David Biale discusses Hasidism: A New History, an important and invaluable history of Hasidism from its origins in the 18th century until the present. We discuss Hasidism and why it matters: Why it was so significant in Europe before the Holocaust and why it remains relevant, what’s at stake in declaring it a “modern” movement, and how and why Hasidism helps us understand the currents of modern Jewish history and the modern world at large.
Hasidism: A New History is co-authored by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv & Marcin Wodziński, with an afterword by Arthur Green.
David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis, where he serves as director of the Jewish studies program. His research focuses on Jewish intellectual and cultural history, and he’s written on the historian Gershom Scholem as well as on themes of power, sexuality, blood, and secularization in Jewish history.
Some of the topics and books discussed in this episode:
- Hasidism: Historical Overview (YIVO Encyclopedia)
- Hasidic figures and groups
- Shalom Auslander’s review of Hasidism: A New History, “The Opposite of Modern” (Times Literary Supplement, February 2018)
- “Hasidism in Living Color” – description of 2010 Israel Museum exhibition on contemporary Hasidism
- Films about Hasidim
- Jehuda Reinharz and Paul Mendes-Flohr, The Jew In the Modern World
Hasidism: A New History is a history of Hasidism, a pietistic form of Judaism that originated in the mid-eighteenth century. Hasidism arose around the figure of the Baal Shem Tov or the Besht, a kind of healer and mystic, who advocated for a type of pietism which was not ascetic in nature. After his death in 1760, the Besht’s followers and disciples developed what would come to be the incredibly influential and important Hasidic phenomena with a diverse set of groups, sects, and even dynasties from the 18th century until the present day.
In the book, David Biale and his co-authors sketch out in detail the history of the “movement of movements,” as they put it. In doing so, they actually decenter the Baal Shem Tov: they argue that he may have helped shape this phenomenon, but that it really flourished among those who followed him and took the movement in many directions. In effect, they simultaneously articulate the various cultural and religious practices and beliefs of Hasidic Jews and also the great diversity among them. If you even just look at the excellent maps, you’ll see how geographically widespread Hasidism was – and naturally, how diverse it has been. Further, it has been profoundly resilient and resonant in modern Jewish culture, with the rise of neo-Hasidism in the twentieth century and also the rebirth or resurrection of many of the Hasidic courts after the Holocaust, when they were transplanted to the United States and Israel. In fact, as we’ll talk about in our conversation, Chabad has become particularly omnipresent because it is essentially a missionizing movement – missionizing to the Jews, that is.
The history of Hasidism is incredibly important because it is one of the most important Jewish religious movements of the modern age. And it is modern, which is a large part of the argument of this book – showing the ways in which Hasidism was a product of modernity, a response to what was happening in the wider world, the possibilities of transportation, and now the internet.
An edited transcript of the interview follows:
Why a “New History”?
Jason Lustig: I really am excited to talk about this book, which I really do think is a monumental achievement in presenting this overarching history of Hasidism. I wanted to start out by noting that I was struck by the fact that the book is billed as a kind of a new history. What would you say is the “old” history of Hasidism, and why do we need a new one?
David Biale: So, first of all, let me say that the subtitle is a little bit ironic, in the sense that there actually is no “old” history, if by that we mean a history that is comprehensive. Because what we’ve done here in this book is actually, for the first time, given the history of Hasidism from its origins in the eighteenth century, pretty much, up to the present time. So in that sense, it’s not a new history. It’s the first history.
But it is a new history also in the sense that it does take on some of the main arguments of an earlier generation. Simon Dubnow was the first to write an academic or scholarly history of Hasidism. His history ended in 1815. So, obviously we go far beyond 1815.But Dubnow also proposed certain arguments about eighteenth-century Hasidism. First of all, that it emerged as a response to a crisis in the history of the Polish Jews, the crisis being the Khymelnytsky uprising in 1648/49, the decimation of communities in what is today Ukraine. Hasidism, he thought, was a response to that crisis, a response by people outside the rabbinic elite who were attempting to recapture leadership of the Jewish community from the wealthy and from the rabbis. So the Baal Shem Tov, for Dubnow, founds a movement that is a movement of kind of rebellion, a renewal, and then he passes on the succession to Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritsh, who in turn passes on the succession to a string of disciples. So there’s a kind of an orderly process a kind of chain of tradition that Dubnow describes.
