At one point he extracted the soul of a sinner from a frog. In another case, an alleged madwoman possessed by a dybbuk (the nomadic spirit of a malefactor undergoing posthumous punishment) challenged the Besht, who’d approached her as part of a rabbinic delegation, by pointing out that he did not meet the minimum age requirement for performing the magical rite of exorcism. The Besht calmly told the spirit to take stock of the mess he’d made. Just leave the woman alone, and all of us will study on your behalf, the Besht said. After he’d persuaded the spirit to privately give him his name, thereby proving he was serious about curtailing the dybbuk’s mortification, it meekly departed. In addition to expelling dybbuks and demons, there were numerous less sensational treatments the Besht offered, including one purporting to buoy the heart and fortify the brain through an elixir that was guaranteed not to cause diarrhea.
But more than all the miracles he could perform, the Besht’s influence grew so expansively because of the radical gloss on Kabbalah he disseminated, and the striking parables through which he communicated the essentials of his theology. As encapsulated by the eight authors of the enormously informative, monumental volume, Hasidism: A New History, the Besht’s primary revelation — achieved in the course of an ecstatic union with the Absolute — was that there was nowhere and nothing devoid of God’s presence. Mundane being was an illusion: “Everything offered a path to communion with the divinity,” the authors write. Many core principles of Hasidism derived from this overarching insight, “worship through corporality, rejection of asceticism, divine providence, and the positive role of evil in the world” among them.
While the idea of God’s all-pervading being had already been formulated in an important 16th-century appendix to the Zohar — arguably the most significant Kabbalistic work of all time — the Besht pushed this notion to the brink of full-blown pantheism. Every feature of human experience was now said to contain the Divine Presence, from drab worldly labors to euphoric love-making. Rather than separating themselves from the material realm, the faithful were enjoined to pursue the longed-for union with God by maximizing their worldly engagement. Indeed, since everything was imbued with God’s spirit, all the traditional divisions between the holy and profane collapsed, including the separation between soul and body, which had played such a prominent role in theology’s long struggle to distinguish good from evil.
This is not to say that for the Besht every carnal activity was automatically sacred, but that it had the potential to become so. Humanity’s mission on earth was to make this implicit holiness manifest. Hence, rather than denying the body’s desires, the pious were charged with elevating those needs. If one experienced, say, a surge of lustful thoughts one might seek to perceive these as allegorical placeholders for the yearning to unite with God, thereby enacting the Besht’s notion that so-called evil was only God’s tool to help humanity reach the good. Working, playing, eating, and sexual activity were all opportunities for consecrating the mundane through kavvanah, righteous intentionality. Instead of puritanical withdrawal, in the Besht’s version of Judaism the devout would fulfill their spiritual mission through a highly mindful simha — great happiness.
Confronting the tendency of some of his disciples to revert to ascetic practices such as fasting, the Besht wrote: “God’s Presence will not be inspired out of sorrow, but only out of the joy of performing the commandments.” Given the widespread impression of Jewish law as a formally exacting, emotionally detached set of responsibilities dictated by cerebral, stern rabbinic authorities — teachers spoke of the obligation to “accept the yoke of the commandments” — the Besht’s emphasis on simha was fertile and subversive.
The intensely physical approach to Judaism championed by the Besht found public expression in his manner of praying, which began with violent trembling accompanied by loud utterances, bulging eyes, and a burning face, then segued into wholesale ecstatic gyrations. This flamboyant devotional style proved infectious to his followers. (Hasidism in fact means piety, referring in rabbinic and medieval literature to exceptionally devout individuals — “saints”; but in time coming to designate disciples as well.) Feeling called upon to explain to those around him what was happening in his convulsive supplications, the Besht delivered a parable that remains telling for the greater Hasidic endeavor.
There was someone who played a fine musical instrument melodiously and with great tenderness. And those who heard him could not contain themselves for all the melodiousness and delight to the point where they would dance almost to the ceiling owing to the greatness of the delight and satisfaction and melodiousness. And anyone who was nearby and who would draw still closer in so as to hear this musical instrument would receive greater delight and would dance all the more mightily. And during this there came a deaf man who could not hear at all the sound of the melodious musical instrument, but only saw the impassioned dance of the people; they seemed to him insane.
