Thorns and Roses
By David Assaf
Mercaz Zalman Shazar, 378 pages
Around ten years ago I managed to find a way out of the drudgery of kolel study, afternoon teaching jobs, and other such odd occupations typical for a Hasidic man in the early years of married life. I went to work as a computer programmer in Midtown Manhattan, in an office I shared with a modern Orthodox woman named Shoshana. Shoshana was from an American family who moved to a settlement on the West Bank, where she’d lived for several years and from where she formed most of her views on the Jewish religious world. At one point, during a casual conversation, she imparted the following nugget of wisdom, stated in the most nonchalant way: “Well, you know, Charedim are violent people. You know.”
To which she added: “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.”
Good or bad, the important question was, what would possess a more-or-less mainstream Orthodox Jewish woman to make that claim about her Haredi bretheren? Of course, anecdotes of violence in the Haredi world are not hard to come by, but somehow, none of it added up to Haredim falling under the category of Violent People. It just didn’t jive with how I saw our world. The occasional tire slashing, the beating to a near-death pulp of a would-be-mugger during a chaptzem, or the occasional group of rowdy kids teasing Israeli mounted cops and burning trash in Meah Shearim somehow didn’t add up for me to the same image Shoshana had.
Looking back, I still think calling Haredim “violent people” simplifies a more complex social phenomenon: Haredi disregard for civil laws, a kind of Wild West, if you will, a society that operates with its own sense of justice, righteousness, and the upholding of pious virtues, the rules for which no mere politician or legal bureaucrat has any business meddling with. To call Haredim violent is like calling, say, Mormons bad cooks. (Just for arguments’ sake, of course; I know nothing about actual Mormon culinary skills.) Both might be guilty of the offense, but it is hardly a defining characteristic.
However, even if calling Haredim violent might be somewhat unfair (Jews, after all, are hardly known for their bar-brawl skills), Haredim – and Hasidim in particular – do have a violent streak that is often overlooked. And as David Assaf shows in his book Ne’echaz Basvach, or Caught in the Thicket, that streak is time-honored and deeply rooted. While the focus of Assaf’s book isn’t only Hasidic violence, it stands out – as it does in some of his other works – as a unique feature of Haredi society that is most fascinating because of the parallels between Hasidic attitudes of bygone days and today.
UNLIKE THE HASIDIC communities of yesteryear, which were spread across hundreds of cities, towns, and villages across Eastern Europe, Hasidic communities today are mostly concentrated in several metropolitan areas, most notably in New York City, several overlapping enclaves in and around Rockland County in the lower Hudson Valley of Upstate New York, and in Jerusalem and B’nei Brak, in Israel. While Hasidim of many sects live side by side in many of these areas, there is one notable – albeit less pronounced – parallel to the institution of the rebbe’s court of Eastern Europe: the organic clustering of groups around specific territories in which they establish a degree of sectarian hegemony.
The old Hasidic ethos of believing in “one God and one rebbe” isn’t nearly as fierce as it once was. Nonetheless, one might still make out a vestigial exclusivity in the way major groups established hegemonies in areas where there were few or no competing claims to “sovereignty.” A cursory listing of post-World War II Hasidic sects shows a distinctive pattern: Satmar in Wiliamsburg and Kiryas Joel, Bobov in Borough Park, Chabad in Crown Heights, Vizhnitz in Monsey and B’nei Brak, Skver in New Square, and Klausenberg in Kiryas Sanz. Even in Jerusalem, having arguably the largest concentration of Hasidic Jews in the world, major sects tend to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods: The Shomrei Emunim offshoots of Toldos Ahraon and Toldos Avraham Yitzchak in Meah Shearim, and Belz in Kiryas Belz. Perhaps the one major exception is Gur, headquartered in Jerusalem but claiming no specific territory other than a delusory hold on all territories.