Now, our argument is actually very different. It’s an argument that was pioneered by two people in particular, both of them members of our team, Moshe Rosman and Ada Rapaport Albert. Ada unfortunately had to drop out of the project, but her work was very essential to us. Both of them argued that the Baal Shem Tov was not the founder of a movement, and that when Hasidism emerged in the mid-eighteenth century it did not emerge as a result of a crisis. It instead came out of, actually, the communal elite. The Baal Shem Tov, as Rosman discovered, was a functionary of the community of Medzhybizh, the resident Kabbalist who lived in a communal house free of taxes, and he was a part of the Kabbalistic elite, one can say. He was not an unlettered country man, as Dubnow and others portrayed him. But he did not set out to found a movement. He essentially had circle of disciples, maybe it shouldn’t even be called “disciples.” Just a circle of sort of colleagues who imbibed his teachings.
There wassomething new in the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings. He rejected the ethos of the Kabbalists of his day, which was highly ascetical. And he proposed in place of that that one should worship God with joy rather than with sadness. So that appears to be a genuine teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, but it’s a teaching that’s not necessarily taken up by a later Hasidim. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritsh, who was in the circle of Baal Shem Tov, actually taught a much more ascetical form of Kabbalah. It’s really the generation after Dov Ber when a movement begins to emerge. And that’s in the 1770s.
So our description of early Hasidism really turns on its head what many had argued before. Almost all the historians who wrote about Hasidism in an earlier generation, in addition to Dubnow, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Ben Zion Dinur, Rafael Mahler—I’m just naming some of the major figures who wrote about Hasidism—they all assumed that the creative period of Hasidism was in the eighteenth century, and by 1815 that era of creativity had waned and Hasidism then went into a kind of state of “decline.” As Dubnow says, it becomes pure “Zaddikism,” by which he means just worship of the Zaddik, the rebbe, the leader of the Hasidic group. Our argument, actually, is that as important as the eighteenth century was in forming the ideas of early Hasidism, the nineteenth century is really the golden age because in the nineteenth century Hasidism becomes a mass movement and develops the system of pilgrimage to the courts and so forth, which are emblematic of the movement. So that’s also a revision of earlier views, and then of course we take it up into the twentieth and early twenty-first century and follow its development in that period.
JL: In your view, what’s the implication of this new approach or these new approaches? Why does it matter in a way that we have this new history of Hasidism?
DB: It matters for several reasons. First of all, there is endless fascination with this movement. We were invited by the Smithsonian to present our work. No one could remember the last time the Smithsonian did anything Jewish. And we presented our work there to a sold-out audience of something like 160 people. That’s kind of remarkable. So there is this enormous fascination with Hasidism, a fascination that is in part the result, of course, of seeing the Hasidim on the streets of major cities like New York, Jerusalem, and other places. People want to know more, what is this movement, why do these people dress as they do? Is this truly a movement that preserves ancient traditions, or is it in fact some kind of a innovation? All of these questions, I think, are questions that we address it in our book. I’ve now done quite a few presentations on the book and that’s the thing that strikes me. We’re not getting just academics. We’re getting people who are genuinely fascinated by this phenomenon, how do we understand the fact that you have, we think, close to 750,000 Jews in the world who follow these practices.
The other thing that, I think, the book does is that many people know of Hasidism from the writings of Martin Buber. Buber, of course, was very popular early in the twentieth century and he had a sort of renewed wave of popularity starting in the late 1950s, when his work was translated into English. So he had a kind of revival, especially in America. Martin Buber was actually one of the very first writers to present Hasidism to a wider audience. There were some other writers, Peretz in Yiddish, Berdyczewski in Hebrew. But around the same time, the first decade of the twentieth century, Buber writes in German and he presents the tales of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav and the stories of the Baal Shem Tov to a wider audience in translation and this creates a kind of movement of what is sometimes called neo-Hasidism, that is interest in Hasidism by people who are not themselves Hasidim, who find it spiritually uplifting in a variety of ways. After World War II, Buber is translated to English and he then becomes very important in what we might call neo-neo-Hasidism, a movement in the ’60s counter-culture in which Hasidism provides a kind of a model of a Jewish spiritual renewal.
In one of his early writings on Hasidism, Buber tells the story of how he saw the Hasidim when he would go and spend summers with his grandfather Solomon Buber in Galicia. He relates how he saw the Hasidim and their leader processing in the town of Sadagora. This is the Russian Sadagora dynasty. He was, on the one hand, sort of repelled by this worship of the Zaddik, but he was also inspired by the sense of community that he saw among the Hasidim. But Buber says, when he starts writing about Hasidism, that in fact what he saw was Hasidism in decline. And therefore, he returns to the eighteenth century sources, and in this sense he is like all the others who wrote about Hasidism in the twentieth century, who saw the eighteenth century as the period of creativity. I think what we are doing the book is actually correcting that image, and showing the way in which Hasidism transforms itself but continues to be extremely vital in the period in which these neo-Hasidic writers are writing. And they believe what they’re seeing around them is in decline. Therefore, they didn’t want to really talk about it. They only want to talk about the eighteenth century. And so we’re really revising that view.