The parable ends with the deaf man wondering what all this gladness could be achieving and the Besht reporting that if the deaf man had been able to discern the cause of the happiness he would have been dancing also. Through all its different iterations, Hasidic leaders have preserved variants of this distinction between those blessed with access to the melodious sound of the heavenly instrument, and those for whom that glorious music is on mute.
The Besht intended the parable as an invitation to people who might view his writhing prayer as madness to listen harder for the divine strains he and his followers were already tuned into. But in a theology otherwise so exultantly dedicated to erasing boundaries and finding the Divine Presence everywhere, this story also reveals the nagging exception to that admirably porous view of God’s bounty: the barrier between those inside and outside their community. The Besht’s poignant parable would not sound out of place on the lips of a cult leader cajoling proselytes to crawl into his bubble with the assurance that once there all the creepy weirdness will reveal its true beauty.
In recent times, in some of the most populous centers of Hasidism, notably the domain of the Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn and elsewhere, the more sinister cultish side of Hasidism has been on prominent display. With their notorious history of closing ranks around male community members guilty of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and various types of financial criminality, the Satmars have, in effect, revised the Besht’s cardinal insight that everything can become a route to God to something more like, “Everything outside our community is irrelevant, exploitable, or a path to mortal sin.” It’s a dramatic retreat from the Besht’s world-embracing, profoundly joyous vision of Judaism. But as Hasidism reveals, some of the dangerous, structural tensions in the Hasidic project were there from the start.
In truth, for all that the Besht’s teachings proved central to the formation of Hasidism, he himself can’t be considered the movement’s creator for the simple reason that no movement existed during his lifetime. The title was assigned him retroactively by the next generation of disciples to foment his ideas. Rather than viewing the Besht as a singular founding figure, the authors of Hasidism propose that he be seen as an influential representative of a larger spiritual revolution that unfolded over the latter half of the 18th century. And one of the book’s key arguments is that, for all its religious zeal, this revolution, far from being simply a recoil from the Enlightenment, took shape in a vexed, but animated conversation with modernity. Like the fundamentalist movements of our era, Hasidism was never really a retrenchment to some archaic, original form of Judaism untainted by compromise; it was, rather, a complex reinterpretation of the religion’s essential nature that took account of everything from secularism to broader cultural trends favoring greater enfranchisement of the public. As the writers note, Hasidism’s successful creation of a genuine mass movement was an entirely novel event in Jewish history, which should be grouped conceptually with more secular endeavors as part of the multifaceted phenomenon of post-Enlightenment Judaism.
Many of the ideas and practices that came to define Hasidism as a distinct movement were extrapolated from older layers of Jewish mystical thought. But the Hasidic leaders personalized and psychologized these doctrines with theories of self-realization largely absent from their kabbalistic antecedents. Where the early Kabbalists had focused on collective Jewish aspirations and destiny, a substantial part of Hasidic mystical thought is concerned with devotional prescriptions for individual elevation.
When the realm of speculative mysticism that became known as “Kabbalah” began to take shape in Southern France and Spain in the 13th century, it was, according to the field’s foremost scholar, Gershom Scholem, reintroducing a stratum of energizing mythological conceits into Judaism. Before Kabbalah, mythic imagery involving elements such as anthropomorphism of the divine or demonology was viewed as antithetical to Jewish monotheism. In Scholem’s gloss, until the first kabbalists began composing their explosive commentaries, the religion’s institutional gatekeepers had focused on narrow, rationalistic readings of the sacred literature, which risked distilling Judaism into a bloodless abstraction. By the time of Kabbalah’s heyday in the 16th century, Scholem argues, its leading theologians were creatively engaging with traumatic aspects of Jewish history (the Spanish Expulsion first and foremost) that had been neglected by mainstream rabbinic commentary; thereby producing a highly sophisticated symbolic discourse that both crystallized and elevated the Jewish plight. Sufferings and passions that made up everyday life were given profound significance in a body of thought that both fit the Jewish community’s woes into a grand meta-historical schema and made the individual believer an active agent in a new kind of mythic drama aimed at repairing the universe. The Kabbalah of teachers like Rabbi Isaac Luria persuaded the politically impotent Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe that certain rituals undertaken with kavvanah conferred on practitioners a revolutionary power that could swerve the course of history. The perennial desire to hasten the people’s deliverance could now be channeled through a devotional system that couched its innovative elements in daring interpretations of the traditional canon.