(While there are, of course, several smaller sects in some of the above areas – most notably: Pupa in Williamsburg; Karlin, Slonim, Boyan, and Rachmestrivka in Jeruslaem; Nadvorna and Modzitz in B’nei Brak – their relative lack of visibility is arguably a result of being overshadowed by the larger groups who pursue growth and influence more aggressively in the same locales. We can easily imagine that a group such as, say, Slonim, or Karlin, would have been far more visible as powers to be reckoned with if they were established in areas without competing sects vying for the same geographical hegemony. Or, for a more concrete example, one can imagine the influence of Pupa in Williamsburg if Satmar never existed; they’d almost certainly be a greater force to be reckoned with. Or, on the flip side, one can imagine what Skver would’ve looked like had it remained in Williamsburg – probably no different from so many other inconspicuous groups with small-time rebbelech and their handfuls of followers.)
It is clear, however, that Hasidim of today aren’t as territorial as they used to be. Yes, a shtreimel or two might be flung across a packed synagogue during a skirmish over succession, or the odd dead body refused burial in a specific cemetery due to the deceased’s ill-chosen factional alliance. But that hardly compares to Hasidic hooliganism of once-upon-a-time, and the zeal with which territories were once “conquered” for a given rebbe.
Territorial exclusivity was pursued far more aggressively in the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe. Infringement by one group upon another’s territory was recognized as a casus belli, resulting in outbursts of violence and protracted hostilities that look as if taken from the playbook of urban drug runners. Influence over a city or town carried social and economic benefits, which led to the mostly unspoken agreement that a rebbe, once established in a locale, was its supreme and singular spiritual leader, and a new rebbe seeking to establish his court was forced to seek out unclaimed territory.
Against this backdrop of Hasidic geopolitics, systems evolved through which a rebbe claimed a city or town under his official influence. The most institutionalized of such, specifically in the regions of Volhynia and Podolia in the Ukraine, was the magidus.
Before the advent of the Hasidic movement, the magid, or preacher, was a staple of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The office of the magid varied between informal and official, itinerant and stationary. A magid might be a poor man who traveled from town to town exhorting the masses with pious homilies and folksy parables to better their religious observance, relying on informal payments from the masses or the kahal. Cities and towns with inhabitants of means sometimes hired a full-time magid, who was paid from the same coffers that paid for the rabbi, the cantor, and the ritual slaughterer.
With the advent of the Hasidic movement in the late eighteenth century, the earliest candidates for Hasidic leadership were mostly from the ranks of rabbis and magidim. The new office of the Hasidic rebbe, however, was modeled more on that of the magid than that of the rabbi. It was an office tasked with pietistic rather than legalistic guidance, and was suited more for individuals noted for piety, charisma, and oratory skill rather than scholarship.
Many of the early Hasidic rebbes went by the traditional title of magid. With time, the office of the magid, now morphed into the office of the Hasidic rebbe, retained the trappings of its once-itinerant nature by recognizing the influence of a single Hasidic rebbe over a wide swath of towns and villages, a distinction of authority that was unnatural to the office of an ordinary rabbi. Official recognition was granted by means of a magidus briev, a document signed by a town’s notables in which the grantee was named sole arbiter of all communal matters, including the appointment of rabbis, cantors, ritual slaughterers, and the like
THE UKRAINE, BIRTHPLACE of the Hasidic movement, home to some of the great Hasidic courts of the pre-Bolshevik era, was dominated in the late nineteenth century by the Twerski family, the eight sons of the Magid of Chernobyl, Rabbi Mordechai Twerski, and their descendants. It came about through fortuitous turns of events. The old guard of Hasidic masters of the regions of Vollhynia and Podolia had died out; the great Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchov, Reb Zusia of Anipoli, Reb Baruch of Mezhibuzh, the rebbe of Apt (later in Mezhibuzh), and many of the others. They left no great dynasties behind. The “royal” court of Reb Yisroel of Ruzhin, with its lavish mansions, its six-horse gilded carriages, its fashionably dressed women, was uprooted to Austria after Reb Yisroel’s imprisonment following the mysterious death of two informants in the town of Usha, whose bodies were discovered in the heating apparatus of the local Mikva. The dynasty of the rebbes of Savran ended with no notable heir after the death of Reb Moshe Tzvi in 1838.
