Key Questions

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Marcin Wodziński
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Marcin Wodziński is among the most accomplished expositors of the social reality of Hasidism working today. On the heels of his work on the pathbreaking Hasidism: A New History (Princeton University Press, 2017) and Historical Atlas of Hasidism (Princeton University Press, 2018), his scholarly annus mirabilis concludes with Hasidism: Key Questions. Hasidism began as an elite, kabbalistic strand of Judaism in the mid-18th century in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and became a mass movement by the end of 19th century. Hasidism: Key Questions provides an overview of recent scholarship on Hasidism and avenues for future research on the movement. 

In recent decades, scholars have been studying Hasidism using increasingly diverse research methods from fields such as gender studies and the sociology of religion, producing a more nuanced understanding of Hasidism from its inception until the First World War. Some examples include Ada Rapoport-Albert’s work on Hasidism and gender and David Assaf’s studies of Hasidic geography. Hasidism: Key Questions clearly articulates the emerging understanding of Hasidism as it is lived, supplementing the work of other scholars with Wodziński’s own research, using both archival sources and printed works that have not been previously mined for information regarding the lives of ordinary Hasidim.

Hasidism is frequently described as a mystical revival movement or sect of Judaism. While this description may be apt for Hasidism in its earliest instantiations, it mischaracterizes Hasidism once it became a popular movement around the end of the 18th century. This portrayal of Hasidism as a “revival” treats it as “an abstract doctrine, disconnected from its believers and their daily practices” (xxviii). Wodziński adopts “a behavioral, or performative, definition of Hasidism as practiced in everyday life” that “shows what rank-and-file followers understood being a Hasid meant” (xxviii-xxix.). Distinctive behaviors include attendance at a Hasidic prayer house (shtibl), pilgrimages to the court of a Hasidic master (tsadik, plural tsadikim) (28-9), and the use of the Lurianic-Sephardic prayer book rather than the Ashkenazi liturgy (19). In chapter 1 Wodziński argues that Hasidism is best understood not as a sect but as a confraternity (ḥevrah) with its own aims, devotional practices, and ethos that did not separate Hasidim from Jewish society (41). Hasidism also lacks many sectarian features, such as endogamy.      

If Hasidism is a male confraternity defined primarily by prayer and pilgrimage, then how did women interact with Hasidism? Wodziński investigates this question in chapter 2, arguing that while women were excluded from central Hasidic practices such as praying in the shtibl, some women identified with Hasidic values and many supported the Hasidic practices of their husbands (56). Still, Wodziński argues that the conception of a “Hasidic household,” in which a woman is a Hasid as an extension of her Hasidic husband, is a misnomer. Excluded from Hasidic spaces and sometimes rejecting Hasidic doctrines, women had only limited ties to the movement (83). However, women occasionally accompanied their husband on pilgrimages.

Hasidic theological literature portrays the tsadik as a pietist with special access to the divine. In chapter 3, Wodziński analyzes petitions to a tsadik to ascertain how rank-and-file Hasidim understood the tsadik’s nature and authority. A majority of these petitions dealt with worldly matters. Sometimes the tsadik was asked to function as a business arbiter or to dispense medical advice (despite a lack of medical training) in addition to being enlisted for his spiritual intercession. These petitions recognize the multifaceted but limited power of the tsadik, insofar as petitioners did not exclusively rely on tsadikim to solve their medical and financial problems and recognized the inability of most tsadikim to influence politics.

The petitions show that commerce was an important aspect of Hasidic life, and chapter 6 investigates the economic lives of Hasidim. In contrast to the normative doctrines of some thinkers for whom Hasidism is anathema to wealth, Wodziński argues that while some Hasidim were poor, Hasidism tended to attract the economic elite, usually merchants rather than craftsmen (239). Additionally, some tsadikim survived through the beneficence of wealthy patrons.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore geographical questions. Using unexplored demographic sources, Wodziński rejects the commonly-held view that Hasidism’s popularity peaked at the turn of the 19th century, instead locating its period of greatest influence towards the century’s end. These chapters examine Hasidism in different regions in Eastern Europe and show how Hasidism’s influence varied greatly from place to place. 

There is a tension between Hasidism conceptualized as a confraternity and demographic data on Hasidism. Statistical sources like the table “Hasidim in Łomża Province, ca. 1900” do not account for the porous boundaries of Hasidism (154). Demographic data enumerating the number of Hasidim in a given region does not capture the ways that Hasidism allowed for differing degrees of engagement. Wodziński could have presented the intellectual life of rank-and-file Hasidism in greater depth, such as exploring what texts they studied or what ideas informed their religious practices. Chapter 7 discusses the cataclysmic changes in Hasidic communities around the time of World War I, including displacement from rural to urban communities and the weakening of Hasidic structures.

Wodziński’s book also holds important lessons for scholars of religion more generally. The most distinctive aspects of Hasidism in its early period were the novel doctrines and practices espoused by its leaders. These doctrines may have attracted some adherents, but as Hasidism grew, its practices, not its doctrines, were paramount for many followers. As Wodziński demonstrates with Hasidism, doctrines and practices are not always definitive or constitutive of a movement as it develops. Rather, to understand a religious movement as it is lived depends upon conceptualizing it with appropriate categories and examining the complex relationship between a movement’s ideals and its practitioners. Future studies on Hasidism will engage Wodziński’s work either by building on his arguments or taking up the questions he raises.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Hillman is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marcin Wodziński is Professor of Jewish History and Literature at the University of Wroclaw, Poland. His special fields of interest are Jewish material culture and the social history of Jews in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, especially the history of Hasidism and Haskalah.


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