Literature of and on Hasidism

The Hasidim wrote and told stories about their leaders.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

It has been estimated that some 3,000 Hasidic works have been published since the appearance of Jacob Joseph of Polonoyye’s Toledot Yaakov Yosef (Koretz, 1780) and Dov Baer of Mezhirech’s Maggid Devarav Le‑Yaakov (Koretz, 1781). This corpus consists in the main of works by the masters, early and late. The language of these works is rabbinic Hebrew but with numerous terms adopted from the Kabbalah. Generally speaking, while Kabbalistic vocabulary is maintained in these classical works, they cannot really be considered to be in the older Kabbalistic tradition since the masters interpret the Kabbalah, as they do the Bible and the Talmud, in the spirit of Hasidism.

[Scholar of mysticism] Gershom Scholem speaks of Hasidism as the “interiorization of the Kabbalah.” That is to say, the Hasidic teachers are far less interested in the relationships among the Sefirot on high than in the human psychological processes on earth. In fact, many of the masters, but not all, tend to see too much concentration on the older, extremely complex Kabbalistic system as frustrating the Hasidic ideal of dvekut. The mind of the worshipper cannot realistically be on the details of the Sefirotic map and at the same time on God.

The major works of the masters have gone into numerous editions and are studied assiduously by the Hasidim, whatever particular dynasty they happen to belong to. These works are called “holy books,” taking their place, for the Hasidim, beside the Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar, as sacred literature the study of which counts as the study of the Torah. Some of the masters were accomplished Talmudists and Halakhists, producing works in this genre. But in this activity they function as traditional Talmudists and Halakhists, making hardly any reference to specifically Hasidic themes.

Hasidism from the beginning saw great value in the stories told by the Hasidim of the mighty deeds of the Rebbes. The older Hasidim would tell these tales to the younger men, who would sit around the teller with bated breath. While the tales are full of ethical and religious sayings of the Zaddikim [the Hasidic leaders], they are chiefly intended to demonstrate the power of the saints to work miracles. Both the Mitnagdim [those who opposed Hasidism] and the Maskilim [proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment] poured scorn on the exaggerations in Hasidic hagiography, considering the telling of the tales as nothing but a frivolous waste of time. At first, these tales circulated by word of mouth but, in the nineteenth century, numerous collections of Hasidic tales were published, some more sophisticated and religiously significant than others.

In addition to the expository and hagiographical works, letters of the rebbes and accounts of their lives have been published. These have been used extensively, but with caution by the historians of Hasidism in their attempts to reconstruct Hasidic life in the past. The literature on the Hasidic movement is similarly vast. The Maskilim Isaac Erter and Joseph Perl published satires, often biased and unfair, on Hasidic life. S. M. Dubnow’s History of Hasidism is the only complete history of the movement. Dubnow’s study has to be supplemented by the scholarly researches of Scholem and his school. There are numerous studies, in Hebrew and English, of individual masters and their teachings.

Two helpful anthologies of Hasidic sayings [and teachings] are: The Hasidic Anthology by Louis I. Newman (New York, 1944) and the two volumes by Martin Buber: Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (New York, 1947) and Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters (New York, 1948). Buber is the founder of neo‑Hasidism, the attempt to apply Hasidic teachings to the religious life of Western man. It has to be noted, however, that Buber largely ignores the Hasidic works of doctrine and relies mainly on the Hasidic tales, which he retells to suit his own I and Thou philosophy.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.