The flag bearers of proud Hasidism, the innovative thinkers, the scholars, the ones who resisted the inevitable atrophy of the movement’s idealism, were now in Poland and Galicia (and, to some degree, Hungary and Romania). Ukrainian Hasidim, nevertheless, still had Hasidism in their blood, and what they clung to were the populist elements of the movement, which required – if little else – unbounded fealty to the rebbe and his court. The Twerski family moved in and gathered much of the masses to the various offshoots of its Chernobyl dynasty.
The eight sons of Reb Mordechai Twerski spread out across the Ukraine, establishing a near-monopoly over the Hasidic leadership. Only a near-monopoly, though; several small enclaves had Hasidim who still held tenaciously to their non-Chernobyl sects. Of the eight courts of the family Twerski, Reb Duvid’l of Tolnye (1808-1882) led one of the most famous. Quick-witted and charismatic, he attracted a large group of fiercely dedicated followers. Those followers (with Reb Duvid’l’s tacit approval, we must presume) saw it their duty to continually expand their rebbe’s stature by annexing an ever-increasing number of towns, bringing them under Reb Duvid’l’s authority.
IN THE SUMMER of 1864, Reb Duvid’l set out from his hometown of Tolnye to visit the neighboring cities and towns in the Kiev guberniya. The rebbes of the Chernobyl dynasty, who still went with the old title of magid, routinely visited their followers in keeping with the old traditions of the itinerant magid. But this was to be a grand event. Throngs of Hasidim from the surrounding towns were expected to accompany Reb Duvid’l on his trip. Poor Hasidim even received money from the rebbe’s aides and confidantes to hire wagons.
The first stop was in the town of Bohuslav. The guests were placed with local Hasidim, and the cheer and hullabaloo was accompanied by singing, dancing in the streets, and consumption of liberal quantities of yayin saraf, vodka or mead. Reb Duvid’l remained in Bohuslov for eight days.
The next destination was Kagarlyk, which had the distinction of being a “new” town, one that Reb Duvid’l hadn’t visited before. There was no local rebbe in Kagarlyk at that time and as such, according to the prevailing norms in the region, the town was a good candidate for presenting a non-local rebbe with a magidus briev, placing itself under his sphere of influence. But Kagarlyk had so far maintained its independence. Reb Duvid’l’s followers saw it as free territory, and coveted the city as a conquest for their rebbe.
As it happened, things turned out well in Kagarlyk for Reb Duvid’l and his followers, but not without incident. Reb Duvid’l arrived in Kagarlyk to great fanfare, accompanied by large masses of Hasidim. On Saturday night, after the close of the Sabbath, the town’s leaders were asked to present the rebbe with a magidus briev. The signing ceremony was to be accompanied by the consumption of large quantities of vodka distributed by the rebbe’s attendants.
However, the townspeople weren’t all of equal mind, and some notable residents refused to sign. In response, Reb Duvid’l’s Hasidim organized a mass disturbance that night: they hounded the dissidents, broke into their houses, shattered their windows, and meted out severe beatings. The local rabbi, a mere decisor of Jewish law without the titular distinction of a rebbe, refused to cower, and was driven from the town. The Hasidim then marched through the town singing, “David melech yisrael chai v’kayam.” One of the rebbe’s followers rode a horse amidst the throngs and shouted, “Kagarlyk is in our hands!” A military band was summoned to accompany the victorious festivities with music and song.
After a week in Kagarlyk, Reb Duvid’l set off with a large entourage to the town of Rzhyschiv. The plan was for a repeat of the events in Kagarlyk, and a call went out to Reb Duvid’l’s followers in the region to descend upon Rzhyschiv to assist with the conquest.
