My review of David Assaf’s Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism in the latest issue of Commentary: THOUGH much of contemporary popular culture seems to have been drained of even the slightest remnant of modesty or restraint, there are still some sectors where respect for the memories of the deceased and the privacy of the living, and concern for the ideological underpinnings of society, serve as powerful deterrents to candid tellall histories. The Hasidic movement is one such culture. Though its history is as replete with complex personalities as any, it has been told for the most part through tales about its leaders that leave little room for questions about faith or personal rectitude.

The Battlefields of Hasidic History

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My review of David Assaf’s Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism in the latest issue of Commentary (link):

THOUGH much of contemporary popular culture seems to have been drained of even the slightest remnant of modesty or restraint, there are still some sectors where respect for the memories of the deceased and the privacy of the living, and concern for the ideological underpinnings of society, serve as powerful deterrents to candid tellall histories. The Hasidic movement is one such culture. Though its history is as replete with complex personalities as any, it has been told for the most part through tales about its leaders that leave little room for questions about faith or personal rectitude.

David Assaf, in Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism, digs deep into a pile of scandals from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The book’s title promises tantalizing details that will remove the veil of righteousness from the pious. But this is no mere scandal sheet about a religious group that has jealously guarded nasty secrets from public scrutiny. It is a demanding exercise of historical study that exhaustively analyzes all the evidence surrounding some controversial episodes in an attempt to arrive at a balanced, if belated, truth.

Continued here (link – subscription required).

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

27 comments

  1. I recently read the same author’s biography of R Yisrael of Rozin (the progenitor of Sadigorer chassidism; as far as I can tell no connection to the Rizin chassidim descended from Ishbitza). While he exposes many less than ideal facts about R Yisrael, it is clear that he still holds him in high regard. I came away from the book feeling that the overall respect one holds for the true positive aspects of a great personality while also recognizing the deficiencies is greater than the respect one holds for a fictionalized ideal.

  2. Very tantelizing opening to your commentary review, Gil. Congratulations on being published in such an august publication.

    Unfortunately I can’t afford a subscrition in order to finish it. I realize that you probably have an ethical responsibilty to honor your likely commitment to Commentary to not publish your article mon your blog. But for those of us that cannot afford subscritions to online magazines – can you synopsize it? Especially since you have posted such an enticing opening?

  3. I believe readers are able to buy single articles.

  4. Does he discuss the “Black Sabbath” of the Kotzker?

    How about the psychoanalysis treatment of the 5th Rebbe of Chabad?

  5. Kudos and Yasher Koach for a great article that was published in a superb magazine that has been my monthly dosage of intellectual sanity for years.

  6. Fotheringay-Phipps

    I’ve read the book in the original Hebrew, and I don’t know how the English might differ.

    A very good book, but for the most part doesn’t deliver, in that most of the controversies are about highly obscure people or are otherwise irrelevant. His intro, in which he goes into a whole bunch of detail about censorship and historical revisionism generally, is the best part of the book.

    Re the Kotzker, he doesn’t really discuss it other. He did mention that the notion that the Kotzker put out the candles is an error and results from confusion between the Kotzker and Berenyu of Liozna (son of the Rizhiner). [Although now that I think about it, I don’t remember if even that was in this book, or his book on the Rizhiner (also a very good book), or in his comments about the scandal book in a thread on the subject on the B’Chadrei Charedim message board.]

  7. I also read the Riziner book, which is a pretty interesting. What he’s doing can be seen in two ways. The first is that he bent over backwards to give a favorable interpretation to the rebbe’s abilities and leadership. There were so many places where the Riziner is vulnerable, and yet Asaf refrained from the obvious criticism. He presented the facts and kept on going. The other reading is that Asaf knows there are apects to this particular chasidus that are controversial, and that the maskilim of the period were all too happy to point out. One example is the rebbe didn’t know how to write very well or sign his name easily, and was in general not very learned in Torah. Everything seems more objective because Asaf refrained from piling on.

    I think both books are written the same general thesis, to wit that there was a gross overidealization of these tzadikim that was not in any way realistic.In response, one might argue that it is most important that the chasidim believe that the tzadik and his tefilot can accomplish wonders in heaven and bring good fortune to his flock. The reality of what the tzadik actually accomplishes, his track record so to speak, might be interesting to know but not crucial for the rebbe chasid relationship.

  8. F-P: My main point in my review is that Assaf bursts many myths, desensationalizing them. Much of the history written by parties on all sides — Chasidim, Misnagdim and Maskilim — is untrue. Assaf shows how many of the accusations against Chasidim are false and many mythical defenses are also false.

