(Hasidism) A Political Community? A Religious Community?


Thinking about the importance of politics and the figure of community in Spinoza and Mendelssohn, and thinking out loud about Hasidism. Asking you the reader if you think the various groups of hasidim forming around the baalei-shem in the 18th C. and then the Hasidic dynasties constitute political communities in their own right, or are they part of and meshed into larger political organisms, i.e. the kahal and various Polish seats of local and court power? Relatedly, has there been any work on Hasidism through the lens of political theory? Or would it be more fair to call these groups “religious”? More narrowly still, is Hasidic thought political or more simply spiritual, consumed by things like holiness, cleaving to God through prayer and the Tzadik? If political, what kind of polis would a Hasidic one look like? Like a small scale Gemeinschaft/Gemeinde/kehilla? And that’s then the question. Could a Hasidic scale up into the social form of a state or other governing agent meant to secure the physical welfare of a people? Looked at this way, the question about Judaism and social scale is the question faced in eighteenth and nineteenth German Jewish thought, including Mendelssohn, Geiger, and Hirsch, and then in Religious Zionism as both projects, liberalism and Zionism represent two distinct Jewish emancipation projects;  emancipation and citizenship being a sine qua non of what it means to call modern Judaism modern.

P.s. Thanks in particular to Joshua Shanes and Shaul Magid for recommending Glenn Dynner, Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society and Marcin Wodzinski, Hasidism and Politics: The Kingdom of Poland, 1815-1864. These are studies by social historians who reflect precisely upon hasidic rebbes as political actors, and, interestingly, touch upon the question of scale, namely the way Hasidism scaled up in the 19th century from being a relatively small social movement and turned into a broader social force with more political muscle, particularly in relation to Jewish mercantile elites and imperial gentile authority. What I don’t know is if they address the degree to which Hasidism remained an insular religious movement with an insular political profile. 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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