Mayse on Wodziński, 'Hasidism: Key Questions'

Marcin Wodziński
Ariel Evan Mayse

Marcin Wodziński. Hasidism: Key Questions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Illustrations, tables. 368 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-063126-0.

Reviewed by Ariel Evan Mayse (Stanford University) Published on H-Judaic (March, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

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Marcin Wodziński’s new volume Hasidism: Key Questions seeks to offer a fresh take on the eponymous movement of mystical renewal whose remarkable success shaped the face of Jewish modernity. This book, along with Wodziński’s other recent work on this subject—Historical Atlas of Hasidism (2018) and Studying Hasidism: Sources, Methods, Perspectives (2019)—presents the yield of many decades of careful and attentive research. The result is a clearly argued and erudite volume that succeeds in outlining and then revising some of the fundamental assumptions in the study of Hasidism.

The work begins with a diagnosis of the shortcomings of earlier scholarship, as Wodziński outlines five “cardinal sins” that have plagued the historiography of Hasidism over the course of the past century: focusing exclusively on Hasidic leaders rather than their followers; using chronological limitation in examining the movement’s early period; privileging Hebrew and Yiddish source material at the expense of more varied documentation; favoring intellectual over social, economic, or cultural history; and applying pandemic essentialism (as well as frustrating ambiguity) in scholarly attempts to define what—and who—is genuinely “Hasidic.” Stretching to overcome these biases, Wodziński argues, requires researchers to reach beyond the literature produced by (and about) Hasidic elites. And rather than interpreting Hasidism within a diachronic lens within the development of Jewish thought or mysticism, Wodziński calls on scholars to employ the methods and resources of social history, material culture, quantitative analysis, demography, and economic studies. For example, researchers must turn to folk literature, memoirs, and polemics, considering the impact of geography and examining the vast array of official and unofficial historical documents in Polish, Russian, and German as well as Yiddish and Hebrew from beyond the beau monde. In sum, scholars of Hasidism must venture into the broader world of multidisciplinary humanities. Several of these points have been made before, and the study of Hasidism has indeed been moving in such directions over the past two decades, but Wodziński stakes his historiographical claim with notable clarity and insight.

The fruits of Wodziński’s labor form the core chapters of his book, which suggest a series of reevaluations of central claims about Hasidism from its leadership structures to its economic life and the place of women. Through careful documentary analysis of a broad range of sources, Wodziński argues that early Hasidism should not be conceived of as a “sect” with rigid boundaries or clearly defined markers of identity or affiliation. Membership was fluid, and groups of Hasidim were much like a religious confraternity with a particular commitment to certain modes of devotion, study, and worship. The notion of infrangible boundaries between Hasidim and non-Hasidim—or the carving up of eastern European Jewry into the warring camps of the Hasidim and their opponents—are both hopelessly reductionist. The truth, suggests Wodziński, is that religious identities of eastern European Jews were far more complicated, dynamic, and layered.

These flexible definitions of affiliation and communal belonging, he notes, mean that the narrative in which Hasidism “conquered” eastern Europe should be revisited. Expanding beyond the idea of Hasidism as a sect also means that the place of women cannot be easily defined. Surely they were not included in some sort of mystical egalitarian revolution, as some romanticized accounts of Hasidism have it. If Hasidism did not have the strictly defined boundaries of a sect, then perhaps women were not totally excluded from its less public dimensions. Wodziński even suggests a few future directions for reconsidering the place of women “from the feminine perspective,” though he notes that “affiliation with Hasidism was entirely the concern of male members of the family” (pp. 79, 75).

The late and much-lamented Israeli scholar Tsippi Kauffman has done just that in her works across the past decade, including a posthumous article drawing on the theoretical perspective of cultural feminism to examine the question of women in Hasidism. Rather than debating whether women were, or were not, really part of the Hasidic movement, Kauffman turned the debate on its side by focusing “on certain aspects from within the whole that is Hasidism, which are accessible to women and men alike, and have been since the movement’s inception.... These aspects offered women a source of religious identification and spiritual empowerment.”[1] The transmission of stories and the veneration of storytelling itself, the importance of inner spiritual work and character development, devotional prayer (even if private worship rather than public leadership), and the mandate to serve God with all of one’s actions—all of these spiritual dimensions were open to women, and, argued Kauffman, they constitute a rich and multifaceted religious life and identity that should indeed be considered within the fold of “Hasidism.”

Wodziński’s painstaking analysis of kvitlekh, petitionary notes given to Hasidic rabbis, is another fascinating and important contribution. He surveys the wide array of quotidian concerns that appear in these short supplications, from socioeconomic anxiety to struggles with infertility, health, personal affronts, and other sorts of family concerns. The result, Wodziński claims, reveals that the followers of a Hasidic leader (or tsaddik) saw him, first and foremost, as “a mage commanding tools to manipulate the external world and to work miracles” (p. 130). This is surely an apt conclusion from the material he cites and a fine complement—and challenge—to conceptions of the Hasidic leader presented in scholarship. The material resource he highlights does not, however, exhaust the totality of Hasidic leadership. The kvitlekh represent an important but self-selecting corpus of sources that reveals one kind of relationship between a tsaddik and his followers, and most of these letters cannot shed light on the profound psychological and educational bond between the master teacher and his disciples, nor do they illuminate the religious experience of hearing the master “speak Torah.” One well-known kvitl that does so, however, offers a different side of the picture: “When I arrived there in his holy presence [in other words, before the Kotsker Rebbe] he asked me where I came from and what my name was. I was seized by a great dread and I lost my composure and all sense of individual existence.... The impression this made on me has lasted until this very day. As I turned to depart from his presence I became a different person and my heart burned with clarity.”[2]

While economic pull and magic-for-hire are not to be disregarded, charisma and personal relationship had much to do with the success of Hasidism. Such dimensions of Hasidic leadership are explored in the theoretical or homiletical works, but they appear also in a variety of historical documents. Hasidism was born aloft by a new type of religious leadership, and although it was not always the case (especially after dynastic system set in), the devotional intensity of the bond between master and disciple was key to the movement’s flourishing.

