Book Review | Untold Tales of the Hasidim

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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.9781611681949_p0_v1_s260x420

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.

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Affiliate, I receive a small commission of all books sold via links on my website.

  • Josh

    Loved this book as well. Assaf’s studied objectivity is a feat that last throughout each study. You should also check out his other (translated) book, “The Regal Way”, about the House of Rizhin (its something like 70$ online, so if you’re like me, you’ll probably want a library copy). Its more academic and less accessible than Ne’haz be-Sevah, but just as cool.

    Also BTW, you can download and print a relatively readable version of the once-published (i think) Pirush Ma”n on Avot by the Itscaner. I have it sitting on the shelf next to me as I write this – feels like I’m just a little closer to what I think of an ideal Rebbe.

    • Thanks.

      I was actually thinking about making a series of blog posts on the Itscener’s works. I need to find them first.

  • Appaled

    How can a rabbi not have the requisite Hebrew skills to read ANY Hebrew book?! A shanda!

    • I said I don’t have the skills necessary to read an academic Hebrew book.

      • Appaled

        So build the skills! Is it appropriate that a Rabbi should not be able to access materials that any Israeli with a high school matriculation can read?! You do realize that much of the most important work on rabbinics in the past 100 years is written in Hebrew and has never been translated. Right?

        If there is a book you are interested in that comes out and you have to wait for a translation, then you do not have the basic competency to intellectually engage with the very subject matter that your title suggests you have. I am not a rabbi and should not be able to engage rabbinics at a higher level than a self proclaimed rabbi.

        • Disappointed

          Well, I’m appalled at your gaavah. And it’s spelled with two “l”s. He’s not a self proclaimed rabbi. He leads a congregation. An American Rabbi has many other roles to fill which take precedence, which I suspect Rabbi Fink does admirably.

          • Appaled

            It’s gaava to expect a rabbi to know hebrew? Guess what? I also expect my doctor to be able to read medical journals and my lawyers to be able to read contracts. Its not gaava, its a reasonable expectation from someone who takes the title of rabbi for themselves.

            • Disappointed

              He knows Hebrew. He said academic book in modern Hebrew. Do you know English?
              A Rabbi does in fact not need to know modern academic Hebrew. You can say differently and you would be very wrong.
              It’s gaava to feel you know a person and can invalidate their profession based on your own superficial, erroneous opinion.

              • Appaled

                A big portion of the stuff Fink writes about on this blog is written about in academic journals and books. More often than no in Hebrew. For someone to not make this resource available to themselves is mindbogling. People learn new languages all the time – especially when use of a new language is critical to their area of supposed expertise.

            • HP-Edison

              Your parallels to doctors and lawyers are weak. What if your doctor reads medical journals but is not familiar with medieval medical practices? Is she then a quack? What if your lawyer writes the best damn contracts but has no familiarity with comparative law journals and knows nothing of land use and zoning? Makes him worthless to you and the bar?

  • BT

    I agree with Appaled. I’m just a simple BT who could not read Hebrew without vowels until age 20. Since then I taught myself Hebrew and Yiddish. It can be done Rabbi, it just takes perseverence.

    • Disappointed

      I see you’ve picked up the judgementalism very well. You are not a raaya to anyone else. Everyone has their own life and abilities.

      • Appaled

        Is judgementalism now a cardinal sin? In any case, I thought that judgementalism implies that the criteria by which one judges are arbitrary or not justified. In this case, It is a incredibly sensible for one to expect a rabbi to have mastery of Hebrew.

        • Disappointed

          Something can be wrong without being a cardinal sin. I see you’ve picked up the extremism well too. And yes, Judaism teaches to dan lekaf zchus and to not judge others until you have walked in their shoes and you know, bein adam lechaveiro mitzvos. Let’s see, al talbin es chaveiro, especially berabim. There goes your olam haba. Oh well. Laws of onaas devarim.

          • Appaled

            What is extreme about expecting a rabbi to know Hebrew?!?!

            And dan leKaf zechut is totally out of place here. What am I supposed to say to a rabbi who admits they don’t have the Hebrew skills to read a book? Should I hold their hand and say “there, there” its ok to be ignorant. Knowing stuff is way overrated anyway. I am not the one who is embarrassing him. I did not reveal to the world that he has no Hebrew skills, he did that himself. Is one supposed to let ignorant people rant on the internet without calling them out on their ignorace? This is a blog for goodness sakes!

            • Disapponted

              I don’t think there’s more to say to you. You’re just proving my points. All the best.

      • Appaled

        Of course everyone has their own life and abilities! And when one chooses a profession, one needs to make sure that those abilities meet its minimum requirements. Just because rabbinic malpractice is not actionable, does not mean that someone who chooses rabbinics as their calling can get a get out of jail free card regarding learning Hebrew.

        • Disappointed

          First of all he didn’t say he doesn’t know Hebrew. Native English speakers have trouble reading academic journals as well. The good Rabbi can learn seforim. Why do you feel the right to pasul and embarrass someone because he doesn’t feel comfortable reading a very specific type of writing that I suspect many, many Rabbis would feel uncomfortable reading in English.
          When did you become the authority in what’s needed to be a Rav? Again, even if you were right, you are still sinning. If you cared about the Rav you would’ve contacted him privately. All you seem to be doing is trying to prop yourself up with some self-righteous indignity.

          • Appaled

            When did you become the authority in what’s needed to be a Rav?

            Who needs to be an authority? I think, that someone who knows more Jewish stuff than the average non-Rav is a common sense criteria. Since most of the relevant subject matter on this topic written in the past 100 years has been written in academic Hebrew (although some important things have been written in academic English as well), then I indeed expect that from a Rav. The fact that other rabbis are also not up to par is just extending the indictment to a broader sphere. There is no issue of embarrassment. The rabbi runs a blog for self-promotion. Once someone puts themselves in the public sphere, then they open themselves up to criticism. I don’t accept your contention that somehow he should be spared criticism just because it may make him feel bad. I would never say this about someone who is just an individual. But the person running this blog is promoting themselves as a rabbi and writing as an authority, and if he is not qualified, then he should be called on it. There is no sin involved.

            • HP-Edison

              I am not with you, Appaled. There is much a Rav must know. Sufficient academic Hebrew to read Ne’echaz B’svach is not one of the criteria. Being able to read the primary sources cited in the work – yes. And I suspect R Fink possesses that ability.

    • HP-Edison

      Impressive. I assume that you can also parse a difficult Tosafos and handle all shu”t thrown your way? BTW have you read Ne’echaz B’svach or are you simply assuming your Hebrew skills are sufficiently strong?

      • BT

        I haven’t read that particular book but have read other similar works.
        Yes I am able to learn Tosafot and Shut. I did that for 5 years full time in yeshiva.