Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of Erving Goffman. Professor Heilman is a winner of the National Jewish Book Award. He is also a recipient of fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Mellon Foundation.
This exchange focuses on Professor Heilman’s new book Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America (University of California Press, 2017). Part one can be found here.
Dear Professor Heilman,
Your book tells the reader about Hasidic dynasties that are sometimes described as borderline Jewish monarchies, and terms like “royalty” and “holy seed” are used to describe the realities of modern hereditary leadership. The self-identity of the followers of these courts appears to be completely intertwined with their divinely chosen leaders, and non-orthodox Jewish readers who have not been exposed to this world before might wonder if these people are really their coreligionists.
I wanted to ask you about the role of the larger Jewish tribe in the identity of Hasidic Jews: To what extent do the different courts identify with the larger Jewish whole that non-orthodox American Jews feel a part of, and is Chabad’s inclusive Jewish outreach a deceptive anomaly in this regard?
For Hasidim and their leaders or Rebbes, the personal relationship is key. Indeed, one of the common elements in all Hasidic groups is the one-on-one encounter between the Hasid and his Rebbe, sometimes called yechidus, a solitary meeting between Hasid and Rebbe. In some ways, it is even more important than relationships between Hasidim and their parents. This is because the Hasidim look upon their Rebbes in much the way that in Biblical days their followers looked upon the prophets. In both cases, the guiding belief is that another, charismatic individual is more than just another human being but a living breathing intermediary between the solitary believer and the Almighty. So coming close to the Rebbe is coming into a close relationship with God. Yet, the encounter with God has always been for Jews mediated by other people. The difference is that the Bible tells us that God selected those who would be his prophets whereas the Hasidim choose who will be their rebbe.
In the modern world — and by this I mean the last 200 or so years — this is hard for most people to understand. However, once a person is moved by the charisma, the extraordinary charm, of another person and faces that person with whom he or she has a personal relationship, it becomes easier to imagine (though not necessarily describable). Spiritual guides and leaders are still very present in the modern world. Many of us have our gurus and heroes, rabbis and spiritual guides who are important to us. You don’t have to be Hasidic to feel that.
The continuing American public fascination with royalty — from the obsession with “Game of Thrones” to the endless curiosity in the British royal family — demonstrates that people want to know the stories of royalty. And this fascination is not just recent. The Bible is filled with narratives about the royal families – whether of Egypt or Israel and Judea. Moses and his challenge to his stepbrother Pharaoh, and before that Ishmael versus Isaac or Esau and Jacob — to say nothing of Joseph and his brothers are all the royal stories of the Jewish people. What could be more engrossing than the epic of King David and the sons who sought to succeed him? The challenge of Absalom and later Adoniyahu, the strategy used by Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan to see to it that Solomon gains the throne — these are accounts that make up the core texts of the Tanach. In many ways, the stories of succession in these Hasidic dynasties that I have presented in Who Will Lead Us? echo many of these same sorts of family sagas and, in many ways, are not that different.
What people learn, among other things, from all these accounts is that the ‘royals’ are in many ways like all of us. They have their family conflicts, jealousies, disappointments and intrigues just as we do, although they are projected on a different canvas. That is often both validating and satisfying.
These feelings and reactions are not limited to those who are royals or who treat some figures like royalty. We all have our own family narratives in which there are kings and queens, crown princes and princesses. (Isn’t the Jewish American Princess a well-known trope?) We all know about the tensions between mothers-in-law and sons-in-law, about manipulating relatives, and Oedipal challenges or family feuds about inheritance like those I detail in the book. I think people reading about these Hasidic families will recognize familiar characters and family dynamics here. Indeed, one of the features of this book is to show readers – especially those with little or no familiarity with Hasidism – that these strange and foreign-looking people are not all that different or difficult to understand and that their apparently insular world can be penetrated.
You ask about the relationship between the Hasidim and the larger Jewish tribe. Actually, there’s far more of a relationship than people imagine. The Torah scroll that many Jews read from was likely prepared by a scribe with a Hasidic connection. The outreach of the Satmar Bikur Cholim organization, whose foundation I mention in passing in the book, that supplies places to stay and other needs for those whose loved ones are hospitalized in New York, and of course the worldwide outreach of Chabad Lubavitch, most of whose followers are neither Hasidim nor Orthodox nor likely to become such, are all examples of the contact between these Jews and the larger Jewish world. Finally, when political leaders want to indicate that they can be counted on to be supportive of Jewish needs, they commonly signal this by having a photo op with a Hasidic leader with a long beard (or with an Israeli official). This has turned these figures into iconic representations of Jewry – in spite of the fact that most Jews are actually not attached to either of those icons. And if either of these figures is disrespected or attacked, much of Jewry understand that this contempt is actually directed at all Jews. This gives both the people in black hats and coats and Israeli officials outside symbolic power.