Hasidism: A New History

David Biale et al
  • Review
By – April 12, 2018

In 1915 Pales­tine, musi­col­o­gist Avra­ham Tzvi Idel­sohn tran­scribed a melody he heard from Boy­an Hasidim, a branch of pious Jews from the Ruzhin-Sadago­ra dynasty, who had come from the Ukraine to the Holy Land. Idel­sohn paired lyrics with the tune, and the song caught fire among sec­u­lar Zion­ists. By the 1930s it had spread to sum­mer camps, schools, and count­less hora dances. And thus, Hava Nag­i­la” became the quin­tes­sen­tial Jew­ish melody (or as a 2018 Dead­spin arti­cle notes, the most cliched Jew­ish song of all time.”)

The ori­gin of Judais­m’s most inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized song is but one of numer­ous glean­ings from this exhaus­tive study of the his­to­ry of Hasidism and its influ­ence on wider Jew­ish cul­ture. Over near­ly 900 pages, David Biale and his inter­na­tion­al team of col­leagues revise past schol­ar­ly con­clu­sions on the his­to­ry of the Hasidic move­ment. They doc­u­ment and ana­lyze reli­gious, eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, social, and tech­no­log­i­cal fac­tors that led to the birth and pop­u­lar­i­ty of a branch of Judaism known for its empha­sis on serv­ing God through joy, the phys­i­cal world, and prayer. (Though, as the authors demon­strate, it turns out find­ing com­mon val­ues and prac­tices among dif­fer­ent sub­sec­tions of Hasidic Jews is hard­er than one might think.)

Aim­ing for both breadth and depth, the authors cov­er every­thing from pre-Baal Shem Tov hasidic inter­est in Kab­bal­ah, post-Holo­caust the­ol­o­gy, and the use of visu­al cul­ture to spread the Chabad ide­ol­o­gy; to for­mer Hasid Shulem Deen and his mem­oir All Who Go Do Not Return, the Sat­mar-run B&H Pho­to com­pa­ny, for­mer­ly Hasidic reg­gae artist Matisyahu, and var­i­ous oth­er his­tor­i­cal curiosi­ties — includ­ing a writ­ten descrip­tion of Hasidic women by Leopold von Sach­er-Masoch, who inspired the word masochism.”

Read­ers will­ing to dive into this book’s sea of infor­ma­tion will sure­ly be reward­ed, but those hop­ing to use the book as a ref­er­ence may be chal­lenged; the index is sparse and there are few foot­notes, though there is an anno­tat­ed bib­li­og­ra­phy. And while the authors doc­u­ment dozens of exam­ples of Hasidic infight­ing — par­tic­u­lar­ly over dynas­tic suc­ces­sion — and scathing cri­tiques lev­eled by its prac­ti­tion­ers towards non-mem­bers, the authors don’t seem as eager to con­vey the pos­i­tive impact of Hasidism over its 250-year his­to­ry. After all, as Arthur Green, the neo-Hasidic schol­ar and prac­ti­tion­er, writes in the book’s after­word: The study of Hasidic sources … have pro­vid­ed spir­i­tu­al nour­ish­ment for large num­bers of Jew­ish seek­ers in quest after a reli­gious teach­ing and way of life that may yet speak to them in an emerg­ing post­mod­ern era.”

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions