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Toward a new history of Hasidism

By David Biale

Two years ago, I agreed to serve as the head of an international team of nine scholars from the US, UK, Poland, and Israel who are attempting to write a history of Hasidism, the eighteenth-century Eastern European pietistic movement that remains an important force in the Orthodox Jewish world today. I was perhaps not the obvious choice for this role. Although I’ve written several articles and book chapters on Hasidism, it has not been my main area of research. But Arthur Green, one of the foremost historians of Hasidism and the person who was supposed to head the team, was unable to take on the role and I had had some success as the editor of a large compendium on Jewish and Israeli culture (Cultures of the Jews: A New History). And so, my colleagues convinced me to take on the organizational and editorial work on the project.

Surprisingly, given its long history and influence, no general history of Hasidism exists. The first attempt at such a history was published in 1931 by Simon Dubnow, the doyen of Jewish history in Russia. Dubnow had begun collecting materials for a history of Hasidism in the 1890s. However, his history covered only the first half century of the movement, ending in 1815, which is when he believed the creative period of Hasidism came to an end.

If I was going to direct this ambitious project, I needed to come up to speed on the bibliography of research over the last half century. I was familiar with the major works of the older generation of scholars such as Gershom Scholem, Joseph Weiss, Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, and Mendel Piekarz (to name some of the most important) as well as the younger generation, some of whom are members of our team (Ada Rapoport-Albert, Moshe Rosman, and David Assaf). Although the research community working on Hasidism is relatively small, there is still an impressive body of scholarly literature that has emerged over the last few decades.

Fortunately, at about the time I accepted the invitation to direct the Hasidism project, I was also approached by Oxford University Press to serve as Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies. My first task was to prepare a sample bibliography. So, instead of taking on a subject whose sources were at my fingertips, I decided to put together a bibliography of Hasidism, killing the proverbial “two birds with one stone” (or, as the Jewish saying has it, “to dance at two weddings”).

What emerged from this immersion in the sources was the growing sense that our new history could significantly revise the earlier scholarship. In most of the earlier studies, as well as in Hasidism’s own self-conception, the movement was founded by the Baal Shem Tov, who died in 1760. But like the historical Jesus of Nazareth, the Baal Shem Tov (also known as the Besht) wrote little and probably had no intention of founding a movement. It was only later in the eighteenth century that scattered charismatic leaders (known as rebbes in Yiddish, or zaddikim in Hebrew) began to be seen (and to see themselves) as a coherent movement. But since the Hasidim organized themselves as devoted followers of specific individuals, the movement had no central core. Each of these rebbes had his own philosophy and style of leadership, so that one should speak of Hasidism in the plural.

The nineteenth century, far from a time of stagnation, as Dubnow thought, now appears to have been the golden age of Hasidism. While it is questionable whether the majority of Eastern Jews were Hasidim, the movement spread rapidly and became even more active in areas of Poland and Galicia than in the provinces of Ukraine where it originated. In the twentieth century, Hasidism underwent a sharp decline as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of secular Jewish politics in Poland, and the devastation of the Holocaust (see The Holocaust in Poland). Following World War II, the movement rose from the ashes in North America and Israel, in exile, as it were, from its Eastern European homeland. Today, there may be as many as three-quarters of a million Hasidim (out of 13 million Jews worldwide). But a movement that presents itself and is often seen by others as devout guardians of tradition is, in reality, something new, a product of modernity no less than Jewish secularism.

David Biale, Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies, is the Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History in the department of history of University of California Davis. He is the editor of Cultures of the Jews: A New History (Schocken Books, 2002) and the author of Blood and Belief: The Circulating of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians (University of California Press, 2008).

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