- Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism
This new volume of collected studies by David Assaf, Professor of Jewish History at Tel-Aviv University and a leading scholar of nineteenth-century Hasidism, is an extremely worthy successor to his path-breaking study of Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, The Regal Way (2002), and his painstakingly researched edition of the memoirs of Yehezkel Kotik, published under the title [End Page 157] Journey to a Nineteenth Century Shtetl (2002). The author describes his present work as that of the historian as detective, as he endeavors to uncover six hidden and suppressed stories from the Hasidic world. Beyond identifying the "perpetrator," that is, reconstructing the portrayal of the Hasidic personality whose story had been deemed too sensitive to be told, Assaf's goal as historian-detective is to reveal the fascinating series of wrong turns and misleading clues, and to describe the various mechanisms of apologetics, polemics, or suppression employed by Hasidim and their Maskilic critics alike over the last century and a half.
The essays included in the volume appeared earlier in various journals, but have been amplified and updated by the author. The volume is an English translation and adaptation of Assaf's Hebrew work entitled Caught in the Thicket: Chapters of Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism (2006). It has been adapted for the English-speaking audience with additional explanations and annotations, by the elimination of several documents in appendices and by the shortening of footnote references (that still comprise over 70 pages of the total). One study in the Hebrew version, which had appeared originally in English, was also eliminated from the present version. For those desirous of further bibliography, the author refers to the relevant passages and footnotes in his Hebrew volume.
The studies in Assaf's excellent book span the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and deal with figures and aberrant incidents from different regions of Eastern Europe. They have in common the marginalization of their protagonists in Hasidic society, the sad and troubling fate of children or close relatives of noted Hasidic figures, or the suppression of stories that might besmirch the name of Hasidism. The author reminds his readers that his small number of studies of children of famous Hasidic figures who strayed from family ways by converting to Christianity or becoming Maskilim is but part of a much larger group. See his references to other cases (243-44nn2-11).
The longest study in the book (29-96) is on the story of Moshe, the mentally disturbed son of Habad founder Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady and a communal rabbi himself, who converted to Christianity in 1820. Assaf published an article on him in 2000, but this present version is greatly expanded and enhanced thanks to the discovery since then of crucial archival documents related to the incident. Following the general theme of the book, though, beyond reconstructing the story, Assaf devotes much space to the ongoing attitudes of generations of Habad writers (including [End Page 158] the sixth rebbe, R. Yosef Yitshak Schneersohn) to the saga. Habad, arguably the most historically conscious of Hasidic groups, has dealt with Moshe's apostasy in ways ranging from suppression, to outright denial, to providing a "happy end" to the story with Moshe becoming a penitent returning to the Hasidic fold. The subjects of the other essays in the book: the story of the fall of the Seer of Lublin from the window of his house in 1814 (he would die several months later from the injuries he sustained) and the varying interpretations given to the incident by Hasidim and Maskilim; the campaign against Bratslav Hasidim in Ukraine in the 1860s (which provides an interesting contrast to the present-day resurgence of that group); Akiva Shalom Chajes of Tulchin, who started out as a fierce opponent of Hasidism and eventually joined the movement, though never completely forgoing his critical stance; Menahem Nahum Friedman of Itscan, a scion of the Ruzhin dynasty, who engaged...