Reminding scholars of Jewish studies of their intellectual biases in privileging certain sources, Wodziński further argues that “no aspect of this movement—its doctrine, ethos, or literary culture—can be understood appropriately without deep contextualization in the multiethnic and multicultural world of Eastern Europe with the tools of comparative studies cast as widely as possible” (p. xxvi). Social movements are embedded, to be sure, and the same is true of ideas and rituals; even knowledge and thought are now often construed as embedded cultural phenomena. Yet elements of Wodziński’s bold and interesting claim remain somewhat uncertain. His argument does not account for the uniquely American and Israeli forms of Hasidism that have developed over the past four or five decades. In some ways the members of these Hasidic communities have more in common with their American or Israeli coreligionists—and, in America, with local non-Jews as well—than they do with one another.

Something else must be said about the push toward historicization. Wodziński’s protestations about the myopia of intellectual history are well said, but throughout Hasidism: Key Questions he exhibits a notable reticence in dealing with the devotional, theological, and existential teachings of Hasidism. We conclude the volume with fewer insights regarding the creative vitality of Hasidic exegesis, or the manner in which Hasidic sources reflect on the meaning of the commandants and live in the modern world. How do Hasidic sources wrestle with thorny questions of a God that is dynamic, ever-unfolding, infinite and vulnerable, immanent and transcendent, male and female, and manifest simultaneously as the ten sefirot and as the one that unites all beings. And why has Hasidism continued to generate mystically inflected theologians and religious thinkers into the twenty-first century?

To the historians of religion, these are indeed key questions, and the sources of Hasidism are tremendously rich. Even the most expansive frame of social history often excludes the development of core ideas that have much to do with the movement’s imbricated socioreligious nature, such as intra-Hasidic debates over the nature of leadership, language, revelation, and its social vision. The rigid binary between social and intellectual history is a hopeless old saw, but in this case I fear that Wodziński’s account may have strayed too far in the opposite direction. There is a price to pay for marginalizing the theological and intellectual dimensions of Hasidism in favor of its social history.

The issues at the heart of Hasidic thought are all the more intriguing—and pressing—to those of us who are committed to theology not simply as a source of personal reflection but also as a scholarly discipline. It is often noted that Jewish theology within the academy is particularly embattled. As Judith Plaskow has noted, “theology can expose the notion of the detached, disinterested scholar as a dangerous myth.” Highlighting the particular importance of feminist theology in challenging assumed hierarchies or patterns of thought, she argues that the theology has a critical function in university education: “inviting students to encounter and reflect on difference, fostering critical self-consciousness, and encouraging the development of a personal worldview accountable to the needs of a larger community.”[3] Scholars teaching at major research institutions without a divinity school should feel an amplified need to make space for moral and philosophical exploration as part of its liberal education. Our classrooms must, I believe, provide students with a home for a kind of sustained spiritual reflection that complements their intellectual development. If carefully interpreted—with due emphasis on its proper intellectual, social, and historical contexts—the Hasidic sermon may serve as a vital resource to university students in the quest for self-formation that is central to the effort of liberal education.

One more point invites comment. Wodziński argues that Hasidism may provide an excellent case study for a range of scholars because of its remarkable and ongoing success as well as its “exceptional features as a mass mystical movement” (p. xxvii). I sympathize with this perspective and hope more scholars will follow Wodziński’s lead in cultivating a capacious method, moving beyond the siloing of knowledge. In doing so, however, we must be careful not to jettison or lose sight of the intellectual dimensions of Hasidism. The academic work of theorizing and comparing comes also from the doctrines, ideas, and dogmas of a community—from its own internal discourse of theology and meaning—not only from its economic activities, geographic spread, numerical data, or social contours.

Hasidism: Key Questions is indeed a pathbreaking and extremely important volume. Wodziński is undoubtedly correct that the study of Hasidic thought as if it emerged in a vacuum, or studying it only within the tradition of “Jewish thought,” has prevented researching many elements of its rich textual and historical universe. Wodziński’s staggering documentation, his extremely perceptive analysis, and his sweeping and judicious methodological reflections present a well-met reminder that intellectual historians and theologians must read these religious sources in a robustly multidisciplinary setting.


[1]. Tsippi Kauffman, “Hasidic Women: Beyond Egalitarianist Discourse,” in Be-Ron Yahad: Studies in Jewish Thought and Theology in Honor of Nehemia Polen, ed. Aiel Evan Mayse and Arthur Green (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), 227.

[2]. Louis Jacobs, “A Pitka from a Hasid to His Rebbe,” in Their Heads in Heaven: Unfamiliar Aspects of Hasidism (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2005), 100-101.

[3]. Judith Plaskow, “Jewish Theology in Feminist Perspective,” in Judith Plaskow: Feminism, Theology, and Justice, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron Hughes (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 49, 67.

Ariel Evan Mayse is assistant professor at Stanford University.

Citation: Ariel Evan Mayse. Review of Wodziński, Marcin, Hasidism: Key Questions. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. March, 2020. URL:

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