In 1945 Shlomo Halberstam reached New York. He was a broken man, his faith shattered and his will to live shaken. He and his son Naftali were the sole survivors of their family: Bluma, Shlomo’s young wife, and two of their children had been murdered by the Nazis.
Shlomo had been born in 1907 and raised in the town of Bobov in Galicia, where his father, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, was the rebbe (leader) of a thriving Hasidic community. In September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Ben Zion, his sons, and his sons-in-law managed to flee eastward to the town of Lwow, seeking refuge in the then Russian-controlled zone of Poland. Their fragile safety didn’t last long; on July 25, 1941, following the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, Lwow was conquered, and Ben Zion was immediately arrested by the Germans.
Aware that he would soon be murdered, Ben Zion donned his festive Shabbat clothes and prepared himself to be martyred. Resolved to his fate, he was marched through the streets of the city and humiliated and beaten by his persecutors. Ben Zion and other members of his family were shot three days later in the Yanover forest. They were among the first victims of the genocide of European Jewry.
At the time of his father’s arrest, Shlomo barely evaded capture and death by concealing his identity, shaving his beard, cutting off his traditional sidelocks, and exchanging his Hasidic garb for modern clothing. With a forged Hungarian passport, he was smuggled to Hungary in a coal truck and fled, after many travails, across the border to Romania. My own father grew up in the same area of Galicia as Shlomo, in a village near Bobov. He belonged to a Hasidic family related to the Halberstams who pursued the same route eastward in Poland to escape the Nazis. Only my father and uncle survived.
When Shlomo Halberstam arrived in New York after the war, the Bobov community consisted of no more than three hundred members, a small remnant of what was once a thriving Hasidic center. With the encouragement of his loyal followers, he reestablished a Hasidic Bobov community in Brooklyn, which today includes around 120,000 people, more than during its pre-Holocaust days in Poland. In the aftermath of World War II nobody could have predicted such a resurrection; it felt as if the old world of Eastern European Hasidism had been extinguished forever.
The court of Bobov (as such communities are known) is not the only visible and confident Hasidic group in the US. Today the Hasidic world consists of thriving communities such as Satmar, a Hungarian branch named after its town of origin and the most zealous and insular Hasidic group; and the Lubavitch movement, a Russian branch of Hasidism known as Chabad, which, in contrast to Satmar’s isolationism, practices broad and messianic outreach all over the US and the world.
As the authors of Hasidism: A New History perceptively point out, one of the ironic aspects of Hasidism’s astonishing resilience is that its postwar resurrection took place in the US and the State of Israel. Hasidic leaders in the early twentieth century sharply opposed the immigration of Jews to Palestine under the banner of Zionism, which they considered a revolt against God’s plan. Jews, in their thinking, had to passively accept the yoke of exile until their return to Zion was divinely sanctioned. In its bitter polemical struggle with Zionism, the Hasidic leadership perceived modern Jewish nationalism as a secularizing movement offering an alternative national Jewish identity that would undermine loyalty to a traditional way of life.
The Hasidic leadership also opposed the mass migration of Jews to the US in the early twentieth century. From their vantage point within the established enclaves in Eastern Europe, they feared that it would acclimate Jewish migrants to corrosive and sinful modern life. Tragically, that opposition trapped many of their followers in Eastern Europe, leading to their eventual death in Nazi concentration camps. (After World War II the surviving Hasidic leaders never reckoned seriously with their colossal and immensely costly failure to grasp the ominous direction of European history before the war—especially when it concerned rabbis who had claimed to have a divinely inspired understanding of reality.) Nowadays, with the protection and support of a Jewish nation-state in Israel with which the Hasidic movement still maintains deeply ambivalent relations, and under the umbrella of religious freedom and pluralism in the US, Hasidism is flourishing and expanding with great vigor, and its future seems more secure than ever.
The revival of Hasidism after the war is related to the reemergence of orthodoxy in other religions, including Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. The capacity of the Hasidic movement to lift itself from the ashes of the Holocaust is a testimony as well to the vital spiritual and communal resources that it nourished from its beginnings.
Hasidism: A New History, written by eight scholars, covers the Hasidic movement from its origin in the second half of the eighteenth century until the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is a monumental scholarly achievement and a great contribution to the understanding of one of the most important movements in Jewish life in the modern period. The book explores all aspects of Hasidism: social, institutional, cultural, demographic, and geographic. It tells the story of its founding member and leaders, while also providing a full historical account of the lives of ordinary Hasids, and the gender roles and organization of their families.