A Public Fascination with Hasidism
JL: You mentioned how the book has received so much interest because people are fascinated with Hasidism. Where do you think that this fascination comes from? Is it some kind of orientalist gaze upon a certain type of Jew? Or is it related to sort of a common perception, perhaps a misperception, that Hasidism represents kind of a throwback to something that’s pre-modern, that is sort of somehow still sticking around? Of course, we know that that’s really not the case. But where do you think that this fascination comes from? Where do you think that the popular interest in Hasidism stems from?
DB: I think you’ve just put your finger actually on two of the major causes. People see the Hasidim as an “other,” as exotic, maybe as oriental. I’m not sure that that term applies here, except in the sense that—and this goes back, actually, to the early twentieth century—the sense that the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Ostjuden as they’re called German, were seen in many ways the way westerners saw the Near East, that is, as a something other or as strange, maybe even in the case of orientalism, as kind of feminized. I’m not sure that Hasidim are seen that way, but they are certainly seen as other and exotic. And this exoticism which one finds, you know, on the streets of Brooklyn, is I think very strange to people. And they want to understand more about it. And, yes, the other factor, of course linked to the first, is that the exotic may be a kind of a fossil—that we’re looking at medieval Jews walking on our streets today. That is, of course, not true. We can discuss that in a moment. But I think both of those factors are definitely at work.
There have been, starting in the early 1990s, various feature films about the Hasidim. One film is A Price Beyond Rubies, one of the early films that takes place in a Hasidic community. There’s a recent one, actually made in Montreal, Felix and Meira. And usually, what happens in these films is you have a Hasidic woman who becomes disenchanted and wants to break away, and falls in love with someone outside or sometimes even a non-Jew. And this sort of challenges the marital system of the Hasidim, which actually is one of the things that exerts a tremendous fascination: The arranged marriage. This again conjures up a kind of a sense of a movement that is frozen in time and is still practicing something that was practiced by the Jews of Eastern Europe in earlier centuries. So I think we have a lot of different expressions of this fascination, both in feature films and there’s also a number of documentaries. There’s a very recent documentary called One of Us. It’s a documentary about people, two men and one woman, who break away from the Hasidic world and what happens to them, how they are basically ostracized. There is something in that sense of a rigid, patriarchal world that is exerting fascination. And that film, actually, got quite a bit of resonance. I believe it was even nominated for an Academy Award. It does not purport to actually tell you what it’s like for the majority of the Hasidim who choose to remain in that world and do not break away. So a fascination with the people at the margins, the people who rebel, is operating as well.
Hasidism as a Modern Movement
JL: One element of your arguments that you put forward, I think very strongly in the introduction to the volume, that I find really compelling—really, sort of a simple concept but a really, really powerful one—is this argument that Hasidism is essentially a modern movement. It goes against what we were just talking about, this common perception that Hasidism represents something old, something perhaps more “authentic.” One might say that this idea represents a broader shift, where scholars for many years now have been arguing that everything in the modern world is essentially a kind of recent invention. But it also reflects a kind of rethinking of what is modern. So, for instance, I was just looking recently at the introduction to the first edition of The Jew in The Modern World, where Jehuda Reinharz and Paul Mendes-Flohr justified the fact that they left out documents on Hasidism. Of course, this was in 1980, when they put together this first volume. They saw Hasidism as a kind of a retrograde development. They termed them “custodians of the Jewish tradition.” It was kind of problematic, as a characterization of Hasidism. What’s interesting, I think, is that this articulation that you’re making about Hasidism as a modern movement sort of draws on both of these things. To what extent would you say that the new perspective on Hasidism that you’re arguing for is a manifestation of rethinking of Hasidism in particular, or reflects a new critique of a teleological modernization process, you know, that some people have put forth.
DB: I actually don’t think it’s terribly controversial in the academic world to say that modernity is made up of contradictory elements. Modernity is not just a teleological story of secularization. It is also the story of resistance to secularization. And that resistance takes new forms. I mean, Hasidism is a social movement that does something that is unprecedented in Jewish history. We don’t have any examples, unless maybe you go back to the Second Temple period with the Qumran sect, where a community forms around a charismatic leader. Here, the social network of the community is not just localized in one place, but in fact is scattered, and therefore the charismatic leader exerts his influence, a process of a pilgrimage to his court. The very idea of a court is also a new idea, and so on. On the level of social structure, Hasidism is something entirely new. Moreover, although they are Halakhic Jews—they continue to follow Halakhah, and in that sense they are traditional—but they do so in their own ways. They develop their own customs that characterize each particular group, how they washed their hands, for example, the clothing that they wear, things that are not essential to the performance of Halakha or Jewish law, but characterize each particular group, given its particular coloration. This also is a modern development. And in order to fight the modern world, they actually employ the tools of modernity. They lobby the government, they form political parties. They used newspapers; more recently, they use the Internet, even though they also polemicize against the Internet. And so for all of these factors, Hasidism should not be considered a custodian of tradition, but rather of traditionalism, that is that you present yourselves as the custodians of traditional but you do so in ways that are thoroughly modern.
