Tales of the Opponents

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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.

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.

33 comments

  1. What nusach of t’filla, do these present-day Misnagdim use?

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    Perhaps it goes without saying, but let me point out that “If not Wiser” is a neat reversal of Peretz’s famous story “If not Higher.”

  3. “They preferred sending someone to a psychologist rather than an exorcist even though they believed that a demonic dybbuk could require removal. ”

    What period are you speaking about?

  4. IH: Ask them.

    Dr. Kaplan: Yes, the translator mentions that in his preface.

    S: 19th and early twentieth centuries. The book doesn’t actually mention psychologists. That’s my illustration of an attitude.

  5. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: Thanks. I figured as much.

  6. They would have called psychologists “alienists” back then, but they existed.

    This sounds like a parody of Nefesh HaRav (“Nofesh HaRav: Chassidishe stories about a Litvishe Rosh Yeshiva”) done by HaMevaser for Purim years ago.

    As to the conclusion, let’s just say that the fact that Hungary was allied to the Nazis- and thus, as in many Nazi allies, its Jewish population was relatively safe- and was not actually occupied by Germany until late in the war, while Lithuania was occupied as soon as Germany invaded the USSR, had a great affect on post-war Jewry.

  7. Great post!

  8. An intereting post. It is interesting that here in Israel the the Misnagdisch (usually called “Litai”)community has come very aggressive and introverted. Their earlier alliance with Rav Ovadia and Shas is falling apart even though the Sefaradim have assimilated litvish dress and manners ( sometimes ungraciously called Litvische Frenkim. The Chassidim`especially the big courts-Gur, Belz, Viscnitz are flourishing. Ironically they are finding a way to better deal with the general society, better than the “rationalist Litvaks)

  9. The Misnagdim generally accepted Kabbalah in one form or another but within a rational outlook.
    ===============================
    that sure is a mouthful! what is the underlying methodology for subsuming mystical paths within the rational derech?
    KT

  10. Yosef Morgan, MD

    2 short vortelich illustrate the difference between chassim and misnagdim. 1) The Kotzker Rebbe (d. 1859) is credited with saying Chassidim emphasize ahavas or yiras Shamayim (love or awareness of Heaven or Hashem) whereas Misnagdim emphasize fear (another meaning for the concept of yera) of violating the codes in the Shulchan Aruch or mistvos lo saesie.

    2) Chasidim wear a gartel, a rope or belt around their waists, to symbolically seperate their higher level functional body parts (thought, speech, concentration) from the lower body parts used to rid the body of metabolic waste products. Misnagdim wear a necktie to seperate their brains from their hearts.

    It is of course not surprising that their stories reflect these attitudes, albeit in a much more literary, tasteful, and subtle fashion than the above pithy comments. May each camp sing, eat, work and pray together, together with klal Yisrael and build a future that combines the best of tradition with the best of modernity, wordly engagement, and maturity.

  11. Nice vertlech, Dr. Morgan. Both, of course, very untrue.

    1) Chassidim today is all about fear, at least in some circles.

    2) The gartel is meant to separate the heart and head from the genitals, not the intestines. It’s a halacha that is kept by all, even if they don’t wear an actual gartel. I doubt the Gra wore a tie.

  12. Yiyasher koach. I think stories might be as important to misnagdim as they are to chasidim, its just that misnagdim dont make a whole torah of it.

  13. And yet it was a Chasidisher Rebbe that travelled to Vienna to consult Freud.

  14. Dr. Morgan: Those are Chasidic insults of Misnagdim. Misnagdim also have insults of Chasidim (Misnagdim wear gartels under their clothes, Chasidim on top — like kasher and pasul sifrei Torah, etc.). I don’t put too much stock in either.

  15. RH”S once told a story in shiur about how R’ Hayim Soloveichik was at a Kinnus in the early 20th century when someone asked him “how come we never hear chassidishe stories about Litvaks?”
    R. Hayim then proceeded to relate 50 “chassidishe” stories that happened to his father the Beis HaLevi.

  16. Does he spell “maaseh” as “mayseh”. I sure hope so 🙂

  17. MiMedinat HaYam

    all those old time chassidishe rebbe stories have an exact parallel with litvishe (however you call them) rov stories. many are reb levi yitzchak mi’berditchev stories and exact parallels with the gra.

  18. “R. Hayim then proceeded to relate 50 “chassidishe” stories that happened to his father the Beis HaLevi.”

    So much for the “rational, even skpetical outlook”.

  19. Untimately there are really only two Chasidic stories anyway:

    (1) Uneducated person wants to pray, but all he can do is hum or recite the alphabet, which leads to fantastic spiritual heights and Hashem answering all his requests.

    (2) Chasidic Rabbi ignores Halacha and/or learning and/or davening and does something nice (that anyone else could have done too).

    Mitnagdim is all about worship of Hashem and learning Torah.

