In reviewing two scholarly books on Hasidism, one isimmediately confronted with a world that is complex, intenselyspiritual, mystical, and other-world focused — a far cry from the Chelm-likedancing Hasidic world often portrayed in the movies. But it is also aworld that is very typical for any new “movement,” and thus is alsodifferent from the always pious and psychologically insightful imageoften conveyed from classic Hasidic tales we are used to reading orhearing from countless Jewish speakers.
Rachel Elior’s The Mystical Origins of Hasidismgrapples with not only the historical and sociological milieu of thedevelopment and growth of Hasidism, but most importantly focuses on itstheological and mystical foundations. Framed within a perspective of theearlier Kabbalists and the rise and fall/apostasy of Shabetai Tseviwith its enormous and far reaching impact on world Jewry, Elior givesthe reader a glimpse into the world of Hasidism as conceptualized by theBaal Shem Tov, Dov Baer of Mezhirech, Elimelech of Lyzhansk, JacobJoseph of Polonnoye, Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Nachman of Bratslav, TheSeer of Lublin, and Menahem Mendel of Kotzk to name but a few. Chapterson the Hasidic concept of language, the unity of opposites, andtranscending being are particularly complex. One wonders whether theseperspectives were ever really part of the day-to-day inner thinking ofthe “average” Hasid. Elior’s perspectives on the development of the roleand functions of the Tsadik as the two-way bridge between the mundaneand the spiritual (the community and G‑d) are fascinating. Her chapter“Mystical Spirituality and Autonomous Leadership” gives profoundinsights into the threat that Hasidic thinking posed to the establishedtraditional/mitnagidic authorities. And views from well-known andhighly regarded Hasidic masters of the 18th and 19th centuries thatElior cites on such issues as: autonomy of judgment; our ability toascertain “truth”; who has real knowledge of the Divine will; and,change in traditions and traditional interpretations in response tocommunal needs and the current times might well sound shockingly modernand compatible with non-Orthodox denominational approaches to traditionand Halacha.
Glenn Dynner’s book focuses on the historical development ofHasidism in Central Poland from the mid 18th century into the mid 19thcentury. The enormous range of the documents available to him fromHasidic, non-Hasidic, anti-Hasidic and Polish, non- Jewish sources ofthis period helps Dynner paint a fascinating portrait of Hasidism andits prominent zadikkim, one that is quite a bit less“other-worldly” focused than Elior presents. Here we see power brokersand community builders, successfully battling assaults from theirnon-Hasidic co-religionists as well as from the anti-religious Maskilim—and succeeding on many levels. You’ll read with wonderment about howkey Hasidic figures fought off attempts to block their development ofsynagogues, study houses, or informal “synagogues” without havingobtained prior appropriate regulatory approvals. They rallied as wellagainst assaults claiming everything from unholy and/or raucous behaviorto excessive focus on snaring the coffers of far-too vulnerableadolescents and young women. Dynner has fascinating sections on theabilities of Hasidic leaders to gain support with both the Jewishmercantile society and within the non-Jewish, Polish governingauthorities. Varying approaches to creating dynasties, successionstrategies, and facilitating the most important marriages for themselvesor their children to strengthen and/or create claims for important Yichus,are also discussed. Dynner even delves into the dominant role that theprinting of Hasidic texts had on the overall face of Jewish printing andpublications during this period. Appendices, bibliography, glossary,indexes, and notes.