Hasidism: A New History

Hasidism: A New History
David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodzinski
Princeton University Press, 2018


New from Princeton University Press is a mammoth volume (slightly oversized, so it's 850 pages would likely make 1200 pages in a customary hardcover) draped in sepia tones: Hasidism: A New History, which traces this ultra-conservative sect of Judaism from its beginnings in Enlightenment-era Ukraine under the vision of Israel ben Eli'ezer and his disciples throughout its history right down to the 21st century. “Given its great importance to understanding Jews in the modern world,” writes David Biale, one of the team of editors who brought this impressive book together, “it is surprising that a comprehensive history of the movement from its eighteenth-century origins to the present day does not exist.”

This is a doubly odd declaration, obviously. Given the structural tendency of Hasidism to fracture into dozens of dynastic “courts,” each headed by a rebbe who handed his authority down along patrilineal lines (with all the inevitable familial complications detailed in the Book of Judges) over centuries and across all of Europe, it's not, in fact, actually surprising that even Jewish scholars might be wary of attempting a comprehensive history – this Princeton volume has eight names on it and could easily be twice its already generous length. And that length and detail is being produced despite the fact that Hasidism by its very nature isn't of “great importance to understanding Jews in the modern world.”  How could it be otherwise, when there are at most 500,000 Hasidic Jews in a worldwide Jewish population of nearly 16 million? At most, Hasidism can only be a comprehensive history of charismatic splinter-group of Judaism.

This big Princeton volume is certainly that, and more: it's absorbing reading throughout. The authors craft unfailingly engaging personal portraits of the many tsaddikim who arose in the movement and led their congregations in study of early texts of the Kabbalah and other magical traditions, in the open meetings and often ecstatic communal meetings. The dogma and writings that flowed in a virtually unending torrent from the architects and adherents of Hasidism are given detailed consideration that increasingly seems nearly miraculous, given the sheer amount of material the authors are covering. 

Likewise the openness of the early Hasidic experience, a logistical nightmare to trace and explain, is brought clearly to light: “But even before the self-definition of each Hasidic group fully crystallized, anyone who wanted to experience Hasidism, even if merely out of curiosity or spiritual adventurism, could visit the tsaddikim, join the rituals and public events, or adopt an appealing Hasidic custom.”

The authors are optimistic about the adaptations of Hasidism to the modern world – unwarrantedly optimistic, given the organizational momentums involved. “Although the modern, interconnected world, which this post-Holocaust Hasidism tried to keep out, seeped into their cloistered communities, as the twenty-first century dawned, there were signs of cultural and social change,” the authors write. “Some tried to ignore it, or to characterize the change as continuity. Others fought it tooth and nail.” 

The strongest impression a reader is likely to take away from Hasidism is the impression of that tooth-and-nail fight for tradition against the invading forces of modernity. And even if that fight is not the whole story, it's nevertheless an amazing story, one shot through with persecution and revelation, played out against the governmental and ideological convulsions that gave rise to the modern world. A book that captures that story in so magisterial a way as this one is an amazement. All such future studies will owe an enormous debt to this one.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.