A reader who plunges into this book might feel initially overwhelmed by its almost encyclopedic detail about the regions, courts, and dynasties of the Hasidic movement, their locations, and their minute variations and splinters. Nevertheless, the volume is firmly organized around the historical arc of Hasidism’s development: it emerged as a small circle of elites in the second half of the eighteenth century in the territories of Podolia in southeast Ukraine; spread at the beginning of the nineteenth century to Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Poland, while gradually developing as a fully formed movement; achieved its golden age in the middle of the nineteenth century by gaining acolytes from Polish Jewry and reaching as far as Hungary and Romania, among other places; began to decline in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century as it lost many followers to competing secular movements such as Zionism and socialism, and subsequently received what seemed to be a final death blow during the Holocaust; and lastly, unpredictably reemerged with vigor in the completely new world of the US and Israel. These developments, which are fully and meticulously explored in the book, provide its enormous amount of detail with unity and direction.
Israel ben Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov (the Besht), the figure retrospectively seen as the founding father of the Hasidic movement, was born around 1699 in the Carpathian Mountains in what is today Romania. He didn’t belong to the scholarly Talmudic elite or hold a rabbinic title; he was a healer who used kabbalistic amulets and shamanic techniques. His therapeutic practices involved prescribing amulets with divine names, earning him the title “Ba’al Shem Tov,” literally “a possessor of good (divine) name.” Due to his reputation, he settled in the town of Mezhbizh (in the Ukrainian province of Podolia) as its resident “Kabbalist,” or paid healer. He was at the center of a small circle, one among many that were consecrated to cultivating religious piety and devotion.
What is known about the Besht is largely gleaned from teachings that were passed down orally and then recorded mainly by two of his disciples, Dov Ber of Mezritsh and Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye, and from the hagiographic literature that flourished a generation after his death. The portrait that emerges of the Besht from his students is of a figure endowed with immense charisma and genius. As the authors of Hasidism observe, he was not the conscious founder of a movement, but nevertheless he had an acute sense of a transformative religious calling that defined his life. Following his death in 1760, the Besht’s teachings shaped a bold religious sensibility that served as a foundation for spiritual and communal awakening endowed with sweeping energy and momentum.
Four elements were at the center of the Hasidic sensibility. These elements were given different meanings and permutations in subsequent developments, and the weight of each of them differs from one Hasidic court and school to another, but they define what could loosely be considered the core of the Hasidic innovation.
The first foundational element affirmed divine immanence in all dimensions and aspects of reality—in human actions and thoughts, in material objects, and in animate forms of being. God is not a separate and transcendent entity that has to be approached by a flight from the lower material world; rather, God’s essence dwells in the here and now, and the encounter with God consists of the conscious realization of his veiled immediate presence.
The metaphysical meaning of divine immanence was given different interpretations among the second and third generations of Hasidic masters. At the more extreme end of the spectrum was the position that the world we live in is a mere mirage, obscuring an ultimate unity in which only God exists. This view, mainly articulated by Shneyr Zalman of Liady—the founder of Chabad and the most systematic Hasidic thinker—put at the center of religious life the full conscious realization of God’s exclusive and all-encompassing being. Other more prevalent versions of God’s immanence didn’t depict the world as a mere illusion, but rather asserted that every particular entity draws its vitality and existence from the essence of God that dwells at its core.
The idea of God’s immanence had precedents in earlier strains of Jewish mysticism and thought, but in Hasidism it became a dominant theme and entailed far-reaching human and existential implications. One important implication was the principled rejection by Besht of the ascetic practices that were prevalent at the time in Central and Eastern Europe. The ascetic mindset is anchored in the assumption of an inherent tension between body and soul, matter and spirit, in which the denial and repression of bodily urges is a precondition for saintliness. With its theology of divine immanence in the material world, Hasidism rejected the metaphysical dualistic foundation of asceticism, thus denying the holy war on the material. As the authors of Hasidism stress, the anti-ascetic posture of the Hasidic movement wasn’t consistent. The appeal of asceticism is very strong in pietistic traditions and it resurfaced in various Hasidic trends, but fighting this very powerful religious tendency toward asceticism was one of the central religious callings of the Besht.
The anti-ascetic stance implied as well a deeper change in what might be termed the “normative mood.” Ascetic circles tend to adopt and cultivate a severe melancholic attitude as a safeguard from temptation and sin. The psychological flag has to be always at half-mast, since happiness is associated with the spontaneous breaking of boundaries. The Hasidic movement from its inception adopted joy as the preferred human attitude. One of the most creative figures in the history of Hasidism, Nahman of Bratslav, who was himself prone to bouts of depression, considered sadness and melancholy to be inherently sinful. Depression has transgressive potential since with it comes depletion of value, and people who feel they have nothing to lose might turn nihilistic.