As I said, this argument in the academic world is not particularly striking or unusual. A lot of the writers about modernity from the last couple of decades—Charles Taylor and Talal Assad to name two—their argument often is that religion in the modern period is itself produced by modernity. So this is not surprising. This argument that we make is not exactly a shocker. What was interesting is, I wanted to refer to a review that we received in the Times Literary Supplement by the writer Shalom Auslander. He was not from Hasidic a backroom, but from an ultra-orthodox background, in Monsey, NY. He broke away from it and became secular, and wrote a very amusing memoir, called Foreskin’s Lament. So he represents one of these people who’s kind of on the margins, who has broken away and taken up residence, as it were, in the the secular world. So he wrote this review of our book, which is kind of laughable because he says: I don’t understand what these scholars are talking about when they call Hasidism “modern.” He says, in fact, these guys are—and now I’m quoting him—”Medieval crackpots.” Leave aside the fact that this guy is not able to write an objective review of anything about the Orthodox world. To not be able to see that there is a much more complicated view of modernity than just the story of secularization, enlightenment and so forth—you know, in fact, everyone in the modern world is part of modernity, including those who reject it. And I think this is an argument that does shed new light on how we think about this movement.
JL: You mentioned reviews. What has the reception to this kind of “new history” of Hasidism among Jews who are themselves still a part of the Hasidic world?
DB: So, we haven’t had any reviews from anybody in the Hasidic world, but I have a little evidence that they are fascinated by it. Back in 2010, there was an exhibition at the Israel Museum about Hasidism, contemporary Hasidism, and it was a fabulous exhibition. They had remarkable visual materials. And the curator actually did a tremendous amount of ethnographic work within the Hasidic community, and she was welcomed into the community. They collaborated with her, and once the exhibition opened Hasidim in Jerusalem flooded it. They were eager to see how a secular institution was portraying their world. It was very, very positively received. I think our book is going to be very positively received in the Hasidic world. Again, I don’t have a lot of evidence yet, because it only came out a few months ago. The only evidence I actually have is, my late sister was in Chabad and her children are still in Chabad. So I have communicated with them, I sent them copies of the book, and they were actually very excited to receive it. And that’s not exactly great evidence. Chabad, by the way, is the movement where I would expect to see the most positive reception to the book, because Chabad is actually the most open to the modern world. They’ll want to see what we wrote about them. And I think that what they will find is that we’ve written very respectfully about them. Our book is not intended as a takedown or a diatribe against this world. Instead, what it’s really about is an attempt to understand, to chart it’s history, to try to understand its ideas and its practices.
JL: That’s a really interesting point that you make that especially if you want to think about what is the “old” history of Hasidism versus perhaps a new one, all the folks you mentioned earlier in our conversation were writing about Hasidism, in one way or the other, from a polemical perspective. Whether it’s as a kind of a booster of Hasidism, as was the case with Martin Buber, or in the case of Heinrich Graetz—another historian, who you didn’t mention earlier—who, writing in the, in the mid-nineteenth century, sort of infamously wrote about the Baal Shem Tov as a “prince of darkness.” So we can see is that the discourse on Hasidism, among historians and other scholars, for such a long time has been tremendously polemical.
DB: I don’t want to overstate the case, certainly about Graetz, who was very hostile to Hasidism. The writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, what I called neo-Hasidic writers, these are people that are actually much more sympathetic to it, or at least to their interpretation of its eighteenth century manifestations. Some of the later scholars, like Gershom Sholem… Scholem had his own take on Hasidism, but I wouldn’t call it unsympathetic. And I wouldn’t say that Dubnow was unsympathetic. But because they had particular agendas, in terms of their larger view of Jewish history, they skewed their story in certain ways. Our approach is, I think, sympathetic, but it’s also academic. That is, we want to understand its development, but we certainly are not advocating for or against it.
JL: We’ve talked a bit about the popular fascination with Hasidism, as one of the reasons why Hasidism matters as a topic, as something to write about and to think about. One of the things I’ve been thinking about, reading through your book and also as part of our conversation, is that Hasidism also represents a fascinating topic because on a chronological level it really spans the entirety of modern Jewish life, from early modern Eastern Europe to contemporary Israel and the United States, in terms of the transformations in religion, geography, and demographics. In what ways do you think Hasidism provides a kind of a thread or lens that allows us to tie together the forces and changes in modern Jewish life, even though as you point out it’s very much a reaction to or response to the realities of modern life?
