- Reclaiming His Past
on “the chassidim” (1887)
In the history of Western Jewish treatments of Hasidism, Solomon Schechter’s 1887 essay “The Chassidim” has a unique place.1 It stands at a firm distance from the great disdain for Hasidism evinced by Heinrich Graetz and other key figures in the German-centered Wissenschaft des Judentums, in which Schechter himself was regarded a key figure, indeed its leading proponent in the English-speaking world. It is also not yet the romantic recreation of Hasidism to be undertaken by Martin Buber, Y. L. Peretz, and others a decade later. Schechter is writing contemporaneously with the early studies by Simon Dubnov, the first historian to examine the Hasidic movement with a dispassionate scholarly eye. But Dubnov saw Hasidism primarily as a social movement and had little interest in the specifics of its teachings.
The first impression one gets from reading Schechter 128 years later is that of his deep concern for inward religion, or matters of the spirit. He goes beyond caring about abstract theological questions and is obviously moved by expressions of personal piety. He senses a spiritual nobility in the original teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples and conveys it with all the impressive power of his elegant English prose. While he confesses at the outset that “there was a time when I loved the Chassidim as there was a time when I hated them” (p. 3), the former of these is much more in evidence than the latter.2 [End Page 145]
As his Hebrew name Shneur Zalman indicates, Schechter was himself the scion of a Chabad hasidic family. His parents were migrants from Belorussia, the heartland of Chabad, to Foscani, Romania, where Schechter was born (his father was employed there as a shoḥet). This was a community of very mixed Jewish population, including both Hasidim and Maskilim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. But the intellectualized Hasidism of Chabad was unusual, probably making young Schechter stand out in the Romanian setting.
The “time when I hated them” surely refers to the years of Schechter’s own rebellion against his parents’ hasidic worldview and that of his early association with critical scholarship. Surrounded by Wissenschaft and Haskalah scholars, he surely picked up the regnant negative view of Hasidism. But Schechter’s coming of age came in fact toward the end of the long and fierce battle for the domination of Jewish spiritual life in the nineteenth century. The first great call for a truce in that battle was Eliezer Zweifel’s Shalom ‘al Yisra’el, published between 1868 and 1873. Zweifel, the central figure in the modern-oriented rabbinical seminary in Zhitomir, was also a maskil originally from a Chabad background. Young Schechter published a review of Zweifel’s later work,3 making it more than likely that he read this book as well. Zweifel, who quotes early hasidic sources copiously, almost certainly served as Schechter’s chief source of information about Hasidism and its main ideas.
Schechter’s essay begins with an extensive retelling of the life of the Baal Shem Tov, whom he sees as the singular font of all that was original in Hasidism. (This is viewed very differently by scholars today, who understand that the hasidic movement actually began only after the Besht’s passing, bearing his name.) The account he offers is taken directly from the pages of Shivḥe ha-Besht (1815), the classic work of hasidic hagiography. Schechter tells the tale with a sweet naiveté, reminiscent of the way he would later recount the teachings of the early rabbis. He wears the mantle of believing narrator, calling for a suspension of disbelief by the Western reader. One has a sense that he has read many folktales and Märchen in German and perhaps Romanian renditions and is trying to affect the romantic tone of the tellers of those tales. But there is also the sense that for his non-Jewish English reader he is recounting the gospel of Israel Baal Shem Tov. As though to underscore this, Schechter (quite [End Page 146] accurately) chooses to note that “Baalshem is not a man who established a theory or set forth...