What Would the Baal Shem Tov Say?

Author:Goldscheider, Calvin


David Biale, et al

Princeton University Press

2017, 896 pp, $41.98

Organizing a balanced, thoughtful and faithful history of Hasidism in its complexities is challenging. A new synthesis is needed to put previous research in perspective, identify significant features of Hasidism, and utilize available resources (texts and literature) to portray Hasidism as a changing, diverse and dynamic movement. It is therefore all the more remarkable that a new history of Hasidism has emerged, written by experts in cultural and intellectual history, philology, social sciences and philosophy.

Published by Princeton University Press, Hasidism: A New History is written by a team of eight scholars from Israel and the United States, with more evenness than one might expect from a multi-authored volume. It is a masterly, bold and impressive treatise that is compelling for scholars as well as for those interested in Hasidim and Hasidic origins and culture. In the future, no analysis or research on Hasidism (or more broadly of Jewish history) will be complete without reference to the arguments carefully crafted in this volume.

There are several exceptional features of the book. The historical coverage is comprehensive and authoritative: from the origins of Hasidism in the 18th century and its connection to early ideas of the mystical literature of the Kabbalah, through its growth and expansion in Eastern Europe in the 19th century (defined as its "Golden Age" in Russia, Poland and Hungary), its spread through migration and networks, to its devastating decline in the Holocaust and to its renewal and neo-Hasidism in the late 20th and 21st centuries. The transitions were not simple, as the movement was characterized first by the proliferation of individual miracle workers, rebbes, starting with the Baal Shem Tov, traveling among small communities, to the establishment of courts, to becoming a broader-based social and religious movement. This volume describes these transformations toward a sharp emphasis on spiritualism that made Hasidism attractive and away from the strict focus on texts and study. The emphasis on how Hasidism was influenced by other social and religious movements and, in turn, how Hasidism had an impact on these movements is intriguing.

The biographies of individual Hasidic rebbes are extensive and placed in historical context. There is a significant discussion of generational succession, leadership in the context of the...

To continue reading