ASK THE RABBI:Disentangling facts from myth

So much of what we know about the Hozeh – or at least think we know – is rooted in hassidic legend.

THE COVER of the new book by Dr. Uriel Gellman, which uses the ‘Hozeh’ of Lublin as a starting point to consider Hassidism in Poland, is a reproduction of a 1859 lithography by Adam Lerue (1825-1863) (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE COVER of the new book by Dr. Uriel Gellman, which uses the ‘Hozeh’ of Lublin as a starting point to consider Hassidism in Poland, is a reproduction of a 1859 lithography by Adam Lerue (1825-1863)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Halevi Horowitz (1745-1815) – known as the Hozeh (Seer) of Lublin – was one of the famed hassidic masters who has captured the imagination. Hassidic 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. Hassidic lore recounts his dramatic death several months after mysteriously falling out of a 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 Hassidism in Poland during the 19th century – one of the golden periods of the movement. Even today, the hassidic 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 hassidic legend. This genre often tells more about the storyteller than it does about the hero of the story. Thus hassidic 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 this seminal figure in the history of Hassidism? 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 the Hozeh, but it uses the Hozeh as a starting point to consider Hassidism in Poland generally.
Indeed, the broader scope of Gellman’s research is indicated in its title: Hashvilim Hayotzim Milublin (“The paths that depart from Lublin”), and even more clearly in the book’s English title: The Emergence of Hassidism 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 hassidic 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 hassidic 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 hassidic leadership and it is in connection with this city’s name that he is 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 hassidic 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 hassidic 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 hassidic norms and practices.
The alleged Pshischa betrayal of its hassidic 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 asks a pointed question: If indeed Pshischa hassidim had been such renegades, and if indeed the rest of the hassidic 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 Hassidism 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 Hassidism is unmistakable as he taps into the new approach to hassidic history which offers a nuanced account of a non-monolithic movement that crystallized during the 19th 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.
The writer, a rabbi in Zur Hadassah, is on the Pardes faculty and a post-doctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev