Skeletons in the Closet of Hasidism
Popular demands for transparency in our institutions and the availability of technological means to achieve it have made it hard to keep secrets. This has affected the conduct not only of government and business but also of religion. In the Jewish community, repeated revelations of scandal—financial, sexual, or otherwise—have especially tarnished the reputation of right-wing Orthodoxy, whose relative insularity had kept from public scrutiny a steady accretion of questionable behavior.
Particularly ingrown, and therefore highly susceptible to self-serving versions of reality, are the many sects that make up the movement of Hasidism, each professing devotion to a charismatic and presumably infallible "rebbe" and his dynastic successors. Indeed, ever since its obscure beginnings in late-18th-century Ukraine, accounts of Hasidism have constituted a kind of battlefield of clashing opinions, with proponents and enthusiasts representing the movement as one thing and antagonists, both within traditionalist Judaism and without, as something else altogether.
So it was no surprise that a Hebrew book about skeletons lurking in the hasidic closet should have elicited a fiercely polarized reaction when first published in 2006. Israeli secularists and rationalists welcomed the book as a telling exposé of a cult built on anti-intellectualism, intolerance, and power-hunger, while those Hasidim who became aware of the book's existence painted it as but the latest installment in a 250-year campaign of anti-hasidic lies and defamations. Actually, it is neither. As its recently released English version, Untold Tales of the Hasidism, attests, the book is instead a careful piece of detective work whose author, David Assaf, a professor of modern Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, has undertaken at great pains to disentangle truth from myth.
At Assaf's disposal stand both the traditional tools of the Jewish historian—in this case, published and unpublished accounts from Jewish, Russian, and Polish sources—and newly available archival records in formerly Soviet countries. The leading hasidic figures who emerge from his pages resemble neither the metaphysical kabbalists described by the historian Gershom Scholem, nor the charming humanists conjured up by the religious philosopher Martin Buber—nor, certainly, the flawless and spiritually transcendent figures of movement legend. They are far more interesting.
As Assaf defines the challenge facing him, hasidic writers themselves begin with the assumption that "our forefathers, the leaders of their generations, are in paradise, and their honor is sacrosanct." Official accounts therefore censor, delete, airbrush, and explain away in the interests of producing "history as it should have been." Presenting six case studies of controversial episodes, Assaf proceeds to lay out their hasidic interpretations, juxtaposing these with alternative accounts and sifting the contending evidence to arrive at a considered judgment of what most likely happened.
Separate chapters treat the contrasting careers of two hasidic rebbes: the Ukrainian Akiva Shalom Chajes, who lived in the mid-19th century, and Menachem Nahum Friedman of Romania (1879-1935). The former, who began as an outspoken enemy of Hasidism, turned into an enthusiastic supporter; was the motivating factor heartfelt conversion, or the prospect of a rabbinic pulpit? The latter managed to function as an old-style rebbe even while writing and preaching a kind of "modern" Orthodoxy, open to secular thought and Zionism and opposed to fanaticism; why? Two other chapters deal with controversial episodes: the fall from a window of the charismatic leader known as the Seer of Lublin (a physical acting-out of his unsuccessful effort to bring the messiah, the result of drunkenness, or, perhaps, a suicide attempt?) and the vicious physical persecution of Bratslav Hasidim at the hands of other hasidic groups (was it because, in defiance of sectarian norms, they refused to name a new rebbe after the death of their founder, or did their pacifism invite aggression?).
Most riveting are the first and final chapters, both of which illustrate the sometimes tragic difficulties involved in the generational transmission of dynastic hasidic leadership. In the first, Assaf deals with the allegation that Moshe, a son of Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liady, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, converted to Christianity. This is an old story, widely bruited about by 19th-century maskilim ("Enlightened" Jews) to account for Moshe's mysterious disappearance from the scene. The charge was consistently denied by Chabad, which explained the disappearance in ways suggesting great spiritual strivings. Buttressed by a baptismal certificate filed in Ukrainian archives, Assaf pieces together the truth: Moshe, who since childhood had intermittently suffered from some form of mental illness, did indeed convert to Catholicism in 1820, and probably died in a mental hospital soon afterward. (Chabad spokesmen have responded to Assaf's revelation by claiming that the certificate was forged or that Moshe had been tricked into a sham conversion.)
In the final chapter, we learn about an astounding and previously unknown letter written in 1910 by Rabbi Yitzhak Nahum Twersky of Shpikov, scion of a renowned hasidic family, to the secular Yiddish writer Yaakov Dinezon. In it, Twersky, on the eve of his marriage to the daughter of the Belzer rebbe, complains that, as a rebbe's son, he has been forced to suppress his ardor for truth and beauty, culture and good taste, being stuck instead in a "tiny, ugly world" of "hallucinations and nonsense," "boorishness, . . . wretchedness, and ugliness." Only his upcoming marriage, he writes, which looms like a kind of death sentence, could have prompted this "confession of my tortured, afflicted soul."
The aftermath of this private thunderclap? Assaf reports that the marriage in fact turned out well, and that Twersky, whatever his inner torments, ably performed his functions as a rebbe until the Nazis killed him and his family at Belzec in 1942.
In sum, and notwithstanding the bifurcated polemical reactions to its Hebrew original, Untold Tales is not an exercise in scoring points either against or for Hasidim. Rather, Assaf, who is careful not to generalize about the movement as a whole, brings to the fore a gallery of actual, flawed human beings caught between a demanding familial religious tradition encompassing all aspects of life and the modern values of freedom and individuality. Of course, for most Jews today, the very notion of a binding tradition has been rendered so obsolete that the agonizing inner turmoil of Assaf's Hasidim is more likely to arouse curiosity than empathy. But for Orthodox Jews and others who retain a commitment to the transmission of past wisdom and religious commandment, with whatever modulations today's dilemmas and opportunities may have imposed, the conflicts that beset this book's protagonists are bound to resonate.
As for those who still adhere to the principle that religious authority trumps intellectual honesty, Assaf's remarkable detective work suggests that, one way or another, cover-ups will eventually be uncovered.
Lawrence Grossman is the editor of the American Jewish Year Book.