  9. Fotheringay-Phipps

    I don’t recall that, although it’s been several years since I read the book and I could be forgetting. What I remember is:

    1. He established at length that the BHT’s son converted to Christianity. (The significance of this is unclear, since he acknowleges that he suffered from a mental illness.)

    2. He discusses that the Chozeh may have fallen to his death while drunk on Simchas Torah. (There’s no real evidence one way or the other.)

    3. He goes into the history of antagonism to Breslov. No big revelations here.

    4. He discusses some obscure rebbish-einikel type who was a self-hating chosid as a youth, but eventually calmed down and served as a rabbi for many years.

    5. He discusses another semi-obscure rebbish-einikel type who had “maskilic” views on a lot of subjects.

    As I remember it now, there were seven subjects dealt with, so I must be missing a couple. But in sum, while there are quite a lot of interesting nitty gritty details, I don’t think it would change the perspective of many people. (Of course, it would change the pespective of a rebbe-worshipping chosid, but only if he would believe the book, which he would believe Assaf’s claims, which he wouldn’t (or even read it to begin with). A rebbe-worshipping chosid doesn’t get that way by exposing himself to this type of thing, let alone believing it.)

  10. >(Assaf, rather irresponsibly, speculates that it was a suicide.)

    What’s “irresponsible” about it so long as he doesn’t obscure that it’s a conjecture? Are the “others [who]contend it was a drunken mishap while vomiting or relieving himself out the window” also irresponsible?

    People don’t often fall out of a window entirely by accident. Should we assume he had a seizure?

  11. >1. He established at length that the BHT’s son converted to Christianity. (The significance of this is unclear, since he acknowledges that he suffered from a mental illness.)

    The significance is that the Chabad movement covers it up, pretends Moshenyu was a great rav/tzadik without blemish, the conversion was faked by the enemies of Chassidus, etc.

    They often cover up the non-frum descendents. Fischl Schneerson doesn’t appear on the genealogy charts of the Baal haTanya – author of an autobiographical novel “Hayim Gravitzer” (can be found on archive.org) about a guy who becomes disillusioned with Chabad and leaves.

    Or my old neighbor, quite non-religious, who claimed that her great-grandfather was R’ Reuven Zelig Bengis, head of the Edah Charedis in the 1940s-50s, but I can’t find any mention of her on R’ Bengis’ genealogies online. The other explanation is that she was mistaken, of course.

  12. The significance is two-fold. On the one hand, he did in fact convert contra the Lubavitch historians. But also it wasn’t a huge scandal because he was mentally I’ll contra the Maskilic historians.

  13. Who cares about one Lubavitcher converting to Christianity when the entire MOVEMENT has converted to something like Christianity in the last 15 years?

  14. Fotheringay-Phipps

    “The significance is that the Chabad movement covers it up, pretends Moshenyu was a great rav/tzadik without blemish, the conversion was faked by the enemies of Chassidus, etc.”

    OK, but if the whole significance is the coverup, that’s old news. Like I said, he gives a lot of examples of this in his intro. But the conversion itself is of little significance.

    There was one very interesting point that came out in the discussion on B’Chadrei Charedim. Assaf himself participated in the discussion and did one of the Chabad historians who he had disagreed with. And the Chabad guy destroyed him on one important point. He made the general point that a guy like Assaf, who is not a native Chabadsker, would naturally be highly prone to misunderstanding his sources, since he wouldn’t understand the nuances of language and culture. And then he gave a striking example.

    Assaf relies a lot on a letter from the Mitteler Rebbe (son of the BHT) to some chassidim of his, in which he refers to the troubles from “our brother”, who, “when drinking”, says that “Chassidus is empty”. Assaf makes numerous references throughout the book to the fact that Moshe had problems with alcohol and was (sometimes) opposed to Chassidus. The Chabad guy interprets the whole thing in a completely different light.

    “Our brother” is not Moshe, but R’ Aaron of Staroshile, the BHT’s leading disciple and rival of the Mitteler Rebbe for the leadership of Chabad. “When drinking” is not a reference to an alcohol problem, but to the part of the tisch when a lechayim is drunk and the Rebbe talks about Chassidus. “Chassidus is empty” is not a derogatory remark about chassidus in general, but a criticism of the MR specifically, who RA Staroshile (& others) felt was not a true master of Chassidus and had little to offer in that regard.

    Once you see it pointed out to you, it’s clearly correct for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is that the MR would be a lot likelier to be writing to some of his chassidim about his struggles with RAS than about his mentally ill brother.