But for all that they might have been addressing the cravings and terrors of the Jewish masses, Kabbalistic manuscripts were often forbiddingly dense and demanding. Study of Kabbalah was largely confined to a scholarly elect who, at least in theory, had to pass various benchmarks of maturity and stability before being permitted access to the incendiary mystical texts. While some Kabbalistic ideas were popularized, the leading Kabbalists themselves retained an aura of esotericism and exclusivity. In this sense, the revolutionary Kabbalistic ennoblement of ordinary human experience was circumscribed by the elitism of the mystics themselves.
By contrast, the Besht boasted no higher rabbinic learning, and the circle that formed around him subordinated the value of erudition to religious enthusiasm. The Kabbalistic ideas his adherents promoted were notable for their visceral popular appeal, such as methodologies for spiritual ascension to the heavens and union with God. Rather than being tasked with mastering the allusive labyrinth of abstruse texts, Hasidic leaders gave fresh emphasis to magical-mystical techniques for manipulating the letters in the Hebrew alphabet that dispensed altogether with the meaning of words. No less importantly for the movement’s long-term sustainability, Hasidism displaced the Messianic strains of Lurianic Kabbalah from the national plane onto the sphere of individual consciousness. For instance, Barukh ben Avraham of Kosow, an old-style pietist on the periphery of the Besht’s circle, contended that the language of Lurianic Kabbalah, while apparently narrating cosmic events, referred just to thought processes. Barukh “turned Luria’s ontological and theological categories into descriptions of psychological states,” write Hasidism’s authors. In Scholem’s analysis, this transformation was key to how the movement neutralized the seditious and sublime features of Jewish messianic desire.
Instead of fostering a nascent political consciousness, as Lurianic Kabbalah had done in the communal upheaval surrounding Sabbatai Tzvi (an infamous false messiah of the 17th century), Hasidic Kabbalah expressed its radicalism by disrupting the intra-Jewish hierarchy of authority. Throughout Jewish history, study and learning, along with scholarly lineage, served as the primary avenues to power. By shifting the religion’s emphasis to experiential communion with God, Hasidism “democratized Jewish worship,” and moved the religion’s spiritual axis from textual knowledge to emotional prayer.
However, this democratization did not herald the rise of a more egalitarian society on earth. While the religious ardor that Hasidism prioritized in synagogue might have been broadly attainable, this style of worship emerged together with a novel cultural paradigm of even greater bearing for the movement’s future: the emergence of the tsaddik, or “righteous man.” The tsaddikim pioneered the formation of an entirely new social structure in Judaism: the court of the righteous man. Much of Hasidism is dedicated to presenting a granular history of the appearance and growth of these disparate courts, each with its own presiding tsaddik or “rebbe,” at numerous geographical locations, primarily but not exclusively in Eastern Europe and Russia. The archival spadework behind this exposition is vast; the dynasties of these courts have never been mapped in such detail or contextualized so thoroughly.
Each tsaddik, whether he oversaw a small or gigantic court, (some came to number their followers in the tens of thousands), was free to fashion his own vision of Hasidic customs and beliefs. “Not one, but the full range of these ideas must count as constituting Hasidism,” explain the authors. One of the book’s virtues is the comprehensive reckoning it provides with the question of how a movement possessing only the vaguest, most rudimentary core identity could have been so prolifically franchised.
The Besht himself, with his charismatic arsenal of magic, miracles, mystical wisdom, and devotional ecstasies exemplified the type of the tsaddik that the first generations of Hasidic holy men sought to emulate. After his death, the Besht’s disciples began to acquire followers of their own. When this paradigm of powerful holy men surrounded by fervent disciples started to spread, Hasidism proper was born.
As Hasidism reveals, the truisms about Hasidism establishing “a sort of a democratic meritocracy in which the latent potential of the common people is allowed to rise to the top,” are belied by the reality of a rigid “hierarchical structure, which left no room for any sort of mobility into the elite.” The tsaddikim transferred their authority through a dynastic system, supplemented by powerful rabbis from the traditional networks of communal authority.
