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Hasidei de'ar‘a and Hasidei dekokhvaya’: Two Trends in Modern Jewish Historiography

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 April 2008

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
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Gershon Hundert, one of the leading scholars of Eastern European Jewry, has portrayed Hasidism as “one of many movements of religious enthusiasm that arose in the eighteenth century.” Though most scholars today agree with this description, they diverge regarding the goals of the movement, the causes of its emergence and spread, and its impact on Eastern European Jewry. Simon Dubnow, the father-founder of modern Eastern European Jewish historiography, considered Hasidism to be a response to the seventeenth-century communal crisis. He portrayed Hasidism as a spiritual movement of ordinary Jews who rebelled against the stringencies of rabbinic Judaism and sought spiritual accommodation from charismatic yet uneducated leaders. Benzion Dinur saw Hasidism as a popular revolution against the corrupt power of the kahal, the umbrella self-governing organization of Polish Jewry. Gershom Scholem maintained that it was the popularization of Kabbalah that was responsible for the phenomenal success of Hasidism, its rapid spread, and the mass following of the zaddikim, the hasidic masters. By the end of the late twentieth century, most scholars agreed that Hasidism was a popular movement triggered by the economic breakdown of Polish Jewry, directed against the legal authorities, and led by mystically oriented leaders with no significant rabbinic pedigree or deep knowledge of traditional Jewish sources.

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Copyright © The Association for Jewish Studies 2008

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1. Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 160.

2. Simon Dubnow, Toldot ha-ḥasidut (Tel-Aviv, 1930–32); see also idem, “The Beginnings: The Baal Shem Tov (Besht) and the Center in Podolia” and “The Maggid of Miedzyrzecz, His Associates, and the Center in Volhynia (1760–1772),” in Gershon David Hundert, Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to Present (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 58–85.

3. Benzion Dinur, Be-mifneh ha-dorot: meḥkarim ve-'iyunim be-reshitam shel ha-ẓmanim ha-ḥadashim be-toldot yisra'el (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1955), 83–227; see the English version, “The Origins of Hasidism and its Social and Messianic Foundations,” in Hundert, Essential Papers on Hasidism, 86–208.

4. Gershom Scholem, Devarim be-go: pirkei morashah u-teḥiyah (Tel-Aviv: Am over, 1975), 287–324.

5. Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov (Berkeley: California University Press, 1996), esp. 63–82, 173–86. On Rosman's methodological innovations, see his How Jewish Is Jewish History (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007).

6. See the chapter “Contexts of Hasidism,” in Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania, 160–85.

7. Rosman, Founder of Hasidism, 94.

8. Zeev Gries, “Hasidism: The Present State of Research and Some Desirable Priorities,” Numen 34, no. 1 (1987): 97–108; 34, no. 2 (1987): 179–213.

9. For Scholem's critique of the Wissenschaft des Judentums school, see his “Mi-tokh hirhurim ‘al ḥokhmat yisra'el,” in Ḥokhmat yisra'el: hebetim historiyim u-filosofiyim, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 1979), 153–68.

10. See the chapter “A Leader of the Jewish People” in Immanuel Etkes, The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2005), 77–112.

11. Rosman, Founder of Hasidism, 154, 167, 208–209.

12. See Ada Rapoport-Albert, “Hasidism after 1772: Structural Continuity and Change,” in Hasidism Reappraised, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1996), 76–140.

13. Zeev Gries, “Hasidism: The Present State of Research and Some Desirable Priorities,” Numen 34, no. 1 (1987): 100.

14. See Gershom Scholem, “The Neutralization of the Messianic Element in Early Hasidism,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 176–202 (first published in 1970).

15. See the polemical comments by Haviva Pedaya, “‘Iggeret ha-kodesh le-Besht: nusaḥ ha-tekst u-temunat ha-’olam—meshiḥiyut, hitgalut, ’ekstazah ve-shabta'ut,” Ẓiyon 70, no. 3 (2005): 311–54, and Rosman's answer to her, ibid. For the versions of the holy epistle and comments questioning Rosman's approach, see Etkes, The Besht, 272–88.

16. See Rosman, Founder of Hasidism, 99–113; and Etkes, The Besht, 80–87.

17. See David Kahana, Toldot ha-mekubalim ha-shabta'yim ve-ha-ḥasidim (Odessa, 1913–14).

18. See Doktór's publication of Jacob Frank's writings, Księga słów Pańskich: ezoteryczne wyłady Jakuba Franka, 2 vols. (Warsaw: Semper, 1997); and his research into the Frankist movement, Jakub Frank i jego nauka: na tle kryzysu religijnej tradycji osiemnastowiecznego Żydowstwa polskiego (Warsaw: Instytut Filosofii i Socjologii PAN, 1991).

19. See Zeev Gries, Sefer, sofer ve-sipur be-re'shit ha-ḥasidut (Tel-Aviv: Ha-kibbuts ha-meyukhad, 1992).

20. Yaffa Eliach, “The Russian Dissenting Sects and Their Influence on Israel Baal Shem Tov, Founder of Hasidism,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 36 (1968): 57–83.

21. David Assaf, “Ḥạsidut be-folin ba-me'ah ha-19—maẓav ha-meḥkar u-sekirah bibliografit,” in Ẓadikim ve-'anshei ma‘aseh: meḥkarim be-ḥasidut Polin, ed. Rachel Elior, Yisrael Bartal, and Chone Shmeruk (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1994), 357.

22. On this theme, see Gershon Bacon, The Politics of Tradition: Agudat Yisrael in Poland, 1916–1939 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1996).

23. Dynner, Men of Silk, 151–52, 158, 181–83.

24. Azriel Shokhat, “Hanhagah be-kehilot rusiayah ‘im bitul ha-kahal,” Ẓiyon 42 (1977): 143–233.

25. Arthur Green, “Typologies of Leadership and the Hasidic Zaddiq,” in Jewish Spirituality, from Sixteenth-Century Revival to the Present (New York: Crossroad, 1986–87), 127–56.

26. See Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, The Tsemach Tzedek and the Haskalah Movement in Russia (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot, 1962).

27. Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley: California University Press, 2003), 8.

28. Yosef Dan, “R. Yisrael mi-Ruzhin: beyn ẓaddik ha-dor le-ẓaddick ha-'emet,” Mada'ei ha-yahadut 37 (1997): 297–308, esp. 301.