Tortured Masters: Heresy, Hegemony, and the Historiography of Hasidut

Reviewed Book: David Assaf, Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism(Hanover, NH: University of New England, 2010).


“All my life is one long chain of suppressed desires, concealed ideas, shattered cravings and wishes,” wrote a young Rabbi Yitzchak Nahum Twersky of Shipikov in 1910.  “I constantly have free thoughts, but I am obliged to observe my ancestors’ most minute stringencies of observance,”[i] he confessed in beautiful Hebrew penmanship in a letter to the Warsaw writer Yaakov Dineson, discovered almost a century after it was written. He spoke of his soul yearning for poetry, for beauty, for love, and for freedom.


Son of the revered leader of the Belz dynasty, R. Yitzchak Nahum Twersky chose not the life of an admor (Hasidic leader) but of a communal rabbi, all the while suppressing his deep yearnings for the secular world. But he could never fully suppress his urge for non-spiritual works, and he spent the early hours of his mornings studying maskilic books and philosophy, the works of Sigmund Freud and Kurt Lewin.[ii] His story, like that of many other tortured masters of Hasidut, is told, shaped, and reimagined by David Assaf.


Untold Tales of the Hasidim is a scholarly work, yet its subject is dark and scandalous. David Assaf, a scholar of Hasidut at Tel Aviv University, published his original work in Hebrew under the title Ne’ehaz ba-Sevakh (Caught in the Thicket). Its publication sent shudders through Israeli society. Secular Israelis enjoyed what they saw as “scandalous scoops” Assaf revealed about overzealous Hasidic sects.[iii] At the same time, Hasidic pseudo-historians became incensed at Assaf’s perceived irreverence. Reading the dense book, however, renders a less bifurcated reaction. Assaf is a first-rate social historian whose primary goal was not to create scandal, as Hasidim think, nor was it to stain the cloak of Hasidic glory. Rather, he attempted to tell their stories in as sympathetic a way as an academic can.


Assaf aims to transform “juicy anecdotes” into events of “profound historiographical significance” through careful detective work.[iv] Assaf collects evidence from a variety of sources. For instance, Assaf collects reports of early anti-Bratslav persecutions by other Hasidic sects from the biased reports of the Bratslav Hasidim themselves.[v] Remnant literature from the Hasidic-Maskilic “memory wars,” which were fought through polemic tracts and satiric plays, is a treasure trove of information. Additionally, “Orthodox historiographers,” Hasidic recorders of collective memory, are also considered.[vi] Assaf digs deep into archival documents, maskilic “memory traditions,” non-Jewish sources (mostly from apostates), Hasidic “memory traditions,” and “sparse historiographical treatments in both the critical academic tradition and the Hasidic, Orthodox one.” Of course, these sources are ideologically tinted. Assaf therefore contextualizes the evidence before weaving these primary and secondary documents into well-defined theories of events.


A salient example of Assaf’s reinterpretation of “juicy anecdotes” into important biographic information comes in chapter three: “One Event, Multiple Interpretations: the Fall of the Seer of Lublin.” Assaf reconsiders the accepted narrative of the demise of R. Yitshak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, long believed to have fallen from a window in an effort to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The Maskilim present a different story; it was “unrestrained drinking” that caused the Seer’s self-defenestration, and intoxication that let the embarrassing episode slip out.[vii]


Much of the evidence for the alternative reading of the story comes from obscure Maskilic works. This is potentially troubling, as many of these works, such as Isaac Erter’s Gilgul Nefesh (Transmigration of the Soul), Solomon Schechter’s Sihot Hanei Tsantera de-Dahava (Conversations of Two Fine Fellows) and Alexander Zederbaum’s Ketter Kehunah (Crown of Priesthood) were heavily satirical or outright hostile to Hasidim.[viii] However, Assaf quotes some Maskilim, such as Shimon Dubnow, a historiographer of Hasidism, who avoided the binary between the narratives adopted by the Hasidic movement and those espoused by the Mitnaggedim. [ix] Assaf complicates the story even further, quoting a “kosher” Hasidic source which indicates that depression and suicidal thoughts drove the Seer to commit suicide.[x]


At its core, Untold Tales of the Hasidim is a work about the voices and stories that are ignored, belittled, and suppressed within collective memory. It is about the psychologically and religiously tormented R. Yitzchak Nahum Twersky of Shipikov and the son of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady who converted to Christianity. It recounts the too-often forgotten, heartrending persecution of Bratslav Hasidim by other Hasidic sects through beatings, murder threats, slander, damage to books and property, and even torture.


