Originally published in Journal of Jewish Studies 41:2.
Bezalel Safran (ed.), Hasidism: Continuity or Innovation? (Harvard Judaic Texts and Studies, V). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA / London, 1988. xviii, 144 pp. £4.75.
This is an important but somewhat oddly balanced little book. Emanuel Etkas’s ‘Hasidism as a Movement’ occupies with the notes 26 pages; ‘The Origins of the Conflict between Hasidim and Mitnagdim’ by Yaakov Hasdai, 18 pages without notes; the essay by the editor, ‘Maharal and Early Hasidism’, 44 pages of text and no less than 53 pages of copious notes dealing with the influence of Maharal of Prague on the rather peripheral figure of Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk. The editorial introduction occupies a further 9 pages of text and notes.
Hasidism became a mass movement. It has, in fact, been described as ‘mysticism for the masses’. The question is, however, whether the mass appeal was present right from the beginning or whether the circle around the Baal Shem Tov was originally elitist. Etkas skilfully traces the successive stages in the career of the Baal Shem Tov to demonstrate that the second view is correct. At first, the Baal Shem Tov was, like the other Baaley Shem of his day, a magical healer, but this charismatic personality attracted around him a circle of followers to whom he became a spiritual guide and mentor. Yet because of his extraordinary concern with the fortunes of the Jewish people as a whole in all its miseries, the Baal Shem Tov gave the spur needed for those who followed him in the leadership of the sect to make central to their ideological stance the concept of Klal Yisrael.
Thus, according to Etkas, the view of historians like Dubnow and Dinur, who tend to see the emergence of Hasidism in terms of a revolt on the part of ordinary Jews against the hegemony of the Kahal and the traditional rabbis, requires considerable revision. Hasdai goes further to demonstrate that by no means all the rabbinic leaders were in opposition to the movement and that there existed a pre-hasidic circle of pneumatics composed of those who later became Mitnaggedim as well as of those who joined the new movement. Moreover, criticisms of the ‘establishment’ are far more pronounced in the extra-hasidic writings of the period, while the hasidic leaders, pursuing their own mystical way, were less concerned with class warfare. In Hasdai’s view, it was the weakening of autonomous community leadership as a result of the dissolution of the ‘Council of the Four Lands’ in 1764 and the first partition of Poland in 1772 that made the conditions ripe for a public struggle between Hasidim and Mitnaggedim.
Stimulating though all the essays in this book are, insufficient attention is paid to the theological differences between the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim. In the famous or infamous—depending on how one sees it—letter sent by the community of Vilna in 1772 to the Jewish communities in Poland, and signed, among other leaders, by the Gaon of Vilna, it is expressly stated as a major cause of offence that the Hasidim understood, heretically from the mitnaggedic point of view, the verse ‘the whole earth is filled with His glory’ to mean not alone that the divine providence extends over all but that all is in God—the doctrine known as panentheism. Social and other factors undoubtedly have to be considered, but the theological issue was sufficiently strong for the Mitnaggedim to dub the Hasidim a sect (kat) and to place them under the ban. All this makes Hasdai’s contention that both the Hasidim and the Vilna Gaon belonged basically to the same circle extremely doubtful. Certainly it is hard to accept Hasdai’s conclusion: ‘In 1775, the Hasidic leaders made an effort to placate the Mitnagdim. Two Hasidic leaders—Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi—sought authoritative sanction for this step. They did not apply to the established communal leaders and rabbis. They went to the Gaon of Vilna. In the last analysis, they regarded their great foe as the true authority. In spite of his hatred. He was one of them.’