Reb Duvid’l’s Hasidim, swept up by the festive spirit, were overcome with near-drunkenness, which overflowed to the Hasidim still en route to meeting up with Reb Duvid’l and his entourage. A group of Tolner Hasidim, on their way to Rzhyschiv, encountered three Jews from the town of Rozava, which was on Reb Duvid’l’s itinerary. The Rozavar Jews were less than thrilled with the plans of the Tolner Hasidim, and they threatened to inform the civil authorities about the Tolner hooliganism. The Rozavar Jews hadn’t bargained for the Tolner zeal, and their initial show of defiance was met with a swift response. The Tolners accused the Rozavars of being informants, for which they deserve to die. The Rozavar Jews made off with their lives, but not before the Tolners set to beating them, injuring one of them severely.
In the meantime, Reb Duvid’l entered Rzhyschiv and was put up at the house of a local merchant. Whether the Tolners were prepared for it or not, Rzhyschiv already had a local rebbe, Reb Yosef Mendel, a descendant of the saintly Reb Yakov Yosef of Astroho. Reb Yosef Mendel had followers of his own in the town. When Reb Duvid’l’s followers requested a magidus briev from the townspeople they were met with stiff resistance.
A repeat of the events in Kagarlyk followed, in which loyalists to the local rebbe were beaten and their homes vandalized. Several followers of Reb Duvid’l burst into the town’s main synagogue during the Sabbath prayers and threatened to vandalize the synagogue unless the townspeople accepted Reb Duvid’l’s authority. Threats were issued against the lives of dissidents and their families. One of the dissidents was held prisoner at Reb Duvid’l’s lodgings and severely beaten, only released after he pledged his signature.
After eight days in Rzhyschiv Reb Duvid’l left for Rozava, in which much the same transpired: violence and vandalism, forced signings of the magidus briev, celebratory eating and drinking of vodka and mead, and the expulsion of the local rabbi.
The above account was culled from government archives, newspaper reports, and other contemporary sources by Assaf, who presents it in studious but readable detail. But Assaf mentions a more murky detail that appears only in a few of the documents. Apparently, even after all their efforts, Reb Duvid’l left Rzhyschiv without a full victory. The followers of the local Rebbe were determined to fight back, and Reb Duvid’l caught a barrage of stones thrown at his carriage as he left the town. There is also some evidence that Reb Duvid’l himself suffered injuries, although their extent is unclear. Additionally, it appears that a claim was made to the civil authorities about the behavior of Reb Duvid’l and his followers, causing the district governor to proclaim the well-known ‘Tzadikim Decree,’ forbidding all rebbes of the Twerski family to travel outside their immediate towns of residence.
Whatever was gained in Rzhyschiv, therefore, appears to have been tempered by the intransigence of Reb Yosef Mendel’s followers, and Reb Duvid’l is said to have taken off with the bitter taste of a less-than-stellar victory. The ‘Tzadikim Decree’ ended up being a significant point of irritation for the rebbes of Chernobyl, one commemorated in Chernobyl folklore as a symbol of their own victimhood and persecution.
In the above account, Assaf provides a glimpse of the often-stormy world of Hasidic politics that is almost invariably ignored by Hasidic historiographers. Modern-day Hasidim might flinch at the retelling of such uncivilized behavior by their forebears. But while such incidents were likely to have been infrequent, it is equally likely they were flarings of a just-beneath-the-surface jingoism that characterized Hasidic sectarianism from the early days of the movement until today.
A parallel source – with accounts of similar hostilities – illuminating old-time inter-sectarian Hasidic tension is the work “Meine Zichroines,” by Yechezkel Kutik. Kutik describes the hostility between the followers of Reb Noach of Lechevitch after the latter’s death, when some of the group’s followers appointed Reb Moshe of Kubrin as their leader. Tales of violence, informants, counter-informants, and death threats stand out as both shocking and grotesquely familiar.
Yet another conspicuously violent chapter in Hasidic history is directly related to Reb Duvid’l. Assaf gives the above account of Reb Duvid’l and his followers in the context of an entirely different, seemingly unrelated, phenomenon: the deep-seated animosity of mainstream Ukrainian Hasidim towards the followers of Reb Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and founder of the Breslov sect. The events in Rzhyschiv, Assaf claims, were a catalyst for changed attitudes in that larger historical feud.
MOST HASIDIM ARE aware of the Breslov sect’s status as pariah among the various overlapping sects that originated in the Ukraine, the birthplace of the Hasidic movement. But this historical feud has long been something of an enigma.
