David Biale on Hasidism

Hasidism is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world. Recently David Biale took the time to answer questions about his new book, co-authored with David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński.

What is Hasidism and why is it important?

DB: Hasidism is a movement of Jewish religious orthodoxy that originated in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the middle of the eighteenth century. From very modest beginnings, it grew by the nineteenth century into perhaps the most dynamic and influential religious movement among Eastern European Jews. Hasidism developed some striking theological ideas, including the value of joy in the worship of God and ecstatic union with the divine. But it also created a social innovation: communities of Hasidim (pious followers) of a tsaddik or rebbe, a wonder-working, charismatic leader whose court became the center of a network beyond the traditional Jewish communities.

While secularization, the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, the Holocaust decimated the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe, after World War II, the movement enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in North America, the State of Israel and (to a lesser degree) elsewhere in the world. We estimate that today there are roughly 700,000 Hasidim throughout the world. They continue to be divided, as they have for most of their history, into groups affiliated with their characteristic leaders. Many of these groups have outposts in different parts of the world such that the movement, which was originally limited to a certain area of Eastern Europe, has now become truly global.  Hasidism is, without question, one of the most important movements in modern Jewish history and in Jewish life today.

What is new about Hasidism: A New History?

DB: The title of our book conceals something surprising. There really isn’t an old history of Hasidism, so our book is really the first history of this highly influential religious movement. We try to tell a sweeping story that encompasses Hasidism’s full history from its origins to the present day. Most of the earlier literature on Hasidism focused on the movement’s eighteenth-century origins, with less attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This literature often argued that Hasidism’s golden age was in the eighteenth century and that the movement declined afterwards. We argue, on the contrary, that the movement only really became a mass movement in the nineteenth century and that it was in that century that one can find its golden age.  A second golden age was after World War II when Hasidic communities rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Holocaust. What is new, then, about our book, besides many specific arguments, is its comprehensive nature.

Can you describe some of these new arguments?

One very important claim in the book is that the putative “founder” of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, in fact never set out to found a movement. He was a part of the communal establishment in his town and he gathered around him a circle of pietists.  It was only two generations later, after the death of one of his main disciple, Dov Ber of Mezritsh, that a movement began to form by disciples of Dov Ber. The process by which Hasidism started as a small conventicle and later became a mass movement has certain resemblances to early Christianity. It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to found a new religion, but later Christians turned him into their movement’s founder. So, too, with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.

Another set of arguments focuses on how Hasidism functioned on the local level in the nineteenth century. Although many of the Hasidic courts in this period were opulent and resembled royal or noble courts, most Hasidim visited the courts only once or twice a year. At other times, they operated in their home towns.  Recent research by one member of our team demonstrates how Hasidism struggled for power in these towns. The local Hasidim were often relatively well-off merchants, such that the movement was anything but a marginal phenomenon.

You argue that Hasidism is modern movement, but isn’t its ideology expressly anti-modern?

We understand modernity as something more complicated than just movements of secularization. The resistance to secularization is itself modern and Hasidism has to be understood in that context. It is a traditionalist movement, meaning that it constructs a certain image of tradition to use in its war against modern secularism. In fact, Hasidism is highly innovative, no less than modern movements of reform: its social structure and its charismatic leadership have never been seen before in Jewish history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hasidism embraced modern politics in order to advance its agenda. In all these ways, Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity.

Your book is unusual in that it has eight co-authors.  Why is that and what was the process with which you produced the project?

Because Hasidism consists of dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of “courts” located in many different places (and even continents), its history is too complex to be written by one person. It requires the expertise of a team. We decided very early on that instead of producing an edited volume, we wanted to write a seamless narrative.  We resolved to write collaboratively. In order to do so, we arranged to spend four summer residencies at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The institute provided wonderful accommodations for us to work together free from the distractions of our home environments. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Thyssen Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support these residencies.

In Leipzig, we devoted the first summer to producing a highly detailed table of contents. The next two summers were involved with the actual writing (of course, we all worked on the project individually during the academic year). The final summer involved collective editing of the manuscript. So, even though each member of the team wrote their own chapters, other team members provided intensive feedback throughout the writing and editing process. In this way, the book reflects the input of the whole team, a kind of peer review even before the manuscript went out to readers. We hope that in addition to the content of our book, this kind of collaborative authorship can offer a model to other scholars in the humanities.

Do you think that the Hasidim themselves will read your book and what do you think their reactions will be?

Several years ago, the Israel Museum staged a fascinating exhibition on Hasidism. What was most striking was how many Hasidim came to see the exhibition. They were evidently intrigued by how they are portrayed by the outside word. We anticipate a similar response to our book. They will no doubt take issue with some of our arguments, which go against the grain of their own conception of their history. But they will certainly buy the book.

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