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The phenomenal rise of Chasidism

Hasidism, A New History, David Biale and others, Princeton University Press, £37.95

    Chasidim celebrate Lag Ba'Omer at the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Israel (photo: Getty)
    Chasidim celebrate Lag Ba'Omer at the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Israel (photo: Getty)

    The story of Chasidism, argue the authors of a new book, is one of tremendous vitality and adaptability. Despite existential challenges and internal conflict, Chasidism has reinvented itself over and again, so that now, a little more than 250 years after its founding, it is arguably the most successful of all Jewish movements. For many people it represents the authentic face of Judaism.

    Much has been written about Chasidism but never a full account of its history. This has led to a rather disjointed understanding of what Chasidism has achieved  and how it has managed to remain vibrant for so long.  Fortunately, the 800 pages of Hasidism: A New History, written by David Biale and his international team of scholars, disabuses us of our misconceptions.

    Our misapprehensions begin with the assumption, accepted by both Chasidim and non-Chasidim alike, that the project was the brainchild of one man, Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov. In fact, the evidence shows that Chasidism emerged organically out of a fringe kabbalistic culture displaying many of the features that would become part of the new movement. 

    The Ba’al Shem Tov was employed by his community as a “practical kabbalist”, writing amulets, healing the sick, exorcising dybbuks and so forth. He introduced his mystical ideas into a small kabbalistic circle; it is this circle which gradually spread into a movement in the years after his death. 

    The popular image of the Ba’al Shem Tov, or Besht, as an unlearned man of the people, gathering followers behind him rather like the Pied Piper, derives from later legends; long accepted as more fanciful than fact.

    Popular history exaggerates the conflict between the early Chasidim and their traditionalist opponents. Of course the enthusiastic, ecstatic behaviour of Chasidim raised eyebrows; jumping up and down, shouting and performing handstands in prayer did not go down well in the traditional, staid Lithuanian and Polish communities. 

    But the antagonism which the Vilna Gaon, the best known of Chasidism’s opponents, displayed towards them seems to have been, according to the book’s authors, a scholarly quarrel rather than anything more fundamental. 

    Chasidism enjoyed a golden age in the 19th century. Dozens of Chasidic communities flourished, each centred around the court of a tzaddik who functioned not only as sage and spiritual leader but politically as the head of what can best be described as a mini-state. Many lived opulent lifestyles, often encouraged by the secular authorities, who preferred to deal with one prominent autocrat than an unregulated mass of communal leaders.

    Chasidism do not wear their conspicuously anachronistic attire because they consider it sacred, or wish to keep alive the memory of their ancestors’ garb. The early generations of Chasidim dressed in the same style as other Jews. 

    It was only in the 19th century, when Jews began to wear modern dress in response to government decrees and cultural forces, that Chasidim made a point of distinguishing themselves. Today their differences in dress are deliberate, driven by an ideological drive to prevent assimilation and to demonstrate allegiance to their particular group.  

    Without doubt, the greatest testament to Chasidism’s spirit, resilience and flexibility has been its phenomenal resurrection after the Shoah. From just a few thousand survivors the Chasidic world now numbers around threequarters of a million souls. Much of this is due to the few Eastern European rebbes who survived. As living memorials to a murdered world, they were instrumental in constructing a framework of meaning for those who had lost everything. 

    Yet post-Shoah Chasidism is very different from its past. Not just because it is centred in a small number of large cities, mainly in the USA and Israel, with courts once based far apart now living cheek by jowl. Contemporary Chasidism displays little of the mysticism or joyful anti-legalism of its earliest days. Instead its vibrancy comes through its response to modernity, the alternative it offers to the mores of contemporary society and bulwarks it has constructed to protect itself. 

    Chasidism was never a re-creation of a vanished pre-modern Jewish world. The book’s authors are at pains to stress that it cannot be defined as traditional. But it is traditionalist, in the sense that it offers a defence against the unstoppable forces of modernity even though the “traditions” it defends might themselves be new.
    Hasidism: A New History is a highly detailed and immaculately researched historical survey of Chasidic culture, belief and community from the movement’s earliest origins until today.

    One disappointment is that it hardly mentions the Chasidic communities in the UK. Significantly smaller than those in Israel and the USA, it is an understandable omission. But there are unique Chasidic communities here and it would have been instructive to read more than just a couple of passages about them. 
    But as a comprehensive and thorough overview of the ever-changing Chasidic world, Hasidism: A New History is hard to beat.