The Mys­ti­cal Ori­gins of Hasidism

Rachel Elior; Shalom Carmy, trans.
  • Review
By – March 30, 2012

In review­ing two schol­ar­ly books on Hasidism, one is imme­di­ate­ly con­front­ed with a world that is com­plex, intense­ly spir­i­tu­al, mys­ti­cal, and oth­er-world focused — a far cry from the Chelm-like danc­ing Hasidic world often por­trayed in the movies. But it is also a world that is very typ­i­cal for any new move­ment,” and thus is also dif­fer­ent from the always pious and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly insight­ful image often con­veyed from clas­sic Hasidic tales we are used to read­ing or hear­ing from count­less Jew­ish speakers. 

Rachel Elior’s The Mys­ti­cal Ori­gins of Hasidism grap­ples with not only the his­tor­i­cal and soci­o­log­i­cal milieu of the devel­op­ment and growth of Hasidism, but most impor­tant­ly focus­es on its the­o­log­i­cal and mys­ti­cal foun­da­tions. Framed with­in a per­spec­tive of the ear­li­er Kab­bal­ists and the rise and fall/​apostasy of Sha­betai Tse­vi with its enor­mous and far reach­ing impact on world Jew­ry, Elior gives the read­er a glimpse into the world of Hasidism as con­cep­tu­al­ized by the Baal Shem Tov, Dov Baer of Mezhirech, Elim­elech of Lyzhan­sk, Jacob Joseph of Polon­noye, Shneur Zal­man of Lyady, Nach­man of Brat­slav, The Seer of Lublin, and Mena­hem Mendel of Kotzk to name but a few. Chap­ters on the Hasidic con­cept of lan­guage, the uni­ty of oppo­sites, and tran­scend­ing being are par­tic­u­lar­ly com­plex. One won­ders whether these per­spec­tives were ever real­ly part of the day-to-day inner think­ing of the aver­age” Hasid. Elior’s per­spec­tives on the devel­op­ment of the role and func­tions of the Tsadik as the two-way bridge between the mun­dane and the spir­i­tu­al (the com­mu­ni­ty and G‑d) are fas­ci­nat­ing. Her chap­ter Mys­ti­cal Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and Autonomous Lead­er­ship” gives pro­found insights into the threat that Hasidic think­ing posed to the estab­lished traditional/​mit­nagidic author­i­ties. And views from well-known and high­ly regard­ed Hasidic mas­ters of the 18th and 19th cen­turies that Elior cites on such issues as: auton­o­my of judg­ment; our abil­i­ty to ascer­tain truth”; who has real knowl­edge of the Divine will; and, change in tra­di­tions and tra­di­tion­al inter­pre­ta­tions in response to com­mu­nal needs and the cur­rent times might well sound shock­ing­ly mod­ern and com­pat­i­ble with non-Ortho­dox denom­i­na­tion­al approach­es to tra­di­tion and Halacha. 

Glenn Dynner’s book focus­es on the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of Hasidism in Cen­tral Poland from the mid 18th cen­tu­ry into the mid 19th cen­tu­ry. The enor­mous range of the doc­u­ments avail­able to him from Hasidic, non-Hasidic, anti-Hasidic and Pol­ish, non- Jew­ish sources of this peri­od helps Dyn­ner paint a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait of Hasidism and its promi­nent zadikkim, one that is quite a bit less oth­er-world­ly” focused than Elior presents. Here we see pow­er bro­kers and com­mu­ni­ty builders, suc­cess­ful­ly bat­tling assaults from their non-Hasidic co-reli­gion­ists as well as from the anti-reli­gious Mask­il­im— and suc­ceed­ing on many lev­els. You’ll read with won­der­ment about how key Hasidic fig­ures fought off attempts to block their devel­op­ment of syn­a­gogues, study hous­es, or infor­mal syn­a­gogues” with­out hav­ing obtained pri­or appro­pri­ate reg­u­la­to­ry approvals. They ral­lied as well against assaults claim­ing every­thing from unholy and/​or rau­cous behav­ior to exces­sive focus on snar­ing the cof­fers of far-too vul­ner­a­ble ado­les­cents and young women. Dyn­ner has fas­ci­nat­ing sec­tions on the abil­i­ties of Hasidic lead­ers to gain sup­port with both the Jew­ish mer­can­tile soci­ety and with­in the non-Jew­ish, Pol­ish gov­ern­ing author­i­ties. Vary­ing approach­es to cre­at­ing dynas­ties, suc­ces­sion strate­gies, and facil­i­tat­ing the most impor­tant mar­riages for them­selves or their chil­dren to strength­en and/​or cre­ate claims for impor­tant Yichus, are also dis­cussed. Dyn­ner even delves into the dom­i­nant role that the print­ing of Hasidic texts had on the over­all face of Jew­ish print­ing and pub­li­ca­tions dur­ing this peri­od. Appen­dices, bib­li­og­ra­phy, glos­sary, index­es, and notes. 

William Liss-Levin­son is vice pres­i­dent, chief strat­e­gy & oper­a­tions offi­cer of Cas­tle Con­nol­ly Med­ical Ltd., a con­sumer health research, infor­ma­tion, and pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny. He holds a Ph.D. in edu­ca­tion and is a mem­ber of the board of direc­tors of the Jew­ish Book Council.

Discussion Questions