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Hasidism: A New History by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin Wodziński, Princeton University Press, US $45.00, Pp 876, December 2017, ISBN 978-0691175157

The pietistic Jewish movement Hasidism traces its roots among mystical circles in southeastern Poland. Although the movement originated among the followers of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, it spread only after his death in 1760. Hasidism is a modern Jewish movement that was a radical alternative to the secular world. In Hasidism, authors challenge the common belief that Hasidism ceased to be a creative movement after the eighteenth century, the authors argue that Hasidism’s golden age was the nineteenth century. Hasidism not only conquered new territory and won a mass following, but also became the mainstream Judaism. World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust completely destroyed eastern Hasidism. The second golden age came after World War II when it grew. Today, it is flourishing in the United States, Israel, and several other countries.

David Biale says that Hasidism exerts an enduring fascination on non-traditional Jews and non-Jews, both as exotic and as a repository of spirituality. Whatever may be the historical reality of Hasidism, it serves as a mirror on which those from the outside have repeatedly projected their fantasies of religious renewal. This is a critical way in which Hasidism participates in the modern world. David Biale says that, from its beginnings, Hasidism was far more than an intellectual movement. It was also a set of bodily practices including praying, storytelling, singing dancing, and eating, all performed within the frame of the reciprocal relationship between rebbe and Hasid. The very physicality of Hasidim played an enormous role in transforming it from an élite to a popular movement. Despite all of its elements, one finds in Hasidism, this concatenation of ideas and practices was something entirely new in Jewish history, a movement of mass religiosity that would take its place side by side with more secular movements as part of the complex phenomenon of Jewish modernity.

As a movement that borrowed eclectically from many sources, Hasidism cannot be reduced to one, homogeneous doctrine. David Biale says that Hasidism incorporated both ascetic negation of the material world and anti-ascetic affirmation of the material, as well as messianic and anti-messianic tendencies. For some Hasidic teachers, ‘devekut’ meant the union of the worshipper with the god, while for others, it meant less self-effacing communion. Some Hasidic teachings are almost explicitly pantheistic, while others emphasize God’s transcendence. Some rank prayer higher than study, while others see them as equally holy. Some doctrines are imbued with ‘halakhah,’ while a few flirt with antinomianism. Each tsaddik offered his own interpretation of the philosophy of Hasidism. Not one, but the full range of these ideas must count as constituting Hasidim.

As Hasidism passes its 250th anniversary, it embodies a paradox: a movement that has come to define itself as the rejection of everything modern, it owes its identity to the very world it rejects. It must set its course in a world vastly different from the one in which it was originated. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the provinces of Podolia and Vohlynia in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were regions of deep religiosity for Jews and Christians alike. Religion and magic were inseparable and so was the role of the holy man. Yet in a few decades, this world would begin to change as the Commonwealth disintegrated and modernizing states took its place. Resurrected in democratic countries outside East Europe, Hasidism has had to adapt itself to a new reality. Its extraordinary success in doing so is a sign of its vitality and also of the way it has turned traditionalism into a powerful identity. And insofar as traditionalism is itself modern, Hasidim has made a remarkable contribution to the modern history of the Jews.

Hasidism is a fascinating and insightful study of Hasidism. The authors have busted several popular myths about Hasidism. With their unmatchable scholarly credentials, they have provided new religious, cultural, and social perspectives on Hasidism. They also provide new information and insights on the leaders and followers of the movement. Hasidism is a monumental work of research by eight leading subject experts. You will not find so much information, insight, and new perspectives in one single book on Hasidism. It is possibly the most detailed history of Hasidism. No serious student or expert of Judaism can do without it.

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