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Reviewed by:
  • Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism
  • Morris M. Faierstein, Independent scholar
Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism, by Shaul Magid. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. 400 pp. $45.00.

The Izbica/Radzin hasidic dynasty, founded by R. Mordecai Joseph of Izbica (1800–1854), was one of the most creative and controversial hasidic groups in nineteenth-century Poland. Mordecai Joseph's teachings, contained in the Mei ha-Shiloah, introduced new perspectives on determinism, messianism, and antinomianism that reverberate to the present. His grandson, R. Gershon Henokh of Radzin (1839–1891) was the most important figure in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism after Mordecai Joseph. He was a prolific and erudite author and editor, editing and publishing the writings of his father and grandfather.

Gershon Henokh's own writings covered four main areas. His Sidrei Tehorot (of which only two volumes were published) sought to "create" a Gemara [End Page 163] for those tractates in the Order of Tehorot that had no Gemara. His second interest was the "rediscovery" of the tekhelet (the blue thread of the zizit). The majority of rabbinic authorities rejected this "discovery," and only his own followers wore his tekhelet. He also wrote a number of traditional style hasidic commentaries on the Pentateuch that expanded on the teaching in the Mei ha-Shiloah. Fourth was a small work, ha-Hakdama ve ha-Petikha (Introduction and Preface), a preface to his father's commentary on Genesis, Bet Ya'akov al Sefer Bereshit. Magid concentrates on the last two areas of Gershon Henokh's work in this monograph, ignoring the first two areas.

This work is divided into three parts. The first part, chapters 1–3, is devoted to a close reading and analysis of the ha-Hakdama ve ha-Petikha. Magid sees it as the programmatic foundation of Izbica/Radzin Hasidism. He also argues that it is "one of the first systematic attempts, internal to Hasidism, that seeks to place Hasidism in the trajectory of meta-halakhic Jewish literature, incorporating both medieval Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah" (p. xii). These claims serve to justify the attention devoted to this fairly small text. It may indeed be a "systematic attempt," but systematic treatises are rare in Hasidism, and hasidic interest in Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed is virtually non-existent. Magid's analysis is interesting, but he fails to demonstrate the importance and influence of the ha-Hakdama ve ha-Petikha beyond Gershon Henokh's own writings.

The second part, chapters 4, 5, and 6, examines Gershon Henokh's understanding of free will and determinism as they emerge from his exegesis of the major biblical figures in the book of Genesis from the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to the perfection of the biblical personality in the figure of Jacob, who integrates and unites the human and divine will. Jacob's sons, notably Judah and Joseph, inherit specific aspects of Jacob's integrated personality. Judah looks to the will of God, while Joseph looks to the letter of the law. The two conflicting approaches to Judaism will be reconciled in the messianic age, though Izbica/Radzin sees Judah as the ideal archetype in the pre-messianic era rather than Joseph. These ideas were already found in the writings of Gershon Henokh's grandfather, Mordecai Joseph of Izbica. Gershon Henokh developed some of these ideas further and clarified some of the obscurities in the Mei ha-Shiloah, but there are no significant theological differences between them.

The third part of this monograph examines the concept of antinomianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism. It is the aspect of this hasidic school's teachings that has attracted the attention and interest of various Jewish spiritual groups in recent years. Magid concludes that Izbica/Radzin is "a kind of soft antinomianism, whereby the law is undermined yet protected. The law is supplanted [End Page 164] yet not erased, resulting in twin mediations, halakhah for the unenlightened and devekut for the enlightened" (p. 203). This is a reasonable conclusion as long as one adds that even for the enlightened, the devekut and antinomianism are only theoretically possible, but not...


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