Sunday 22 September 2019


Tzava'at haRivash.
Likkutim Yekarim.


Many view the emergence of the Chassidic movement - in the late 1700s and early 1800s - as a conservative, traditionalist and pietist opposition to the modern world, trying to hold on to the past and fearful of the changes taking place in the new world.

While that may have been true for some of the followers of the Chassidic movement, Professor Moshe Rosman of Bar-Ilan University shows how the movement itself was not a reaction to modernity but in fact a very product of modernity!

This article is based on Professor Rosman’s research and I have drawn extensively from his writing.[1]


During the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah Movement of the 1800s, some of the German Jews set about trying to change the image of the Jew. They tried to show that Jews were sophisticated, intellectual and modern.

Rosman writes:

“[They] were often personally repelled by the institutions, manifestations, and image of Hasidism as anti-modern; a religiously fanatic, culturally backward, and socially reactionary movement that sought to stymie modernization.”

The Chassidim, more than the other religious Jews, were considered anti-modern and were an embarrassment to the enlightened.

Rosman adds that this sentiment remains largely preserved even to this day:

“Contemporary echoes of this assessment of Hasidism appear in the Israeli media virtually every day.”


On the other hand, later, a very different and more positive narrative emerged where the Chassidim were actually romanticized as representing all that was good in the old traditional Jewish world and that they were the only ones keeping the pure flame of meaningful spirituality alive. Chassidism was credited with bringing about modern values of social justice – probably because of their emphasis on the worth of ordinary folk, simple people, and the power of the individual.

Chassidism was presented as having encapsulated “the quintessence of traditional Judaism”.
To be clear, Rosman does not include scholars, writers and psychologists, but one could perhaps incorporate a vast genre of modern thinkers - religious and secular -  including the likes of Buber, Wiesel, Heschel, who found hidden within Chassidic teaching gems that resonated with the soul of modern man. These thinkers presented Chasidism not as something to be despised, as was the view of the Haskalah, but rather as a resource from which to draw.


Additionally, Chassidism’s proud emphasis on Jewish identity, was seized upon by some of those within the Zionist movement. They were proud of the determination and patriotism of Chassidism, to the extent that some even maintained that:

“...the true heirs of the Baal Shem Tov’s circle were enlightened, secular Jewish nationalists, especially Zionists”

These views were perpetuated by the literature of the time and were in vogue right up until two generations after the Second World War.

We have thus seen how multiple modern movements - the Enlightenment,  Philosophers and Zionists – had very different ways of interpreting and viewing the Chassidic Movement.



The Chassidic Movement began with the Baal Shem Tov (1698/1700 – 1760) who become known to the world at around 1740[2]


The Second Generation took over after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov (or Besht) in 1760 under the leadership of the Maggid of Mezerich, and continued until his passing in 1772. During this time the movement spread and stabilized.


The Third Generation continued from 1772 until the last of the Maggid’s students passed away at around 1815. Very little is known about the formative years of the Chassidic movement during this ‘third generation’.[3]


During the Second and particularly the Third Generation, the movement is often portrayed as peaking, and thereafter entering somewhat into a relative period of spiritual decline.

Although it is also assumed that the movement flourished under the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid[4], Rosman takes issue with that assertion and points out that, on the contrary, it only really began to blossom after the generation of the Maggid:

“It was only close to and following upon the Maggid’s death in 1772, mainly in response to the persecution they suffered at the hands of their newly active opponents, that this collection of loosely associated charismatics and spiritualists began thinking of themselves as a differentiated group and started getting organized. 

In order to do so, they needed to develop a distinctive collective identity, to articulate an ideology, to canonize foundational texts, to crystallize institutions. None of this had been accomplished by the Besht, the Maggid or their contemporaries.”

Rosman insists that although the Baal Shem Tov introduced new ideas “he did not start a new group with a new self-conscious identity. 

Similarly, the Maggid spread some new teachings and did attract new followers but he did not build an institution on the scale as is generally imagined. The Chassidic Movement for all intents and purposes only really began to institutionalize during the early 1800s.[5]

“By the mid-nineteenth century Hasidim had the numbers, the financial resources, the organization, the institutions, the doctrines, the visionary, and talented leaders, the power and sophistication of a confident and influential movement that actively engaged the other elements in modern society and exploited modern expedients in its drive to achieve its earthly program of dominating the Jewish community, and its heavenly program of thereby bringing near the Redemption.”

