Writings on Devotion, Community, and Life in the Modern World
- ISBN: 9781684580170
- Published By: Brandeis University Press
- Published: September 2020
Hasidic Jewish communities across the world often face the brunt of anti-Semitism, due to the fact that many of their members dress in easily identifiable, traditional garb. Even within non-Hasidic modern Jewish communities, Hasidim are often “othered” and seen as off-the-wall religious fundamentalists who are lost in the past. These communities get unfairly stereotyped and are the focus of discrimination, so it was exciting to read an opus that aims to provide an in-depth, nuanced view of Hasidic culture.
In Hasidism: Writings on Devotion, Community, and Life in the Modern World, Ariel Evan Mayse and Sam Berrin Shonkoff provide a sensical and organized survey of the history of Hasidism via a collection of readings from a wide range of sources, which include, but are not limited to: diary entries, a high school graduation speech, post-Shoah rabbinic reflections and a text credited to Yisra’el ben Eliezer(the Ba’al Shem Tov), the founder of Hasidic thought.
Mayse and Shonkoff write that the “book . . . aims to provide an introduction to Hasidic thought, the theological heart of this flourishing movement across the past two and a half centuries” (xxv). The authors divide their deconstruction of Hasidism into four periods, which is organizationally helpful, even if the eras (as the authors acknowledge) are not perfectly discrete (xxvi). The periods are as follows: (1) 1736-1815: Emergence, Challenge, and Renewal; (2) 1815-1881: Ascendancy and Dominance; (3) 1881-1945: Decline, Renaissance, and Destruction; and (4)1945-Present: Renewal and Reconstruction.”. Within these four time periods, there are anywhere between seven and eleven subsections. Each of these subsections begins with an extremely helpful, but succinct explanations that provide context and necessary background to make the texts more accessible.
One particularly fascinating framing discussion in the introduction concerns the tension between modernity and religious fundamentalism in Hasidism. Mayse and Shonkoff illustrate a “more nuanced approach to Hasidism and modernity [than] many prominent Jewish historians [who] have excluded Hasidism from the domain of Jewish modernity” (xviii). The example they use to illustrate this more nuanced view is “Hasidic orality,” which was adopted in the face of the technical revolution that was the printing press (xix). Mayse and Shonkoff point out that while the printing press had revolutionary utility in its ability to mass produce and disseminate text, “the proliferation of books also brought about a concerning disenchantment with ideas” (xix). “The orality of Hasidic culture was, in part, a response to several major concerns regarding print culture” they continue, and at the time “there was widespread fear that books would become so widely accessible that they would weaken the social bonds of earlier [eras]” (xix). This is a striking insight, one that highlights why oral tradition is key to the heart and soul of Judaism.
Mayse and Shonkoff are extraordinarily successful in fulfilling their goal of providing an extensive introduction to Hasidic theology and history. Many people have written accounts of early Hasidism, but what stood out to me in this volume are the more contemporary sections. Two specific contemporary standouts are “Hasidic Theology and the Holocaust” as well as “Voices of Contemporary Hasidic Women.”
Within the subsection “Voices of Contemporary Hasidic Women” is Feige Twerski’s “Bring God into Everything,” a text that I thoroughly enjoyed and perfectly ended the book. Twerski’s writes that “it’s important for you to know that you all [have] a contribution to make to life and this world…the reason that you were born is because you have something special to offer this world that the young lady next to you doesn’t have, and you can’t offer what she has to offer” (288). This reminds me of one of the first classes on the Jewish lifecycle I attended where one of my most beloved teachers, a female Hasidic Hillel Director, told us that your birthday is such a beautiful day in Jewish culture, because it is the day that G-d decided that the world could not go another day without your uniqueness and individuality. It is beautiful and in the spirit of the tradition that this book was able to pass along Rabbi Twerski’s message to the future generations.
Mayse and Shonkoff do an excellent job of curating relevant and important sources that illustrate the history, user experience and culture of Hasidic Jewry in a captivating way, while also pointing an eye towards the future.
Ethan Prager is an independent scholar.Ethan S. PragerDate Of Review:October 31, 2023