Towards a New History of Hasidism

[RG #110] Towards a New History of Hasidism

September 1, 2007 - August 21, 2008


David Assaf (Tel Aviv University)

Any survey of modern Jewish culture is bound to feature Hasidism -- the most prominent Jewish revival movement of the past three centuries. This revival, which took its spiritual inspiration from the Jewish mystical tradition, began in the middle of the eighteenth century with small circles of individual mystics in the region of the Polish Carpathian Mountains. It spread through the Jewish population of Eastern Europe, and in the course of the nineteenth century became a mass movement. By the final decades of the century, Hasidism was carried by the tide of mass Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe, establishing itself in various outposts in Palestine and the West. The decimation of European Jewry in the Holocaust took a heavy toll on the movement and its leaders, and yet, since the second half of the twentieth century, it has been enjoying an unexpected revival.

Against this background of remarkable resilience, successful transplantation and postwar resurrection, Hasidism has long been the subject of conflicting evaluations. It attracted the admiration of neo-Romantic authors and poets, while being denigrated and even demonized in modern historiography. Under the impact of Jewish Enlightenment values, nineteenth and early twentieth century historians viewed Hasidism as the expression of obscurantist religious fanaticism, obstructing Jewish integration in modern European society and culture. 

Sweeping political and cultural changes marking the second half of the twentieth century -- the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, the Cold War and the collapse of communism -- have inevitably altered the scholarly perspective on Hasidism. In particular, the opening up of Eastern European archives following the fall of communism, and the current multicultural discourse in which religion, once again, features as a fundamental aspect of human experience, have given rise to revisionist academic research.

Hasidic scholarship of the past three decades reflects these changes, but much of it has been fragmented, with individual scholars working in descrete disciplines, each tackling an aspect of the subject from the point of view of his or her own particular field of research. The idea of bringing together a group of leading scholars of Hasidism, who would be drawn from a variety of academic disciplines and employ a wide range of methodologies, sprang from the recognition that the Hasidic movement is a complex cultural phenomenon that cannot be properly understood within the framework of any one field of enquiry. The aim of the group is to break down the disciplinary boundaries that keep apart our respective approaches to Hasidism. We hope to integrate, for the first time, all the Hasidic scholarship of recent years, so as to establish a common basis for future research.




Moshe Idel

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Moshe is a professor in the Department of Jewish Thought and in the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.