Who, or what, are Hasidim? A movement that was once mysterious and inaccessible has recently risen to the forefront of popular consciousness. Whether it...

Who, or what, are Hasidim? A movement that was once mysterious and inaccessible has recently risen to the forefront of popular consciousness. Whether it be in last years acclaimed film Menashe, the Netflix documentary One of Us, or the latest episode of HBO’s High Maintenance, in addition to many popular memoirs, online forums, there is a new fascination with Hasidism. In a sense, this discourse centers around questions of religion and state, community and family, and “traditional life” in a modern context—larger themes that touch some of our most pressing problems.

Hasidism: A New History (Princeton University Press, 2018) is the result of a monumental collaborative effort by seven scholars over the course of four years to compose the first total history of Hasidism. The team included David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodzinski. It shows the ways in which this movement, in its many distinct flavors, was fluid enough to adapt to its many geographies and new social, cultural, and political contexts. The book is structured chronologically in three sections (the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries), and tracks the movement as it unfolded, covering its origins and early figures, growth and variation, institutionalization, decay and destruction during the Holocaust, and subsequent resurrection in post-war Israel and America. Particular attention is paid to the social history of the local communities that arose around charismatic leaders (Rebbes and Tsadikim) and their courts, as well as Hasidic beliefs and practices.

In today’s episode I had the opportunity to speak with Professor David Biale about the book and the research effort behind it. We discussed the theology, praxis, family life and communal structures of many Hasidic dynasties, and their relationship with the “outside world.” The volume is a treasure trove of stories and histories, filled with fascinating figures and political intrigues, that covers not only Hasidism but modern Jewish history more generally. Provocatively, we are left wondering: is piety compatible with modern life?

David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and the Director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of many other acclaimed books including Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought also published by Princeton University Press and a forthcoming biography of Gershom Scholem in the Jewish Lives series by Yale University Press.


Moses Lapin is a graduate student in the departments of History and Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is currently inventing a squirrel internet.

 

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