The hostility was historically the province of the Chernobyl and Savran dynasties among the Hasidic populations of Podolia and Volhynia. Scholars and historians have attempted to pinpoint the feud’s underlying causes. Some postulated ideological opposition to the teachings of Reb Nachman. Others theorized that his teachings may have had a whiff of Sabbateanism, and with paranoia of such running rampant throughout the Jewish world, it was an easy accusation to latch onto. Others suggest specific actions and behaviors on Reb Nachman’s part, such as his unwillingness to submit to the authority of other leaders of his time. But none of these have been found conclusive.
Assaf doesn’t break new ground on this question, and only half-heartedly attempts a discussion of it. He focuses instead on various events that occurred within overlapping timeframes, and provides tantalizing links to explain their sequencing in the context of this feud.
Reb Aryeh Leib of Shpolye (1741-1812), known as the Shpoller Zayde, is said to have instigated the hostilities. Early sources are contradictory on the extent of personal animosity between the Shpoller Zayde and Reb Nachman, and it appears the former had at least a degree of ambivalence towards attacking the latter full on, given his illustrious ancestry. 
Whatever his ambivalence, it is clear that the Shpoller Zayde engaged in a serious and protracted vendetta against Reb Nachman, a battle that ultimately led to a conference of Hasidic leaders in Berditchev, during which the Shpoller Zayde is said to have called for Reb Nachman’s excommunication. Other Hasidic leaders were baffled at the Shpoller Zayde’s harsh stance, and the conference produced no significant conclusion for the historical record. According to legend, some of the leading Hasidic masters at the time, including Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Reb Yakov Shimshon of Shpitivka, and Reb Velvel of Zytomir attempted to pacify the Shpoller Zayde’s ire. The Shpoller Zayde, however, insisted on his superior instincts for determining who is a “gutter yid,” a good Jew, the early Hasidic term for a tzaddik.
With the death of the two primary antagonists, Reb Nachman and the Shpoller Zayde, the cause was taken up by Reb Moshe Tzvi of Savran. A new wave of persecutions, more intense than anything they experienced earlier, swept over the relatively small group of Reb Nachman’s followers, reaching its peak in the years 1834-1838. Reb Moshe Tzvi directed his ire towards Reb Nosson Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780-1844), Reb Nachman’s protégé and the primary disseminator of his teachings. Reb Nosson suffered cruel and humiliating torture at the hands of his persecutors, culminating in his imprisonment by government authorities and being driven from the city of Breslov. According to Assaf, the details of this period are known mostly from internal Breslov sources, which tended to exaggerate its impact. Nevertheless, Assaf claims, the tales of beatings, torture, death threats, economic infringement, and intervention of the civil authorities due to informants have the ring of truth.
The one document of historical significance regarding this period is a supposed letter written by Reb Moshe Tzvi of Savran to one of his followers. In it, he exhorts the recipient not to engage Breslovers in marriage, not to hire them as schoolteachers (“his teachings will turn to apostasy in your son’s intestines,”) ritual slaughterers (“his slaughtering is foul”), or prayer leaders (“his prayers are an abomination.”) He concludes, “As a general rule, attempt to destroy their every means of sustenance. It is forbidden to show mercy on he who shows mercy to them.”
With the death of Reb Moshe Tzvi and Reb Nosson, in 1838 and 1845 respectively, the second wave of persecutions ended. It is in these subsequent years that we encounter the new flag-bearers of the anti-Breslov polemic, the rebbes of the Chernobyl dynasty, in particular, the brothers Reb Duvid’l of Tolnye and Reb Itzik’l of Skvira.
These were the taunts suffered by Breslov Hasidim during their annual pilgrimage to their deceased rebbe’s grave for the Rosh Hashana holiday. In what must’ve been seen as misfortune upon misfortune, Reb Nachman died not in Breslov, the town after which he and his sect were named, but in Uman, a town that had few or none of his followers and many of his antagonists – Hasidim of Tolna, Skver, Chernobyl, and Sadigura. Worst of all were the Tolners, the town’s majority.
