Commentary Magazine


The Faith of the Mithnagdim by Allan Nadler

The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture
by Allan Nadler
Johns Hopkins. 254 pp. $35.00

Among the more curious developments in American Jewish life over the past several decades has been a growing fascination, especially among secularized Jews, with Hasidism. Indeed, the black-hatted Hasidim, once considered little more than backward if picturesque remnants of the East European world destroyed by the Holocaust, and virtually indistinguishable from their non-hasidic but no less ultra-Orthodox coreligionists, are now widely seen as heirs to a priceless—and progressive—tradition of Jewish spirituality. The elements of that spirituality include an attachment to Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, another phenomenon that today enjoys a remarkable vogue.

No less appealing to present-day sensibilities has been the standard account of Hasidism’s emergence in the 18th century. The movement, it is often suggested, really represented a proto-democratic revolution against the highly repressive and rigidly hierarchical Jewish religious society of the time. Sparked by the ecstatic, homely religiosity of the revered teacher known as the Baal Shem Tov (1700-60), Hasidism, it is said, gave voice to the long-suppressed needs of the Jewish masses. No wonder, then, that this new liberating trend aroused fierce resistance among the defenders of the religious status quo, who came to be known simply as Mithnagdim, or opponents.

As for the Mithnagdim themselves, they have not fared nearly so well either in popular conceptions or at the hands of historians. Invariably cast as reactionary and often moneyed oligarchs, they are allowed their turn on stage just long enough to establish them as petty, narrow-minded, and vindictive advocates of their own political interests and of a soulless legalism.

In this important new book, Allan Nadler finally lets the much-maligned Mithnagdim tell their side of the story.

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In reconstructing the “faith of the Mithnagdim,” Nadler, the director of research at the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York, introduces us to a remarkable universe of individuals and ideas. He pays due attention not only to the famed Gaon of Vilna (1720-97), the scholarly genius who sat atop the more traditional communities of East European Jewry, but also to a host of lesser figures central to the dissemination of the mithnagdic view. Delving into their many writings, Nadler presents a richly detailed picture of their battle with Hasidism.

To the Mithnagdim, the most troubling innovation of the new movement was its approach to worship. Not only did the Hasidim show a casual attitude toward the prescribed times and forms of devotion, they also elevated prayer over the study of law and Torah, thus inverting the traditional hierarchy of Jewish religious values. Disturbing too was the movement’s unabashed celebration of the worldly pleasures of food and drink, which for the Mithnagdim bespoke a dangerous materialism.

More surprising, perhaps, are certain affinities Nadler finds between the two camps. Both, in his reading, were foes of the early Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, a contemporary effort to modernize selected aspects of the Jewish tradition. (On this point, unfortunately, Nadler fails to make a compelling case when it comes to the Mithnagdim, at least at that time.) Moreover, the Mithnagdim, far from being cold, legalistic opponents of mysticism, were themselves often sophisticated practitioners of Kabbalah, objecting primarily to what they viewed as the crude popularization of sacred esoterica practiced by Hasidim.

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Still, the differences between the two movements ran deep—deeper, Nadler shows, than disputes over particular practices or attitudes, and deeper than is suggested by the usual interpretations of those disputes as being essentially social or political in nature. Indeed, the wider purpose of Nadler’s careful exposition is to demonstrate that, at its core, the divide between Hasidim and Mithnagdim really did come down to first principles, to two different ways of conceiving of God’s creation and man’s place in it.

Nadler describes the Hasidim as “monistic materialists”—believers in the essential unity of body and soul, of this world and the next. From this there followed a profoundly-held optimism: human beings could hope to sanctify their daily existence, to discover the inherent godliness of the material universe, and even to overcome the capacity for evil.

The Mithnagdim, by contrast, began with a very different premise: a “dualistic” vision of man that sharply differentiated between the physical and the spiritual realms. On this deeply pessimistic view, human beings were not only forever tempted to corruption by worldly pleasures, but were also hopelessly distant from any meaningful communion with the divine. The practical result was a restrained, even self-denying, notion of how life was to be lived and God served.

In tracing the roots of Mithnagdism, Nadler makes especially good use of the polemical writings of Phinehas of Polotsk. A close disciple of the Gaon of Vilna, Phinehas was unusual among the Mithnagdim for making a concerted effort to speak in terms understandable to a popular audience. Through his analysis of Phinehas and a plethora of other unstudied authors, Nadler succeeds in acquainting us with a whole range of mithnagdic thought on religious issues that often had little to do directly with the battle against Hasidism, from attitudes toward asceticism and death to conceptions of God and His interaction with the world.

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In showing that the mithnagdic perspective is coherent, consistent, and firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, Nadler has performed a real service. Valuable as his work is, however, it is not without problems. Essentially, these come down to a failure at times to heed his own call to appreciate Mithnagdism on it own terms.

Thus, though he has indeed emancipated himself from the politically-charged morality play of earlier writings on the subject, Nadler has not entirely relinquished the tendency to see Mithnagdism as basically reactive in nature, a congeries of responses to hasidic “provocations.” He asserts, for example, that the mithnagdic stress on Torah study should be seen as an “antidote” to the religious optimism of the Hasidim. Yet as he himself makes plain in this book, things were really the other way around.

Intellectual effort was integral to the mithnagdic world view long before the encounter with Hasidism. Only through such concentration, Mithnagdim believed, could an individual emerge unscathed from the day-to-day battle with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. This orientation, well established at the time throughout the Jewish world, was something Hasidism rebelled against, sparking in turn a fierce reaction on the part of the Mithnagdim.

More is at stake here than a quarrel over a particular point. It is a commonplace among many contemporary historians that the values expressed by conservative movements in any age should be seen primarily as a response to external challenges. On this view, conservatives are in general negaters rather than affirmers, guided more by fear of others than by any well-developed principles of their own.

Untrue in general, this facile proposition assuredly does not apply to the Mithnagdim. Like cultural conservatives in other times and places, they did not develop their core values in order to meet a threat. Rather, these values had long been so ingrained as to be taken for granted; the confrontation with a threat was what forced the Mithnagdim to articulate them.

This is a process that can indeed lead to new emphases and even to new ideologies. But the basic dynamic, it must be emphasized, is a dialectical one, not the linear and fundamentally ahistorical model projected by historians who reflexively deny conservatism a cultural identity of its own.

Still, this interpretive lapse aside, Nadler’s book is a genuine achievement. His pioneering reconstruction of mithnagdic thought marks a turning point in our understanding of a crucial moment in Jewish history. From now on, anyone interested in the development of modern Judaism will have to take into account what he has done.

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