Wassilevsky’s hassidic super-souls

When Wassilevsky described hassidism’s approach to Zion, it seems that contemporary issues were close to his mind; it is not always clear when he is channeling hassidism or speaking in his own voice.

THIS SLENDER booklet documents Isaiah Wassilevsky’s 1916 lecture on hassidism (photo credit: Courtesy)
THIS SLENDER booklet documents Isaiah Wassilevsky’s 1916 lecture on hassidism
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On June 2, 1916, Isaiah Wassilevsky (1876-1939) delivered a lecture in London at the Annual Conference of the International Society of Philology, Science and Fine Arts. The lecture was published as a slender booklet titled Chassidism: A Resumé of Modern Hebrew Mysticism.
Wassilevsky was born in Russia, and immigrated to Manchester, England. He ran a heder – a boys’ school – that emphasized training in Hebrew. Wassilevsky himself was an ardent Zionist.
The 26-page lecture on hassidism is peppered with statements ostensibly from hassidic masters. Wassilevsky did not annotate his lecture, and identifying sources for his translated citations is challenging. He did not adopt a standard orthography for the names of hassidic masters: while the Besht is cited consistently as “Baal-Shem,” the prime bearer of his legacy appears as “Rabbi Dove Ber,” “Rabbi Ber” and “Beer of Mizritz.” Similarly, the founder of Chabad Hassidism appears as “Rabbi Shnaier Zalmon” and “Rabbi from Lody.”
Wassilevsky seemed to have read writings of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, whom he cites six times. When discussing song and music in hassidism, Wassilevsky curiously describes Nahman as “the nightingale of the Chassidic movement.”
Following his own Zionist predilections, Wassilevsky highlighted the hassidic commitment to the Land of Israel. Quoting Nahman, Wassilevsky writes: “Every Jew must not only travel to Palestine, but must also be willing to make the journey on foot.”
When Wassilevsky described hassidism’s approach to Zion, it seems that contemporary issues were close to his mind. In fact, it is not always entirely clear when he is channeling hassidism or speaking in his own voice. Thus, for example, he writes: “Living in Palestine was one of the great principles of Baal-Shem and his disciples,” and then he goes on to explain: “This nationalism is not selfish, in spite of the few passages which we come across of bitterness and anger against the foes of the Jews. The Chassidic movement recognized the right to exist of other nations, as did all other Jewish national movements.”
These sentiments would be echoed just over a year later on November 2, 1917, in the famous Balfour Declaration – the public letter penned by British foreign secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Wassilevsky’s description of a hassidic spiritual spontaneity is particularly moving:
“It often occurs that a party of Chassidim are seated round a table on the Sabbath or on the occasion of some festival. Their faces are glum and long, their cheeks sunken, and their eyes are full of sadness. Their lips are slightly twitching, their backs are bent and their legs seem barely strong enough to support them. Each is overshadowed by his anxieties, personal and national, and these seem to pervade the atmosphere.
“Then, as if from nowhere, in the midst of a conversation on everyday matters, a slight humming may be heard. Soon the melody which arises seems to permeate everybody. There is indeed the echo of a sob in it at first, but this is soon transformed to a hopeful chant; lamentation is turned to joy, despair to hope, which becomes faith then trust and then enthusiasm. Feet are raised, normal attitudes assumed, bodies grow erect, hands are joined and a dance begun.
“The women who are watching are happy and excited, and each follows the movements of her husband. The children at their side, open-eyed and amazed, feel their hearts beating with a holy spirit.
“They are very far from the worries of the outside world.
“The pace of the dance grows faster and faster, coattails fly in the air, and feet seem never to touch the earth. Their hearts seem to bask in a sun of love, everything is holy, good and beautiful and they seem to be new men in body and soul.
“Without premeditation, hands are relaxed and each dances in the circle which is formed. For them there is no longer hate or jealousy. All physical movement vanishes; and what movement there is, is of super-souls.”
Despite this gripping account, Wassilevsky was pessimistic about the state of Hassidism in 1916: “Official Chassidism has now reached the nadir of its existence. Its literature ceased, and its leaders are almost totally occupied with the workings of so-called miracles, the distribution of charms and talismans, and the cult of wonderful saints of spurious sanctity.”
How surprised would Wassilevsky be to see vibrant hassidic communities over a century after he sounded a death knell for the movement! How excited would he be to see men and women – “super-souls” – dancing and basking in a sun of love!
At the end of his presentation, Wassilevsky offered a perspective on the raging Great War: “It is still urged in excuse, no doubt, that all war is for self-defense. It is on this pretext that millions of Jews have been slaughtered for two thousand years; or perhaps it is because they gave the world a Messiah to whom the world prays and against whose precepts its acts. The Europeans have brought to the surface Hell, which the Ancients placed in the underworld; and it burns day and night, and in its flames, where thousands have been burned before, millions now suffer.”
Of course, from our vantage, these words conjure up images of the Second World War.
While the lecture was titled “Chassidism,” Wassilevsky concluded by turning to the historic destiny of the Jews: “If, then, it is not the Jew who is to perfect Humanity, who will? Those who have had the power till now have not done so.”
Wassilevsky’s Zionist convictions provided the crescendo to his presentation:
“The Jew should therefore receive all aid in his efforts to reestablish himself in his home once again; when there he will, with the rest of the nations, help to bring a new world to birth. This is possible, and many now believe that the nation which commenced to create beautiful men will complete its work, and will produce Superman who will bring about the redemption of the world.”
The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.