In an eyewitness account published in the Hamelitz newspaper in 1863, the Breslovers suffered degrading torment at the hands of Uman’s Hasidim on an annual basis. While Uman was a sleepy town most of the year, with the arrival of the Breslovers for Rosh Hashanah the town perked up as if the circus came to town. Large crowds of Hasidim would surround the small Breslov synagogue in a rock-throwing frenzy until its windows were shattered and the worshippers took cover in its far corners to protect themselves from the mob’s insanity. By social convention, no townspeople did business with the Breslovers, or rented them lodgings, except on the hush-hush and for large sums of money.
Children ran after Breslovers in the streets, taunting them, throwing rocks at them, and vandalizing their synagogue. The writer tells of a rock thrown at a Breslover, hitting him in the head and causing him to buckle over unconscious. Almost at the same moment, he witnessed a large rock thrown at the ark in the synagogue, causing the doors to splinter to pieces.
However, during the Rosh Hashanah season of 1864, to the bafflement of observers, journalists, and modern historians, the Breslovers were not persecuted. There was no rock throwing, no taunting in the streets, no vandalism, no cries of “Breslover dogs.” A peaceful Rosh Hashanah, for the first time in many years, passed over the town of Uman.
It is here that Assaf presents some of his best historical sleuthing. With convincing, if not overwhelming, evidence, he suggests that the sudden peace in Uman had something to do with Reb Duvid’l’s defeat in Rzhyschiv, which took place only months earlier.
As noted, the aftermath of Rzyschiv was unpleasant for Reb Duvid’l and his followers. The pursuers turned into the pursued, and they got a taste of their own methods. Being at the wrong end of the stick appears to have shocked Reb Duvid’l. According to one account, after leaving Rzyschiv, Reb Duvid’l commented, “These aren’t Breslovers.” Reb Duvid’l’s antagonists in Rzhyschiv weren’t taking the abuse without returning it in good measure. Whether out of newfound compassion or unwillingness to bestow upon the Breslovers the nobility of the persecuted, he appears to have ordered a discontinuance of the abuse.
ASIDE FROM THE chapter on Reb Duvid’l Tolner and the Breslovers, Assaf presents several other chapters of crisis and scandal among the Hasidim of Eastern Europe. Most notable are the chapters concerning Reb Moshe, son of the Ba’al Hatanya, the first rebbe of Chabad, who converted to Christianity, and the bizarre events concerning the Seer of Lublin’s fall from a second story window on Simchas Torah of 1814. Assaf strongly suggests that the latter event, widely accepted in Hasidic folklore as a supernatural struggle with the forces of evil, was a suicide attempt – although, it should be said, his evidence is far from conclusive.
What makes Assaf’s book so interesting, though, is the contrast it presents with the traditional accounts of the same events. The work is as much an account of the methods of Hasidic historiography as it is an account of the events themselves. While some of the events are still shrouded in mystery, there is one unmistakable thread running through most of them: the inability of Hasidim to come to terms with events that paint their world in an unflattering light.
MOST INTERESTING OF all is the chapter Assaf leaves for last, a striking glimpse into the life of Yitzchak Nachum Twerski, a member of the Chernobyl and Belz dynasties.
Yizchak Nachum was raised in the town of Shpikov at the court of his father, Reb Yisroel, a scion of the Skver dynasty. The young Yitzchak Nachum, however, was deeply unhappy with his position as a member of Hasidic high society, and craved the freedom of the outside world. Alas, he lacked the wherewithal to do anything about it, and his emotional turmoil remained, for the most part, a closely-guarded secret. The secret was kept from all but his closest confidantes until 1910, when Twerski, at the age of 22, wrote a letter to the Yiddish romance novelist Yakov Denison – an assistant to the great Y. L. Peretz – about his situation. In the letter, Twerski unburdens his soul in an anguished but eloquent manifesto on the lives of Hasidim in the backwoods towns and villages in which the winds of modernity and the age of the Jewish Enlightenment had yet to leave its imprint.
