January 20, 2019

The Jews of Ecstasy

Thanks to its media-savvy outreach, which includes an annual telethon and a full-featured website, Chabad is the face of Hasidism in America and elsewhere around the world.  But, as we are reminded by the authors of “Hasidism: A New History” (Princeton University Press), the Hasidic movement is deeply rooted in Jewish culture and extraordinarily diverse in belief and practice.

Not  the least remarkable fact about “Hasidism” is that the 875-page book is the work of a team of eight co-authors from three countries: David Biale (University of California, Davis), David Assaf (Tel Aviv University), Benjamin Brown (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Uriel Gellman (Bar-Ilan University), Samuel Heilman (Queens College and Graduate Center, City University of New York), Moshe Rosman (Bar-Ilan University), Gadi Sagiv (Open University of Israel) and Marcin Wodziński (University of Wroclaw).  Working under the auspices of the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies and the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig over nearly a decade, they offer us a highly readable and illuminating account of one of the glories (and mysteries) of Jewish civilization.

Hasidism presents itself (and is often regarded by others) as an older and more authentic form of Judaism that has somehow survived into our times.  The authors of “Hasidism,” however, are quick to point out the irony in that idea.  Starting at a time in history when the Enlightenment was already casting its light into the ghetto and the yeshivah, a hard core of rabbis and their followers took a stand against the modern world in which they lived. In that sense, precisely because Hasidism is a reaction to modernity, “even the most seemingly ‘orthodox’ or ‘fundamentalist’ forms of religion are themselves products of their age,” as the authors explain.

“The southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was certainly an improbable place for a ‘modern’ religious movement to be born,” they write. “Yet it was there, starting sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century, that small circles of Jewish pietists coalesced around rabbis who would come to be called, in Hebrew, tsaddikim (“righteous men”) or, in Yiddish, rebbes.  From these modest beginnings emerged a movement that eventually named itself Hasidism (‘piety’).”

Yet the spiritual roots of Hasidism are found in ancient Jewish mystical texts and practices. The man who is conventionally regarded as the founder of Hasidism, Israel Ben Eliezer (better known as the Ba’al Shem Tov or the “Besht”), was “originally employed by his community as a practitioner of practical Kabbalah,” that is, a magic-worker and folk-healer. “The Besht’s tools were ecstatic trances, amulets, incantations, adjurations, special prayers, exorcisms, and potions.” But the authors literally put a question mark at the end of the phrase “Founder of Hasidism?” to signal  that while the Besht was “the axis around which the group formed,” it was only after his death that “the new Hasidism [evolved] from a collection of mystical havurot to a self-conscious confederation of courts.”

As a further irony, it is only the time and place where Hasidism first took up the fight against modernity explain why Hasidim look and act the way they do today.  Members of some Hasidic movements still dress like Polish courtiers of the 18th century — fur hats, velvet knee pants, and white silk stockings — but only because that’s how all Jews dressed at the time when the court was founded.  As time went by and styles changed, “Hasidim retained their traditional garb as distinctively Jewish,” the authors explain. “Clothes and appearance thus would serve as a visual market of separation.  However, only at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries did this dress come to signify Hasidism specifically.”

Yet another irony is that, because each Hasidic “court” is convinced of the enduring rightness of its own rebbe’s teachings and traditions, they are often as combative toward each other as they are toward the modern world itself.  When Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, was arrested by the tsar’s police in 1798, he readily acknowledged the diversity within Hasidism and explained that “there were various styles of preaching among different tsaddikim, and each one of these adopted a distinct method of leadership,” as the authors explain.  Yet they also point out that “he believed that jealousy over his success and his moral honesty caused him to be denounced, incarcerated and investigated.”

As the story moves through time and around the world, we are confronted with both the sublime and the tragic aspects of Hasidic history.

As the story moves through time and around the world, we are confronted with both the sublime and the tragic aspects of Hasidic history.  Joy is both “a major value” and “the most visible feature” of what the authors call “the Hasidic ethos,” and it is manifested in “music, dance, and ecstatic performance of prayer.”  Thus we come to realize that those handsome young men whose ecstatic dancing is featured on the annual Chabad telethon are demonstrating and preserving one of its oldest expressions: “Music and dance are possibly more characteristic of Hasidism than any other religious phenomenon in Judaism,” the authors insist.

Yet the authors do not shrink from describing the heartbreaking events in the history of Hasidism. “The heartland of Hasidism — Poland, western Soviet Union, Slovakia, and Hungary — was where the Germans inflicted some of their highest death tolls during the Holocaust, or what Hasidim (together with other ultra-Orthodox Jews) call khurbn (Yiddish for destruction),” they write. One artifact that survives from Auschwitz is a journal in which a rebbetsin from Slovakia denounced the Hasidic leaders who, as she puts it, “ran away to the Land of Israel, saving their own skins while leaving the Jews to be taken like lambs to the slaughter.”  So, too, did the Satmar rebbe and a few members of his court manage to win a place on the train that Adolf Eichmann allowed to take some 1,680 Jews to safety in Switzerland.

A charming tale is told about the Septuagint, an ancient translation of the Torah into Greek. Each of the 70 scholars, it is said, worked separately and yet all of them came up with identical translations of the sacred text.  I was reminded of the tale when beholding what the eight authors of “Hasidism” have accomplished. Scholars are notoriously single-minded about their own scholarship, and yet these eight modern sages managed to produce a fascinating book that embodies their collective wisdom and style in a seamless and highly illuminating work of authorship. This, too, strikes me as something of a miracle.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. He is the author of, among other books, “The Woman Who Laughed at God: An Unofficial History of the Jewish People.”