A few years ago, my father told me he was reading a very interesting book about scandals and hidden stories from the Chasidic world called Ne’echaz B’Svach. I wanted to read it too, but I don’t have the Hebrew skills to read an academic book in modern Hebrew.
This summer I saw a book called Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism by David Assaf, that looked like it could be a translation of the Hebrew book, I asked Tuvia if it was in fact an English version of Ne’echaz B’Svach. Before he finished saying yes I grabbed it and was swiping my credit card.
The book did not disappoint. Whenever I read a good book, I dog-ear the pages with lines or ideas that seem important or interesting to me. I have never read a book where I dog-eared more pages. It’s almost impossible to do a proper review on Untold Tales of the Hasidim because there is just too much that I want to say.
The book is divided into unrelated chapters about specific incidents in the Chasidic world spanning two centuries. The common denominator among the stories is a active effort to limit the knowledge of these stories by Chasidic groups and leaders as well as an effort to reinterpret the stories as less unsavory than the true facts would indicate.
The objective of the book is to explore these stories based on facts and rumor, as well as to understand the various reinterpretations and retellings of these stories. But for what purpose? In the author’s own words:
“The ability to handle unpleasant episodes in a critical fashion and the willingness to consider change, or even to pay a price for mistakes, mark an optimistic, proud, and confident society. A society in crisis, or one suffering from a lack of confidence or self-esteem, tends to adopt a defensive attitude toward criticism and a hesitant one toward the past, viewing the exposure of its secrets as posing a mortal danger to its stability.”
In other words, by sweeping dirt under the rug we demonstrate a lack of maturity that poses a much more basic risk to our way of life than the actual incidents themselves. It’s never the crime, it’s always the cover up. Later in the first chapter, Assaf notes that the Haredi media glosses over the issues in its own backyard to protect the reputation and good standing of the community. (See: Reputation Obsession) As Rabbi Horowitz has noted, this is more like Pravda and less like the New York Times.
There are seven chapters in Untold Tales of the Hasidim. The first is a general introduction and overview of the methodology and purpose of the book. The next six chapters are each devoted to one episode.
Of the six, I loved two of them and I enjoyed two others. The remaining two were just alright, but still absolutely worth reading.
My favorites were the final two chapters. Chapter six deals with Rabbi Menacham Mendel Friedman of Itscan (early 20th century). He was a Rebbe in training when he died at age 54 and also a Renaissance Chasid. That sounds almost impossible, but it is true. Rabbi Friedman was basically a Maskil type of Rebbe. He studied and loved art, literature, science, and philosophy. His Torah works are unlike any other Torah works written by Chasidic Rebbes in that they are littered with more modern interpretations of Talmudic statements and progressive ideas about Orthodox Judaism. Yet, he maintained a steadfast commitment to Torah and Mitzvos as well as a deep passion for its survival and growth. He forcefully condemns the fools who believe in superstition and the ignorant leadership that was in his opinion, corrupt. He calls religious zeal a plague and for a very stark separation of religion and state in politics.
This was a man who could have started a movement of Chasidus that adapted and changed with the times. A Chasidus that embraced secular knowledge and engagement. But he died young and his followers were too few to amount to a proper Chasidic movement.
Of course, his books are no longer considered acceptable in some circles. A letter in the Yated Ne’eman in Israel publicly denounced his writings as “problematic” and Rabbi Friedman’s works are unlikely to influence contemporary Chasidic communities as they were intended.
The last chapter of the book is mostly just a translation of a letter written by a Belz Rebbe in training (early 20th century). The son in law of the Belz Rebbe wrote a heartfelt confession about his doubts and antipathy toward the Chasidic mode of dress and lifestyle. He believes in God and in Judaism, but he cannot endure the narrow straits of the Belz life, especially in the court of the Rebbe. The pain in his words leaps off the page. It’s a rare peek into the mind of a skeptical 20 year old Chasid who is stuck in his life because he does not want to hurt his mother. He knows that if he leaves she will bear the brunt of his defection. She does not deserve that, he reasons, so he stays. By all accounts, he stays and succeeds. No indication that he had doubts or misgivings about his lifestyle exists, other than his confession.
He writes that the first Hasidim were righteous people. But the Hasids of his day were “wheeling and dealing”. The Hasids come to the rebbe to pay a fee and have miracles performed on their behalf. There is no growth, there is no soul, there is no virtue. Interestingly enough, his sisters were much more worldly (this illustrates the need that was being addressed by Sarah Schenirer) and they provided him a safe haven to be himself.
In his letter, he describes some of the ascetic customs in his world that were treated an incontrovertible law. Men and women shaved their heads before the wedding. Women were forbidden from wearing wigs. He wears a shtreimel, she wears a scarf and clothing that was in style during the era of Chmielnitzki. He writes that it’s objectively a hilarious sight but because it is his future it makes him cry. At the end of his letter, he expresses hope that he will grow in the court of Belz and be able to influence his world to modify their social strictures.
It’s obvious why these two characters were my favorites. They represent some of the struggles of people I deal with on a regular basis. Their struggles are not over, they are just as prominent today as they have ever been. It’s helpful for those people to find comfort in the works of these great rabbis and perhaps hope that the Renaissance Rebbe and inside reformer will return to Chasidic and Charedi Judaism today.
The two chapters I enjoyed were about Moshe the son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady and Rabbi Akiva Shalom Chajes. The two that appealed least to me were about the Seer of Lublin and the battle against Bratslav Chasidim.
There is so much more to discuss in this book. It’s packed with discussion points that I would love to engage, but it’s really too much for a review. I will just make one more point.
Recently we’ve been hearing about turf type wars in Israel between followers or Gedolim. We’ve known about Chasidic turf wars for decades as well. It seems that this might be deeply rooted in tradition. At one point there was an arms race to conquer cities and towns in the Ukraine and incorporate them under the flag of a Rebbe. Violence was not uncommon and thuggery was the norm. People who did not adhere or acquiesce were deported, isolated, punished, or excommunicated. This is all considered background information for one of the chapters in the book. It’s the scandal of that chapter. It’s the socio-political backdrop. When we read about it in the past we shake our heads and wonder how this was acceptable. But are we not seeing the same things today? What will history say about us who watch as this kind of behavior is found in our circles?
This is why history is so important. We need to learn from our past and correct mistakes. We need to know what our past mistakes were in order to correct them.
You’ll read about several mistakes and anti-social patterns in Untold Tales of the Hasidim. It is our hope that we use the lessons of history and build a better future for Orthodox Judaism and the world.
Buy this book on Amazon here: Untold Tales of the Hasidim and make the budding historian in your family very pleased with his or her Chanukah gift.
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— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) November 26, 2013