Book Review: Studying Hasidism

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Book Review: Studying Hasidism: Sources, Methods, Perspectives, edited by Marcin Wodzinski (Rutgers University Press), 303 pp.
Reviewed by Zvi Leshem

Just when we thought that Marcin Wodzinski of the University of Wroclaw had succeeded in convincing us that the methodologies of the social historian were a much needed additive to the study of Hasidism through the prism of Intellectual History (see my recent Tradition review of two of Wodzinski’s recent works of scholarship,Questions and Cartography: Recent Trends in Hasidic Historiography”) the Polish historian has surprised us once again.

Studying Hasidism is a very different work than its predecessors, and brings a whole new layer to the discussion regarding the research of Hasidism. Firstly, it is not a work of Wodzinski alone. It is a volume that he edited (and contributed the introduction and several chapters) of methodological essays by a wide assortment of scholars in the field of Hasidic thought and social history. In his introduction, Wodzinski refers to the work several times as a “textbook,” identifying its target audience as both students and scholars. In this sense the book also serves to complete the project begun in the first two, more popular works. The book’s early chapters begin with more commonly known aspects of the Hasidic corpus (Homilies, Halakha, and Stories), moves into non-Hasidic sources pertaining to Hasidism (Mitnagdim and Maskilim), continues with less explored genres (Ego-Documents, Folk Narratives, Archives and Press) and concludes with the more esoteric topics of Iconography, Music, Material Culture, and Big Data. For some of us even the first perusal of the table of contents will require a quick glance at the dictionary in order to understand what aspect of the humanities or social sciences is being discussed.

The methodological uniqueness of this work is best understood through the structure of each chapter, which includes, sandwiched between the main body of text and the footnotes, both an example or case study which is analyzed in depth utilizing the methodology which had been discussed in that particular chapter, as well as a section of suggested reading, which is annotated with an eye to helping the reader make use of the sources (including online data bases). The main body of each chapter often delves into the “state of the research” as well. The purpose of this rather unusual organizational pattern is four-fold, according to Wodzinski’s introduction. Firstly, the book seeks the deconstruction of stereotypes which are found in Hasidic studies. This has to do with a more critical approach to later collections of Hasidic legends and hagiographical works, which Wodzinski terms a “neopositivist vision of historiography” which seeks to uncover “an empirical reality beyond the text.” Put more simply, a critical re-examination of Hasidic legends, which have sometimes been accepted as historical by scholars, by confronting them with contemporary evidence which in the past has been ignored. 

Secondly, to enhance our ability to use traditional source material in a more reliable fashion. In this context there is a stress on expanding the use of archival materials. For example, Moshe Rosman’s 1979 discovery of the Besht’s mention in the local tax records of Miedyboz as detailed in his book Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov signaled a major shift in the research of early Hasidism. For Wodzinski, this discovery, while decades old, still stands out as the classic example of how the use of archival material can radically alter our perceptions and worldview regarding Hasidism and its origins.

Thirdly, promoting the use of classic tools of critical editing of sources and linguistic analysis of texts. Here Wodzinski references Daniel Reiser’s recent critical edition of the Holocaust drashot of R. Kalonymus Kalmus Shapira of Piaseczna (Aish Kodesh) based upon his use of the original manuscript from the Ringelblum Archive in Warsaw. Reiser’s Derashot miShenot haZa’am is beginning to revolutionize our understanding of the Piaserczner’s Holocaust theology.

And, finally, expanding the range of the categories of sources available for research. This is perhaps the widest category, since it in a sense includes many of the very diverse topics of the later chapters of this book. Whether we are discussing Levi Cooper’s contribution on the nature of Hasidic works of Halakhah, Wodzinski’s own chapter of “Ego-Documents,” David Assaf’s chapter on the press, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern on archives, Edwin Seroussi’s chapter on music, or Vladimir Levin’s on “Material Culture,” among the others, we are entering deep waters in the academic study of Hasidism that until recently remained largely uncharted.