    It’s a relatively small point in the scheme of things, but it’s significant because if you read the book with numerous references to the alcohol and chassidus issue, it never occurs to you to think that this is all based on one misinterpretation of a letter. Point of which is that a healthy skepticism is in order when reading these types of things.

    [The Chadrei Charedim discussion would probably have been even more interesting, were it not for the fact that Assaf and the Chabad historian had a falling out early on in the discussion with the result that one – I think Assaf – got all insulted and refused to respond to anything the other one said thereafter.]

    BTW, FWIW, the Chabad guy did not claim anything like what you say the Chabad movement claims. His position was that Moshe was mentally ill and was thus taken advantage of by the nobleman who got him drunk on punch and pressured him to convert in that state. The basis for this claim was that the MR and his other brothers wrote this in a letter to the authorities. He claims that they would have been taking a big risk in making this claim if it were untrue. Regardless, I do believe there is room for doubt about this angle, since he was mentally ill by all accounts, the church was pretty powerful in Czarist Russia, and the government didn’t have much regard for the rights of its citizens especially Jewish ones.

    The main guy responsible for the myth that you describe is apparently RYYS, aka the Shver. But he was a notorious mythmaker of longstanding, so no great revelations there either.

  15. lawrence kaplan

    Gil: You didn’t respond to Thanbo’s (actually Assaf’s) point. The conversion of the BHT’s son is itself not signifcant since he was mentaly ill. Its significance lies in the subsequent Habad coverup. After all, how can a good Habad Hasid admit that the son of the BHT was mentally ill?

  16. The official chabad history book Beis Rebbi (in Yiddish) available at yiddishbookcenter.org does not deny the story with the BHT’s son. He does fabricate a story about his subsequent teshuva, but the lie is so obvious, nobody will be fooled unless he wanted to be. The fact that he is not spoken about daily does not mean he has been denied from their history. It is just that they feel uncomfortable about him, like a painful scab they prefer not to pick.

  17. Dr. Kaplan: There is nothing to respond to. That’s my main point.

  18. I’m delighted that my book is being discussed here. just a short response to some of Fotheringay-Phipps’s points:

    1. The “one of the Chabad historians” (Rabbi Shalom Dov Levin to be precise)attacked me in the above mentioned discussion for many reasons. Among them is that I exposed his self censorship of a Russian document that he published regarding the Miteller rebbe’s imprisonment, in which the term “our brother” related directly to the one who converted, i.e Moshe and not Rabbi Aharon (see my Hebrew book, p. 69). If you want to believe that drinking alcohol relates to the Tish and speaking harshly againt the Hasidut relates to R. Ahron’s way of speaking – so Zadik be-emunato yichye…

    2. I end the discussion with him because he dared to blame me that I fabricted documents and purposlly covered the truth (or what he thinks is the truth).

    3. As some of the respondents above comment: the conversion itself is not important – though it is a great story of warring narratives – what matters is the historiographical aspects of this story, i.e. the coverup. The last phase in Habad’s approach, which resulted only because of my research, was that finally they admitted that Moshe was ill and was not a holy saint (as was the common beliefe until recently).

  19. Fotheringay-Phipps

    Professor Assaf,

    1. I do indeed believe that you are almost certainly incorrect about the letter (especially as you acknowledged that the MR did refer elsewhere to RA Staroshile as “our brother”).

    2. It’s a shame anyway, because the readers were deprived of what would have been a more interesting exchange.

    3. More important than any of that, what else do you have in the works (or have you come out with anything since this book & the Rizhiner one)? Someone speculated that you were preparing a book about Berenyu (since he should otherwise have been included in Ne’echaz).

  20. Fotheringay-Phipps

    Re the first point, I should add that the Russian document is simply (IIRC) some Russian government official interpreting the MR’s letter about “our brother” (which the gov had intercepted or seized) as being about his brother Moshe. That’s worth nothing – there’s no way in the world some Russian goy is going to understand this type of thing – and I don’t think Levin can be blamed for ignoring it.

  21. I found the book interesting because it was refreshingly more researched in its approach and analysis than the one by Heilman and Friedman. The difference between the two books perhaps lies in the difference between historical analysis and sociological comment.

    The aspect of the book which I’d like to see expanded, and which has been mentioned in the comments is the so called unreliability of the Rayatz as a source of history. The last Rebbe clearly venerated him and questioned him as a reliable source for many Minhagei Chabad.

  22. Is the book a complete translation?

  23. No. A lot is missing from the translation, particularly the endnotes.

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