Having established that the movement flourished predominantly in the 19th century (and not in the 18th century), Roseman then presents his contention that:

“If the nineteenth century was a time of Jewish modernization, Hasidism cannot be bracketed off as somehow operating in a different dimension, by different rules, in a different period.”

In other words, Chassidism must have been significantly influenced by modernization even though it remained a symbolic bastion of anti-modern traditionalism.


This notion is actually borne out by the sentiments expressed by not only the Mitnagdim (religious opposition to the Chassidim), but also by the non-Jewish government – both of which accused Chassidism of being a new renegade offshoot of Judaism: i.e., a product of modernization.

Also, the Chassidic Movement was funded by “capitalist and pronto-industrialist elites” who injected much need finances to grow the movement, and gave it some political standing. Something within the movement must have resonated within these modernist patrons which moved them to support Chassidism.


Having nailed his colors to the mast by claiming that Chassidism was a modernist movement, Rosman is quick to point out that:

“Here some may object that Hasidism cannot possibly be classified as a ‘modern’ phenomenon because of its explicitly anti-modernist ideology, its emphatic rejection of modern values and hostility toward modern cultural practices. To be a modernizer one had to believe in the necessity of revolting against the traditional; Hasidism’s adherents saw themselves as the defenders of the traditional. Hasidism was not revolutionary and therefore modern; it was reactionary and thus the enemy of modernity.”

But Rosman does not accept any of that.

In a fascinating piece of reasoning, Rosman argues, counter-intuitively, that ideas are not the primary force of History - ideas are the result of History. Modernist ideology did not create modernity. Rather, he suggests that that is an outdated way of thinking because research shows the exact opposite – modernity created modernist ideology!

He argues that just like capitalism and urbanization did not create modernity, but were products of modernity, so too was modernist ideology the product or effect of modernization. 

The same thing took place within the Jewish world:

“Ideology was an effect of Jewish modernization and not its cause.”


“If Hasidim took a path to modernization that did not include modernist ideology, that choice does not disqualify them as moderns.”


Rosman explains that just because Chassidism rejected secularism and adopted what appeared to be a staunch defence of traditionalism – that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a modernist movement, because ‘modernist ideologies’ could differ radically from one another (just like the conflicting modernist ideologies of Capitalism and Communism.)


“Hasidism was characterized by some of the prominent markers of Jewish modernization....[which] was contingent upon the development of new sources of cultural authority and new venues where it could be applied.

Usually these are seen to be secular: Science in place of tradition, the book in place of the Sefer, the newspaper in place of the sermon, the university trained teacher or scholar in place of the rabbi, the school instead of the Heder, the lecture hall instead of the Yeshivah, the café table instead of the Sabbath table.

Hasidism also offered new sources of authority and new venues for their exercise. The Rebbe or Tzadik could replace both the rabbi and the parnas (communal elder), usurping the spiritual authority of the first and controlling from behind the scenes the secular authority of the second. 

The Tzadik’s court gave Jews a new opportunity for pilgrimage and spiritual renewal...The Hasidic Shtiebel (prayer hall) rivalled the synagogue; The Rebbe’s tish (Sabbath table gathering) came at the expense of the family one.”

Accordingly, Chassidism was positioned well within the parameters of typical modernist expressions.


The transformation that followed in the wake of modernization also affected the way Jewish communal economics were restructured. In the past, the finances of the community were controlled by the Kahal which imposed taxes and often adopted an autocratic and coercive form of leadership. 

That restrictive control of the past now gave way to a more modern and voluntary system of collecting finances, especially within Chassidic circles where the followers of a rebbe were eager to voluntarily contribute to their revered leader. Payments to a Chassidic court known as Pidyonim were common in return for blessings or prayers from the Tzadik. Chasidism became a modern “model of a voluntary community.”