“I am a youth of energy and vigor. My thoughts and ambitions are alive and spirited … [But] bitter and hard fate has subjected me to lifelong decay in the company of old men – in years and opinions, it is all the same – mummified, dark, whose God is not my God, whose views are not my views, and whose thinking, longings, and aspirations are foreign to me. Among them I am to waste my life, to partake in their joys and sorrows, and to be considered as one.”
Twerski saves his bitterest salvos for the Belz court, which he describes as the most backward and fanatic of all Hasidic courts. He was soon to be married to the daughter of Reb Yissocher Dov of Belz, a woman to whom he’d been engaged for six years and had yet to lay eyes upon. About his soon-to-be father-in-law Twerski writes: “[He is] strong-willed, hard, demands that all be done according to his wishes, [he is] intimidating and frightening to all around him – a la Stolin. One must fawn and submit fully to his authority, to bend one’s will to his… Even now I sink up to my neck in mud, and I am being dragged to fully drown in mire, in a pool of sewage.”
Aside from the letter’s heart-rending nature, it illuminates the intellectual and psychological underpinnings of at least some segments of the eighteenth and nineteenth century mass abdications of Jewish tradition. A common refrain in modern times – primarily among those clinging to Orthodoxy but also grudgingly admitted to by those who’ve discarded it – attempts to distinguish between the dissidents of today and those of yesteryear; namely, unlike those of today, the dissidents of bygone days were said to be primarily motivated by intellectual drives, by philosophical vigor and ideological fervor. But, as Assaf correctly notes, Twerski’s letter contains little of that. At most, Twerski’s is a screed of aesthetics, a pillorying of old-fashioned values that the writer deems primitive, backward, and not-very-pretty, unworthy of denizens of a more progressive and cultured world. Twerski makes no attempt to critique his inherited lifestyle’s philosophical and ideological merits. He takes no issue with any of the dogmas and doctrines of Judaism. One senses that Twerski would be fully satisfied to remain an observant Jew if he were only allowed to exchange his bekishe and kolpik for a short jacket and a fedora.
In a similar vein, Twerski himself falls into a markedly similar fallacy – if somewhat in reverse. In a section of the letter in which he describes the background to his high birth, Twerski bemoans the be-orphaned state of Hasidic society, a society that once had pride and glory and nobility. The days of the great rebbes of Skver, Tolnye, and Rachmestrivka are gone, he writes, and since then, “the luster of Hasidism has departed and glory has been exiled from its midst. It has begun to atrophy, [its strength] has diminished from day to day, until it has become as it is now, a coin whose image has been rubbed off, a name whose essence has been removed… My father’s fathers did not leave sons like themselves, men of character and intelligence, who might influence and inspire the Hasidic masses with their spirit.”
As we are now fully aware, the romanticizing of early Hasidic masters – a notion that early historians of the Hasidic movement took full part in – has been proven misplaced. While it can be argued that the movement began with a strong current of idealism at its core, it has been shown that even early on – back to the very days of Reb Mordechai of Cernobyl and Reb Yisroel of Ruzhin, the ancestors that Twerski so glorifies – Hasidic leaders were manipulative, power- and money-hungry, and entirely uninhibited in their pursuit of ostentatious wealth.
Assaf’s work has already been criticized within some segments of the contemporary Hasidic world as shoddy scholarship at best, and as libelous at worst. But those accusations remain unsubstantiated. It is the height of irony that the exposure of Hasidic historiography as wildly inaccurate is itself brushed aside with the same inattention to facts and research as that of Hasidic historiography itself. That alone reinforces the notion that shameful events of the past will be carefully obscured and whitewashed, replaced with an alternate version of events – plausible or not. Thankfully, an alternate historiography, rooted in careful methodology, has emerged to counter it, making the perpetuation of the whitewashing all the more difficult in the future.
 In a biographical essay titled “Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav,” Nachum Sokolov, the Zionist writer and journalist, writes of initially warm relations between the two. Even later, when their rivalry was already well established, they met outside the city of Zlatipoly, Reb Nachman’s hometown at the time, for an attempted rapprochement. That meeting ended with Reb Nachman inviting the Shpoller Zayde to his home for coffee; the latter initially accepted, but was dissuaded from following through by his followers, causing a breakdown in the attempts at reconciliation.