We will now examine a couple of sample chapters as exemplary of the book as a whole. Chapter one, “Homilies” by Gadi Sagiv of the Open University (pp. 18-33), deals with one of the most basic genres of Hasidic literature: the sermonic material. Sagiv begins his analysis by informing us that we need to view the homilies in the context of other Hasidic literary material and he lists the following genres: letters, conduct literature, legalistic writing, commentaries, autobiographies, and systematic theological-ethical treatises. In his estimation, the Hasidic homily should be viewed as well within the context of Jewish homiletical literature (sifrut ha-derush). While this may sound obvious, the point is to position Hasidic literature not only in relation to its own genres, but also in the broader historical context of the prior Jewish canon.  Thus from the beginning it is clear that a Hasidic source should be looked at within two parallel contexts, that of Hasidic literature and that of general Jewish literature. He then points to four different directions in the scholarly approaches to Hasidic homilies: theological-mystical, historical, philological, and performative. By way of example, Sagiv analyzes one famous teaching of the Maggid of Mezrich, demonstrating how different academic scholars of earlier generations (Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer, Gershom Scholem, Moshe Idel, and Arthur Green) all interpreted it through the prism of their own scholarly perspectives on Hasidism as a whole. Sagiv’s conclusions have a lot to say about the overall direction the book takes (and also echoes my own assessments of Wodzinski’s previous works):

The role these sources have played in the research of Hasidism is so central that social historians sometimes claim that Hasidic teachings were overemphasized by scholars of Hasidic thought, who often neglected other kinds of sources. Conversely, social historians are often accused of oversimplifying the religious message embedded in Hasidic homilies. It seems that a more balanced and integrative approach is recommended. The ideas conveyed in these discourses are crucial to understanding the ethos of Hasidism, but these ideas cannot be researched without paying heed to their historical and social contexts.

Moving on to a second example, from a very different genre, is David Assaf’s chapter “Press” (pp. 164-177). Assaf, from Tel-Aviv University, begins by surveying the Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers which were published beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century or early twentieth century. Jumping ahead, he concludes with a detailed account of three current online databases, “Historical Jewish Press (JPress),” “Yiddish Press Index,” and “New Sources for the Research of Hasidism: The Hebrew Press in Eastern Europe.” Assaf guides the reader in the strengths and weaknesses of each and in how to optimize their use in current research. Assaf is keenly aware of the need to treat these sources with a good measure of skepticism, as they were, after all, published mostly by Maskilim, and often had a clearly anti-Hasidic agenda. (This should be compared with Wodzinski’s own chapter on Maskilim, pp. 91-107). In general, is the different chapters are best read intertextually, as many clearly complement each other. Nonetheless, in Assaf’s estimation, “These newspapers and journals… all of which have been digitized and scanned and are easily accessible via the Internet… contain valuable and as yet untapped information about Hasidism and its world.” Here, Assaf is right on target. After reading his chapter I sent his list of the three online databases to a colleague who is doing research for a biography of the Piaseczner Rebbe. I knew that he makes extensive use of the contemporary Jewish press and had made some significant discoveries there. It turned out that he had been basing his searches on JPress alone and was delighted to be informed of additional tools for uncovering even more journalistic sources.

Returning to the newspapers themselves, Assaf points out that as time went on they generally began to make room for a greater variety of opinions, not all of them negative. Thus in his estimation, “A survey of these sources offers a more balanced picture of the complex relationship between maskilim and Hasidism than we derive from the traditional sources.” Taking a deeper look we also learn that the genre “press” encompasses quite a wide variety of sub-genres which include: Editorials, opinion pieces, news reporting, translations, literature, original historical documents, and obituaries of Tzaddikim. Additionally, as Assaf points out, there is often important information hidden in advertisements, including some pertaining to Hasidic groups or batei midrash that took part in Zionistic activities. We even find advertisements placed by Tzaddikim or their families offering insurance services! This information, which sheds light on the economic status of Hasidic leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, has no parallel in other sources. Assaf also points to another advantage of utilizing the press in Hasidic studies: it highlights an oft-neglected period in Hasidic research. Traditionally the major bulk of academic scholarship has concentrated on the first few generations of Hasidism and neglected later trends, as was pointed out in detail by Wodzinski in Hasidism: Key Questions. However, from a sociological and demographic perspective, it is the nineteenth century, not the eighteenth, which should be seen as Hasidism’s “golden era.” It is precisely regarding this later stage that the journalistic accounts are so very rich. Another methodological turn here, also discussed in Key Questions and demonstrated visually in the Historical Atlas of Hasidism, is that, in Assaf’s words, “This information expands the traditional research that focused on tsaddikim and their courts, to include Hasidim who lived on the Hasidic periphery.” In other words, the social historian, as opposed to the scholar of intellectual history or of Jewish Thought, is interested, not only in what the leadership was saying and writing, but in the actual lives of the rank and file. This neatly sums up one major aspect of the recent trend in scholarship that Wodzinski, Assaf, and others have been leading, and that Studying Hasidism is part of.

