The Tisch: Disentangling Facts from Myth

Posted by Levi Cooper on November 20, 2018
Topics: Hasidut, Hasidic Lore Series, Early Hasidic Era

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak HaLevi Horowitz (1745-1815) – known as the Hozeh(Seer) of Lublin – was one of the famed hasidic masters who has captured the imagination. Hasidic collective memory remembers the Hozeh for his miraculous ability to look at a person’s face, peering deep into the soul and perceiving that person’s innermost struggles. Hasidic lore recounts his dramatic demise after mysteriously falling out of the window on Simhat Torah 1814.

The Hozeh’s mark has been indelible. His many disciples and their students should be credited with the emergence and flourishing of Hasidism in Poland during the nineteenth century – one of the golden periods of the movement. Even today, the hasidic group with the greatest political clout in Israel, Gur, traces its spiritual origins back to the Hozeh.

Alas, so much of what we know about the Hozeh – or at least think we know – is rooted in hasidic legend. This genre often reflects more about the storyteller than it does about the hero of the story. Thus hasidic tales of the Hozeh’s escapades may not really teach us about this leader’s personality, thought, and activity. We are left wondering: what do we really know about was this seminal figure in the history of Hasidism?

A new book in Hebrew by Dr Uriel Gellman of Bar-Ilan University has changed the situation, offering a historical account culled from reliable sources. To be sure, the book is not only concerned with Hozeh, but it uses the Hozeh as a starting point to consider Hasidism in Poland generally. Indeed, the broader scope of Gellman’s research is indicated in its title: Ha-shevilim Ha-Yotzim Mi-Lublin (The paths that depart from Lublin), and even more clearly in the book’s English title: The Emergence of Hasidism in Poland.

Gellman’s volume focuses on the period from 1780 until 1830 and follows two distinct trajectories. The first half of the volume deals with the Hozeh’s life and thought (chapters 1-5), while the second half of Gellman’s book explores one particularly interesting hasidic school that sprouted from the Hozeh’s disciples: Pshischa (chapters 6-8)****As part of his study of the Hozeh, Gellman explores the three works penned by the hero of his research: Zot Zikaron (Lemberg 1851), Zikaron Zot (Warsaw 1869), and Divrei Emet (Zolkiew 1831). These works were written when the Hozeh was living in Lancut. All three works were published posthumously, though they were penned by the Hozeh himself, making them some of the earliest hasidic writings. The Hozeh later moved to the important city of Lublin.

In what ways did the Hozeh’s philosophy, thought, and counsel evolve in his later years? Did the move to a city affect his outlook?

Alas, the Hozeh did not leave any writings from his Lublin period, though that period marked the zenith of his hasidic leadership and it would in connection to this city’s name that he would be remembered. We are left to ponder what the Hozeh thought, said, and encouraged once he moved to Lublin.

Gellman suggests a solution to the conundrum: Read the writings of the Hozeh’s Lublin disciples who later became hasidic masters in their own right. According to Gellman, those writings display close linkage to the Hozeh’s posthumously published Lancut writings. This suggests that the Hozeh was steadfast in his hasidic approach, and that the Lancut writings may also reflect the Hozeh’s approach during his Lublin period.****The second half of Gellman’s volume turns to the captivating myth that developed in association with Pshischa – Przysucha in Polish. This school was founded during the Hozeh’s lifetime by Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Rabinowicz (1766-1813), who was known as the “Yid Hakadosh” (the Holy Jew). Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1765-1827) was amongst those who continued the legacy of the Yid Hakadosh in Przysucha.

“Pshischa” came to be associated with a rational approach to Judaism that rejected many classic hasidic norms and practices. The alleged Pshischa betrayal of its hasidic roots was championed by modern writers, and a detailed myth grew out of scant evidence. Gellman shows how the paucity of sources cannot support the fantastic tales that animated the myth. He identifies the earliest records of the fanciful image and he tracks the agents who were responsible for its transmission and development.

Gellman askes a pointed question: If indeed Pshischa hasidim had been such renegades, and if indeed the rest of the hasidic world wanted to excommunicate them, why do we have no contemporary evidence that can buttress this image?****As Gellman indicates throughout the book, other paths besides Pshischa came from Lublin, and they remain to be explored. Furthermore, the emergence of Hasidism in Poland is not fully spelled out, rather it is inferred from what we learn about the Hozeh and his disciples. Yet Gellman’s contribution to the meta-narrative of Hasidism is unmistakeable as he taps into the new approach to hasidic history which offers a nuanced account of a non-monolithic movement that crystallised during the nineteenth century.

Gellman succeeds in helping readers disentangle the sacred biography of the Hozeh from verifiable facts. Moreover, he sets the historical record straight on the Pshischa myth. The reader is left appreciating the Hozeh and his Pshischa disciples for who they really were, untainted by two centuries of gilding.

About Levi Cooper

Levi teaches Bible, Hasidut, Maimonides and Midrash at Pardes. Originally from Australia, Levi holds an LL.B., LL.M. and Ph.D. from the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University, and is a member of the Israel Bar Association. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University and post-doctoral fellow in the Law Faculty of Tel Aviv University. Click here to read more.

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