Chasidim do not hold a monopoly on Jewish stories even though the unique style of their tales resonates widely in literary circles. The Misnagdim, traditionalist opponents of Chasidic innovations, have their own rich collection of stories that describe the attitudes, good deeds, and legal and theological positions of Torah scholars and students. A Chasidic story, on the other hand, tells about rabbinic miracles, holy attitudes, and simple piety. A Misnagdic story requires study like a page of Talmud, a Chasidic story like a poem. While some Misnagdic and Chasidic masters acted differently from this stereotype, the generalization still has value.
Dovid Katz, writing in the flowery literary style of the greatest Yiddish authors, tells anti-Chasidic stories in his recently translated The City in the Moonlight: Stories of the Old-Time Lithuanian Jews (originally Misnagdishe Mayses Fun Vilner Gubernye). These are not Misnagdic stories but tales that follow the Chasidic formula, albeit concluding with Misnagdic messages that undermine the beliefs and attitudes they oppose. The English translator, Barnett Zumoff, suggests in his preface that only five of the thirteen stories directly contradict Chasidic thought. The others, he suggests, describe life in a Misnagdic world. I believe that all of the stories attack Chasidic beliefs, some more subtly than others.
The Misnagdim generally accepted Kabbalah in one form or another but within a rational outlook. Believing that mystical forces act in the world does not necessarily entail superstition and gullibility. Misnagdim were wary of mystical charlatans and skeptical of claims of supernatural deeds. They preferred sending someone to a psychologist rather than an exorcist even though they believed that a demonic dybbuk could require removal. This attitude comes to the fore in Katz’s Misnagdic tales, where mysticism and superstition are swept aside by rational, albeit traditionally religious, solutions.
In one story, “The Idol-Worshiper,” the unmarried, elderly son of a town’s deceased rabbi is passed over for the rabbinate in favor of a distant Chasidic rabbi and proceeds to become so mentally unbalanced that he worships an invented idolatry. Before Chasidic rabbis from far-away lands can arrive to remove the presumed dybbuk, the Misnagdic rabbi of a neighboring town uses Biblical wisdom to resolve the problem by insisting that the townspeople follow the legally binding will of the deceased rabbi. The solution is not the magic of a mystic but the wisdom of a learned Torah scholar.
In “The Golem of Glubok,” we see two things: 1) the evolution of a mystical tale from a mundane accident — a person disfigured and rendered mute by a fire is compassionately called a “golem” by most of the town but one imagines legends arising about him in future generations, 2) he finds solace and reinvigoration in the study hall, devoting his long life to Torah learning.
For Misnagdim, Torah study is the ultimate act of religious devotion. It is not reserved for the elite but, rather, every Jew studies Torah on his own level, achieving spiritual success and joy in that study. In “If Not Even Wiser,” a Chasid follows a saintly Misnagdic rabbi who visits a sick, blind woman who lives alone. Rather than performing work for her, which other people can do more effectively, or attempting to heal her, which is a job for doctors, the rabbi teaches her the weekly Torah portion. The lady rejoices at the spiritual nourishment as she exits her lonely existence and enters the biblical and midrashic world, guided by the kind rabbi. Of course, the Chasid who witnessed the rabbi’s actions becomes a Misnaged.
“Rabeynu Gershom of Shumsk” is the fictional story of male descendants of the famous Medieval scholar, Rabbenu Gershom. They remained isolated from the rest of Jewish society and retained unique religious practices and interpretations. The remaining male descendant, a traditional rabbi but one with a separatist attitude and strange religious practices, publicly permits a previously forbidden activity — polygamy — for a personal motive — to raise a male heir and continue his legacy. This is certainly a thinly masked condemnation of Chasidic rabbis who adopted separatist attitudes, different practices, and halakhic rulings that could be cynically seen as self-serving.
The destruction of Lithuanian Jewry in the Holocaust did not end Misnagdic attitudes. They are still alive and well in the Yeshiva world but well hidden, subjugated to the Charedi coalition that unites Chasidim and Misnagdim (although less so in Israel). Students learn Misnagdic stories and attitudes from their yeshiva teachers but many fail to recognize them for what they are because it is politically incorrect to identify them as such. Yet the tradition continues. In this new volume of beautifully told stories, Dovid Katz revives a different kind of Misnaged, a regular townsman and not a yeshiva elite, who clings to traditional Judaism with a rational and even skeptical outlook.