Hasidic Dynasties

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January 1, 2011
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Nehemia Polen

Hasidism is the revivalist and mystical movement that arose in eastern Europe in the eighteenth century, emphasizing ecstatic prayer, the awareness that God is everywhere, and the centrality of extraordinary leaders known as tzaddikim. The dynastic system in Hasidism (that is, the inheritance of a Hasidic master’s leadership role, generally from father to son or son-in-law) is widely considered a central feature of the movement; this was not always the case. Neither the Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760) nor Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezhirech (d. 1772), founded a dynasty, although some latter-day descendents of these illuminated masters would come to claim the spiritual prestige of their illustrious ancestors. The Maggid of Mezhirech promulgated Hasidism by cultivating and empowering a cadre of notable disciples, but gave no thought to bequeathing a community of followers to his son. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s leadership position was not assumed by a family member; rather, a prominent disciple took on the role of caretaker, publishing the discourses and tales of the master. Moreover, the Bratslav Hasidim regarded their leader’s death in 1810 as unreal; they consider the founder as an ongoing living presence. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (d. 1810), one of the most beloved and influential of all early masters, left no family successor as the “Berditchever Rebbe.”

So how and why did the pattern of dynastic succession take hold in so many instances? It has been suggested that the inheritance of Polish-Russian noble estates served as a model,1 but external models attract attention and exert influence only when they resonate with some internal need. Why did dynastic aristocracy hold no allure during Hasidim’s initial stages, and what intervened to make that aristocratic model appear compelling at a later period?

The Hasidic leader, the tzaddik or rebbe, is a spiritual master who conveys illuminated teachings to his disciples and is a conduit of blessings. His person — his physical body along with his spirit — is where heaven and earth touch. The tzaddik is endowed with gifts that transcend the natural order, with powers that enable him to intervene on behalf of the sick, the poor, and the unjustly accused, and, on occasion, even to shield the Jewish people from the violence of exile. The capstone of his endowments is the ability to read souls, to discern an individual’s previous lifetimes, and to offer direction on how he might best fulfill the goal of his current journey on earth. This was the way the early Hasidim looked to the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezhirech, and it remains true in attenuated form for every later generation through the present.

The popularity of the Baal Shem Tov (known as the Besht) and the Maggid rested not only in their having all these gifts, but in having them in ensemble, as a coordinated unity of personhood. The Besht and the Maggid taught sublime mystical concepts and were shamanic adepts. These domains not only resided in the same person, but were mutually reinforcing: The powers confirmed the truth of the teachings, while the mystical Torah provided the theoretical framework for the paranormal gifts. It is no wonder that people of all social classes flocked to them for a wide variety of reasons — material, social, and spiritual. The diverse and rich texture of the Hasidic community was a mirror reflecting the all-embracing wisdom and reach of the master.

When the earliest Hasidic leaders died, no one saw the Hasidic community as a collective entity that might be — indeed, ought to be — preserved and inherited. A community’s self-consciousness took time to ripen, no doubt fostered by ties of pious loyalty that emerged over several generations. While the Hasidim were discovering bonds of affiliation to a Hasidic family based on memory, place, and a growing body of teachings, stories, melodies, and practices, the master’s family came to realize that it, too, had a strong interest in preserving the community that had grown around the departed tzaddik. Not inconsequentially, a Hasidic residence was a clearinghouse for the distribution of charity funds left by grateful devotees. An entire theology grew up around these donations, which were seen as analogous to gifts to the Temple in biblical times, and which assured the Hasid’s soul-connection to the master. While most funds were distributed immediately, some were quite legitimately directed to expenses of the household, which came to comprise not only the tzaddik’s family, but resident Hasidim on stipend, visitors on pilgrimage, widows and orphans absorbed into the household, and many workers — kitchen staff, maintenance crew, supervisory personnel.2 In short, the Hasidic court became a complex enterprise, a center of economic as well as spiritual activity upon whom many people depended.

Once the Hasidic house was seen to be a spiritual, social, and economic asset, there was a strong motivation to preserve it after the death of the master. Loyalty of the devotees was indispensable for the success of this project, but the central actors were the members of the family. And, while only male heirs could actually sit on the previous master’s seat and assume titular authority, it was frequently the women of the family working behind the scenes who influenced the process in crucial ways. In Hasidic households, women — the master’s wife, mother, daughters, or daughters-in-law — were often the ones directly involved in running the household, supervising the staff, and managing the accounts. Perhaps more than anyone, they understood what was at stake in assuring continuity. They recognized that were a successor not named quickly, the community would become vulnerable to dissolution. The Hasidim who had followed the master would search for spiritual guidance from another tzaddik. The dispersal of the court would leave the family adrift, but a smooth succession would ensure a secure and honored position for them in the court of the new master, their close relative.