The Hasidic embrace of joy, often expressed in music and dance, has persisted even in the darkest moments of Jewish history. One such moment is mentioned in Hasidism. During World War II in the Warsaw Ghetto, a concentrated effort was made to record daily life for posterity. The precious documents that resulted were found after the war sealed and buried in milk containers. In one of them, Emanuel Ringelblum, the central figure behind the documenting effort, described a visit to the small synagogue of the Bratslav Hasidim in the Ghetto during the Shabbat night service:
At the place of [the Bratslav Hasidim] on Nowolipia Street there is a large banner: “Jews Do Not Despair.” The Jews there dance as they did before the war. A man whose daughter had died the day before danced the next day after prayers.
Joy in such dark circumstances turned into a defiant posture.
The history of normative moods is delicate and difficult to capture and record. But such transformations engulf the totality of human experience, and when they occur they might cut deeper than changes that happen in other realms, such as doctrine, practice, or communal organization. In the case of Hasidism, the shift toward joy had an impact on the most elemental layers of the religious stance; it cultivated a new Jewish type of personality.
The second fundamental element of the emerging Hasidic sensibility, intimately attached to the element of divine immanence, was the call for worshipping in the material world (avoda be-gashmiyut). This idea enlarged the sphere of religiously meaningful acts to include mundane secular activities as well as rituals and properly ordained religious laws. The line between the sacred and the profane was blurred; every activity performed with the proper consciousness can become a meaningful religious encounter.
In prayer, for example, a person might find that his thoughts are wandering very far from the appropriate devotional intention. He can be seized by what were termed “alien thoughts” (machshavot zarot), which denote erotic fantasies, a possibility that even the most devout cannot fully escape. Such unsettling states of mind were traditionally dealt with through attempts to repress and avoid them.
In line with his metaphysics of immanence, the Besht offered a radically different devotional path, recommending that one dwell in the fantasy rather than helplessly combat it. Since God’s presence is all-encompassing, including in human desires and mental states, by delving into such alien thoughts the worshipper can “uplift them” by connecting the particular passion that he is experiencing to the larger divine animating force that is present in them. With the new call for worship in the material realm, even such embarrassments of the flesh might be embraced as religiously meaningful.
One of the disciples of Dov Ber of Mezritsh, Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, strikingly described the practice of worshipping in the material:
It is imperative to know that God is always present among us…and even in commerce, when a person engages with human desires, God is hidden…and all worldly desires and longings are all rooted in divine longings but they are clothed within material concerns. And whoever possesses only eyes of the flesh thinks that desires and passions are rooted in materiality, but whoever possesses eyes of wisdom understands that this passion is rooted in the spiritual worlds and he therefore [while engaging in material commercial pursuits] cleaves to the spiritual essence inherent in the material urges and desires.
These two dimensions of Hasidic teaching—God’s immanence and worship in the material world—can be perceived as constituting a mode of this-worldly mysticism, an affirmation of the here and now. This sensibility appealed to neo-Hasidic thinkers such as Martin Buber, who saw in it a path to reenchanting the world in opposition to the spread of technology and instrumental reason. Hasidism presented an openness to revelation while encountering what seemed to be the most mundane matters; for Buber and others Hasidism put at its center a continuous possibility for wonder.
The third fundamental element at the core of Hasidic teaching—its notion of a mystical state of cleaving (devekut)—grew out of its ambivalent response to the previous teachings of Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish esoteric tradition. The Kabbalistic tradition passed on a complex knowledge of the divine world that became immensely intricate in the sixteenth-century school of Lurianic Kabbalah, named after the Galilean mystic Isaac Luria. According to the Lurianic tradition, in order to reach the proper mystical state, one had to acquire a highly developed and detailed expertise. The ambiguous Hasidic attitude toward this vast esoteric learning was expressed in a mystical orientation that asserted that the state of cleaving to God—devekut—is attained by wholehearted inner concentration that is attuned to God’s presence in all being. It is not dependent on or achieved by knowledge of a metaphysical system that is possessed by an esoteric elite. In the Besht’s teaching one central technique for achieving the ultimate mystical state involved concentrating on the Hebrew letters of the prayer book or Torah, which carry the potency of divine presence.
The Hasidic ideal of devekut aimed at cleaving to the divine immanent presence in the world. Such a mode of consciousness stood in tension with the scholarly tradition of Talmudic learning, which involved the study of intricate and subtle legal distinctions. In a statement attributed to the Besht, a scholar is advised to interrupt his learning of Talmud in order to attain a higher state of mystical devekut. It was said about a Hasidic master that when he studied a page of Talmud he would contemplate the white spaces between the black letters. The white color that encapsulates the spectrum of other colors seemed to constitute a preferable focus of meditative practice than the particularized legal material of Talmudic discourse articulated in the black letters. Prayer and study became indistinguishable, since they were both consumed by an ecstatic practice of a concentrated mystical cleaving.
