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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook


A critical attitude toward the existing order of things could on occasions assert itself in the environment of Rabbinism, where the mind, though forced into the mould of scholasticism, was yet working at high speed. But such "heretical" thinking was utterly inconceivable in the dominant circles of Hasidism, where the intellect was rocked to sleep by mystical lullabies and fascinating stories of the miraculous exploits of the Tzsaddiks. The era of political and civil disfranchisement was a time of luxuriant growth for Hasidism, not in its creative, but rather in its stationary, not to say stagnant, phase.

The old struggle between Hasidism and Rabbinism had long been fought out, and the Tzaddiks rested on their laurels as teachers and miracle-workers. The Tzaddik dynasties were now firmly entrenched. In White Russia the sceptre lay in the hands of the Shneorsohn dynasty, the successors of the "Old Rabbi," Shneor Zalman, the progenitor of the Northern Hasidim. [1] The son of the "Old Rabbi," Baer, nicknamed "the Middle Rabbi" (1813-1828), and the latter's son-in-law Mendel Lubavicher [2] (1828-1866) succeeded one another on the hasidic "throne" during this period, with a change in their place of residence. Under Rabbi Zalman the townlets of Lozno and Ladi served as "capitals"; under his successors, they were Ladi and Lubavichi. The three localities are all situated on the border-line of the governments of Vitebsk and Moghilev, in which the Hasidim of the _Habad_ persuasion [3] formed either a majority, as was the case in the former government, or a substantial minority, as was the case in the latter.

[Footnote 1: See Vol. I, p. 372.]

[Footnote 2: From the townlet Lubavichi. See later in the text.]

[Footnote 3: Compare Vol. I, p. 234, n. 2.]

Rabbi Baer, the son and successor of the "Old Rabbi," did not inherit the creative genius of his father. He published many books, made up mostly of his Sabbath discourses, but they lack originality. His method is that of the talmudic _pilpul_, [1] transplanted upon the soil of Cabala and Hasidism, or it consists in expatiating upon the ideas contained in the _Tanyo_. [2] The last years of Rabbi Baer were darkened by the White Russian catastrophes, the expulsion from the villages in 1823, and the ominous turn in the ritual murder trial of Velizh. On his death-bed he spoke to those around him about the burning topic of the day, the conscription ukase of 1827.

[Footnote 1: i.e., Dialectics. Comp. Vol. I, p. 122.]

[Footnote 2: The title of the philosophic treatise of Rabbi Shneor Zalman. See Vol. I, p. 372, n. 1.]

His successor Rabbi Mendel Lubavicher proved an energetic organizer of the hasidic masses. He was highly esteemed not only as a learned Talmudist--he wrote rabbinical _novellae and response--and as a preacher of Hasidism, but also as a man of great practical wisdom, whose advice was sought by thousands of people in family matters no less than in communal and commercial affairs. This did not present him from being a decided opponent of the new enlightenment. In the course of Lilienthal's educational propaganda in 1843, Rabbi Mendel was summoned by the Government to participate in the deliberations of the Rabbinical Committee at St. Petersburg. There he found himself in a tragic situation. He was compelled to give his sanction to the Crown schools, although he firmly believed that they were subversive of Judaism, not only because they were originated by Russian officials, but also because they were intended to impart secular knowledge. The hasidic legend narrates that the Tzaddik pleaded before the Committee passionately, and often with tears in his eyes, not only to retain in the new schools the traditional methods of Bible and Talmud instruction, but also to make room in their curriculum for the teaching of the Cabala. Nevertheless, Rabbi Mendel was compelled to endorse against his will the "godless" plan of a school reform, and a little later to prefix his approbation to a Russian edition of Mendelssohn's German Bible translation. His attitude toward contemporary pedagogic methods may be gauged from the epistle addressed by him in 1848 to Leon Mandelstamm, Lilienthal's successor in the task of organizing the Jewish Crown schools. In this epistle Rabbi Mendel categorically rejects all innovations in the training of the young. In reply to a question concerning the edition of an abbreviated Bible text for children, he trenchantly quotes the famous medieval aphorism:

  The Pentateuch was written by Moses at the dictation of God. Hence   every word in it is sacred. There is no difference whatsoever   between the verse "And Timna was the concubine" (Gen. 36. 12) and   "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deut 6. 4). [1]

[Footnote 1: See Maimonides' exposition of the dogma of the divine origin of the Torah in his Mishnah Commentary, _Sanhedrin_, chapter X.]

Withal, the leaders of the Northern Hasidim were, comparatively speaking, "men of the world," and were ready here and there to make concessions to the demands of the age. Quite different were the Tzaddiks of the South-west. They were horrified by the mere thought of such concessions. They were surrounded by immense throngs of Hasidim, unenlightened, ecstatic, worshipping saints during their lifetime.

The most honored among these hasidic dynasties was that of Chernobyl. [1] It was founded in the Ukraina toward the end of the eighteenth century by an itinerant preacher, or Maggid, called Nahum. [2] His son Mordecai, known under the endearing name "Rabbi Motele" (died in 1837), attracted to Chernobyl enormous numbers of pilgrims who brought with them ransom money, or _pidyons_. [3] Mordecai's "Empire" fell asunder after his death. His eight sons divided among themselves the whole territory of the Kiev and Volhynia province.

