergence of the field of the history of sexuality.

Finally, the authors of the introduction claim that we don’t take into account theoreticians of modernity, and display their own credentials in this area with a long list of names. We made a conscious policy decision not to burden readers with lists of authors and books, either of theorists or of scholars of Hasidism (an annotated bibliography acknowledges our debts to the many scholars – including the most recent – who have made our synthetic work possible). Anyone familiar with the literature on modernity and religion will immediately recognize that our claim that Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity is a product of the way a multitude of authors from the last few decades have overturned the Weberian disenchantment thesis of modernization. While Hasidism in the postwar world is indeed a “living alternative to modernity,” it is also itself the product of modernity whose complex relationship to religion it both challenges and reinforces. Since the nineteenth century, Hasidism has used the tools of modernity to challenge secularization. Furthermore, its social structure and much of its ethos are new in Jewish history and are thus very much modern. While our argument is certainly debatable, name-dropping does not constitute a counterargument. In fact, many of the names the authors drop are of those who support our argument.

We cannot help but conclude that the authors of the introduction have ignored our actual book – as opposed to some imagined version of our book – to make a preconceived argument. Fortunately, the other contributors to this forum, even where they disagree with us, have actually read and taken seriously what we have written. The many contributions to this forum demonstrate that research into Hasidism continues vigorously, and we are pleased that our book could provide the impetus for sharpening the questions this research must engage. It is in the spirit of such a collective endeavor that we have responded to this forum.

The authors of Hasidism: A New History and this response are David Assaf, David Biale, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel C. Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodzinski.