Hasidism

A New History

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David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin Wodziński
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , December
     2017.
     896 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691175157.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hasidism: A New History is the first comprehensive study of this important Jewish spiritual religious movement. It traces the movement from its eighteenth-century beginnings in Eastern Europe and explores its development and evolution to the present day. It brings together and synthesizes the scholarship of the recent generation that has challenged old stereotypes and followed new scholarly directions.

The history of Hasidism can be divided into three eras, and the book follows this three-part division. The first era is the period of the founding fathers, beginning with the earliest public activities of Israel Baal Shem Tov [Besht] (c. 1700–1760), the traditional founder of the movement and ending in 1815, the year of the death of the last disciples of the Maggid of Mezritsh (d. 1772), the leader of the Hasidic movement after the death of the Besht.

The first era, that of origins, describes the founding of the movement. An important question that is carefully analyzed is whether the Besht was the founder of a movement or the leader of a small circle of religious enthusiasts. The conclusion of recent scholarship is that it was the Maggid of Mezritsh, the successor of the Besht, who attracted a cadre of disciples that he sent out to disseminate the teachings of Hasidism and become the founders of what became the various schools of Hasidism. Another important aspect of the first era was the opposition to this new movement by various groups who came to be called the Misnagedim (opponents) of Hasidism. The reasons for this opposition were theological, political, or sociological, and often a combination of these factors.

The period of the growth and expansion of Hasidism, often seen as its “Golden Age,” was from 1815 to 1914. Though there were signs of decline and decay by the end of the nineteenth century, it was the upheaval caused by the First World War that permanently changed the landscape and culture of Hasidism. By 1815, the movement was well established, and the religious opposition faded or made its peace with Hasidism. The number of Hasidic groups proliferated, each with their own perspective, though they all claimed the same spiritual roots. Issues that divided groups included: Should leadership be dynastic, a son succeeding his father, or should it be based on the qualities of the disciple who is considered to be the most qualified to lead the next generation? Should the focus of religious life be intellectual study or prayer and spiritual exercises, simple faith, or a complex theology like that of Habad? Hasidic groups were distinguished by their emphases on lines of succession and on specific aspects of their values and their adherence to them. These have continued to define and characterize those groups that have survived to the present.

The twentieth century, beginning with 1914, was a period of decline, destruction, and rebirth. Traditionally, Hasidism was centered in “courts” that were in small towns. These towns were places of pilgrimage where many Hasidic leaders lived in large estates with institutions to support both residents and visitors. After the First World War, many of these “courts” were destroyed and the Rebbes who were named for the towns of their residence were now found living in apartments in Vienna, Warsaw, and other large cities of Central and Eastern Europe. The Holocaust destroyed the culture of Ashkenazi Jewry in Europe and the Hasidic movement and its followers were among the communities and people that perished. After the end of World War II, some Hasidic groups were able to rebuild their communities and continue, primarily in the United States and Israel. The rebirth and new growth of interest in Hasidism in the contemporary world concludes the study.

Another new and important aspect of this book is the discussions of the “realia” of life in the Hasidic community. This aspect of Hasidism has not received adequate attention in previous generations of scholarship. What were the rituals and institutions that distinguished Hasidism from other Jewish groups? What role did the zaddiq—and travel to see him—play in the spiritual life of the follower of Hasidism? What did his wife and children do when he was on his pilgrimage? It is important to ask this, because Hasidism was an all-male fraternity. There were no female hasidim.

Though eight authors are listed on the title page, the editors have done a magnificent job of blending the various authorial voices into a work that reads as the work of one author. Another virtue of the work is the liberal use of quotations from primary sources that illustrate and illumine the ideas being presented. A significant number of illustrations and maps are also helpful. The book is written for a broader educated audience and the text is not burdened with copious footnotes intended for the specialist in the field. Suggestions for further reading are found in the back of the book to help the interested reader further their exploration of specific people and subjects.

This work is a landmark, marking the culmination of the first century of scholarship on Hasidism and a welcome starting point for the second century of study and scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Morris M. Faierstein is a Research Associate at the University of Maryland.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.

David Assaf is Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University.

Benjamin Brown is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Uriel Gellman is Lecturer in Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University.

Samuel Heilman is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Moshe Rosman is Professor of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University.

Gadi Sagiv is Senior Lecturer in Jewish History at the Open University of Israel.

Marcin Wodziński is Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław.

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