Reading White Fire

Lea Taragin-Zeller on Hasidism: A New History

Hasidism: A New History presents a comprehensive history of Hasidism from its origins to the present. Drawing on extensive historical and contemporary data it tells a story of the “extraordinary vitality and adaptability” of Hasidic society and culture. Together, the authors demonstrate how from its origins in the eighteenth century Hasidic communities negotiated different challenges yet Hasidism “succeeded in reinventing itself to survive and flourish.” Based on extensive research and writing collaborations between eight (male) scholars, this new book will be a must-read for scholars of Judaism, history, religion and modernity.

Throughout the book, Hasidism is portrayed, not as a story of uncompromising conservatism (as many would maintain), but rather as a dynamic part of the modern world where it creates new forms of religious and social life as it re-establishes itself in Israel, North America, and elsewhere. The first part of the book traces the Hasidic movement’s origins and its golden age in the nineteenth century, then moves on to offer a description of the post-Holocaust resurrection of Hasidism, mainly in North America and Israel. In what follows, I wish to address the final part of the book, particularly the ways this section portrays contemporary Hasidic society (especially in chapter 29).

Hasidism: A New History. David Biale, et al. Princeton University Press, 2017.

The chapter “Hasidic society” offers an in-depth account of the private realm of Hasidic life, with a particular emphasis on gender, sexuality, and family life. Exploring the variety of Hasidic attire and comportment, the authors describe the nuanced norms and practices of each Hasidic group, fleshing out the variety in what might look to outsiders as a merely black-and-white-coloured lifestyle. Further, this rich description focuses on the ways Hasidic male and female bodies are dressed to minimize sexual temptation. Detailed descriptions of Kapotas, bekeshe’s and spodek’s display the variety of Hasid garb while demonstrating how these embodiments of Judaism serve as visual signs of separation that mark off Hasidim from non-Hasidim, as well as distinguish among different Hasidic groups.

Indeed, over the past thirty years, scholars have demonstrated how self-protective communities are inclined to reinforce internal taboo systems by tightening restrictions that pertain to modesty, probity, and bodily practices to negotiate their boundaries vis-à-vis what is cast as the external world. Building on the seminal work of Mary Douglas (1966), researchers have defined these groups as “enclave cultures” – distinct communities with highly demarcated cultural and moral boundaries as well as strict taboos that partition outsiders from insiders, and along rigid lines of gender. Aimed at thwarting the putative efforts of “demonic forces” to corrupt the flock, these taboos and barriers segregate the “virtuous” and “morally superior” fundamentalists from the influences of the “depraved,” “polluted,” and “dangerous” host society. As Nurit Stadler put it, “piety, with its mastering body regime, is the only force capable of changing or restraining the secular and heretical nature of the world and thus perhaps of ensuring its future, if not present, redemption.”

Throughout the chapter, the authors demonstrate how Hasidic leaders shape gendered theologies and practices around modesty and sexuality. Yet this material mainly includes direct quotes of Chabad’s Rabbi Schneerson’s gender theology and his strategic justification of the wearing of wigs by married women and Satmar’s quest for opaque women’s hosiery with the help of the businessman Lipa Brach. This came as a surprise to me, especially, as the authors note themselves: “It was women who apparently took the initiative themselves to adopt these coverings.” Who are these women and why don’t their voices appear in this text? To put it more bluntly: how can an entire chapter on gender and sexuality in Hasidic culture exist without the voice of women, while relying purely on the voices of rabbis?

In my own work, I am continuously struck by the creative ways Haredi (men and) women search for their own meanings and interpretations to continue patriarchal-based practices while fusing them with their own (some might say empowering) meanings. Constructs of gender, body, and sexuality are co-produced by religious authorities and individuals again and again, at particular moments in history. When writing history, it is our responsibility to reflect these moments and be careful not to reify normative power structures of top-down agency-less Hasidic men and women.

