In Response: Hasidism's Messianic Matrix


Mor Altshuler

In his review of my book, "The Messianic Secret of Hasidism," (Ha'aretz, 18 July 2003) Mendel Piekarz describes me as a young scholar; however, he couples this compliment with such epithets as "bulimic" and "not veryknowledgeable." I regret the fact that he chose toconcentrate on tastelesscomments on my personality insteadof talking about the book and thefindings it contains.

However, to the heart of the matter, this seniorresearcher on Hasidism presents shopworn arguments. He uses categoricalgeneralizations: "This is what we learn!" or "A close readingof thedifficult commentaries in `Or Hame'ir' clearly proves ..." or "... afterprolonged study of the books of pious Jewsand Hasidism, I have learned that ... " However, instead of proving decisive facts, he repeatedly quoteshagiographic (that is, fictional and non-historical) Hasidic traditions andhe adopts their anachronistic nature. In doing so, he adopts the position of a Hasid instead of engaging in a critical analysis of thesources, as would be expected from any self-respectingscholar.

Evenwhen he attempts to prove his prowess in dealing with minute details, hefails, and even misleads his readers. For example, he portrays me as someonewho "did not bother to open the collection of writings that is the mostcelebrated and the most accessible to every beginning student in this field: `Maggid Devarav Le'Yaakov' (`He Conveys His Words to Jacob') by Rabbi DovBer, the Maggidof Mezritch." However, Dr. Piekarz deliberately overlooks the fact that "Maggid Devarav Le'Yaakov" is referred to in my book 22times. The references include a detailed discussion of the issue of theidentity of the preacher whose sermons areprinted in that collection. It isquite possible that Dr. Piekarzrejects my conclusion - namely, that thepreacher is Rabbi YechielMichel, the Maggid (itinerant preacher) ofZlotschov, rather than Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich; however, precisely because of his objections, he should have squarely dealt with the evidence I present, instead of masking the shallowness of his ownarguments with a contemptuous attitude that certainlydoes no justice to theperson who expresses it.

Apparently, Dr. Piekarz thinks the readers ofHaaretz are ignoramuses. That is probably the reason for his declarationthat "anyonewho reads the words of Rabbi Meshulam Feibish will sense thatthe dominant spiritual figure hovering above the text is thatof RabbiDov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich." He makes this declarationdespite the factthat Rabbi Meshulam Feibish Heller, one of the personalities referred to inmy book, proclaims that his rabbi and mentor is Rabbi Yechiel Michel, theMaggid of Zlotschov: "... most especially ... what I heard from a sacredmouth ... the distinguished rabbi, Yechiel Michel, may his candle continueto burn brightly."  Rabbi Meshulam Feibish Heller goes on to say that hevisitedRabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich, only once.  Furthermore, it was the late Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer ("Hasidism as Mysticism"), not I, who identified the "Maggid" in Rabbi Meshulam Feibish Heller's writings asRabbi Yechiel Michel, theMaggid of Zlotschov, rather than RabbiDov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich. As itturns out, Dr. Piekarzseems to have a low regard for both Prof. SchatzUffenheimerand for her scholarly knowledge.

Relying on a colon

Acharacteristic example of his slovenly approach is his quoting from a lateedition of Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf of Zhitomir's classic Hasidic text, "Or Hame'ir" ("The Illuminating Light"): the NewYork edition printed in the Hebrewcalendar year 5714 (1954) which is a photo-offset printing of the Lemberg (Lvov) edition, which appeared in 5635 (1875). The only reason I mentionthis point is that Piekarz makes a mountain out of a molehill: He baseshimself on the colon appearing between two passages in order to determinewho is the Maggid referred to in "Or Hame'ir."  In contrast, I have focusedon the literary structure of the passages, comparing their content tosimilar sermons in the writings of other students and dating the eventdepicted in those two passages in line with the sermon based on the weeklyTorah portion read in the synagogue. As is customary in scholarly research, the quote in my book was taken from the text of the firstedition of "Or Hame'ir," which was published in Korets in 5558 (1798) andwhose appearance received the  blessings ofthe author's sons and theblessing of his friend, Rabbi Levy Yitzhak of Berditchev. The edition I usedis part of the GershomScholem collection in the National Library in Jerusalem. Anexamination of that edition would have saved Piekarz from areliance on a colon appearing in a later, random edition inorder toprove such a central issue. During his visit, he wouldalso have enrichedhis knowledge by taking a look at the comments that Scholem jotted down inthe margins of the book's pages.

These examples are sufficient proof thatPiekarz could have saved himself considerable embarrassment had he openlyadmitted that, failing to find flaws in my research method, he had simply invented flaws to camouflage the dissatisfaction he felt when he read myconclusion: The Hasidic movement has messianic roots.

Granted, the lateIsaiah Tishby also reached a similar conclusion; however, Tishby could beforgiven because he was Piekarz's teacherand mentor. I, on the other hand, am a young, rash individualwho refuses to accept threadbare and incorrectformulas justbecause they are "conventions" and purportedlyself-understood.