With the dissolution of the autocratic Kahal which traditionally mediated between the individual Jew and the government, the Chassidim now formed large political lobby groups which negotiated directly the governmental authorities. From the mid-1800s, Chassidim were “developing a talent for local electoral politics.


Furthermore, the modern idea of a central ‘command and control’ can be seen in the Chassidic institution of the chatzer or court of the Tzadik, from which all operations of membership cells both near and far were orchestrated. At various times all the cells would gather at the headquarters for formal conventions, which is also typical of modern organizations.


Moshe Rosman concludes with:

“a concrete example of how Hasidism...utilized a new or renewed tool of late eighteenth-century modernist culture, namely book publishing, as a means of what has been referred to before as framing: presenting an image of itself as having been created by the Ba’al Shem Tov himself, and as in possession of his doctrinal legacy.”

In 1793, thirty years after the passing of the Besht, a pivotal Chassid book was published entitled Tzava’at haRivash, or the (doctrinal)Will of the Baal Shem Tov.  However, the book primarily featured hanhagot (practices) and derashot (teachings) of the Maggid of Mezerich, as were found in writings in the possession of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev.

Another similar work also appeared a year previously, entitled Likkutim Yekarim or Precious Excerpts.

The teachings found in both these early Chassidic works have been described as essentially “conventional and non-transgressive.”

When Likkutin Yekarim was published it elicited very little response and hardly seemed to make an impression. However, when Tzava’at haRivash came out it created a riot. It was banned, burned and challenged in other printed works.

Why were the reactions to such similar works so dramatically disparate?

The answer lies in the fact that the Tzava’at haRivash falsely claimed to be a collection of teachings from the Baal Shem Tov. But they were not from the Besht who, as we know, wrote very little. The title of the book was misleading because they were instead the Maggid’s teachings.

In other words, the publisher took rather conventional teachings and labelled them as an “ideological tract identified with the new Hasidim.” Essentially it was presented as a manifesto of the new movement. The publisher chose a title that threatened to represent the emergence of a new independent sect with a ‘declaration of Chassidic independence’.

“The publishers used printing to create a book – utilizing fairly generic material from the Maggid – to lend credence to the image of the Besht as the teacher of a new doctrine...

This is but one example of how Hasidim showed themselves to be keenly attuned to the potential of modern cultural and technical tools to further their program and ensure their successful adaptation to the emerging modern world.”

Using media in a subversive way to put across an ideological position to further one’s aims was typical of modernist framing or even perhaps modernist propaganda.


For all the reasons mentioned above, Moshe Rosman believes that Chassidism “deserves to be classified with other ‘modern’ phenomena of Jewish history and studied, not as a block to modernization, but as a version of it.”

This is a fascinating view because although the Chassidim were clearly anti-secular and clearly pro-traditional - criteria that one would think should disqualify them from being called ‘modern’ – nevertheless Rosman has shown that despite their anti-modernist ideology, the Chassidic Movement may not have been a reaction to modernity but, ironically, a product of it.

-But then, on the other hand, the Chassidim themselves might laugh at this entire investigation and characterization because according to them, Chassidism simply came about at a time when certain holy sparks had to be lifted up in order to prepare the way for the imminent coming of the Messiah, and they would emphatically deny that they were ever at the mercy of the waves and currents of modernity.

[1] Hasidism –Traditional Modernization, by Moshe Rosman.
[2] According to Chassidic tradition, the Besht ‘revealed himself to the world’ when he was 36 years old.
[3] Rosman writes: “In fact we know little about the social, cultural, and organizational history of what could be called the formative period of Hasidism, ca. 1780-1815 (that is, what is usually called the ‘third generation’).
[4] According to Haviva Pedaya: “The Besht was the moving force behind the creation of the greatest Jewish Mystical movement of the eighteenth century...The great disciples and followers of the Besht consolidated the varied religious forms existent in his personality into fixed content and prescribed practices.” (The Besht. Magician, Mystic, and Leader.)
[5] It is interesting to point out though, that at least according to the (possibly forged?) Cherson Letters (which I have translated into English), the movement did indeed take on a strong identity of its own and was very conscious of so doing, during the first two generations. Additionally, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye (a contemporary of the Maggid) did produce the first example of a substantial Chassidic literature.

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