Book review – Hasidism: A New History

The Major League Baseball All-Star Game gets the best players in the game onto two teams every year. But what one see from this is that getting the best players together doesn’t always mean they are integrated team that plays well together. When it comes to book, getting a team of scholars together is fraught with the same potential problem; they may be experts, but the output may not always be all-star material.

In Hasidism: A New History (Princeton University Press 978-0691175157), an all-star team of authors David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv and Marcin Wodziński have joined forces to create a fascinating and engrossing history of the Hasidic movement.

In this ground-breaking work, the authors have written a reference that systematically details the history of the Hasidic movement. They write that far from being a monolithic group, the story of Hasidism is a saga of extraordinary vitality and adaptability.

Amazingly there has yet to be written a scholarly history of Hasidism. The authors quote extensively from Simon Dubnow, but his work is nearly a century old.

In 800 densely written pages, the authors cover nearly every aspect of the movement. Perhaps the hardest thing to cover is the founder of the movement himself, the Ba’al Shem Tov (Besht), given the insufficient quantities of historical information about him. The Besht wrote very little, and the authors write that in truth, he was not out to start a new movement. As to the dearth of reference material on the Besht, even the expert authors here were unable to determine his exact year of birth; leaving it as ca. 1700.

While tales of the Besht portray him as an uneducated wandering preacher, the authors show that he in fact worked for the Jewish community. The book includes a photo of the 1758 register of Jewish residents of Mezhbizh. At house number 95 is Balsam, namely the Ba’al Shem. The records also show he paid no taxes, as he was supported by the Jewish communal establishment, which gave him a tax-free house to live in.

As to the movement, it was only with the end of second generation of leadership that the rebbes began to start a movement. But since the Hasidim organized themselves as followers of specific rebbes, there really was no nucleus of a group.

A novel idea the authors propose (which is opposed to that of Dubnow) is that Hasidism was not a response to any crisis, as when it started as a movement by the 3rd generation, Poland was in a relatively stable state.

With 8 authors, the book could have turned into a chaotic mess. Many other books written by scholars in their field lack a semblance of unity and organization. The book reads as if it could have been written by a single author. Not only does the book cover the topic with significant depth and breadth; it’s tremendous editing makes this a compelling and fascinating read. The book covers the entire history of the movement, from the Besht until current times.

This is a massive book and the authors cover the history of Hasidism in encyclopedic detail. The minutiae of the many Hasidic courts and dynasties are well-detailed. The stories progress from the start of the movement and the progressive generation and development of the various factions. The authors takes no prisoners, and while the growth of the movement is often seen as harmonious; there were (and still are) significant battles for control of a dynasty. Generally the more sons and sons in law of the deceased rebbe, the greater the battle. Those that don’t want to see the sometimes all too human side of these rebbes, may opt to forgo reading this book.

The story of the growth of the Hasidic movement has often portrayed them are rivals to the traditional Jews of Europe, known as Misnagdim (translated literally as opponents). The authors write that these battles have often been exaggerated. While there was indeed bitter struggles between the Misnagdim and Hasidim; there were often in limited areas, and were by no means pervasive throughout all of Eastern Europe.

An interesting point is that while the Misnagdim tried to highlight the negative differences in their opponents; the Hasidism claimed that theirs was not a new sect, but had a lot more in common with their perceived opponents, than necessarily differences. The Hasidim were committed to halacha, and while it emphasized certain mystical aspects, they claimed to be basing it on prior accepted traditions.

What Hasidism did  was change the consciousness of its followers. While the followers were fully observant with Jewish law, this new religious consciousness is what worried the Misnagdim. Since this occurred about a century after then devastation of Shabsai Tzvi, this new religious consciousness was seen as worrying deviation.

That’s not to say there were not indeed worrying aspects of the movement. The authors write in detail that what infuriated the Misnagdim was the Hasidim seeing their rebbe as a living channel of, and to God. Then, and to this day, many Hasidim won’t make significant decisions (and in some cases, insignificant) without the approval of their rebbe.

My only gripes with this book is its size, at well over 5 pounds, the editors should have made this two separate volumes. It’s weight and size makes it unmanageable at times to read. Also, the authors use the term modern recurrently when referring to Hasidism. While Hasidim may have certainly adapted well to their new surrounding in the United States and Israel, the term modern is an anathema to most Hasidim.

The All-Star Game is also known as the Midsummer Classic. While this book came out in the winter, in Hasidism: A New History, the authors have created a classic on the topic. Those looking to truly understand the growth, development, successes and failures of the movement, will find no better a source than this noteworthy book.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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