Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment

by Raphael Mahler

Hasidism and the Haskalah, two movements that clashed for the first time in the social and cultural life of the Jewish people at the thresh old of the nineteenth century, were crucial factors in shaping Jewish culture in the modern period. Deepening our knowledge and understanding of these two trends is therefore not merely of academic interest; it will very likely clarify the nature of the traditional sources from which the renewed culture of the Jewish people draws its ideological nourishment to this day.

An objective historical evaluation of these two trends can be achieved only by investigating their contrasting social foundations. Only by exposing these bases can criteria be established to determine whether a movement's tendency is toward progress or reaction. These social criteria are also a necessary condition for a sociological classification of Hasidism and the Haskalah in comparison with other sociocultural currents—secular and religious—in Jewish history or in world history.

The climax of the bitter war between the two rival trends took place in the first half of the nineteenth century, during the period of reaction which dominated Europe after Napoleon's defeat. This was a period of transition in the history of Hasidism when its flowering came to an end and its social and ideological decline began. Insofar as Hasidism lost its original character of a social opposition movement and compromised with the Mitnaggedim, its previous adversaries, it was emptied of its pre‑Humanist, antinomian, and individualist world view.

This process varied in tempo according to the geographical regions of eastern Europe. The Ukraine, though the cradle of the movement, also preceded the other regions in the negative development of Hasidism, namely the cult of the zaddik, the arrogant rule of the dynasties, and the loss of even a trace of a desire for religious renewal and social reform. In Galician Hasidism, the popular nature of the movement was still preserved to a great extent at the beginning of this period in the field of social morality. In central Poland, where Hasidism was late in coming, the movement was still strong enough to curb the decline to vulgarity. As opposed to the tawdry Hasidism of petty miracle workers, there emerged a movement of renewal which brought with it an abundance of fresh ideas that were astonishingly profound and incisive. Even these, however, were but the afterglow, the historical twilight of the movement.

All characteristic differences in the various regions of eastern Europe at the stage of its decline notwithstanding, Hasidism, in general, was still remarkable with regard to its innate character as a national movement. This is no wonder, considering that the national oppression of the Jewish population in Poland under the Saxon kings in the days of the Ba'al Shem Tov was not eased under the tyrannical regime of the Austrian and Russian rulers; it only changed form. Persecution at the hands of the landowners and churchmen was replaced by harsh governmental decrees, insufferable special taxes, military service, and severe residential and occupational restrictions. It was thus only natural that the concept of redemption was, as before, the pivot on which the Hasidic doctrine revolved. A keen national sense, though veiled by inflexible conservatism, was also the root of the vigorous opposition of the Hasidic masses to all attempts of "official" enlightenment, which were, in fact, directed toward the assimilation of the Jews. Official documents reveal yet another aspect of the absolute national solidarity of the Hasidim, namely, their organized action to passively resist governmental decrees, in particular the special levies that disgracefully impoverished the masses.

Archival documents also cast a new light on the movement of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah. The historians of the Haskalah, relying in their research primarily on the literature of the movement itself, described it merely as a cultural‑literary current. From other official sources, it is possible to learn more about the nature of the Haskalah and its sociopolitical tendencies. These tendencies were indeed expressed in the literature itself, although some scholars have been unaware of their significance. It can be shown that the Haskalah movement, in its political view and Weltanschauung, adhered to the ruling absolutism, even if it was the reactionary absolutism that inherited the place of an enlightened absolutism.

Nevertheless, this characteristic of the Haskalah does not conceal its ideas of renewal, its program for the revival of the people by reforming its economic foundations, linking the people closer to European culture, and raising the standards of its education. Despite all its limitations, the function of the Haskalah in the history of the Jewish people was determined by its progressive aim, namely, to battle against medievalism in the social and cultural life of the Jews. This was the source of its creativity. The progressiveness of the Haskalah is measured by the degree of progressiveness of the bourgeoisie, the class that carried on the struggle against social and political feudalism, which was developing in Jewish society just as it was elsewhere in the world.

The very rise of the Haskalah served as evidence that Hasidism had become outmoded. Rather than a progressive force, it became a stumbling block on the road of development. The contribution of Hasidism to modern Jewish culture is rooted not as much in the period following the Napoleonic wars, despite the fact that the remnants of its vital powers could still be seen at that time in central Poland, but in its period of florescence, when it launched a rebellion against the decrepit rule and outmoded world view of what it considered a fossilized orthodoxy.