Before concluding it is important to take a look at part of the editor’s contribution to the volume as well. Wodzinski authored, in addition to the introduction, the chapters on “Maskilim,” “Ego-Documents,” and “Big-Data.” Since documents from the Jewish Enlightenment are relatively well-known, and “Big Data” is, in my reading, a bit of a summary of some of the findings previously published in the Atlas and in Key Questions, we’ll take a look at the chapter on Ego-Documents (pp. 108-126). An ego-document is defined as: “Any text in which the personal life and experiences of the author play an important and central role, including, but not limited to diaries, travel logs, autobiographies and memoirs.” For Wodzinski, regarding Hasidism, this includes the following subcategories: Those written by external observers; memoirs of Hasidism themselves, which are sometimes written with a clearly apologetic thrust; and memoirs of former Hasidism. In relation to all of them Wodzinski’s guiding assumption is that “there is no such thing as an objective source, and each one must be subjected to the same thorough analysis.” The best known example of the first category is The Autobiography of Salomon Maimon, in which Maimon recounts his visit to the court of the Maggid of Mezrich. Memoirs of Hasidim include a small number of autobiographical works by Tzaddikim themselves, including those of R. Natan of Nemirov (R. Nahman of Breslov’s scribe), R. Yitzhak Isaac Yehuda Yehiel of Komarno, and R. Yosef Yizhak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Another rich sub-genre mentioned by Wodzinski is “memorial books” (Yizkor Books), of which some 800 volumes have been published, comprising some 350,000 pages of text! Amongst other material these books generally contain memoirs and accounts of former residents of the destroyed communities, including many Hasidic ones. This massive corpus, written in numerous languages, offers special challenges to the researcher that are enumerated by Wodzinski along with some directions for future analysis.

The case study of this chapter deals with a little known but vicious conflict in the provincial capital of Plock, central Poland, in 1867. A severe dispute broke out between the “misnagdic” town Rabbi, R. Azriel Aryeh Leib Rakowski (Plotsker) (1822-1893) and the local Hasidim. Rakowski was appointed in 1863, replacing the former Hasidic Rabbi Eleazer ha-Kohen Leipziger (1791-1881), who was suspended from his position after a conflict with the local community and suspicion of “abuses” (Wodzinski doesn’t elaborate). The new appointment infuriated the local Hasidim who decided to make the new Rabbi’s life miserable. He was subjected to threats, false accusations (both of being a maskil and of sexual impropriety with a Christian woman) and embarrassments, ridicule, and even violence. In the end they won and the Rabbi left just four years after his appointment for a new position in Lomza. What does this have to do with ego-documents? While we have some vague information about the conflict in archival materials, the main source for the above account is a memoir written by R. Rakowski’s granddaughter, the Zionist and feminist educator, translator and author, Puah Rakovsky (1865-1955). Thus this account serves as a classic example of what Wodzinski describes as the “triangulation of historical evidence, verification and falsification of primary sources vis-à-vis other historical evidence, ad simply a greater degree of historical nuance.”

Studying Hasidism is certainly a valuable tool for both scholars and advanced students of Hasidism. It goes beyond the editor’s previous works in not only laying out a vision of what direction the historical analysis of Hasidism can take, by actually providing systematic tools with which to do so. The degree of teamwork in producing a volume of this sort is also impressive, for the chapters not only complement each other, but in fact really complete each other in terms of the methodological picture that emerges from the whole. This is of course a clear sign of good editing that goes beyond stylistic consistency, and the sum is truly greater than the whole of its parts. Given the new perspectives and tools arrayed in Studying Hasidism, together with the many other recent books in the field, it will be fascinating to watch the development of Hasidic research in the years to come.

Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem directs the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Read his recent TRADITION essays and reviews here.

[Published on December 10, 2019]

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