In another untold tale, introduced in chapter six, “How Times Have Changed: The World of R. Menahem Nahum Friedman of Itscan,” Assaf records the legacy of R. Friedman, the descendent of famous Hasidic rabbis and prolific writer of works combining philosophy, Halakhah, economics, Zionism, and scientific inquiry. In fact, R. Friedman was regarded as a religious humanist, attempting to harmonize Torah and general knowledge. While R. Friedman enjoyed some support from his contemporary Hasidic masters, later Hasidic writers skewed his legacy through apologetics. They argued that R. Friedman battled the “reformers,” thus had to use “their language.”[xi] A recent article in Yated Ne’eman, a Haredi newspaper, instructed its readers to carefully censor R. Friedman’s Divrei Menahem (Words of Menahem) for its “idolatrous foundations.”[xii]


Untold Tales is also about the dangers of sugarcoating history and whitewashing difference, dispute, and discrimination. For instance, concealment and self-censorship has kept the tragic history of the persecution of Bratslav Hasidim out of the consciousness of today’s Bratslavers. While this crucible of profound psychological hatred shaped the Bratslav movement, few Hasidim know of this important episode.[xiii] The tale of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of Habad Hasidut, and whose son Moshe converted to Christianity, was long suppressed within the Hasidic community. However, when overwhelming evidence of Moshe Schneerson’s un-coerced conversion arose, Habad denied (and continues to deny) this history; instead, it propagates an unverifiable hypothesis arguing for Schneerson’s insanity or coercion.[xiv]


Perhaps one of the strengths of this book lies in the first chapter, where Assaf discusses contemporary history making. In “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Hasidic History as a Battlefield,” Assaf, like R. Dr. Yoel Finkelman, author of the recently published Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy, examines contemporary collective memory wars. He recounts an episode where the Haredi community excommunicated R. Dov Eliach because of his three volume HaGaon, a benign biographic work published for a Haredi market. Eliach’s final volume “crossed the line” when he spoke of the Vilna Gaon’s anti-Hasidic campaign.[xv] Similarly, the Ultra-Religious Haredi descents of Elimelekh Ashkenazi of Horodenka whitewashed his religious nationalist Zionism, which evidently stained their family memory.[xvi]


Narratives are formed by linking facts with folklore, ideology with identity, agenda with admiration. Assaf, though primarily interested in Hasidic memory traditions, nevertheless illuminates the complications of adopting a single narrative, whether Maskilic, Mitnaggedic, Zionistic, or Hasidic. Single narratives leave voices out. These voices, as Assaf points out, will eventually leak out and “any attempt to clap a lid on the boiling kettle is doomed to failure.”[xvii]


Assaf’s Tales should leave us feeling anxious. It raises the question: what stories are being suppressed in our Modern Orthodox memory? Were the greatest scholars in Modern Orthodoxy ever crippled with doubts, only to have them repressed for the “greater good?” Are there self-watchmen suppressing our embarrassing truths?


Tales is no ordinary scholarly work. It might be profoundly disconcerting, but Assaf’s scholarly reconstruction of these hagiographic portraits leaves the reader with a sense of sympathy and awe for these tormented personalities.

Gavi Brown is a sophomore at YC majoring in English, and is the design editor for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] David Assaf, Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism (Hanover, NH: University of New England, 2010), 218.

[ii] Ibid. 212.

[iii] Yair Sheleg, “Shame and Scandal in the Family,” (13 June 2006), available at:

[iv] Assaf, 34.

[v] Ibid. 145.

[vi] Ibid. 7.

[vii] Ibid. 102.

[viii] Ibid. 113-116.

[ix] Ibid. 117-120.

[x] Ibid. 119.

[xi] Ibid. 201-204.

[xii] Ibid. 205.

[xiii] Ibid. 146-153, esp. 147.

[xiv] Ibid. 96.

[xv] Ibid. 12.

[xvi] Ibid. 19.

[xvii] Ibid. xii.