Sunday 10 September 2023

445) ‘Mainstreaming’ Chassidism in 19th century Poland

Jakub Tugendhold's Jerobaal


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Marcin Wodzinski[1] looks at an unlikely defence of Chassidim by Jakub Tugendhold (1794-1871) a member of the Polish Haskalah (Enlightenment movement). The Haskalah is generally regarded as a more enlightened, academic and scientific movement, often in direct philosophical conflict with Chassidism which it regarded as a form of Jewish superstition. The Haskalah movement began in Germany but in the early nineteenth century, it had spread to Poland. The issue of Chassidism was not just one component of the battle of the Haskalah against traditionalism, it became the major point of contention, especially in Warsaw, which became the “primary battleground of this struggle” (Wodzinski n.d.:13). There were one or two voices from within Warsaw that argued somewhat in favour of the Chassidim. Jakub Tugendhold and Marcus Jastrow were among the small number of non-Chassidim who lent their support to  Chassidism. 

Jakub Tugendhold

Jakub Tugendhold was not just a member of the Polish Haskalah, he was one of its main leaders. He contributed to a change in Maskilic policy towards tollerance of the Chassidim which became evident from around the mid-nineteenth century (Wodzinski n.d.:13). 

Jakub Tugendhold was a complicated individual. He was a politician, bureaucrat, a civil servant and he served as an official censor (of Jewish books) to the Tsarist regime. He received high-ranking Tsarist medals for government service and charitable work. 

But because of his position, he was never unanimously favoured by any of the political and religious factions at the time. The Jewish traditionalists (Mitnagdim, the conservative opponents to the Chassidic movement) did not like him because he was a progressive Maskil. They put a curse on him and threatened him with death for which he sought protection from the Municipal Council. The Maskilim did not always support him, because he was an independent thinker and did not always toe the party line. The progressive Polish officials did not like him because he was a loyalist, and neither did the conservative Polish authorities, because he was a Jew. But the Chassidim were happy to have his support. Nonetheless, Tugendhold kept some distance from the Chassidim: 

“[H]e was a very sober observer of the Hasidic movement and did not glorify it. His numerous writings contain words of criticism but never a condemnation of the Hasidim (Wodzinski n.d.:16). 

All this inter and intra-communal conflict eventually took its toll on Tugendhold who wrote that he almost completely severed his bonds to the religious community and that 'except for the fundamental religious laws, hardly any relations bind me to my coreligionists' (Tugendhold in Wodzinski n.d.:18). 

Tugendhold has been described as a communal and political opportunist: 

“[He] has been called a traitor-careerist (a label he deserved) and a man ready for the greatest sacrifices (also a true description), a champion of progress and a prison guard of thought, a moderate liberal and a reactionary in disguise” (Wodzinski n.d.:22). 

Yet, in the final analysis, whenever Jews were threatened, he rose in their defence. He did this quite frequently. When Jews experienced blood libels and were accused of ritual murder using Christian blood to bake their Matzos on Passover, Tugendhold was the advocate of his people. In 1828, Tsar Nicolas I ordered a search of Chassidic homes for books that he believed commanded them to commit ritual murders. Another libellous accusation against the Jews was that they maintained secret, quasi-Masonic organizations, held “secret meetings,” and were controlled by secret “leaders, unknown to anyone.’” He responded to an anonymous pamphlet entitled “Dealing with Jews, or Sure Methods by which They Can be Made into Honest People and Good Citizens.” He worked tirelessly to have the kosher meat tax abolished, and he fought to protect the Chassidim from the Polish authorities as well as the Mitnagdim. He also arranged to rescind the ban against Chassidim praying in small services at private homes (shtiblech) rather than in the main synagogues. 

In a little-known piece of Jewish history, Tugendhold was quite pioneering in his attempt to uplift the lives of Chassidim. In l841, he joined with R. Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger and R. Yitzchak from Warka (a friend of the Kotzker Rebbe) and signed a petition for Jews to begin farm work (Wodzinski n.d.:33). 

In 1844, in an attempt at easing Jewish-Christian relations, Tugendhold wrote his Kosht: Imrei Emet veShalom (Skazówski prawdy i zgody pod względem różnicy wyznan),  a treatise that had rabbinical Haskamot (approvals). It argued that the word ‘akum (idolater) did not apply to Christians.

Defence of Chassidism

The Government Committee for Religious Denominations tasked Tugendhold to report on the ‘loyalty and character’ of the Chassidim. Tugendhold supported the Chassidim although he did acknowledge that: 

“[I]n the course of those dark ages fanaticism prevailed among the Israelites, and later, due to a rise in superstition, it grew even more intense…And this did not just happen without a reason, as that evil resulted from neglect of their education, thus leaving them to their own self-willed deeds” (Tugendhold in Wodzinski n.d.:24). 

He also wrote that: 

“rather stubborn idols of fanaticism stir and trouble the clear waters of this precious religion of mine, formulated by the sacred Patriarchs…some of my Polish coreligionists are wandering in the wilderness of superstition” (Tugendhold in Wodzinski n.d.:26). 

However, perhaps in a veiled attack against his opponents in the Haskalah, he wrote that sometimes ‘superstition’ is better than ‘rationalism’: 

“'It is an irrefutable truth, which finds its confirmation in point of fact over the centuries, that any rationalism, no matter how slight, has consequences both for monarchism and for society that are evil and harmful in far greater measure than exaggerated zeal or superstitious belief linked with any religion whatsoever” (Tugendhold in Wodzinski n.d.:25). 

