- Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism
The most theologically radical sect ever to emerge from the traditional hasidic milieu was that of Izbica/Radzin. Founded by Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Lainer (1800–54), a disciple of the Polish hasidic masters R. Simha Bunim of Przysucha and R. Menahem Mendel Morgenstern, the renowned Kotsker Rebbe, in 1839 Lainer had a dramatic falling out with the Kotsker. On the day after Simhat Torah of that year, he left Kotsk to form his own small hasidic circle in Izbica, a shtetl in the Radom province of Poland. The exact circumstances surrounding this break with his friend and teacher remain unclear, but the result was an irreparable rupture between Izbicer Hasidism and most of the major hasidic sects of nineteenth-century Poland. The Izbicer Hasidim's marginality was largely a result of R. Mordecai Joseph and especially his heirs' radically deterministic theology and the unconventional nature of their writings and interests.
R. Mordecai Joseph took the original hasidic doctrine of divine immanence to its logical panentheistic limits on several fronts. If, as the early masters of Hasidism claimed, God's presence permeates all earthly things, the Izbicer insisted that this must extend to the hearts and deeds of all Jews. Thus, all that a Jews does, his most heinous transgressions included, is somehow mysteriously a manifestation of God's irresistible and all-controlling will (retson ha-Boreh). In his most widely quoted epigram, the Izbicer subverted the essence of the most famous rabbinic epigram about the limits of Divine Providence ("All is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven") by changing just one word. The potentially antinomian expression "all is in the hands of heaven, including the fear of heaven" became the stunning leitmotif of his theology. This not only insinuated that human sin too must be understood, at its deepest level, as a manifestation of the Divine will; it also opened an avenue for individualist behavior that threatened the conformity demanded by Jewish law.
Mordecai Joseph's most famous work is his collected homilies to the weekly Torah portions, Me ha-shiloah, edited and published posthumously in 1858—despite the fierce resistance of other Polish Hasidim—by his prolific and even quirkier grandson, Gershon Henokh of Radzyn, the [End Page 276] central subject of Shaul Magid's new book. Me ha-shiloah is brimming with radically panentheistic and determinist biblical interpretations. Perhaps the most infamous and oft-quoted of them was R. Mordecai Joseph's defense of Zimri, the Israelite who was impaled along with his Midianite lover by the moral hero and high priest Phinehas, grandson of Aaron. (Nm25.6–9). Mordecai Joseph takes Phinehas to task for his anger and hasty vengeance, while insisting that Zimri's act of fornication with the idolatrous woman represented a mysterious, but sanctified, acting out of Divine providence.
The publication of Me ha-shiloah created much controversy within Polish Hasidism, which had, by the mid-nineteenth century, become ultraconservative, both theologically and halakhically. No Jewish publisher in Poland was willing to print it, and it became the only hasidic book in Europe ever to be issued by a non-Jew, the Viennese publisher Anton della Torre. R. Gershon Henokh was unable to obtain a single rabbinical haskamah (approbation) for the volume, and rival Hasidim actually consigned numerous copies of the work to the flames, the only time a hasidic book had been burned by other Jews other than when the Mitnagdim burned the very first hasidic work, Toledot Yaakov Yosef, in 1780. Moreover, the leading disciples of R. Mordecai Joseph himself—namely, R. Yehuda-Leib (aka Reb Leibele) Eiger and R. Zadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin—not only rejected R. Gershon Henokh's personal authority as a Rebbe; they specifically denounced his version of their master's teachings as redacted in Me ha-shiloah. R. Gershon Henokh, and Radzin Hasidism, stood indeed "on the margin" of the hasidic world.