Even apart from the issue of the extremely limited pool eligible to become a tsaddik, any truly democratic implications of a Jewish modality that privileged prayer over knowledge were swiftly subsumed in a system that positioned the tsaddik as the only point of access to the divine. Hasidim were enjoined to break their hearts in rapturous supplication. “It is the broken heart that smashes through all the locks, taking us directly to our father and to the reward that He seeks to give us,” proclaimed the Maggid of Mezritsh, perhaps the Besht’s most important disciple. But while ecstatic prayer might, in theory, represent a direct path to God accessible to all devout Jews, in practice that path was traversed the full distance only by the tsaddik.
The tsaddikim “served as intercessors,” write the authors, “providing the channels through which their followers could commune with the divine.” Indeed, the Besht himself supposedly remarked of the Maggid: “He doesn’t just know the Torah, he is the Torah.” It’s hardly surprising that the veneration such a stature inspired could veer close to idolatrous reverence. Some of the Hasidic tsaddikim were altruistic, theologically dynamic community advocates; others were crooks, charlatans, and vainglorious petty despots. The institution of the tsaddik was only as benign as the character of its individual representatives.
Ya’akov Yosef, another important follower of the Besht, developed a “biological” model for the tsaddik’s role. He compared society to a human body with its various organs, some more crucial than others. The tsaddik, in this analogy, occupied the position of head, eyes, heart, and soul. Nonetheless, though the tsaddik might be said to have monopolized all the higher parts of the human organism, if any element of this composite body became ill, every other organ suffered. “The tsaddik himself was therefore affected by the problems of even the least significant people,” write the authors. He was unable to rest so long as even a single Hasid was beset by sin, and had to labor unrelentingly to elevate this spiritually enslaved individual. However, according to Yosef, the constant demands of his double obligation to God and the Jewish people were so great that the tsaddik had to be released from all material concerns. The community bore responsibility for catering to the tsaddik’s worldly needs. A tsaddik’s court became the chief setting in which he both attended to the problems of the people and was himself invested by them with the sometimes lavish honoraria befitting his role.
The Maggid was the first Hasid to set up a court. Jews went on pilgrimage to his home village in present-day Poland, where they received his teachings and blessings. After his death in 1772, his disciples created multiple new centers for their own burgeoning retinues at different locations. By the end of the 18th century, the number of Hasidic courts could still be counted in the dozens, but the new type of leadership they represented, bridging all sorts of formerly distinct communal roles, was already attracting attention. Some of this scrutiny from older rabbinic authorities was predictably hostile, but the concept of an accessible holy man, possessing a privileged line of communication to the divine, resonated among large parts of the population, while the frequent dramas around the dynastic succession at these courts carried its own intrigue.
In their formal structure, Hasidic courts often reproduced aspects of the relationship between European nobility and peasants, testifying to the ways Hasidism, even as it proclaimed its hyper-pious, self-sufficient character, was in fact assimilating elements of the surrounding society. Some courts even became beneficiaries of noble patronage, and the most popular tsaddikim acquired sumptuous accessories evocative of the royal courts they were mimicking: carriages and servants, tapestries, ornate furniture, and even the occasional court jester. The image of extravagant courts established in the East European hinterland by wonder-working rebbes and their acolytes — the whole community garbed in distinctive regalia praying feverishly, performing miracles, struggling with natural calamities and rampaging Cossacks — has a dreamlike character that writers like Martin Buber and Isaac Bashevis Singer conveyed to Western Jewish audiences hungry for authenticity. For all that the power they exercised was primarily emotional and mystical, the Hasidim were creating a magnetic kind of Jewish royalty in the sticks.
As the book shows, Hasidism in the 18th century, with its vibrant, eccentric heterogeneity, by and large played the part of a “radical ferment” in the Jewish world. If the transcendent powers of the tsaddikim carried inherent risks, the rough-and-tumble competition between nascent courts, in conjunction with the rapidly evolving, predominantly life-affirming nature of Hasidism’s message to the Jewish people, put checks on the darker, more tyrannical aspects of the movement.