The ethnographic works on Hasidism that have inspired me (some of which appear in the annotated bibliography) have demonstrated this widely. To give but one example, Ayala Fader describes how Hasidic women aim to be able to participle in and transform the material world through shopping. Fader found that Hasidic girls and women believe that secular ideals of consumption need to be “channelled” and elevated, like the rest of the material world, to serve Hasidic goals of community building and redemption (an ideology that coalesces with Hasidic views of materialism rooted in Luriannic Kabbala and the importance it attributes to raising sparks, ha’alat nitzozot). Fader’s ethnographic analysis reveals the importance of looking for individual meanings of Hassidic praxis, in addition to drawing on authoritative modes of knowledge-making and meaning.

Not only does Fader’s work allow a larger variety of voices to be heard; it is through these discursive meanings that we learn how individual meaning-making draws on Kabbalistic-Hasidic discourses. In doing so, Fader’s work also highlights the particularity of Hasidic culture, a distinction which is not fully clear in Hasidism. As the authors note at the beginning of the chapter: “By the late twentieth century … Hasidic family life came to resemble in many ways all haredi or ultra-Orthodox families: relatively arranged early marriage, sexual practices governed by strict rabbinic norms, large numbers of children, and well-defined, hierarchical gender divisions from an early age.” Perhaps one of the core differences between Hasidic culture and other groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews does not linger merely in praxis, but also in the meaning and sources of discursive interpretation that individuals draw on. To put it differently, Hasidic sparks may appear in the narratives of Hasidic women in Brooklyn, but not in the modesty discourses of their Litvish counterparts.

This brings me to one last issue. The end of this chapter offers an extensive discussion about Hasidic demography and economy as well as the current relations Hasidic individuals and communities have with the “outside” world, while offering insights to modes of recruitment and drop-out rates. This nuanced type of demographic data is extremely challenging to collect, and this data collection is a great asset to scholars of contemporary Judaism.

It also raises an important question regarding the borders of Hasidic communities. For most of this chapter, the analysis of Hasidim is vis-à-vis Litvish ultra-orthodox groups and non-Jews.  Yet Hasidism has become a source of spirituality with wide reach beyond the so-called “walls” of their communities. Hasidic niggunim (songs), stories, and rebbes are a source of inspiration for many groups, especially neo-Hassidim and ex-Hassidim who may have left normative Hasidic life, but are still deeply connected (some of which are mentioned at the end of this chapter as double-lifers). Hasidic culture, especially Breslev and Chabad-Leubaveitch, which have been reshaped as Jewish outreach movements, constantly challenges the borders of its communities, as well as its members’ own identities. To paraphrase Mary Douglas, it is the borders of the community where both danger and real change lurk. As scholars, the margins are sometimes the most constructive places to search, for both the past and the future. Taking this into account, an approach searching for multiple sets of gender norms in marginal, experimental, and unexpected places can help broaden normative perspectives.

To draw on Hasidic discourse, there is a saying that the Torah was written as black fire on white fire. The black letters represent what we see, while the white symbolizes the invisible space between the letters. Yet, Hasidic (among other) interpretations insist that both black and white letters are equally meaningful. Attributing importance to the invisible (or perhaps we should say silenced?) letters is deemed as an act of redemption, an act that does not occur miraculously, but rather it requires human effort to look beyond the black letters.

Hasidism: A New History is likely to become a staple in the scholarship of Jewish history, religion, and modernity. Its meticulous effort to bridge the historical and the contemporary, and to incorporate Europe, Israel, and the United States as well as interdisciplinary perspectives has produced a detailed and authoritative text on the history of Hasidism. Unfortunately, it has also become a marker for what scholarship should no longer look like: an all-male authored volume. University presses, including Princeton University Press since the time of Hasidism’s release, have already made policies to discontinue publishing such edited volumes and co-authored books. In this sense, this book may turn into a classic of both what should be done, and what can be done better. After reading this book, I am curious how future researchers will decide to tell the story? Will they stick to the black letters? Or will they dive into a study that looks for the silenced white letters as well? I wonder what the next book of Hasidism will look like.

Lea Taragin-Zeller is a social anthropologist and currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute at the University of Cambridge. Her current project examines the ways Jewish and Muslim women construct gender identities in conjunction with each other and in response to growing Islamophobia and antisemitism in the United Kingdom.