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Hasidism, Havurot, and the Jewish Street
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Jewish Social Studies 10.2 (2004) 20-54

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

It took Hasidism only two or three decades to establish an efficient, long-lasting leadership in the Jewish communities throughout the territory of pre-partitioned Poland. This rapid spread of the new movement within the traditionally homogeneous Jewish society required much more than an appealing religious ideology. To gain power over East European Jewry, Hasidism had to become a full-fledged social movement as well. The transformation of Hasidism from a religious philosophy available to a few elitist and self-sufficient circles of Jewish mystics in Brody or Kuty in Eastern Galicia into a social movement available to any Jew in Berdichev or Warsaw was twofold. While Hasidism considerably changed the outlook of the Jewish society, above all its modus vivendi, the community simultaneously changed Hasidism, in the first place its modus operandi. The necessity to spread Hasidic ideas to the Jewish society at large—be it the idea of dvekut (cleaving to God) or that of the tsadik (spiritual leader)—compelled Hasidism to address Jewish society in its own communal language. In other words, in order to convey its ideological message Hasidism had to use the available communal forms and patterns. In turn, these communal patterns shaped the social message of Hasidism.

This article will cover only one aspect of the spread and transformation of Hasidism—namely, the role of havurot (or hevrot), Jewish traditional self-governing institutions. Analyzing the relationship between the Hasidic movement and the institutions of Jewish communal organization in Eastern Europe, Shmuel Ettinger wrote: "The main obstacle has been the dislocation and probable destruction of the bulk of the evidence—the minute books (pinkasim) in which community councils (kehalim) as well as various societies (havurot) which operated within their organizational framework had kept their records for centuries." Ettinger reiterated his complaints about the "small number" of available original documents and "scarcity of communal records," upon which scholars relied in their "sweeping generalizations" as well as "far- fetched assumptions."

It was the rediscovery of a bulk of primary documents that radically changed the available pool of sources—namely, pinkasim, or record books of Jewish societies. I will analyze the relations between Hasidism and havurot through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, projected against broader geographical, social, and historical context, drawing from some 25 (out of 100 newly uncovered) pinkasim that originated from the Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev provinces. This article defines, systematizes, and comments on a variety of patterns of the encounter between Hasidism and havurot. It revisits the assumption that the spread of Hasidism did not alter the established patterns of communal administration. It introduces new methodology in the research of communal documents, and it provides insights into the sources previously unknown to scholarship.

Methodological Concerns

The transformation of Hasidism into a wide-ranging social movement is poorly documented and has, therefore, been neglected by scholarship. New trends in Jewish social studies have contributed to the reassessment of this important issue. However, beyond David Assaf's recently published monograph on Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin, Paul Radensky's dissertation on Rabbi David Twersky of Talnoe, and Glenn Dynner's ongoing research on the spread of early Polish Hasidism, almost no substantial survey exists of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century developments of Hasidism in terms of social history. Yet several insights suggested by Jewish social historians are worth mentioning, particularly in view of the fact that this article supports some of their insights with new documentary evidence, and raises questions concerning others.

As most historians have tended to see it, the spread of the Hasidic movement was promoted by vagabond preachers and healers who became sedentary tsadikim or Hasidic pietists who joined havurot and enforced halakhic rules, or by the decentralization of the traditional Jewish authority (kahal) and the emerging new forms of autonomous activity of the local Jewish communities, or by the Mishnah study societies that spiritually accommodated Jewish families in case of the loss of their nearest kin, or by the members of the professional (guild) societies who fostered the transformation of Hasidism into a genuine social movement. Nevertheless, one has to take into consideration that all of these ideas were...



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