Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
Miracle in the Hasidic tradition
The Hasidic movement that spread so rapidly in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was founded by the famous mystic Israel ben Eliezar Ba'al Shorn Toy who died in 1760. One of its most striking features is the importance accorded to the miraculous. This impression is reinforced by the fact that knowledge of Hasidism is usually derived from the stories which were published in German translation by such scholars as Hayyim Bloch, Martin Buber. Alexander Eliasberg, to name only the best known. The source of these stories is the numerous collections of Hasidic tales which were published in Eastern Europe by the virtuosi of this spiritual movement. These collections multiplied with what became known as "Zaddikism", that is the setting-up of so-called "courts", some rather simple, others more elaborate, in most towns and villages with a Jewish population, around a master called Zaddik. the Just One par excellence. He was considered the indispensable mediator between the faithful and the world of the divine. This was something absolutely new in Judaism. Veritable dynasties came into being in which the office of Zaddik became hereditary. Even though the general rule was for the eldest son to succeed his father by virtue of seniority, other sons of well-known masters tended to set up "courts" of their own.
Two Kinds of Hasidic Literature
The aim of the collections of stories was to proclaim the great works and the miracles performed by the master. The prototype of them all is the tales of Shibhei ha-Besht, the "praises" of the founder of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Israel b. Eliezer, called Besht. This is an abbreviation for Ba'al Shorn toy, "Master of the Good Name" which means the wonder-worker capable of performing miracles, thanks to his knowledge of the secrets of the divine Name. This collection was first published in 1815 and has gone through innumerable editions.
There also exists a great number of treatises produced by the Hasidic masters themselves. or composed by their immediate disciples, which are devoted to the presentation of their teachings. These treatises also contain elements of the miraculous, but this is not their primary concern. They are often arranged according to the order of the Torah readings for Shabbat. This was because the teaching was normally given on Shabbat afternoon, after the third meal (se'udah shelishit), when the master "spoke the Torah" (Torah sagen in popular language); in other words he commented on the portion which had been read at the morning service. The model for this type of writing is found in the To!dot Ya'agov Voussef, which is a presentation of the teaching of Besht by his disciple R. Jacob Joseph de Polonoye, published for the first time in 1780.
The Hasidic Tale as a Method of Teaching
To understand the importance of the miraculous in Hasidic teaching it must be remembered that this attraction to the "marvellous" came directly. though in a popularised form, from the Cabbalistic revival which took place in the sixteenth century around R. Isaac Luria of Safed, called Ha AR! (abbreviation for "the divine rabbi Isaac"). Following the publications of his favourite disciple, R. Hayyim Vital Calabrese. (R. Isaac Luria, like the Besht, left practically no literary heritage), the movement inspired by Luria, which had a strong messianic element, spread very rapidly throughout the whole of the Jewish world. It also gave rise to the extraordinary messianic ferment which centred around Shabbatai Zevi, the famous false messiah of Smyrna Mho "manifested" himself in 1648). The "marvellous" is also omnipresent in the life of Luria. A collection of miracle stories connected with him, called Shibbhei ha-Ari is in existence. But all this wonder-working is a heritage of the ancient Cabbalah, and above all from its "Bible", the Soler ha-Zohar (the "Book of Lights") which was "discovered" in Spain at the end of the thirteenth century. In its turn the ancient Cabbalah was the heir to the great esoteric and apocalyptic currents of antiquity.
The "Hasidic story" which so often transports us into the world of the marvellous which was that of the masters of this spiritual movement, was also one of their favourite ways of teaching. Using the direct and popular teaching method of the ancient rabbis, and forsaking the strongly intellectualised tradition based exclusively on study of the Talmud which was open only to the initiated elite, they turned to the ordinary people, using everyday speech rather than "scholarly" language larded with Hebrew and Aramaic expressions. They presented the essentials of their teaching in a simple, direct and easily understandable manner.
Historical Conditions and the "taste" for the Miraculous
The distressing experiences of Polish Jewry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to a grave deterioration in living conditions. Most of the Talmudic academies had to close their doors because of lack of resources and the ordinary and poor people sank more and more into ignorance. They were despised by the Talmudic scholars and the gap between the two groups, scholars and the illiterate, grew ever deeper. The merit of Besht and his disciples was that they went to the poor, the humble, the disinherited and the ignorant, to announce to them the consoling message of the omnipresence of God in his creation and his limitless love for his people.
It is often in times of great hardship that movements with a strong esoteric character appear in Jewish history. In order to escape from the drabness of everyday life there is a tendency to turn more to the "wonderful" world of God. Thishad been the case with apocalyptic circles in the ancient world, and also with the Cabbalistic milieu in Spain at a moment when the lot of the Jews became more and more difficult. The. spiritual impetus surrounding Luria was in its turn the aftermath of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which the authors of that time compare to a third destruction of the Temple. As for Hasidism, it has to be understood in the context of the deep disappointment which had seized the Jewish world after the apostacy of Shabbatai Zevi, on the one hand, and on the other, of the disarray caused by the massacres perpetrated in Poland by the Cossacks under Chmielnicki, and the increasingly difficult conditions under which the Jewish population had to live.
Is it, therefore, surprising that under these conditions ordinary people and the most needy were attracted by the aura of the miraculous which surrounded the great figures of the first generation of Hasidic masters, such as R. Elimelekh, E. Levi Isaac of Berditchev, R. Sussya of Anipoli and so many others. It must be added that it was not only the simple who were impressed. From the beginning Hasidism had a similar attraction for the learned, for example, R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye and R. Dov Baer of Meseritch, who was to assume leadership of the movement after the death of Besht. With R. Elimelekh the era of Zaddikism began: that is when a particular group of Hasidim would place unlimited confidence in the master it chose as spiritual guide. The Zaddik was man of God par excellence, in permanent contact with the "other world", gifted with a power which allowed him on occasion even to overturn the decrees of the "heavenly court" (as in the case of R. Levi Isaac of Berditchev): Capable of working miracles, he would henceforward be considered the indispensable mediator through whom all relations between the human and the divine would pass.
Undoubtedly all the Zaddikim were not of the same spiritual eminence, especially the generations following the great masters, when the function of Zaddik had become to all intents and purposes hereditary. It is not even surprising that there were charlatans among them. No spiritual movement has been able to sustain the same spiritual vigour throughout several generations. Nevertheless it is unjust to pass a negative judgment on the movement as a whole as certain historians, for example Simon Dubnov, have done.
Bitterly contested by the rabbinic authorities in the first generation because certain aspects were judged to be "fantastic" (in comparison with the traditional austere piety), nevertheless Hasidism, with its wonder-working character and its faith in the miraculous power of its masters, ended by integrating itself perfectly into Jewish life and hasbeen a source of inspiration and consolation for generations of pious Jews. Having survived the great tragedy of the last war which destroyed all its historic centres, it continues on its way under other skies and, in its different forms, is one of the indispensable spiritual elements in contemporary Judaism.
• Rev. Kurt Hruby is Professor of Judaism at the Institut Catholique of Paris. He is a well-known lecturer and author of books and articles. He is also the editor of the periodicals Judaica and L'Ami dlsrael.