In its emphasis on devekut Hasidism presented an alternative mystical path that was potentially freed from the burden of esoteric expertise. It established as well an alternative to the scholarly elite in pursuing a religiosity that was based on the unique mystical charisma cultivated by its founding generations. Some Hasidic masters were well versed in Talmud and Jewish law, but such knowledge wasn’t a sufficient or necessary condition for leadership. The rebbe who led the Hasidic community thus relied on a different source of religious authority than the local scholar rabbi, which became a source of tension.
This new religious sensibility met with fierce rabbinic and communal opposition when Hasidic students of Dov Ber of Mezritsh began to spread his teachings in Lithuania and White Russia. The struggle that was initiated in 1772 was led by Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (the Gaon), greatly respected for his scholarly knowledge and personal piety, and it led to communal bans on the newly emerging Hasidic congregations, the burning of manuscripts and books, and attempts to persuade the Russian authorities to outlaw Hasidism as dangerous and nihilistic. The opposition failed to marginalize Hasidism as an outcast sect but managed to contain its spread in Lithuania and Russia.
The resistance to Hasidism shaped two distinct cultural and communal camps in Eastern European Jewry—the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim (literally opposers). The difference between them was significant enough that they developed into contrasting stereotypes: the severe, scholarly, and legally pious Mitnaged, in contrast to the joyful, religiously ecstatic, and warm Hasid; one puts at the center of his worship the study of Torah and meticulous observation of the law while the other embraces prayer and religious intimacy as his core mode of devotion. Like all stereotypes this general division does great injustice to the nuance and diversity of the two approaches, but it captures something about self-perceptions and communal consciousness that developed as a result of the struggle between Mitnagdim and Hasidim.
The authors of Hasidism make an important attempt to put this struggle into perspective. Hasidism, they claim, wasn’t a sect and had much in common with its opponents. It didn’t deviate from Jewish law, and many of its religious doctrines had precedents in prior traditions.
Nevertheless, without significantly changing any legal ritual practice, the first generations of Hasidic teachers created a different religious consciousness. To their opponents, this new religious awakening felt alien and uncanny, and they responded to it with fierce opposition, which grew not in spite of the external resemblance between the movements but in many ways because of it.
One major target of criticism for those who opposed Hasidism was the fourth fundamental dimension of the innovative core of Hasidism, and the least appealing of its teachings—the central role it ascribed to the rebbe (the tzaddik) in the lives of his followers. This dimension, which had been absent in the teaching of the Besht and his earliest students, was developed by the third generation of Hasidic teachers and became the most defining feature of Hasidism. The rebbe was mythologized as a living channel of God’s bliss to the world. In certain Hasidic communities no meaningful decision—be it marriage or a commercial venture—is made without his blessing, approval, and advice. The role of the rebbe, who galvanized and cemented the loyalty of his followers, shaped among other things the hierarchy and rituals of the court. This new mode of communal organization, unprecedented in the Jewish world, is thoroughly analyzed in Hasidism.
The troublesome nature of this feature of Hasidism was aggravated by the prevalent view that the rebbe’s intimacy with God is passed on to his descendants. The dynastic structure of Hasidism has been burdened with power struggles among heirs, resulting in splinters and divisions. The Bobov community in Brooklyn today is divided between two different family members of its first leader in New York, Shlomo Halberstam; a special rabbinic court has decided that only one of them can use the brand of Bobov. (The other group had to settle with the name “Bobov45,” as its synagogue is on 45th Street.) And the Satmar community is engulfed in a bitter struggle between two heirs who had to be separated into different zones of influence, one in Williamsburg and the other in Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York.
Since its inception Hasidism has generated a creative and imaginative body of texts, ideas, and practices. It has given rise to some of the most profound and sometimes exotic thinkers in the history of Jewish thought, persisting into the middle and second half of the nineteenth century with figures such as Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbits and Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin. With the expansion of modern secular movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Hasidism adopted a deeply conservative posture in its attempt to safeguard its followers from their corrosive impact and to secure its own continuity. The movement closed its ranks and managed to survive the historical and cultural travails of the twentieth century. Yet this impressive success had its cost. Fear of diminishing loyalty has constricted its inner creative resources. In today’s Hasidism the rebbe is dominant, but other aspects of the movement have mostly receded to the margins. Its successful strategy of combating outside influences might well prove to be its undoing.