[Footnote 1: A townlet in the government of Kiev.]

[Footnote 2: See Vol. I, p. 382.]

[Footnote 3: The term is used in the Bible to denote a sum of money which "redeems" or "ransoms" a man from death, as in the case of a person guilty of manslaughter (Ex. 22. 30) or that of the first-born son (Ex. 13. 13; 34. 20). The Hasidim designate by this term the contributions made to the Tzaddik, in the belief that such contributions have the power of averting from the contributor impending death or misfortune.]

Aside from the original center in Chernobyl, seats of Tzaddiks were established in the townlets of Korostyshev, Cherkassy, Makarov, Turisk, Talno, Skvir and Rakhmistrovka. This resulted in a disgraceful rivalry among the brothers, and still more so among their hasidic adherents. Every Hasid was convinced that reverence was due only to his own "Rebbe," [1] and he brushed aside the claims of the other Tzaddiks. Whenever the adherents of the various Tzaddiks met, they invariably engaged in passionate "party" quarrels, which on occasions, especially after the customary hasidic drinking bouts, ended in physical violence.

[Footnote 1: Popular pronunciation of the word "rabbi," A hasidic Tzaddik is designated as "Rebbe," in distinction from the rabbi proper, or the _Rav_ (in Russia generally pronounced _Rov_), who discharges the rabbinical functions within the community.]

The whole Chernobyl dynasty found a dangerous rival in the person of the Tzaddik Israel Ruzhiner (of Ruzhin), the great-grandson of Rabbi Baer, the apostle of Hasidism, known as the "Mezhiricher Maggid." [1] Rabbi Israel settled in Ruzhin, a townlet in the government of Kiev, about 1815, and rapidly gained fame as a saint and miracle-worker. His magnificent "court" at Ruzhin was always crowded with throngs of Hasidim. Their onrush was checked by special "gentlemen in waiting," the so-called _gabba'im,_ who were very fastidious in admitting the people into the presence of the Tzaddik--dependent upon the size of the proffered gifts. Israel drove out in a gorgeous carriage, surrounded by a guard of honor. The gubernatorial administration of Kiev, presided over by the ferocious Governor-General Bibikov, received intimations to the effect "that the Tzaddik of Ruzhin wielded almost the power of a Tzar" among his adherents, who did not stir with out his advice. The police began to watch the Tzaddik, and at length found an occasion for a "frame-up."

[Footnote 1: On Rabbi Baer see Vol. I, p. 229 et seq.]

When, in 1838, the Kahal of Ushitza, in the government of Podolia, was implicated in the murder of an informer, [1] Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin was arrested on the charge of abetting the murder. The hasidic "Tzar" languished in prison for twenty-two months. He was finally set free and placed under police surveillance. But he soon escaped to Austria, and settled in 1841 in the Bukovina, in the townlet of Sadagora, near Chernovitz, where he established his new "court." Many Hasidim in Russia now made their pilgrimage abroad to their beloved Tzaddik; in addition, new partisans were won among the hasidic masses of Galicia and the Bukovina. Rabbi Israel died in 1850, but the "Sadagora dynasty" branched out rapidly, and proved a serious handicap to modern progress during the stormy epoch of emancipation which followed in Austria soon afterwards.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 84 et seq.]

Another hot-bed of the Tzaddik cult was Podolia, the cradle of Hasidism. In the old residence of Besht, [1] in Medzhibozh, the sceptre was held by Rabbi Joshua Heshel Apter, who succeeded Besht's grandson, Rabbi Borukh of Tulchyn. [2] For a number of years, between 1810 and 1830, the aged Joshua Heshel was revered as the nestor of Tzaddikism, the haughty Israel of Ruzhin being the only one who refused to acknowledge his supremacy. Heshel's successor was Rabbi Moyshe Savranski, who established a regular hasidic "court," after the pattern of Chernobyl and Ruzhin.

[Footnote 1: See Vol. I, p. 222 et seq.]

[Footnote 2: See Vol. I, p. 384.]

The only Tzaddik to whom it was not given to be the founder of a dynasty was the somewhat eccentric Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, [1] a great-grandson of Besht. After his death, the Bratzlav Hasidim, who followed the lead of his disciple Rabbi Nathan, suffered cruel persecutions at the hands of the other hasidic factions. The "Bratzlavers" adopted the custom of visiting once a year, during the High Holidays, the grave of their founder in the city of Uman, in the government of Kiev, and subsequently erected a house of prayer near his tomb. During these pilgrimages they were often the target of the local Hasidim who reviled and often maltreated them. The "Bratzlavers" were the Cinderella among the Hasidim, lacking the powerful patronage of a living Tzaddik. Their heavenly patron, Rabbi Nahman, could not hold his own against his living rivals, the earthly Tzaddiks--all too earthly perhaps, in spite of their saintliness.

[Footnote 1: A town in Podolia. See Vol. I, p. 382 et seq.]