DB: I think you’re quite right. It really does track. And actually Graetz was the first to say this, that in a way the Baal Shem Tov is the evil twin of Moses Mendelssohn, because he represents a superstitious world. And so, yes, I think that the movement pretty much emerges as Enlightenment begins in Germany, of course later in Eastern Europe, and it tracks through the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe, the interwar period in Poland, the effect of the Bolshevik revolution on a Hasidim in Russia, the Holocaust. The Holocaust is very, very central. What happened to the Hasidim there is in many ways a microcosm of the Jewish response to the Nazi genocide. And then after the war, the extraordinary renaissance, or resurrection, one could even say, of the Hasidim from the ashes of the Holocaust to rebuilding themselves in a matter of about 70 years into a movement of, as I said earlier, probably close to three quarters of a million people, the effect that they have on Jewish life in America, specifically, also in Israel, on their political activities. All of this is, you know, an essential part or chapter in the history of Jews in the modern period.
So, yeah, we could learn a lot through Hasidim about modern Jewish history. Let me give an example. When the Haskalah, the Enlightenment movement, emerges in Galicia, the Austrian part of Poland, in the early nineteenth century, some of the most important early Maskilim, enlighteners, shaped their approach to enlightenment by attacking the Hasidim. Joseph Pearl, perhaps the best known of these, wrote several parodies of the Hasidism, because in his view it was the Hasidim who represented a kind of traditionalism that the Haskalah had to overthrow. To some degree, those attacks, those parodies shape the image that we have of Hasidism. They were not equivalent to actual Hasidism, and they were his own parodic version of Hasidism. So we learn a lot about the early Jewish enlightenment by studying their interactions with Hasidism, their attacks on Hasidism, their parodies. So it is a central subject in the understanding of the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Hasidism After the Holocaust
JL: I agree about the position of Hasidism as this sort of image on tradition. And even if, as you’re arguing very convincingly, that Hasidism is not sort of that old, and it was very modern, I think that it does present the foil for modernity. And then, another thing that I’ve been thinking about, especially also as I plan my own class on modern Jewish history, is that the history of Hasidism also presents this kind of a transposition of the geography on a very detailed and low level of Jewish communal life in Eastern Europe. Especially after the Holocaust, we have the formulation of a kind of a Hasidic Diaspora that traces the roots of the courts and of the various sects and groups to their geographic roots and thereby makes a claim to their authenticity to the small towns and cities of Eastern Europe. And so what I would ask here is: What would you say is the importance of geography in Hasidism, and also this kind of imagined geography of the various sects and dynasties, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
DB: I think that that’s a very relevant question. Jewish geography is transformed by Hasidism in the sense that people didn’t only live in their local communities. Those who belong to the Hasidic world now saw as their geographic center the court of the rebbe, so Hasidim might live at a considerable distance from the court of the rebbe. They would then have their own local institutions, the shtibl, the small one room prayer house, where they would continue their life on a daily basis. But pilgrimage to the court became a central ritual for Hasidim. And this is something really new in Jewish history, this kind of pilgrimage. Of course, people made pilgrimage to the land of Israel, but very few actually did it. This kind of pilgrimage becomes a mass affair in Hasidism.
Now, after the Holocaust the fascinating thing is that the Hasidim rebuild their communities around the memory, the nostalgia for the Eastern European heartland of Hasidism. So, for example, a court like Satmar or a court like Sandz or Belz, these courts are now transplanted, are resurrected one might say, in Israel or in North America, New York, actually. And instead of adopting their new cities as the name of the group, they preserve the old names from Eastern Europe. Before World War II, there was a phenomenon of Hasidic leaders coming to America and labeling themselves according to the names of the towns in which they lived, just as they did in Eastern Europe. So there was a Buffalo rebbe, a Clevelander rebbe, a Bostoner rebbe. That phenomenon pretty much disappeared after World War II, when it became a kind of sacred ritual to preserve the name of the Eastern European town.