There is one other consideration: by the time of Hasidism’s third generation (roughly, after 1772), the wives of noted masters were typically daughters of other masters. This inbreeding of Hasidic aristocracy meant that, even though a woman could not directly inherit a Hasidic lineage, she had the indispensable role of transmitting royal lines both as wife and daughter. It was in her womb that “sacred seed” grew to term. The child to whom she gave birth would bear the legacy of two noble families, thus enhancing the likelihood that the young scion would be favored by divine grace and inherit spiritual power in two different modalities. We thus arrive at a surprising conclusion: While women were generally kept in the background in Hasidic communities, out of sight and away from the gaze of outsiders, they played key roles in the rise of Hasidic dynasties and kept alive a dynastic vision over generations.

Hasidic dynasties have shown remarkable tenacity and resilience, retaining distinctive identities despite historical trauma and geographical displacement. The system was very functional and it fostered a diverse religious culture with a wide variety of ritual expression and spiritual style, thus providing each tzaddik with the opportunity to place the stamp of his personality on the received tradition in ways authentic yet individual. Each dynasty tried to cultivate a reputation for excellence in at least one particular area, such as Torah study, prayer, Hasidic tales, melody, acts of kindness, intercession, and so on. The dynastic system ensured the spread of Hasidism to ever wider geographic locations in Eastern Europe, and later to Eretz Yisrael, the Americas, and throughout the world. It satisfied the need of the Jewish masses for an aristocracy of their own, providing dignity, self-confidence, and pride. It gave the individual Jew and, eventually, families, towns, and regions, a sense of identification and rootedness, a rich spiritual identity that transcended the lifetime of any one individual.

The renaissance of Hasidism after the Holocaust is largely due to the dynastic principle. In cases where a particular rebbe survived and resettled in Israel or America — Lubavitch, Satmar, Ger, Bobov, Vizhnitz, and Belz — the Hasidic group reconstituted itself. Other notable dynasties whose royal families suffered near-total annihilation at the hands of the Nazis, such as Aleksander, have not yet returned to anything like their pre-war strength.

The extraordinary postwar revival of Hasidism is astonishing, far exceeding what most people could have foreseen, given the decimated Hasidic communities in 1945. Yet this very success now leads to challenges and tensions. Many dynasties have grown to such an extent that they may be too large to be led by one individual, especially with the personal touch and intimacy that was once the hallmark of Hasidic leadership. The problem generally emerges with particular force after the death of a leader, with rifts in the community sometimes rising to the level of violent intensity. The Satmar Hasidim have undergone a bruising and embarrassing succession struggle that was taken to the secular courts. On the other hand, the passing of the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Y. Horowitz, in 2009, was followed by an apparently amicable arrangement by which his three sons each inherited one location of influence and associated institutions: Har Nof in Jerusalem, Boston, and Boro Park (Brooklyn).

The greatest succession drama of the contemporary period may be the Lubavitch lineage, where the seventh rebbe left no successor, yet the mission of his emissaries continues with unabated vigor throughout the world. The widespread predictions of disillusionment and collapse after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1994 failed to be realized, and the Chabad movement is stronger and more influential than ever. Like the Bratslav Hasidim, Chabad-Lubavitch may be on the path to discovering that no succession plan is needed when the fervor and devotion of followers keep the master’s presence as an active, dynamic force guiding their lives.

In the end, this is what we have always known: It is the Hasidim who make the rebbe.

1 See Ada Rapoport-Albert, “Hasidism after 1772: Structural Continuity and Change,” in Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed., Hasidism Reappraised (Littman Library, 1996), pp. 76-140

2 See David Assaf, The Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin, translated from the Hebrew by David Louvish (Stanford University Press, 2002); Nehemia Polen, “Rebbetzins, Wonder-Children and the Emergence of the Dynastic Principle in Hasidism,” in Shtetl: New Evaluations, edited by Steven T. Katz (New York University Press, 2007).

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Nehemia Polen, PhD, is professor of Jewish thought at Boston’s Hebrew College. He is the author of The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, and is a contributing commentator to My People’s Prayer Book, a multi-volume siddur incorporating diverse perspectives on the liturgy. His book The Rebbe’s Daughter received a National Jewish Book Award. His most recent work is Filling Words with Light: Hasidic and Mystical Reflections on Jewish Prayer (with Lawrence Kushner).

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