But this phase of Hasidic history was relatively short-lived. Events in the latter half of the 19th century, above all the increasing inroads made by secular culture on religious Jewish identity, transformed Hasidism into a fierce bulwark of tradition. Why a movement that had at first turned outward to the sensual world should prove so susceptible to reversing its focus — shutting out external reality, and renouncing joy for anger and fear — is a complex question that even the 800-plus pages of this volume cannot fully answer. The inordinate power accorded to the tsaddikim was always bound to be perilous, however. With the outside world becoming steadily more menacing to Jews and Judaism, a process culminating in the Holocaust and the metastasizing secular temptations of new media, it’s easy to imagine a closed-minded, passionately conservative rebbe becoming a surrogate for communal mourning on a cosmic scale.
In time, most Hasidic leaders came to identify all forms of innovation with corruption. As Rabbi Simcha Yisakhar Halberstam remarked at the start of the 20th century,
experience has taught us much, that all those who sought to innovate and to eliminate any item from the ancient practice have brought upon us an erosion and destruction of the fundamentals of the faith, and consequently we must not shift even in the slightest and only conduct ourselves as our ancestors have.
It no longer mattered that the ideal behavior of the ancestors was itself quasi-mythical, or that the movement defending this ancient, imaginary essence of the religion was itself a product of modernity. The end result was chillingly intolerant.
Much of Hasidism’s rich variegation was lost in the aggressive campaign to reach a state of total fundamentalism. As the movement became increasingly aligned with Ultraorthodoxy, which shared its cultural antipathies, if not always its approach to prayer or study, Hasidism grew more homogenous still. The tremendous losses suffered by the Hasidic community in the Holocaust reinforced the movement’s most reactionary tendencies.
Hadisim’s radical conservatism plays out on the family front in dictatorial control of sexuality and a rigid gender segregation that usually relegates women to the role of childbearing facilitators for the temple-and-study centered lives of the men. When Hasidic women leave home to work for money, as is increasingly necessary in this poverty-stricken community, it’s so that Hasidic men can perform the real work of service to God. Beyond the longstanding social constraints, Hasidism also describes a “one-upmanship” that’s taken hold in some quarters whereby community members flaunt their respective fundamentalist credentials. If all Hasidic men wear side-locks, some today grow their side-locks longer and longer. If all women are required to cover their hair and bodies with maximal modesty, some women in Hasidic neighborhoods of Jerusalem now wear a burka-like veil over their clothes, in imitation of Islamist female garb. It’s difficult to believe that the lure of the outside world has not grown in tandem with the increasingly punitive approach to piety and life as such. Yet, with its high fertility rate, the Hasidic population continues to grow at a rate well above average. And leaving the folds of the community has proven to be a challenge few people can successfully accomplish.
One of Us — a harrowing documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady — examines the shocking mistreatment of individuals who try to break away from the Satmar community today. One of the film’s subjects is a teenage boy who is brutally raped by an authority figure, abetted by his attendants, at a Hasidic summer camp. The community refuses to address the crime, leaving the young man emotionally broken and pitifully isolated. He feels betrayed by the community, but has none of the education, skills, or relationships that might enable him to build a new existence beyond its purview. Another subject is a woman who, after 12 years in an abusive marriage, tries to leave her husband without losing her children. She is repeatedly physically harassed and threatened by her spouse’s allies. Her husband twice tells her son that he is going to “mow her down.” Shortly thereafter, she is struck and injured in a hit-and-run incident she believes to have been orchestrated by her husband.
“We don’t talk about domestic violence, about hitting kids, about sexual abuse,” the woman says of the Hasidic community. “One Jew is never allowed to hand in another Jew to the authorities for anything.” Doing so, she asserts, is viewed as breaking a religious commandment. Her husband warns her repeatedly that the law of the country doesn’t come into their house. It is an unforgivable violation, she recounts, “to publicize our secrets, our beautiful secrets.”
A counselor working with Footsteps (an organization that provides assistance to people attempting to leave the enclave of the Satmars) describes post-Holocaust Hasidim as a movement built on trauma; the idea of allowing their children contact with the outside world appears to psychologically replicate the threat of communal extermination. But unlike the Hasidim of the 18th or 19th century, today’s Satmar community, because of its high birthrate, and because it votes as a bloc for candidates endorsed by their rebbe, have come to wield significant political power. The Satmars have learned how to use legal loopholes and to hire expensive lawyers to advance their interests, no matter how antithetical these might be to the values ostensibly promoted by the law in a free democratic society.
