Interview with Professor David Assaf
I met with Professor David Assaf at a kosher-style restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He arrived carrying a backpack and a camera, taking photos of everything around him: me, his chicken soup and kneidel dish, the Israeli shopkeeper who came by to chat. He humored himself extensively on account of my “Hungarian,” or Ashkenazi-accented Hebrew.
His spirited, rapid-fire speech—in English with a thick Israeli accent—lapsed into Hebrew occasionally, but resulted, nevertheless, in a delightfully engaging and thoughtful discussion. At the end of our interview, Professor Assaf insisted I accompany him to nearby Zabar’s, for a peek at his favorite apple strudel.
David Assaf is a professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, specializing in the history of Hasidism. In particular, he has earned a reputation for uncovering tales of scandal and ignominy previously ignored in Chasidic historiography: the rebbe’s son who converted to Christianity; the rebbe who attempted to commit suicide; Chasidim harassing and beating up other Chasidim. Assaf is the author of Derech Hamalchut (“The Regal Way”), Ne’echaz Basevach (“Untold Tales of the Hasidim”), and many essays on the history and development of the Chasidic movement.
Professor Assaf’s latest book, Heitzitz ve’Nifga (”Peeked and Got Injured: The Anatomy of a Hasidic Dispute“), is about Bernyu, the son of the rebbe of Ruzhin who, in the year 1869, abdicated his position as rebbe and joined up with the Haskalah movement. The resulting uproar led to the decades-long feud between the Chasidic courts of Sanz and Sadigura, marking one of the most tempestuous periods in Hasidic history, involving hundreds of rabbinic leaders and dozens of Hasidic communities throughout Europe. Heitzitz ve’Nifga was released on May 9, 2012, from University of Haifa Press and Yedioth Books. —Frieda Vizel
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Frieda Vizel (Unpious): What’s your personal background?
Professor David Assaf: I grew up in a religious Zionist environment. I was religious until my university days. I prayed three times a day, wore my kippah, tried not to touch women—shomer negiah, etc.
At one point during my university days, I had a personal realization: I don’t have any religious emotions. Nothing. I fooled myself into feeling it when I prayed. Then, through my university studies, I became exposed to the critical approach to history and the study of Jewish civilization, where I learned new ways of thinking and exploring. The whole critical approach of studying the history of halacha and the history of tradition made me feel that… ehhh… it’s not like I used to think. Plus, one very important book influenced me tremendously.
Unpious: Which book?
DA: A book by Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He was a professor at Hebrew University. He was Orthodox. He spoke out against the occupation, against the combination of religion and state, and how the halacha should be changed from the Orthodox point of view. My sister bought me the book.
Unpious: What made her get it for you?
DA: It was before my army service. During those days we used to buy books as gifts. [Laughs.] It influenced me to think critically about religion, to realize that you can’t disconnect one particular religion or belief system from another, and to recognize the cultural contexts and historical developments of each.
Also, one of the most common factors leading religious youth away from the fold is the contradiction between sexual life and religious life. When you’re Orthodox and also a maturing young adult, you’re unable to express your sexuality, and that leads to significant inner conflict. Especially for men; where it starts with masturbation—Why are you laughing?
Unpious: It sounds ridiculous.
DA: It’s not ridiculous to those who believe. It’s horrible.
Unpious: How did leaving affect your relationship with your family?
DA: When I traveled abroad for an extensive period, I drove on Shabbat, ate anything and anywhere, and didn’t wear my kippah. It was hardest to take off the kippah. You can do anything, you can be a horrible person, but if you wear the kippah you belong. When I returned to Israel it was hard to act that way. I tried to explain to my father what had happened to me. He tried to sympathize but said, “Whatever happens, don’t remove your kippah.” Not because he didn’t want to feel embarrassed. He just thought I was young and confused, a little tzidreyt.
It was very difficult to just remove it. I started wearing hats, like baseball caps, etc. I finally took it off and the sun kept shining. My father took it very hard. He was very upset.
Unpious: That’s very interesting.
DA: You know why it’s interesting? I’ll tell you. It’s because every generation has the same story. It just changes the names. But the point is this: there is something that religious education can’t tell you. That there are people without the gene of religion.
Unpious: What’s the gene of religion?
DA: You know, most people are religious; they believe in some kind of God. Why? Scientists used to say that every man has a religion gene. In other words, our biology dictates that we be religious and believe in God. But there are people without this gene. I love to learn about religion, and I find it fascinating to study, and I’m happy that there are people who believe in God because otherwise life would be a little boring.
Unpious: So you’re not anti-religious?
DA: Of course not! As long as it doesn’t interfere with my life! [Laughs.]
