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.
The following exchange will focus on Professor Heilman’s new book Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America (University of California Press, 2017)
Dear Professor Heilman,
Your new book gives its reader descriptions and explanations of what happens when Hasidic Jews try to find successors for the position of rebbe, the much-admired leader of the Hasidic dynasty. The result is a very interesting read filled with riveting stories, details and characters.
My introductory question: Why did you choose succession and leadership questions as the main focus of this impressive account of contemporary Hasidic dynasties? What did you want this choice of focal point to show your readers?
From its beginnings and to this day, in Hasidism there has been one absolute constant and central organizing principle: all Hasidim must have a Zaddik or rebbe, a charismatic leader whom they revere and follow and who acts as an intermediary between his followers (known as his “Hasidim”) and the Almighty. Without this man (they have always been men, though my book speaks of a woman who almost became a kind of rebbe) who is considered by his Hasidim as extraordinary, magnetic, and ultimately holy, who serves as the catalyst — if not the glue — for their coming together, the whole enterprise would have largely fallen apart. But while these special men were considered to have miraculous powers, particularly in the spiritual realm, almost like the prophets of old, it was in the nature of their appeal that the original groups of followers who gathered around them did not want to think about the possibility of their demise. Death is, after all, a great leveler and it becomes hard to think of a holy man so spiritually powerful as someone subject to the same end as every other being. But die they did, like all flesh and blood creatures.
Such a death could lead to the break-up of the group of followers and hence the demise of Hasidism. Without him as their focus, they were not fully Hasidim. But the Hasidim left behind by a rebbe who had gone to the great beyond found they still wanted to remain Hasidim, and to do that they needed a rebbe. If they broke up each looking for a new leader that inspired them, they might continue as Hasidim but not together in the same group. Finding a new leader elsewhere could lead to an uprooting of their life and a whole new set of practices with a whole new group of followers. A particular rebbe’s Hasidim therefore needed something that would allow for the institutionalization of their way of life, to guarantee continuity and a pattern of succession that would enable them to go on together for generations — since their being followers of their rebbe had become an essential element of their own identities.
At first they thought they might follow their dead leader’s prime disciple — but who would agree on who that was? And how could that disciple, once a simple Hasid, suddenly be endowed with the charisma and holiness of the dead rebbe? That might once have been possible at the dawn of Hasidism but it became increasingly unthinkable. The solution that gradually took over Hasidism was the belief that the way holiness could be transferred was through blood. The offspring of the rebbe, a son, who had been conceived in holiness by the rebbe and rebbetzin would himself be zera kodesh, holy seed. If the rebbe had only daughters, the son-in-law and that daughter would give birth to holy seed. This might even lead to Hasidim being led by children – a youngster called a “yanuka,” who although not yet bar mitzvah was considered to be a holy receptacle who would ultimately mature into a crown prince and then the royal leader.
In researching my book, I wanted to see if this principle of continuity worked still in a modern world — in the two societies in which Hasidism still flourishes, America and Israel — where one’s status in life these days is largely a matter of personal achievement rather than ascription, what one gets by virtue of birth. I wanted to see if in this world, where people make their own destinies, this type of blood succession still exists in Hasidism, and if so how does it work?
To answer the question, I looked at five different dynasties or groups. Two of them had run out of successors because either there were no living successors or (more likely) they did not have heirs willing and able to be rebbes, in part because the modern world offers many other vocations to Jews and in part because the profession of being a rebbe is not easy: one has to be miracle worker, social worker and fixer all at once. Two groups had too many successors: sons and sons-in-law who chose to compete with one another to be rebbes, often splitting the followers and causing the Hasidim to descend into bitter conflict. Finally, I looked at one group that claimed they did not need a successor because they believed their rebbe would not die or that even if he did, he might continue to lead them in his afterlife or that he would return in the guise of a messiah. In fact, in his lifetime some came to think of him as the Messiah incarnate.
The stories of these five examples turn out to be riveting and show us both how Hasidim are able to maintain their continuity. They also, I believe, make a group that many view as opaque and hard to understand more transparent and maybe even easier to penetrate. In so doing, I continue in the tradition of my discipline of social anthropology: to make the strange familiar. And I continue in the pattern of many of my books about Jews: to show the strange in the familiar.