And so today we have Satmar, actually, in two places: In Kiryas Joel, north of New York City and in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. But the two courts are both called “Satmar,” because you have to preserve the name of the town. You can’t break off and form a new group. All you could do is break off and form a different version, or a different wing of the same Eastern European group like Satmar. So this is really fascinating. These Jews have turned Eastern Europe into a second Jewish homeland. Obviously, Israel is the original Jewish homeland. But for them, Eastern Europe is the true holy land in the sense that you make pilgrimage there. Since the fall of Communism, of course, it’s now possible to make pilgrimage to the graves of the rebbes, most famously of course, Bratslav, which always had pilgrimage to the grave of it’s leader, Nahman of Bratslav, who died in 1810. That pilgrimage actually continued in the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries. And now, of course, it’s a major, major phenomenon. 40,000 or 50,000 people show up there every Rosh Hashana. But there are other graves that are also sites of pilgrimage, Sandz, Belz, and so forth. This is really an entirely new phenomenon that never existed before, and it has to do, of course, with the uprooting of the centuries-old Eastern European Jewish communities as a result of the Holocaust, their transplantation elsewhere, and now seeing the old country as a holy place. So, of course, there are secular Jews as well who make trips to Eastern Europe in search of their roots. But this is something on a mass scale, and it just becomes something of a ritual phenomenon.
JL: It’s something that, I think, is really fascinating. You talked about like the pilgrimage to Uman for rebbe Nachman, for instance. And in that case, of course, the Bratslav Hasidic sect really flourished in the twentieth century, especially after Buber’s dissemination of the the stories of rebbe Nachman. And it’s interesting, because at the same time one of the things that I think is really striking across our conversation is, especially if you look at the book, is the diversity and the vast number of these different groups of hasidim. I think most listeners, and even those of us who have Ph.D’s in Jewish history, we are probably not familiar with all of these relatively small groups, which are widespread in a diverse set of places throughout Eastern Europe. We’re probably most familiar with those groups that have come to prominence in recent decades or in the past hundred years, whether we’re thinking of the Bratslav Hasidim or Chabad, or Satmar, which is a little bit more infamous because of its anti-Zionist perspective. Of course, there are so many other groups, many of which still have a rebbe or a tish that takes place for this group on a smaller scale. It is really striking, I think, because oftentimes I think people who think about the history of Hasidism focus on these major groups and not on the minor ones. What do we learn, then, by looking at the diversity of hasidism? Because it’s something that you see in the book. On one hand, you’re trying to lay out sort of an essentialist reading of the practices, customs, beliefs and so on of the movement as a whole, so to speak, and also to illustrate the diversity. And this, I think, a balance that needs to be struck and there’s a lot to be learned from looking at Hasidism as a kind of a social movement that is incredibly diverse and widespread.
DB: Yeah. In a certain sense, the essence of Hasidism is its diversity, if I can say that in a paradoxical way. We do have a chapter on the ethos of Hasidism in the eighteenth century, some of its core ideas. We emphasize that you can’t expect that every Hasidic teacher endorses all those ideas, there is a wide range of ideas. So I had mentioned earlier the question of asceticism. There’s some Hasidic teachers who are expressly anti-ascetic, starting with the Baal Shem Tov. But there are others that are, in varying degrees, very ascetic. I mentioned Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezritsh, his son Avraham “the angel,” as he is called, who took a vow of celibacy within marriage. Later in the nineteenth century, Menachem Mendel of Kotz, who secluded himself from his followers and followed an entirely celibate kind of lifestyle. And we find this in certain groups in the modern day and contemporary Hasidism. There are three groups in particular who have something called “holiness regulations,” Kedushas it’s called: the Gerer Hasidim, Slonim, and Toldos Aharon all have these holiness regulations which put very, very severe restrictions on sexuality within marriage. They’re very extreme compared to anything in earlier Jewish history. A man may not address his wife by name. He should not look into her eyes. She must walk several steps behind him. They can only have sex once a month. I’m just giving you an example here of something that this particular group, the Gerer Hasidim, have adopted almost as a badge of identity. They have these extreme regulations, and this is what differentiates them from other Hasidic groups.
So, yes, the diversity is very, very important. And it’s the natural byproduct of the social structure, the fact that Hasidism is not one movement, but is instead a movement of movements of many different courts, probably in the hundreds actually, if you count them all up over the last 250 years.
I want to address something you said here, about the the courts that people generally know about and pay attention to. Or actually, in two cases, not even the “court.” Let’s start with Chabad. Now, Chabad no longer has a court because it no longer has a rebbe. The rebbe died in 1994 and he hasn’t been replaced. And yet the movement has found ways of continuing and using his teachings as their inspiration. If you ask most people who are not knowledgeable to name one Hasidic group, they will name Chabad. Why do they do so? Because Chabad is a missionizing group. You see them, you know, on the streets, asking you if you’re Jewish, and if you are, they want you to put on tefilin. As it happens, Chabad is, I would say, a medium-sized Hasidic group. It’s not one of the largest by any means. How many Chabadniks are there? We don’t know, but it’s probably in the range of 30,000 to 50,000. So if there are three quarters of a million Hasidim in the world, then Chabad is probably less than ten percent. It’s a relatively small group, actually. I may have the numbers wrong, but we don’t actually know. What we do know is that they are not the size of some other groups. Satmar is almost certainly the largest Hasidic group, and the estimate there is that are there above 100,000. But Satmar is less known, except as you mentioned for its anti-Zionism. If you want to look at for another enormous group, Ger is probably the largest group in Israel. It’s completely unknown in North America, although there may be Gerer Hasidim, and I think there are Gerer Hasidim in north America, but the group is practically unknown. And so people would be astonished to find that Ger is that big. Belz is also enormous. So, yes, there’s this tremendous diversity.
