Members of the Ger dynasty (Photo/Wikipedia)
Members of the Ger dynasty (Photo/Wikipedia)

Hefty tome on ‘Hasidism’ packs historical wallop

The first thing one notices about “Hasidism: A New History” is that this is one large book. At 811 pages, not including bibliography and index, it’s a behemoth — so big that it literally took a committee to write.

“This could not have been done by one person. The knowledge required demanded a team,” said David Biale, the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish history professor at UC Davis and one of the eight scholars who, together over a four-year period, researched and wrote this tremendous tome.

Published Dec. 11 by Princeton University Press, it’s not only the most comprehensive look to date at the history and culture of this multifaceted Jewish pietistic movement from its 18th-century origins to the present, it’s also the only book of its kind. Given the growing interest in Hasidism, particularly Chabad, among American Jews today, that’s quite astonishing.

“A great deal has been written about the 18th century, and a fair amount has been written about the late 20th century, but there’s been very little about the 19th century, and that’s when the movement explodes and becomes a mass movement,” Biale said, noting that each of the scholars involved in the project brought expertise in a different area, from theology to social history to politics.

David Biale
David Biale

From the germ of an idea conceived by Tel Aviv University Jewish history professor David Assaf, the core group of scholars came together 10 years ago and, with a grant from the Germany-based Fritz Thyssen Foundation, spent four summers holed up together at the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture in Leipzig.

Biale, who was brought in as the project organizer, knew that he didn’t want the book to be an encyclopedia of Hasidism, or an anthology of essays written by different authors, but a collaborative undertaking. This, he knew, would be a grand experiment. While many scientists are used to working in teams, collaboration is a rarity in the humanities.

Beginning in the summer of 2011, the eight scholars worked in three teams, each assigned to a different century. Each team sat in one office, talking and writing all day. The teams read and critiqued each other’s work, revising and editing along the way. And at the end of the process, Biale rewrote the entire manuscript — several times, in fact — to give the book one, unified voice.

“On the train to Leipzig that first summer, I said, I have no idea if this will work,” Biale recalled. “I only knew a couple of the people. Could they work together? Would the personalities clash?”

Within the first month, however, the participants “developed a real esprit de corps. We really bonded,” Biale said. “We’d take trips around the country together.”

And, he notes, they brought something unique to the German academic institution housing them. “Being that we were American Jews, Israelis and a Pole, there was a lot of yelling,” he said. “In the rest of the institute, you could hear a pin drop.”

Ahasidim-cover

“Hasidism: A New History” is extraordinary, and not just because of the enormity of the undertaking and the unusual way in which it was produced.

The book is notable for smashing various well-worn myths about Hasidism, and presenting new insights that place the movement at the center of European Jewish history, a major shaper of that history rather than a marginal aberration.

Already on page one, the first myth is shattered, when the Baal Shem Tov — considered the 18th-century founder of Hasidism — is revealed not as an unlearned, itinerant teller of tales, which is how he appears in the dominant narrative, but as a Jewish communal employee and upstanding member of his community. (They have the tax rolls to prove it, Biale notes).

And rather than being in economic and social decline, the Eastern European Jewish community of that era is shown to be increasingly stable and prosperous, leading readers to question another trope: that Hasidism caught on because the Jewish people were desperate. Not so, this book argues, and then proceeds to chronicle not just the fights between the early Hasidic rebbes and the mitnagdim, their Orthodox opponents, but Hasidism’s deep involvement in secular politics beginning in the 19th century.

By the middle of that century, Hasidism was the dominant form of Judaism in more than a few places in Eastern Europe, particularly eastern Galicia and parts of Ukraine. This growth in numbers and political power had profound impact upon the movement; what emerged in the late 18th century as a radical response to modernity and a revolution in Jewish thought and practice became by the turn of the 20th century the Jewish community’s main bulwark of conservative resistance to change — more like the Hasidism we know today.

All of this has implications for the future. After near decimation in the Holocaust, which wiped out many Hasidic courts and forced others into exile, Hasidism in the second half of the 20th century regenerated itself in North America and Israel, and is now enjoying what this book calls a “second Golden Age.”

There are, Biale claims, some 750,000 Hasidim around the world, and even those sects that maintain social insularity regularly interact with the outside world economically and politically. How will this affect Judaism as a whole? Given the high birth rates of Hasidic families, as well as the closeness of their communities, will Hasidism become dominant once again?

That’s already happening in Brooklyn and Israel, Biale points out. In New York City, Hasidim tend to vote as a bloc, according to their rebbes’ instructions; and in Israel, they are a very important part of the landscape, with hundreds of thousands living on state-provided welfare.

Another striking aspect of this book is its lack of polemics. While some of the authors’ interpretations might be unique, they are not made to promote or denigrate the movement.

“That wasn’t our purpose,” Biale said. “This was an attempt to understand how the phenomenon emerged, why it’s unprecedented in Jewish history, and why people should see a depth in it beyond guys walking around Brooklyn in long black coats.

“Our underlying argument is that Hasidism is part of modern Jewish history, not just an anti-modern phenomenon. It’s an important component of that history, and a shaper of it.”

“Hasidism: A New History” by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv and Marcin Wodziński (896 pages, Princeton University Press). David Biale will discuss the book at 4 p.m. Jan. 21 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Free, advance registration required. Also 5:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Magnes, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.