A certain idealization of Hasidism prevalent today makes no distinction between the periods of rise and fall in its development and, at the same time, belittles the role of the Haskalah in the development of modern Judaism and underestimates it to the degree of deliberate omission. It was thus possible that the bicentennial of the death of the Ba'al Shem Tov in 1960 was observed in the state of Israel with elaborate publicity, yet the public was unaware that the same year marked the centennial of the death of Isaac Ber Levinsohn, the father of the Russian Haskalah. This want of knowledge of the Haskalah as opposed to Hasidism is certainly a disquieting sign of a turning away from the values of rationalism in our cultural heritage in preference to those of irrationalism and mysticism.

We should not defend this demeaning distinction on the ground that it allegedly issues from a persistent aim at arousing our national consciousness. This has mistakenly led to the claim that Hasidism was a movement of redemption and, thus, a typical national movement, whereas the Haskalah, in general, did not see the need to emphasize the national element of Judaism and, to a certain extent, was even misled into a tendency to actual assimilation. This argument is based on a complete misunderstanding of the special character of the cultural trends in the history of the Jewish people as an exterritorial nation.

The conditions of the Jews in the Diaspora induced the popular currents to exalt the concept of redemption, whereas in the rationalistic currents, whose standard bearers were the upper strata of the people, this idea was not emphasized, often because of the desire to draw nearer to the ruling nation. In this respect, the opposition between Hasidism and the Haskalah is of the same nature as the rivalry between the zealots on the one hand and the rationalists on the other in the controversy that flared up in Spain and Provence after the death of Maimonides, or between the Kabbalists and the men of the Renaissance in Italian Jewry, or between the guardians of traditional Jewish belief in their struggle against philosophy in Dutch Judaism. Cultural progress in the history of the Jewish people in the Diaspora—since it is a history of Diaspora—did not always parallel the historic desire of the people for redemption in Zion.

The paths to progress in the development of the Jews have not been straight. Yet, the power of progress is great throughout Jewish history, and only progress can guide a people on the main road to liberation, the road to autoemancipation and the return to Zion. It was not by coincidence that Hasidism, the last and most powerful of all the religious movements of Jewish redemption, reached at its final stage the impasse of passivity and weakness; in contrast, the Haskalah, inasmuch as it struck root among the people, deepened its hold by becoming more realistic until it gave birth to a new movement, the "Lovers of Zion," which paved the way for the revival of the nation in its homeland.

The first part of this book, which discusses Galician Hasidism and the Haskalah, was published in Yiddish in 1942 by the YIVO in New York. In the Hebrew edition (Sifriyat Po'alim, 1961), on which this translation is based, the number of documents in the appendix was doubled and a sixth chapter was added dealing with Joseph Perl's almanacs, which first appeared in English in the Journal of Jewish Bibliography (1942, nos. 1‑3) and then in Yiddish in the bimonthly Getseltn (1946‑47, nos. 10‑13). This edition contains a number of changes in the formulation of the Haskalah's national stand, and of the problem of the social foundations of Hasidism, aspects of which became clearer to me following further research into the history of the movement. Therefore, the portrait of Hasidism in Galicia presented here is, I believe, richer and more detailed.

In the second part of the book, a description of the Hasidic system and Haskalah literature in Congress Poland is given. The scope is much broader here than in Part I because whereas the creative powers of Galician Hasidism weakened, the Hasidic doctrine in Poland, especially in that period, excelled in the originality of its ideas. As far as the Haskalah in Poland is concerned, I chose to elaborate on its writers and literature since, due to its sparsity, it did not succeed in entering the written history of modern Hebrew literature as did the Haskalah in Galicia.

Sincere thanks go to Dr. Michael Wonsowicz, director of the Central State Archives in Warsaw, who courteously allowed me to use its documents during my stay in Warsaw in the summer of 1957. He was also of great assistance during my work in the State Archives in Lemberg (Lwów) in the summer of 1937, when he served there as chief archivist.

Last, I remember with deep reverence my beloved friend, the renowned martyred historian Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, hero of the Warsaw Ghetto and creator of its archives. He, in faithful friendship, copied for me the documents of the Public Education Archives (AOP) in Warsaw concerning Hasidism and sent them to me in New York just before the outbreak of World War II, during which the entire collection was destroyed by the Nazis.

Summer 1961

SOURCE: Mahler, Raphael. Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century; translated from the Yiddish by Eugene Orenstein; translated from the Hebrew by Aaron Klein and Jenny Machlowitz Klein (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1985), Introduction, pp. xiii-xvii.

"The Haskalah" by Shira Schoenberg (Jewish Virtual Library)

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