I want to say a word about Bratslav. So Bratslav, in the history of Hasidism, was always the outlier. It was a very, very small, probably minuscule group, in its origins in the late eighteenth century, in the nineteenth century, a very, very small group persecuted by other Hasidic groups with the taunt that they are the “tote” Hasidim, the “dead” Hasidim, because they worship a dead rebbe. And Bratslav sort of maintains its identity through certain teachers who preserved the writings and the teachings of Nachman, the teachings of his main disciple, Natan Sternhertz. But if you were to write the history of Hasidism around the year 1900, you probably would not even include Bratslav except as a kind of an oddity, as a weird kind of sect of madmen who retain the memory of their dead rebbe. That all begins to change with a Buber’s publication of the tales of rebbe Nachman. Buber makes these tales, which had otherwise been just the preserve of the very small group, available to a much larger audience. So Bratslav becomes known. But it still remains very, very small. It’s only really, I would say, since the fall of Communism that Bratslav has taken off, and is now a missionizing movement. They go out and they do recruit people, not being quite as systematic as Chabad, but they do recruit. And they have been able to build up this pilgrimage to Uman, a yearly pilgrimage on Rosh Hashanah, to be a major phenomenon. And a lot of these people who’ve gone on this pilgrimage are not really Bratslav. They may say they’re Bratslav, but they’re really kind of fellow travelers, a lot of new-age kind of spiritualists go there. And then there’s some people who go there just for the drugs and sex. So it’s a complicated new phenomenon. But all of this is to illustrate, I think, the diversity of Hasidism, not to speak of the very, very small groups which still exist and which preserve old nineteenth-century traditions but are no longer of any significance numerically.
Hasidim and Misnagdim
JL: I think it’s really interesting that you bring up that there are all these movements that some people might not be familiar with. And another one of these kinds of popular misconceptions of Chasidism, also, is this conflation with the Misnagdim as well. This, of course, is something I think that more or less all scholars of modern Jewish history will say: Well, you know, obviously, this is a major part of the history of Hasidism and something that we emphasize to our students, because there’s a common misperception that ultra-orthodox Jews are all sort of the same cloth. And I think that this history of Hasidism goes to show, even more clearly, the diversity that we sometimes place under this larger umbrella.
DB: The whole question of Hasidism’s conflict with the Lithuanian Talmudism is a complicated story. I actually argue that the Misnagdim, as they’re called, the “opponents” of Hasidism, that’s really an eighteenth-century phenomenon. It’s led by Elijah the Gaon of Vilna. And when he dies, it actually kind of peters out. This fight, which in Jewish memory is a kind of a fight to the death between two different wings of orthodoxy, actually is a myth in the nineteenth century. There’s very little conflict between Hasidism and non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews, probably the majority of traditional Jews, even in the eighteenth century, never even heard of Hasidism. Certainly in the nineteenth century it becomes a mass phenomenon. The opposition that it encounters is mostly from the side of the enlighteners, the maskilim, by the latter part of the nineteenth century. Hasidim and non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews are marrying each other, going to each other’s yeshivas.
What we today call the ultra-orthodox world is shaped too much by this mythic idea of a split between the Litvish or Lithuanian and the Hasidic Jews. Now, that split actually has a kind of afterlife starting in the 1980s in Israel, and it has political overtones. In the ultra orthodox world, you have a split between Eliezer Shach, who represents the Litvish tradition, the Yeshiva tradition, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of Chabad. And Shach opposes Schneerson vehemently because of his accusation that Schneersohn is presenting himself as the messiah. There’s a famous saying of Shach that a Chabad is the movement that is nearest to Judaism. So this is kind of a fight to the death between these two figures that then took on political dimensions because the Agudas Israel, the ultra-orthodox party that goes back to 1912, split in half between the Hasidim and the Lithuanians. That split has more or less been papered over in recent years. But it’s fascinating to see the way in which this very, very old conflict is then renewed after many, many decades and even centuries in which it actually played very little role.
