Originally published in Judaism Today, Autumn 1998.
Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim – Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rupture. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1997. pp. 254, £29.00.
Numerous studies have been made of the conflict, which began in the second half of the 18th century—and is not without reverberations to this very day—between the Hasidim and the Mithnagdim (the word means ‘opponents’). Interest has focused mainly on the Hasidic ideas, resulting in an almost total neglect, which Nadler’s book seeks to redress, of Mithnagdic theology. The fierce polemics against the Hasidim in Lithuania and its surroundings came from the Gaon of Vilna, who was followed, albeit in more moderate fashion, by his disciple, R. Hayyim, founder of the famous Yeshivah of Volozhin. Nadler, while naturally relying on these two seminal advocates of Mithnagdic faith, gives (perhaps undue) prominence to another disciple of the Gaon, R. Phinehas of Polotsk, a hitherto somewhat unknown figure but who, Nadler maintains, can best serve as the prototype of the Mithnaged precisely because, as a preacher and populariser, he was more in touch with ordinary religious Jews.
Nadler shows that the Mithnagdim shared many of the principles adopted by the Hasidim—after all, the members of both camps were firmly rooted in the older tradition—but their opposition to the new movement centred on the emphasis placed by the Hasidim on rapture, hence the sub-title of this book. Thus both Mithnagdim and Hasidim believed that the presence of God is immanent in the universe and both revered the Kabbalah as revealed truth.
The Mithnagdim believed, however, that the study of the divine mysteries and the lofty flights of soul which such study engendered were for the elite alone (and even for these, strictly limited in this life) while Hasidism offered mysticism for the masses, with a marked tendency to eclipse the study of the Talmud, the meat and wine of traditional learning.
For the Hasidism, in their pursuit of devekut (attachment to God in the mind), prayer now took precedence over the study of the Torah. The Hasidim had, moreover, what Nadler calls an optimistic view of human nature, according to which the Hasid, learned or unlearned, could experience communion with God even in this world, whereas for the Mithnagdim such an attitude was sheer pretence. Hasidism adopted a this-worldly stance, not in any materialistic sense, of course, but in the sense that God can and should be served and experienced through the things of the material world, which, when engaged in with a spirit of devotion and the mind on God, release, as the Kabbalah teaches, the ‘holy sparks’ inherent in all creation. For the Mithnagdim, on the contrary, only after the death of the body can the soul really attain to communion with God. This world, for them, is truly a vale of tears to the extent, in the Death Poem of R. Phinehas of Polotsk, that the devout Jew should ideally have such a hatred of worldly life that he looks forward eagerly to death. This extreme view makes problematic Nadler’s espousal of R. Phineas as a typical Mithnaged.
Nadler is good in showing that, contrary to some modern historians, the Mithnagdim, far from being forerunners of the Haskalah (‘Enlightenment’) movement, were its determined opponents. Human reason was given so that the Jew should be able to use it in the only ultimate way of worship, the study of the divine word as contained in the Torah, almost exclusively by engagement in Talmudic dialectics. True, the Vilna Gaon advocated the study of the natural sciences and even encouraged one of his disciples to translate Euclid into Hebrew. But there is a world of difference between knowledge of the sciences as aids to the study of the Torah and the Haskalah approach in which secular learning is a good in itself.
Nadler concentrates on the Lithuanian Mithnagdim. Further scholarly investigation is required into the theological attitudes of the Mithnagdim in Galicia, Poland and Hungary, and a follow-up on how Mithnagdism functions today—there is, for instance, the disputes between Rabbi Shach and the Lubavitcher and other Hasidic movements. For this Nadler has paved the way. Even in Lithuania the character of the Litvak, as it developed, was, indeed, as in Peretz’s marvelous story, If Not Higher. He stuffed himself with the Talmud and the Codes, yet he was rarely an other-worldly ascetic like Nadler’s heroes.
Unlike the jacket covers of books on Hasidism published nowadays, with pictures of Hasidim, dancing ecstatically, delicate hands waving in the air and peot flying all directions, this one has a wonderfully evocative photograph, taken in Vilna in 1930, of three decidedly uncharismatic, elderly gentlemen soberly pondering a page of the Talmud—Litvaks to a man but, as Nadler’s Mithnagdim would say, all the better for it.