It is not too difficult to understand Piekarz's awkwardfeelings: The issue of messianism in Hasidism constitutes for many people a serious problem because this issue has implications for whatprecededthat messianism (the link with Shabbatean messianism)and what developed inits wake (the connection with Zionism). In other words, the topic touchesthe very heart of a major historiosophic debate that has molded the Israelipsyche – our attitude toward the past - especially from two standpoints: our attitude toward the Diaspora and the link between Zionismand themessianic movements that preceded it in the processof the Jewish people'sreturn to its homeland. One of thosemovements was Hasidism.

This is notthe context for developing these subjects, although suffice it to say that, in academe, an erroneous solution wasfound in the theory of GershomScholem, who argued that Hasidismdid not begin as a messianic movementand even defined Hasidismas the neutralization of the messianic impulse.  Two scholarshave a totally different approach and they consider Hasidism to have an unmistakably messianic basis: historian Ben-Zion Dinur and ascholar of kabbala, Isaiah Tishby, who was one of Scholem's students. Theirviews were rejected for a long period while Scholem's dominated the field.

However, since the early 1990s they have once more become the starting-pointfor research on Hasidism - for example, the work of Moshe Idel and JosephDan, who has defined contemporary Hasidism as a post-messianicmovement. In other words, the initial stage in Hasidism's development was a messianicone. The messianic secret of Hasidism was thus not the product ofaniconoclastic desire but was rather part of an ongoing effort undertaken byscholars and other intellectuals to reconcilethe paradox between Scholem'smistaken definition and what emergesfrom the texts themselves. Today, Dr.Piekarz is the only scholarwho still holds the view that Hasidism is ananti-messianic movement. The messianic excitement around the figure of the Lubavitcher Rebbe has erupted because the members of the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement simply did not read the right learned articles…


The innovative feature in my book is its exposure of the entire messianic matrix, whose extensive nature has hitherto been hiddenfromview: The prophecies of the Redemption that was to takeplace between 5500and 5541 (1740-1781) led Rabbi Israel BaalShem Tov, or the Baal Shem Tov, to make an unsuccessful attemptto travel to Jerusalem in 1740. The nextproduct of the prophecieswas the activity of his student, Rabbi YechielMichel, the Maggidof Zlotschov, a charismatic leader who was described asthe "soul of God". That soul includes the souls of all Jews and will bethe instrumentto redeem those souls from their sins. The Maggid ofZlotschov founded a small kabbalistic-messianic group whose goal was to usher in the Redemption before 1781. Some of the group's membersmovedto the Holy Land in 5537 (1777), settling in Safed andTiberias. They hopedthat they would be able to transmit totheir coreligionists in the Diasporathe message concerningthe resurrection of the dead, an event that, so itwas believed, would begin in the Galilee. Their immigration to the HolyLand, which was intended "to redeem and be redeemed" - that is, toredeem the Shekhina (the divine presence) from its exile andto, inturn, be redeemed by the Shekhina - can be seen as apioneering prototype ofthe waves of Zionist immigration thatwould come later and whose goal was "to build and be built".

The messianic venture ended in bitterdisappointment, with the death of the Maggid of Zlotschov and thedisintegration of thefirst Hasidic "court." It was only after the Maggid'sdeaththat the Hasidic courts of his students developed. Each of thesecourts had a post-messianic structure in which the tzadik (righteousleader) functioned as a surrogate-messiah. The eruption of messianicfervor surrounding such charismatic tzadikim as Rabbi Nachman ofBratslav, the Seer of Lublin and Rabbi Israel of Rozhin in the 19th centuryand the Lubavitcher Rebbe today should comeas no surprise, because theHasidic tzadik originally had amessianic mission. These developmentsare rather embarrassing for the Hasidic world as a whole because therevelation of one of the tzadikim asthe messiah will render the othertzadikim irrelevant and willthreaten the survival of both the dynasties oftzadikim and the Hasidic courts they lead.

Admittedly, the messianicmatrix portrayed in "The MessianicSecret of Hasidism" vastly differs fromthe old picture thatDr. Piekarz clings to so steadfastly. The exposure ofthis matrixenables us to understand the period of Hasidism's initialconsolidationand to link up the Hasidic movement's history with itstheologicalstructure, namely, Hasidism's unique theory of the tzadik. Theclarification of the Hasidic court's messianic character merges the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Earth into a single unit that canexplain the movement's history and theology. Thus, we can now understandboth Hasidism's post-messianic presentand the isolated outbursts of afervor that is buried deep underground. In my view, this insight is mybook's contribution to the study of Hasidism and to the study of messianic movements in general.

Since Dr. Piekarz ends his review article with aselection ofthe warnings issued by Hasidic leaders against the satanic fireof the Sitra Akhra, (the Other Side) of messianism andtheirwords of praise for the Diaspora, I will end my responsewith a question: Why did he not think twice before offering so many statements calling forthe Diaspora's perpetuation and singing its praises? Dr. Piekarz shouldinstead have rememberedthe end of the European Diaspora he so vigorouslylauds: a horrifying fire that consumed much of our people.

The End

For further discussion refer to:

The First Tzaddik of Hasidism: The Zlotchover Maggid and His Circle 

The Messianic Secret of Hasidism

Messianic Strains in Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov's 'Holy Epistle'