Sokolov claims that it was Reb Nachman’s very complex personality that drew the ire of his opponents rather than something specific about his teachings. “Compared to the cold glow of the Shpoller Zayde, Reb Nachman’s energy was pure electricity… He was drawn to self-criticism and criticism of others, to incisive psychological analysis, and an extreme, uncompromising, and self-depriving morality combined with unparalleled Hasidic pathos, without regard for the greater ambitions of the sect or practical earthly necessities.”
Avrom Ber Gotlober (1811-1899), a leader of the nineteenth-century Jewish Enlightenment, wrote about Reb Nachman in his memoirs, and he too gives the impression of a deeply charged and emotionally intense figure who was misunderstood by his contemporaries for his idiosyncratic and highly individual personality. Drawing a rare parallel to the foundations of Christianity, he writes: “If we may allow ourselves a historical comparison… we may see in Reb Nachman… a miniature image of a great figure who lived in the land of Canaan more than 1,800 years ago.” To be sure, Gotlober wasn’t a Chasid and wouldn’t consider comparisons to Jesus blasphemous. Still, the insight is telling, for its description of Reb Nachman as being persecuted for his unorthodox ways, perceived as a threat to the existing power structure, and not for any specific teachings or behaviors.
 אשתו של הרה”ק מבארדיטשוב ז”ל היתה צדיקת גדולה קרובה לרוח הקודש והיא היתה קרובתו של השפאליר זיידע. פ”א היתה אסיפה בבארדיטשוב ע”ד הברסלוביר והמחלוקת של השפאליר זיידע, נכנסה אשתו של הברדיטשעוור אל האסיפה ברעש ואמרה ווער סיוועט טשעפין מיטין שפאליר זיידע וועל איך אים ארויס שטעכין די אויגין מיט די שפיזליך. (כתבי ר’ משה מידנער, ירושלים, תשכ”ו)
 בענין המחלוקת על הר”ר נחמן ברסלוביר ז”ל עיקר החולק הי’ השפאליר זיידע זי”ע והרבה צדיקי הדור לא הבינו כל כך הרעש הגדול אשר הקים עליו הס”ק משפאלא רק כולם בטלו דעתם בפני הסבא קדישא אשר היה בזמנו ראש לכל צדיקי דורו. פ”א היו אצל הס”ק הרה”ק ר’ וועלוועלי זיטמיר והשפיטיווקר רב, והרה”ק מברדיטשוב ורצו להמליץ על הבראסליווער וענה להם הס”ק זיע”א בזה הלשון די בארדיטשעבער רב צו דיר קער א מקשה לילד, אין די שפיטווקער רב צו דיר קער א שאלת עגונה, ואח”כ פנה אל הרה”ק ר’ זאב מזיטאמיר בעל אור המאיר וא”ל דוא ביסט אפילו דער חכם הדור נאר וואס איז אגוטער יוד וואס ניט דאס ווייס איך. (כתבי ר’ משה מידנער, ירושלים, תשכ”ו)
 מודעת זאת בכל הארץ כי קמו חסידי ברסלב תחת אבותיהם תרבות אנשים חטאים, חוטאים ומחטיאים את הרבים, על כן הנני מזהיר את הסרים למשמעתי להרחיק את הרשעים האלה בכל מיני הרחקות, לא תתחתנו בהם כי אסורים המה לבוא בקהל ד’, מלמד מעדת הברסלבים לא ילמד את בנכם תורה כי תיהפך למינות במעיו, שוחט ברסלב שחיטתו פסולה, שליח ציבור לא יהיה מעדת הזרים האלה כי תפילתו תועבה, כללו של דבר התאמצו לשבור להם כל מטה לחם, כל המרחם עליהם אסור לרחם עליו וכל השומע ישלח ד’ ברכה בכל מעשי ידיו והוא בן עולם הבא.