The woman seeking a divorce in One of Us learns that in New York State a person who wants custody of her children has to maintain the status quo of the children’s life before their parents’ breakup. Because the Hasidim now exist in such a self-enclosed, internally consistent world, it’s virtually impossible to raise the children in a manner reproducing that experience apart from the community itself. If a parent is actively exploring life in the outside world, even if she does not attempt to undermine her children’s religious beliefs, the status quo is implicitly violated. Before the end of One of Us, the mother in question has lost custody of her children. To all appearances, this separation is a tragic injustice in which the state is grossly complicit.
Although in terms of sheer numbers the Satmars constitute the largest surviving Hasidic community, they do not represent the only face of Hasidism today. The young emissary families of the Lubavitchers — Judaism’s only proselytizing movement — are based everywhere from Goa and Shanghai to Stockholm and Rio. They have built a worldwide reputation for offering warm hospitality to strangers, without any overt judgmentalism about their guests’ ways of life. If they can encourage the Jewish beneficiaries of their generosity to perform a single commandment, this is perceived as a step toward tikkun olam, the kabbalistic repair of the world; and if their guests do nothing but accept their hospitality still, they themselves are bringing a joyful blessing into Creation. If one is not troubled by the ulterior motive of saving the universe by nurturing greater Jewish ritual observance in whatever way possible, the activity of Lubavitcher’s outreach families can seem a gracious expression of piety. At its best, these individual Lubavitchers practice a form of Hasidism that appears to resurrect aspects of the vision of the movement’s early founders.
But still it’s hard to shake the image of the victims of modern-day Hasidism’s fundamentalist patriarchy. The lives of these individuals have been ravaged, not only by specific antagonists from the community, but by an institutional system. “I am invisible,” the female subject of One of Us announces at last in despair. For the “sin” of not being able to hear the divine music of which the Besht wrote so movingly, these people live in danger not just of being silenced, but erased altogether.
Hasidism ends on an upbeat note. Having now passed its 250th anniversary, the movement epitomizes a paradox: defining itself as the rejection of all things modern, “it owes its identity to the very world it rejects,” the authors write. Compelled by war and vast cultural changes to navigate a reality profoundly remote from the Eastern European centers where it was conceived, Hasidism has managed to thrive. Its success “is a sign of its vitality,” and of the way it has made traditionalism a potent identity. “[I]nsofar as traditionalism is itself modern, Hasidism has made a remarkable contribution to the modern history of the Jews.”
“Remarkable” of course is not inevitably a positive adjective, and the introduction of a powerfully retrograde strand into any religion might be considered a “remarkable contribution” to its modern history, even if that contribution’s net result is to pull the community backward in time. But the allusion to vitality is a trickier matter. While Hasidic communities are certainly flourishing in terms of population size, the severe poverty afflicting many of these groups complicates the assertion. Driven by notoriously weak education in nonreligious subjects, and by a bias against profane labors in general, the economic struggles of Hasidic communities frequently result in an overwhelming reliance on state welfare. Vitality and excessive dependency are not easily reconciled. Nor does any vitality that the movement still possesses often manifest in positive contributions to the society at large. In the 2016 elections, only 24 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide went for Trump, and Trump won almost every Hasidic community by overwhelming majorities. In these circumstances, Hasidism’s vitality might even be seen as toxic.
And still it is true, as the authors of Hasidism argue, that the idea of the movement exerts “an enduring fascination” on nonobservant Jews and non-Jews alike. For the uninitiated, Hasidism can appear “both exotic and as a repository of spirituality.” Apart from any historical reality it “serves as a mirror on which those from the outside have repeatedly projected their fantasies of religious renewal.” The question of whether these sentimental, nostalgic fantasies are themselves positive is one which the multifold historical insights of this book allow the reader to ponder.
Until a substantial body of Hasidic leaders is prepared to grapple with the problem of a social structure that facilitates the infliction and concealment of grave abuse, and of an institutional framework that countenances the exploitation of a pluralistic society’s resources together with the repudiation of its democratic values, it’s difficult to feel much enthusiasm for the movement’s lingering joys.
George Prochnik’s most recent book is Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem.