Review by Israel Drazin
Arthur Green just published two volumes called Speaking Torah that collect comments and commentaries, often mystical, from over forty Chassidic rabbis who lived during the first three generation of the Chasidic Movement, from 1740 to 1815. All the rabbis were influenced by The Maggid (preacher), Rabbi Dov Baer, of Mezritch (1704-1772). The first volume contains a seventy-five-page history of the early years of the Chassidic Movement, how and why it began in the early seventeenth century and changed radically after 1815.
Green tells readers that while people generally think that the Chassidic Movement began with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, who died in 1760, it was really the Ba’al Shem Tov’s successor the Maggid who started the movement and passed it on to his circle of disciples whose views are presented in his two books. Little is known about Israel and much of what is known are actually legends, many of which were also told of other wonder-workers, including non-Jews. He was not the first and only Ba’al Shem Tov, literally, one with a good name, but indicating a person with magical power, a kind of Shaman, who could heal the sick, cause women to be pregnant, and the like. A legend states that he didn’t want his teachings to be written, but after his death, books were composed allegedly reporting what he said and did.
Israel lived during a period when many Jews felt alienated from the views of Jewish rabbinical leaders, their ascetic path to piety, their withdrawal from life, and their insistence that Talmud study is the single marker of a pious Jew. They considered the rabbis’ use of an extreme form of casuistry known as pilpul, elaborate argumentation over the Talmud text for its own sake or as a display of one’s brilliance, the height of hubris and ridiculous, and that it excluded the vast majority of Jews from being considered true Jews. These feelings began before Israel’s birth. The early Chassidic Movement was a rebellion against this cold isolationist Judaism. It began as a movement that stressed simplicity and the joy of life, but after 1815 it changed its beliefs and practices.
Green describes the beginning as well as the three rounds of extensive anti-Chassidic polemical literature of 1772-1800. This anti-Chassidic rebellion was not prompted by the mysticism, the non-rationalism of Chassidim, for those who fought them were also mystics. But the opponents disliked the Chassidic view of Talmud study, their preference for stories of miraculous events, and that the Chassidim abandoned many Jewish practices.
The Maggid taught “God issues a decree, but the tzaddik may nullify it.” The tzaddik, literally “holy man,” later called the Rebbe, a perversion of rabbi, became the leaders of the various groups of Chassidim. The charismatic figures who were extolled with exaggerated claims claimed the magical powers of the ba’al shems, but no longer used their name. Their opponents considered the creation of Rebbes sacrilege.
Among the innovations that Chassidim adopted, which their opponents opposed, were the use of the Sephardic rather than Ashkenazic version of the liturgy, changing the practice of sharpening knives for ritual slaughter, also based on the Sephardic practice, violating the set time for prayer and praying instead when the spirit moved them, and interrupting their prayers with wordless outcries and melodies.
Rabbi Ephraim of Sudylkow, the grandson of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (c. 1740-1800), expressed the view of the early Chassidim in his Degel Mahaneh Efraim. He wrote “The wholeness of the Written Torah is…dependent upon the Oral Torah…. This is true of each generation and its interpreters. They (the new interpretations) make the Torah complete. Torah is interpreted in each generation according to what that generation needs. God enlightens the eyes of each generation’s sages (to interpret) his holy Torah in accord with the soul root of that generation. One who denies this is like one who denies Torah, God forbid.”
Ephraim saw this teaching in the Torah. “Tradition notes that these words, ‘diligently sought’ (darosh darash) are the midpoint in a letter count of the Torah.” This gives people interpretive license. This Torah midpoint highlights that the written text of Torah exists with an allowable oral interpretation for each generation.
After 1815 both groups changed: Chassidim began to study Talmud and the opponents developed their own Rebbes and treated them as the Chassidim had treated their tzaddik. The changes were caused by the birth of enlightenment. During the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century the armies of Napoleon marched across Europe and brought the fresh breath of enlightenment. The haskalah, the movement of Jewish enlightenment that had begun in the 1780s grew. By 1815, the key Chassidic leaders, those who had some connection with the Maggid, were dead. Both rabbis and Chassidim saw great dangers in the enlightenment, confronting their way of life and their worldviews. They joined forces to combat the threat. In so doing, rabbinical Judaism adopted many Chassidic practices they had previous denounced, such as wonder-working rabbis upon whom Jews were told to rely and adorning services with song. The Chassidim, in turn, begun as an anti-Talmud study group devoted to innovating Judaism, became a “force of the past” with its outdated clothing from eighteenth century Poland. “History had betrayed the Ba’al Shem Tov. His Judaism of serving God in joy, raising up sparks from every encounter in life, and finding divine presence everywhere took on an increasingly harsh and judging countenance as it struggled against an enemy it could never defeat.”