    Chasidim is all about worship of a Rebbe and learning parables.

  20. DTC: The story as I heard it was that R. Chaim told stories that showed the Beis HaLevi’s wisdom, not mystical powers, and perhaps disdain for stories about Chasidic rebbes. For example, a chasid said his rebbe can perform miracles, what can the Beis HaLevi do? The Beis HaLevi put a ring under a table leg and said he can move it to the table by saying just one word. He then looked at his son and said “Chaim”, and his son picked up the ring and put it on the table.

  21. Anonymous: I think you’re being way too harsh

  22. Rafael: I took the spelling from here: http://dovidkatz.net/dovid/dovid_books.htm

  23. Sorry, I missed that. BTW, in reviewing the book, did you find any other words spelled according to the litvishe havoroh? For example, teyreh, Meyse Rabbeinu, etc.

  24. Rafael: They are all spelled according to academic Yiddish, so not Litvishe havoreh.

  25. Wow, this has been a productive comment session. [end sarcasm]

  26. In רשימות היומן, the collection of anecdotal material from the private journals of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, on page 196 there is mention of Reb Chaim Brisker telling a story about Reb Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev. Mentioning that barren women would become fertile upon hearing the latter recite “Keser”, Reb Chaim sought to prove that this was possible from Shas. The circumstance under which he told the story, and the story itself are recorded by Rabbi Rephael Kahn (father of Rabbi Yoel Kahn) as he heard it from the Rebbe Rayatz, who was present, in Shmuos Ve’sipurim Vol. 1 page 111.

  27. Fotheringay-Phipps

    There’s a fundamental difference between the old-time Chassidisher stories and Litvishe stories. The chassisher stories involve lengthy and detailed tales, such that it’s hard to imagine how they could have ever become known to begin with. These stories were undoubtedly invented from scratch (or possibly copied with changes from non-Jewish sources). Litvisher stories are like the stories you hear today. Some sort of incident happened, which got told over from one person to the next until it became famous. Generally it gets very mangled along the way, but it’s based on some sort of actual incident, which is why these stories tend to be much shorter and don’t involve the sort of lengthy romantic adventures (e.g. people travelling through forests and coming to a cottage with an old barren couple etc. etc.)

    From the the impression this post gives of the Misnagdic stories, I get the impression that these are of the Chassidic variety. If so they are a literary invention and do not represent legitimate folklore.

    Re dibukim, people say that the CC insisted that people get checked out by a doctor before assuming that they have a dibuk.

    Anonymous: “(1) Uneducated person wants to pray, but all he can do is hum or recite the alphabet, which leads to fantastic spiritual heights and Hashem answering all his requests.”

    This is actually a Medrash. (There is also a Chassidisher story along these lines in which the guy plays a flute.)

    Nachum: “As to the conclusion, let’s just say that the fact that Hungary was allied to the Nazis- and thus, as in many Nazi allies, its Jewish population was relatively safe- and was not actually occupied by Germany until late in the war, while Lithuania was occupied as soon as Germany invaded the USSR, had a great affect on post-war Jewry.”

    True, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Hungarian Jewry before the war was not nearly as Chassidish as it is today.

    ER: “The circumstance under which he told the story, and the story itself are recorded by Rabbi Rephael Kahn (father of Rabbi Yoel Kahn) as he heard it from the Rebbe Rayatz, who was present, in Shmuos Ve’sipurim Vol. 1 page 111.”

    The Rayatz was notoriously unreliable as a historical source.

  28. MiMedinat HaYam

    nachum — at the begining , it was claimed that the hungarian police were only after the “illegal aliens” jews who either escaped from poland, etc, or lived illegally in hungary for many many years. eventually, it led to increased out and out anti semitism, “munkotabu” (work camps; the claims conf says my father cannot collect cause he is listed as “volunteered” to the munkotabu), etc.

    by the time of shavuot 5704 (the day many hungarian jews have yarzeit today) the nazi killing machine was extremely efficient / effective.

  29. MiMedinat HaYam

    “illegal aliens”

    of course, only jews and roma ( = gypsys) were illegal aliens.

  30. Hassidim and Mitnagdim make similar mistakes.
    Mitnagdim think that they don’t NEED a Rebbe/
    Hassidim think that they HAVE a Rebbe/

  31. Have you also read these stories in their original, in Yiddish?

  32. Hirhurim: Anonymous: I think you’re being way too harsh

    Perhaps, but my experience with Chabad and Breslovers has certainly left me with this overall impression.

    I have been at a meal hosted by a Chabad family where almost the entire “halachic”-part of the conversation was a test by the father to a son along the lines of “In which book and on which page did the Rebbe say ‘this’?” over and over.

    And what about massive Hassidic gatherings where people eat the leftovers of some Rebbe’s food as if that imparts some kind of kedusha?

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