Unpious: You’ve done a lot of work on the history of Chasidism, and you uncovered stories that Chasidim would very much have preferred that they be kept under wraps. What led you to this field of study?
DA: As a college student I took a trip to Poland and it completely changed my thinking, it expanded my horizons vis-à-vis Eastern European Jews. Having decided that I would like to explore something about Eastern European Jewry, it was a rational decision to explore Chasidism. Very shortly after I began my studies, I came to the conclusion that 19th century Chasidism was a neglected field. None of the scholars took it seriously.
Unpious: Why wasn’t it important?
DA: Most of them considered it a declining era within Chasidism. Scholars concentrated on the 18th century, the time of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, but they purposely avoided touching later periods, when Chasidism became a mass movement with its various leadership dynasties. Scholars considered this to be a corrupted and declining—even primitive—phase, not deserving of any kind of scholarship. For example, Shimon Dubnov, who was the father of critical history in the field of “history of Chasidism,” ended his writings about Chasidism at the year 1815, because he considered the period after that to be the declining phase of movement.
Recent scholarship, however, considers this phase to have been the opposite of a decline. This is really the most important period; this is when the movement took its form. Besides, there were many impressive personalities during this “declining” period who also deserve to be studied. So I wrote my doctoral dissertation and my first book on this period. The book was called “The Regal Way,” and it was about the Rizhiner, [Rabbi Yisroel Friedman]. He lived a very lavish and extravagant lifestyle, and he was involved in several very dramatic episodes during his lifetime. For example, he gave his consent for the murder of two informants in 1836, and was then imprisoned by the Russians for four years.
So in my academic career, I always look for a dramatic story. I’m not a scholar of boring stuff. I look for stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. All my books and articles tell good stories. Even detective stories. For example, one major story required researching the footsteps of Moshe, [the son of the first rebbe of Chabad who converted to Christianity]. That’s a real detective story.
Unpious: So tell me, what was Chasidism like in the time of the Baal Shem Tov?
DA: It was a decentralized movement, and there was no intention of it being anything else. The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples never thought they were creating a mass movement. Chasidism then was really just an elitist circle. Not a movement at all!
Unpious: Are there more “untold tales” that weren’t included in your book?
DA: Many. There were many incidents that were covered up by Chasidim. You know, think about what happened recently in Viznitz. The rebbe passed away two months ago. Everyone knew he suffered from dementia for more than ten or fifteen years. He’s not serving in any real leadership role at all. And there’s this sensational story about the split between his two sons. Now they are two separate communities. But now, in the age of smartphones and with aggressive media—which tries to be first to get the scoop and to report on the scandal—these things can’t be covered up anymore. But think what would’ve happened if there was this sort of family drama back in the 19th century; it would’ve been totally covered up. So this is my work, to assemble small details in order to understand the full story.
Unpious: In Solomon Maimon’s memoirs, there are some pretty odd incidents in his account of visiting the Magid of Mezeritch. There’s one incident of a guy being beaten because his wife gave birth to a girl. Does that story sound likely?
DA: I have an article on that in Hebrew! There’s good reason to believe that his depictions are accurate because the aphorisms he cites and the descriptions of the environment match up with what we already know. But the problem is that Maimon didn’t understand the scene properly. Early Chasidim had some unusual rituals, such as kulen zich (standing on their heads) or shtipen zich (pushing and shoving one another) in order to provoke happiness. Maimon could have witnessed one of those practices. It wasn’t about the baby being a girl.
Unpious: What were Chasidic women like?
DA: There isn’t even a term for a Chasidic woman in Hebrew. A Chasidah? That’s a bird. Although there’s been some interesting scholarship on the Maiden of Ludmir, who was said to have tried to be a Chasidic rebbe.
Unpious: What has been the response to your work from Chasidim?
DA: Chasidim make up a major part of my work’s readership. Those Chasidim are not typical though. They are interested in the history and culture of Chasidism. Take, for example, my first book about the Rizhiner. There is no question that many Rizhiner Chasidim, including the rebbe, read it. But they didn’t acknowledge it. They don’t put it on their bookshelves. My books are not easy reads, but these chevra read everything that I write. They sometimes know what I wrote better than I do. They read, they comment, they write to me. There are many Chasidim who subscribe to my blog. I have readers from every branch of Chasidism. And there are also my informants. They derive some kind of pleasure from seeing this sensational stuff in print.
Unpious: Have you received many negative reactions to your work?
DA: It’s interesting that when it comes to contemporary Chasidic politics, you can read a lot about all the controversies. But it’s not allowed when it comes to earlier generation. Some kind of paradox.