The Tzaddik cult was equally diffused in the Kingdom of Poland. The place of Rabbi Israel of Kozhenitz and Rabbi Jacob-Isaac of Lublin, who together marshalled the hasidic forces during the time of the Varsovian duchy, was taken by founders and representatives of new Tzaddik dynasties. The most popular among these were the dynasty of Kotzk, [1] established by Rabbi Mendel Kotzker (1827-1859), and that of Goora Kalvaria, [2] or Gher, [3] founded by Rabbi Isaac Meier Alter [4] (about 1830-1866). The former reigned supreme in the provinces, the latter in the capital of Poland, in Warsaw, which down to this day has remained loyal to the Gher dynasty.

[Footnote 1: A town not far from Warsaw. Comp. Vol. I, p. 303, n. 1.]

[Footnote 2: In Polish, _Gora Kalwarya_, a town on the left bank of the Vistula, not far from Warsaw.]

[Footnote 3: This form of the name is used by the Jews.]

[Footnote 4: Called popularly in Poland _Reb Itche Meier_, a name still frequently found among the Jews of Warsaw, who to a large extent are adherents of the "Gher dynasty."]

The Polish "Rebbes" [1] resembled by the character of their activity the type of the Northern, or _Habad_, Tzaddiks rather than those of the Ukraina. They did not keep luxurious "courts," did not hanker so greedily after donations, and laid greater emphasis on talmudic scholarship.

[Footnote 1: See p. 120, n. 1.]

Hasidism produced not only leaders but also martyrs, victims of the Russian police regime. About the time when the Tzaddik of Ruzhin fell under suspicion, the Russian Government began to watch the Jewish printing-press in the Volhynian townlet of Slavuta. The owners of the press were two brothers, Samuel-Abba and Phinehas Shapiro, grandsons of Besht's companion, Rabbi Phinehas of Koretz. The two brothers were denounced to the authorities as persons issuing dangerous mystical books from their press, without the permission of the censor. This denunciation was linked up with a criminal case, the discovery in the house of prayer, which was attached to the printing-press, of the body of one of the compositors who, it was alleged, had intended to lay bare the activities of the "criminal" press before the Government. After a protracted imprisonment of the two Slavuta printers in Kiev, their case was submitted to Nicholas I. who sentenced them to _Spiessruten_ [1] and deportation to Siberia. During the procedure of running the gauntlet, while passing through the lines of whipping soldiers, one of the brothers had his cap knocked off his head. Unconcerned by the hail of lashes from which he was bleeding, he stopped to pick up his cap so as to avoid going bare-headed, [2] and then resumed his march between the two rows of executioners. The unfortunate brothers were released from their Siberian exile during the reign of Alexander II.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 85, n. 1.]

[Footnote 2: According to an ancient Jewish notion, which is current throughout the Orient, baring the head is a sign of frivolity and disrespect towards God.]

Hasidic life exhibited no doubt many examples of lofty idealism and moral purity. But hand in hand with it went an impenetrable spiritual gloom, boundless credulity, a passion for deifying men of a mediocre and even inferior type, and the unwholesome hypnotizing influence of the Tzaddiks. Spiritual self-intoxication was accompanied by physical. The hasidic rank and file, particularly in the South-west, began to develop an ugly passion for alcohol. Originally tolerated as a means of producing cheerfulness and religious ecstasy, drinking gradually became the standing feature of every hasidic gathering. It was in vogue at the court of the Tzaddik during the rush of pilgrims; it was indulged in after prayers in the hasidic "Shtiblach," [1] or houses of prayer, and was accompanied by dancing and by the ecstatic narration of the miraculous exploits of the "Rebbe." [2] Many Hasidim lost themselves completely in this idle revelry and neglected their business affairs and their starving families, looking forward in their blind fatalism to the blessings which were to be showered upon them through the intercession of the Tzaddik.

[Footnote 1: The word, which is a diminutive of German _Stube_, "room," denotes, like the word _Klaus_, the room, or set of rooms, in which the Hasidim assemble for prayer, study, and recreation.]

[Footnote 2: See above, p, 120, n. 1.]

It would be manifestly unjust to view the hasidic indulgence in alcohol in the same light as the senseless drunkenness of the Russian peasant, transforming man into a beast. The Hasid drank, and in moderate doses at that, "for the soul," "to banish the grief which blunteth the heart," to arouse religious exultation and enliven his social intercourse with his fellow believers. Yet the consequences were equally sad. For the habit resulted in drowsiness of thought, idleness and economic ruin, insensibility to the outside world and to the social movements of the age, as well as in stolid opposition to cultural progress in general. It must be borne in mind that during the era of external oppression and military inquisition the reactionary force of Hasidism acted as the only antidote against the reactionary force from the outside. Hasidism and Tzaddikism were, so to speak, a sleeping draught which dulled the pain of the blows dealt out to the unfortunate Jewish populace by the Russian Government. But in the long run the popular organism was injuriously affected by this mystic opium. The poison rendered its consumers insensible to every progressive movement, and planted them firmly at the extreme pole of obscurantism, at a time when the Russian ghetto resounded with the first appeals calling its inmates toward the light, toward the regeneration and the uplift of inner Jewish life.

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