Jewish Studies

Hasidism, spirituality, and development – In conversation with Ada Rapoport-Albert

How did hasidism occur, and how has it developed socially and spiritually? Ada Rapoport-Albert, author of Hasidic Studies, discusses the issues of history and gender in hasidism for Jewish Book Week.

Your work focuses on the development of Hasidim and its development in the context of intense spirituality. Could you tell us about the development of hasidism?

Hasidism (literally ‘piety’ in Hebrew) is a movement of spiritual revival, which began in south-eastern Poland in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. At that stage, long before it became a mass movement in the course of the nineteenth century, hasidism consisted of no more than a cluster of spiritually gifted, charismatic individuals, who were attracting small groups of devotees by displaying their supernatural prowess and preaching inspired sermons in the synagogues, the marketplace, and ultimately in their homes, which came to be known as their ‘courts’, functioning as pilgrim sites for their followers. These individuals had emerged out of an older tradition of kabbalistic piety – generally the preserve of the educated elite and marked by the aspiration to transcend worldly existence through mastery of certain contemplative techniques and the adoption of an ascetic lifestyle. By contrast, the new hasidic masters were pointing the way to union with the Divine, whom they sensed to be all-present at all times, even in the midst of worldly materiality. While they alone were capable of attaining a direct experience of this union, they taught that it could be achieved by anyone who would resort to their own unique power to mediate it. As their following grew they encountered opposition, first from some rabbinic quarters, where their popular style of piety was pronounced a dangerous heresy, and subsequently also from Jewish Enlightenment advocates, who scorned it as obscurantist nonsense. The militant campaign to eradicate hasidism, launched in 1772 and lasting several decades, turned out to be a failure. Far from arresting the expansion of hasidism, it triggered the consolidation of its loosely affiliated network of discrete centres into a coherent, albeit never centralised, and increasingly popular movement.

Why do you think the development of eighteenth-century hasidism was previously thought to have occurred in the context of political, social, economic, or religious crisis? 

This still common view is associated above all with Simon Dubnow (1860-1941, the most prominent modern historian of eastern European Jewry. In his pioneering and highly influential History of Hasidism (1930-1), he set the rise of the hasidic movement in the context of a long-drawn crisis, entailing the collapse of all the traditional modes of Jewish life in Poland, and mirroring Poland’s own disintegration, which culminated, by the end of the eighteenth century, in its effective demise as a sovereign state. The crisis began with the mid-seventeenth-century Cossack-led peasant uprising in Poland, which Jewish historiography has labelled ‘the massacres of 1648-49’. Caught up in the events, the Jews, who were perceived by the rebels as agents of the landed Polish nobility, bore much of the brunt of the violence resulting in the devastation of well-established Jewish communities throughout Ukraine and beyond. For Dubnow, these events signalled a turning point in the fortunes of Polish Jewry. Following at least two centuries of steady growth, prosperity, and intellectual achievement, it was now set on an irreversible course of economic, political, and spiritual decline. This pessimistic assessment of Polish Jewry in the period immediately preceding the rise of hasidism must have been coloured, at least to some extent, by Dubnow’s own experience of the plight of eastern European Jewry during the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. He had lived through the most violent upheavals and ruptures ever encountered by the Jewish population of the region, and was himself a victim of its final liquidation by the Nazis. Moreover, although his History implicitly challenged the disdain for hasidism displayed by the nineteenth-century German-Jewish founders of modern Jewish historiography, for whom the movement epitomized the depravity of eastern European Jewry as a whole, Dubnow’s own depiction of hasidism, especially its emotional and irrational characteristics, was not entirely free of their residual influence. It is as if he felt that a movement such as hasidism could only have emerged in conditions of acute crisis when all the traditional mechanisms for regulating society had become dysfunctional. His reconstruction of the background to the rise of hasidism must, therefore, be seen as reflecting both the tragic historical circumstances of his own lifetime and the historiographical tradition to which he belonged. In the past few decades, however, with the growing accessibility of archival materials preserved in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states, the history of eastern European Jewry, and of hasidsm, has become the subject of revision. A new generation of historians, who had not themselves experienced the predicaments of east European Jewry in the last two centuries, are examining the sources afresh, and their findings point to a modified picture of the adverse conditions from which hasidism emerged. While it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of the mid-seventeenth-century crisis, it must be recognized that conditions of crisis cannot persist for as long as a century without some form of accommodation. Barring such ‘final solutions’ as mass expulsion or extermination, which clearly did not occur in this case, rehabilitation must, and did, take place within a few decades, so that by the middle of the eighteenth century, hasidism was emerging in a more hospitable, albeit by no means entirely auspicious, environment than had previously been assumed.

Your contribution to the study of women in hasidism has been particularly revealing. Why do you think that there was little revision of the role and status and women between the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century?

When I first considered the question why hasidism excluded women from any active participation in its grand spiritual project of hallowing the material world – a project which seemed to lend itself so well to the incorporation of women, who were traditionally classified by the philosophers and kabbalists as the very embodiment of materiality – I suggested that this was simply because it was adhering conservatively to the rabbinic gender norms that had prevailed in Jewish society since late antiquity. However, I subsequently turned my attention to the exceptional prominence of women in the heretical messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi. This movement had preceded the rise of hasidism by close to a century, but it coexisted with it, especially in Poland, where the messianic heresy persisted as a network of clandestine sectarian groups until the beginning of the nineteenth century. My work on Sabbatianism eventually led me to the conclusion that in excluding women, hasidism may well have been retreating with horror from the breached gender boundaries and, above all, the illicit sexuality that became a hallmark of the messianic heresy, inextricably linked as it was to the forces of female spirituality unleashed by the Sabbatians.

How do you think that Hasidic Studies will pave the way for further research into hasidism?

My revisionist work on the eighteenth-century beginnings of hasidism has highlighted the need for fresh research on the development of the movement in the course of the nineteenth century – the period in which it achieved its greatest impact and growth. Scholars had long neglected this crucial stage of hasidic expansion, on the grounds that by that time hasidism had lost its spiritual edge, aligning itself with the most reactionary forces in Jewish society, to engage in a battle directed against modernity and secularism. This verdict is now being challenged by a growing number of studies focused on the distinctive features of particular nineteenth-century hasidic courts, gauging more precisely the mechanisms, scope, and limits of hasidic expansion, or exploring for the first time the daily experience of hasidism beyond the court, in its widely dispersed satellite communities. But there is still much work to be done in this area, and even more so, in twentieth- and twenty-first-century hasidism, especially its post-war rebirth and remarkable adaptation to parts of the world in which it never had any historical roots. As for the question of women in hasidism – my studies have launched a lively debate on the topic, and they continue to stimulate critical analyses of the hasidic sources from ever new and truly insightful gender perspectives.

Ada Rapoport-Albert is Professor of Jewish Studies and former Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. She is the author of a number of studies on the history of hasidism.

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