At one of the launch events of my work “Untold Tales,” one of the participants asked, “We know that you are going to write a book about Bernyu [the Rizhiner’s son, who defected to the Maskilic camp]. Is it true that the Sadigura Rebbe called you and warned you not to do it, and that if you do your end will be in gehenom [hell]?” I had heard this rumor. It was not true. If it was true, it would’ve been part of my book. But I never experienced harsh criticism. Because the best Chasidic strategy to deal with discontent is just to ignore it. Instead of arguing with you they simply ignore you, because they know that there is no argument that they can win.
Unpious: The longest thread ever on the HydePark Internet forums, running about 70 pages of comments, was a discussion about your work on the “Atzor, Kan Choshvim” forum, in which you participated extensively. What motivated you to participate to that extent?
DA: First of all, I was flattered that my book was an issue. And I thought it would be a really good opportunity to be part of a community that discussed it. But then there were those who couldn’t handle my criticisms, and accused me of forging documents. To a historian, you can’t make a worse accusation.
But it’s good for a book to get this kind of feedback. I hope my new book gets a cherem [ban]. That would be really good. Everyone would read it!
Unpious: Did you ever meet with any Chasidic rebbes?
DA: No. They don’t want to meet me. Wait! I met the Skverer Rebbe ten years ago. One of the prominent Chasidim, who admired my work, invited me to come to his place in New Square. It was Chanukah. It was actually a nice experience. He introduced me to many people. I shook the Rebbe’s hand. That was all.
He probably washed it afterwards.
Unpious: How do you connect Chasidic history to contemporary Chasidism?
DA: There is no other Jewish movement or trend that survived so long. Think about it.
Unpious: Why do you think that is?
DA: Because Chasidism faced such trauma during the Holocaust that it gave rise to a rebirth of sorts. The process of starting over, and also the nostalgia for a lost past, proved invigorating for a renewal. Also, it’s much easier to remain ultra-Orthodox in a capitalist society. In the past, if you chose to be ultra-Orthodox you chose to be poor. It was much more difficult to be ultra-Orthodox in Poland. Chasidic Orthodoxy has integrated into capitalist and democratic society so easily, and the fact is they’re flourishing. Nobody disturbs you. You get a degree of autonomy. It’s not expensive to maintain an Orthodox system, to maintain schools and be provided with kosher food. Also, the tradition is so elastic and flexible that by now it has become almost natural.
If we look at the history of Chasidism we have two different movements. Chasidism in the 18th century has nothing to do with contemporary Chasidism. The contemporary Chasidic movement is a product of the 19th century, not the age of the Baal Shem Tov. Because the Baal Shem Tov never planned for it to be a mass movement, only for certain elite circles. It was only the 19th century institutionalization of the movement that found a way to spread the message and to diversify the movement into various streams.
One of my reasons for studying 19th century Chasidism—as opposed to the contemporary version—is that I like to write about dead Chasidim. It’s very difficult to speak of today’s Chasidim; doing work on dead Chasidim allows me to walk on more solid ground. People say: “But you publish only scandals! Why choose davka to tell your readers unpleasant stories and not others?” The answer is: because there’s no drama in a pleasant stories, no conflicts, no human impulses, so it is not interesting. I search for both the truth and the drama. I don’t hate or despise anybody. On the contrary, I try to understand the Chasidim from their own point of view.
Unpious: What are biggest threats to Orthodoxy today?
DA: The Internet and feminism. That’s what I always say. It’s already been proven that Orthodoxy can survive modern life. The Internet, in my eyes, is the biggest problem for them. The problem is not the pornography. You are now able to reach everything. You have access to all sources of information. You have knowledge everywhere without any inspection. In other regards, they could check if you comply; they can check the level of a woman’s tzniyus, they can check what kind of books you read, what kind of education you give your children but with the Internet, they can’t control you like that. All the secular knowledge; it’s very tempting. It passes through the ghetto wall and it’s very powerful.
Also, feminist ideas have the potential to dismantle existing constructs. And this is a big threat to Chasidism. Feminist attitudes are spreading into Orthodox culture. Women are getting different messages about their importance and responsibilities.
Unpious: Do you think it will cause a new Haskalah?
DA: No, not in the 19th century sense. I think, if there’s anything of that sort, it’ll be just a drop in the ocean, a marginal phenomenon.
Unpious: You write an entertaining blog in Hebrew called “Oneg Shabbat,” (Onesh, or “punishment,” in short) in which you trace the secular roots of Chasidic songs and post other interesting findings. What makes you write it?
DA: It’s another way for me to bring my ironic approach to life and history. It helps me remember who I am and what the significance is of what I do.
It’s not significant! [Laughs.]Printable Version