According to Tugendhold, ‘religious rationalism’ was a far graver threat to the internal unity of Judaism than ‘Chassidic mysticism:’ 

“From that perspective, hasidism, although somewhat fanatic and even alien to the attitudes of a moderate maskil, was by no means dangerous” (Wodzinski n.d.:31). 

His support of Chassidism could be described as absolute yet not without reservation. He would rather tolerate the “superstition” and “fanaticism” of the “Dark Ages” than live in a society based solely on rationalism.  

This position adopted by Tugendhold can be contrasted with that of his contemporary, Abraham Stern, a supporter of the Mitnagdim and certainly no friend to the Chassidim. Stern writes that Chassidism was: 

“a voluntary association under the guise of alleged piety, which leads to idleness, deception, fraud, leading astray the naive…it leads to contempt for all morality and aims to destroy all praiseworthy intentions of the goverment in relation to the education of youth” (Stern in Wodzinski n.d.:34). 

In response to these accusations, Tugendhold contrasted the 

“pious, noble hasidim, who were obedient to the government, with the intolerant, insolent, and arrogant 'zealous Talmudists' or mitnagdim” (Wodzinski n.d.:36). 

This was an unusual reversal of accusations and Tugendhold seems closer to the Chassidim than to his contemporary Maskilim and Mitnagdim. 

Chassidism is not a “sect”

The earlier references to Jews involved in “quasi-Masonic organizations” and engaging in “secret meetings” may be a reference to the charge of Sabbatianism that was levelled against the Chassidim (i.e., that Chassidim were connected to the mystical followers of the false Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi). In the era of the rise of Chassidism, the Jewish world, including many prominent rabbis, was saturated with secret Sabbatians. The reference to Masonic lodges therefore may fit this profile as Sabbatians and Frankists founded what was later to be known as Freemasonry (see Scholem, G., 1987, Kabbalah, Dorset Press, New York, 304). 

In the anti-Chassidic writings of R. David of Markov (Shever Poshim) the Chassidim are frequently referred to as the “sect of Chassidim.” This was to emphasise the alleged connection between the Chassidim and the Sabbatians who were called the “sect of Shabbatai Tzvi ” (see Kotzk Blog: 443) Mystical approaches of the early Chassidic movement).  Tugendhold would certainly have been aware of such polemics. However, he fervently opposed the use of the term “sect” when it came to Chassidim. He writes that groups like the early Sadducees, Essenes and later Sabbatians and Frankists (the followers of another false Messiah, Jacob Frank who claimed to be a reincarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi) were “sects” of Judaism but not the Chassidim, because: 

“The hasidim who exist today cannot be regarded as a sect if one considers the true meaning of that term in relation to the essence of religion. For these hasidim do not deviate in any way from the essential laws and regulations of the Old Testament, the Talmud, or other subsequent works that are esteemed by the nation of Israel for their religious value. Indeed it is the duty of every hasid to obey all such laws and regulations much more scrupulously than the law requires” (Tugendhold in Wodzinski n.d.:30). 


It can shown that by the middle of the nineteenth century, Jakub Tugendhold, an important secular leader of the Polish Jewish community, eventually managed to positively change the public attitude of both Jews and non-Jews towards the new Chassidic movement. That was about a century after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760. 

Tugendhold was able to influence several other important leaders to change their attitudes towards Chassidim. One of them was Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) who became “the leading protagonist of this trend” of gradual exoneration of Chassidism. In 186l, Jastrow declared that Chassidim have virtues that are worthy of emulation  if they are carefully and knowingly applied” (Wodzinski n.d.:40).


The Jastrow Dictionary

Marcus Jastrow compiled the well-known Jastrow Talmudic Dictionary which provides English translations of Aramaic words. He received his rabbinic ordination from R. Moshe Feilchenfeld of Rogazen and  R. Wolf Landau of Dresen. R. Jastrow taught for some time at Orthodox Jewish schools in Berlin and later served as the rabbi of the Orthodox “German synagogue” in Warsaw. Thereafter, he emigrated to America and became associated with the Reform and Conservative movements. His work, however, with Tugendhold and others was essential in the ‘mainstreaming’ of the early Chassidic movement. 

On a personal note, I found the reference to R. Marcus Jastow most intriguing. When I was in Yeshiva (ironically a Chassidic Yeshiva), my teacher told me never to use the Jastrow Dictionary, even though it was useful to understand the language of Gemara which is Aramaic. This was at a time just before all the popular English translations began to appear. If I really needed to consult the Dictionary, I should not put it on the table but rather use it as a footrest on the floor. When I asked why, I was told that it was written by a non-Jew who, although very learned, knew nothing of the holiness of the Talmud. For years I believed that Marcus Jastrow was a non-Jew. I mimicked what I had learned from my Talmud teacher and later also told others that it ‘was better’ not to use the Jastrow Dictionary. 

Years later, I was surprised to discover that Jastrow was not only Jewish but that he had obtained one of his rabbinic ordinations from R. Moshe Feilchenfeld, the Av Beit Din of Rogazen, who was a main student of R. Akiva Eiger. As we have seen, Jastrow and Tugendhold played significant roles in ‘mainstreaming’ Chassidism and defending its rightful place within Judaism at a time when not everybody agreed that such integration was prudent yet, just over a century later, Jastrow’s scholarly Dictionary (which only contains technical translations and no 'harmful philosophy') was not welcome in a Yeshiva affiliated with a movement he had fought to support.

[1] Wodzinski, M., Jakub Tugendhold and the First Maskilic Defence of Hasidism



No comments:

Post a Comment