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Hasidic Movement in Old Poland. Broad-Based Implications:Hassidim MAskilim

jan peczkis|Wednesday, August 19, 2015

his is a very detailed work which contains much technical detail. The title, MEN OF SILK (Kitajcy), stems from the fact that Hasidim commonly wore silk in order to avoid wearing wool—in which there was the danger of some linen threads being mixed in with the wool threads. (p. 2, 61).his is a very detailed work which contains much technical detail. The title, MEN OF SILK (Kitajcy), stems from the fact that Hasidim commonly wore silk in order to avoid wearing wool—in which there was the danger of some linen threads being mixed in with the wool threads. (p. 2, 61).

Much of what has been written about the Hasidim has tended to be written by their opponents. The author, instead, emphasizes the use of archival information to support his conclusions. Based on this, he tends to find the differences between the Hasidim and the Mitnaggdim to be less pronounced than commonly reckoned, and for the ways of the Hasidim to be less commonly esoteric than commonly supposed.

Not all of the Maskilim (enlightened Jews) were negatively oriented towards Hasidism. Some of the Maskilim praised this movement for its sense of community, its love for the poor, and its devotion to the Jewish people. As for the objectionable resistance to reform, this hostility to innovation was not limited to some of the Hasidim. It was equally true of some of the Mitnaggdim and their “zealous Talmudism”. (p. 161).

Author Glenn Dynner finds parallels between the Hasidim and comparable spiritual movements in Christianity, such as Pietism, Quietism, Wesleyanism, Jansenism, the Great Awakening, and the Old Believers. However, he sees no cause-effect relationship between these developments in Judaism and Christianity. Instead, both trends developed in parallel, according to the ZEITGEIST. This, in turn, was not a reaction to the Enlightenment but rather a sharing with the Enlightenment--of the spirit of individual independence of thought and feeling in matters of the spirit. (pp. 16-17).

Now let us consider religious dissent and the Inquisition. The political and religious establishment of Poland was, if anything, harsher towards unconventional religious expression among Catholics than among Jews. Dynner remarks, (quote) These Christian cases place official treatment of Hasidism in perspective: Official concerns about fanaticism, exploitation of gullible folk, and disruptions of public order applied in both cases. If anything, the zaddikim ultimately enjoyed better treatment than Christian miracle workers. (unquote). (p. 86).

Demonology existed in 17th century Polish Hasidism as well as in Polish Catholicism. Dynner (p. 143) believes that Polish demonic lore was richer than its relatively narrow and formulaic Jewish counterpart. (p. 143).

I now move beyond Hasidism itself, and focus on matters of direct relevance to issues outside of Jewish religion. I use brackets to relate the information to timeless matters that go beyond the immediate purview of this book.


The disloyalty to Poland by some of Poland’s magnates, at the infamous Conference of Targowica, is well known. However, questions have sometimes also been raised about the loyalty or otherwise of Poland’s Jews at the time of the Partitions. Although this subject is beyond the scope of this book, the author provides interesting information about one prominent Polish Jew.

Enter Szmul Zbytkower. He is identified by Dynner as having an unclear attitude towards Hasidism, but one who was very wealthy. (p. 97).

The author describes Zbytkower’s conduct in the period up to and including the Partitions of Poland, (quote) He [Szmul] settled in the Warsaw suburb of Praga around the age of twenty-five (i. e., 1752), and acquired his fortune by provisioning both the Polish and Russian armies with horses, grain, leather, cloth, and other goods during the struggles accompanying the partitions of Poland…As for Szmul, his double dealings and varied connections yielded houses and entire estates. He became the first Polish Jew to own real estate. The designation “court Jew” is quite appropriate in his case. Yet Szmul’s supplies to the Russian Army and the Confederacy of Targowica during the Kosciuszko insurrection left him vulnerable to charges of espionage and treachery, and led to the destruction of his tannery and confiscation of his other property. Although he was cleared of those charges by the court of the Insurrection, several historians strove to clear his name again. (unquote). (p. 98).

However, there is more to this. Dynner remarks, (quote) Tadeusz Korzon argues, however, that as Jews felt no connection to Poland, there is no reason to expect patriotism from Szmul. (unquote). (p. 292).

Perhaps the wrong question is being asked. Szmul Zbytkower should perhaps be best described not so much as a court Jew, but as an early version of the international Jew—one who has no loyalty to any nation, and who works with any nation that will further his influence and his wealth.


The author touches on the Jewish paying of extra taxes in exchange for being exempt from military service. This was notably true of the Tsarist Russian Empire in the early 19th century. (p. 295).


Some of the reasons that the Hasidim encountered opposition from their fellow Jews are intuitively obvious, while others are not. Dynner comments, (quote) Not surprisingly, Hasidim were confronted by formidable opponents—Jewish and non-Jewish—at every turn. Among Hasidism’s Jewish opponents, the traditionalist-oriented Mitnaggdim decried the separate Hasidic prayer quorums on the grounds that they employed ritual modifications supposedly reserved for the elite. Separate spaces for worship also undermined the local pecking order, manifested in preferred seating assignments and ritual honors in the synagogue. (unquote). (p. 59).

[The informed reader may recount a more recent situation in which the question of segregated seating came up. When Poles of the 1930’s were condemned for instituting ghetto benches for Jews at Polish universities, they responded with the fact that they were only imitating the kind of segregated seating that the Jews had already been practicing for centuries.]


Author Glenn Dynner defines the YIHUS as a rabbinical lineage—commonly found among both the Hasidim and the Mitnaggdim. (p. 80, 124). The YIHUS had a secular Jewish counterpart. Dynner comments, (quote) Interestingly enough, Jewish socialists developed their own version of YIHUS, derived from a relative’s fame as a revolutionary. (unquote). (p. 135).

[Nowadays, Jews who are related to Communists (e. g., Adam Michnik vel Szechter) commonly act as though they had nothing to do with the attitudes and conduct of their relatives. While this may sometimes be true, one must not overlook the opposite tendency—of the fact of involvement in socialism (and Communism) tending to run in Jewish families, and for being honored as such.]
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