JL: This is something I noticed as I was reading through the book, that you don’t talk about the Misnagdim too much. They come up intermittently, but it’s not a major theme, where some people, based on these received notions, might assume this would be something that you would be talking about constantly, inasmuch as for the Maskilim, for the Jewish enlighteners, Hasidism was a foil for them, well, for the Hasidim, the Misnagdim were a foil for them in terms of the construction of their own identity and the crystallization of Hasidism as a movement. So this, to me, was really striking. It is very understated, you didn’t make this argument so clearly in the book itself. I think the absence of the Misnagdim is something that’s notable, from the perspective of sort of the traditional, older history of Hasidism.
DB: I mean, we actually do make the argument, but you’re correct that we don’t beat the reader over the head with it. We do we say two things about the opponents. One is that the early opposition, the ban of Hasidism in 1772, actually may have played a role in forcing the Hasidim to begin to understand themselves as a movement, whereas previously they may not seen themselves as actually doing anything particularly different. So we make it that case. We also say that after the death of the Gaon of Vilna, the opposition pretty much a vanishes. But yeah, I think you’re right that the absence of discussion of the Misnagdim does sort of signal our position.
JL: They do show up sort of at the end, though. You have this really fantastic afterward by Arthur Green, which deals with this issue of rapprochement between the two groups. What’s, then, the significance of looking at them together? Especially in the twenty-first century, in terms of the self-conception, or the self-identity, of Hasidism, or of these ultra-orthodox groups, as they try to understand their own history.
DB: What you have is actually the emergence of a new identity, which is called Haredi. The term “Haredi,” fearers of God, is not actually used before World War II. It’s a relatively recent term. But I think what has happened is that the Haredi world, the ultra-orthodox world, which includes Hasidim and non-hasidim, is increasingly seeing itself as the identity of those who preserve a certain kind of religiosity, a certain dress—they don’t all dress the same, of course—a certain kind of marriage patterns. This is particularly a phenomenon in Israel. It’s true in the United States as well, that although people may say “I am Hasidic,” their identity is increasingly Haredi. “We are different from the so-called national religious,” who out of the Mizrahi party. “We are obviously different from all other more secular Jews… We represent something different from modern orthodox… we are preserving a certain kind of tradition”—which of course is itself a kind of invention. But I think this is something new, this idea of a Haredi identity,
Why Hasidism Matters
JL: As we come towards our conclusion, the question that I would want to pose is, why do you think that the history of Hasidism matters? You put together this really fantastic volume, you and your co-editors, that I think is a really tremendous contribution in terms of laying out the history of Hasidism and also just broadly speaking of the social and religious history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and also after the Holocaust. I think it makes a really great contribution to the scholarship, and as a result you’ve produced this massive volume. So, what is it about Hasidism that merits such a tremendous undertaking? In what ways does understanding the origins and pathways of Hasidism help us to understand contemporary Jewish life, or what do we learn from it that helps us to better understand modern Jewish history as a whole, or the development of modern religious life at large?
DB: What we learned is that the Judaism is an extraordinarily diverse phenomenon in a sense, I think, that this is a world which is quite hidden to outsiders, which they can’t really understand. And people therefore don’t understand what role they play in modern Jewish history. So I think our book really does open this up. We’re certainly not the only ones. There are actually many fine ethnographic works over the last few decades about the Hasidic world. But what our work provides is not just that ethnography, but also the whole history, to show how the development of Jewish history is not simply one long trajectory. It doesn’t go from Enlightenment to Zionism, for example. That might be one very simple-minded trajectory, to start with the Enlightenment, you hope for the integration of the Jews in europe, and modern antisemitism arises and the solution is creating a Jewish state or the solution is leave Europe and come to North America. These are all true, but they are only very partial stories. The story we’re telling is a story of resistance to that narrative, and the construction of an alternative narrative, which is that of the Hasidim. And that’s a powerful narrative. It leads to extraordinarily vital communities. Communities whose natural rate of growth is very, very high, which if one projects to the future will be increasingly important, demographically, in the Jewish world. We don’t make predictions about where things are going, but clearly not only the demographic increase of the communities, but also their vitality, the fact that they are able to retain these people as members and transform themselves in new ways going forward, means that they will be an increasingly important factor in Jewish life.
JL: What you’re saying then, I guess, is that the without being able to predict the future, the dramatic increase in the number of members of these various groups dictates the fact that we need to pay attention to them. Is that what you’re saying?
DB: Yes. It’s not only demographic, though. It’s also their political clout. The fact that they vote as a block, they vote the way the rebbe tells them to vote. So their political clout actually exceeds their numerical strength. And how they negotiate their lives in an American democracy or an Israeli democracy, these are fascinating questions and the questions will only become bigger and bigger as their political weight increases.