Authentic individualism

Michael Rosen's new book provides a glimpse into the relatively unknown world of Peshischa Hassidism.

peshicha hassidim 88 (photo credit: )
peshicha hassidim 88
(photo credit: )
The Quest for Authenticity By Michael Rosen Urim 415 pages; $27 Peshischa Hassidism was a movement in early 19th century Polish Hassidism that emphasized a philosophy of optimistic individualism, a belief that human beings, when free from various inhibitions imposed upon them by society or by their own misguided selfishness, are capable of achieving the greatest heights of spiritual success. The three rebbes of the Peshischa tradition, the Holy Yehudi (Rabbi Ya'acov Yitzhak of Peshischa), Rabbi Simha Bunim of Peshischa and Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, often met with great opposition from the rest of the hassidic world for their faith in radical individualism. As Michael Rosen's new book, The Quest for Authenticity, describes, the philosophy of Peshischa made enemies within Hassidism by advocating against the subjugation of the individual to the tzaddik's influence, which had become a central tenet for a majority of the hassidim in Poland at the time. A number of other positions also added to their near ostracism by the other rebbes, undoubtedly aided by the acerbic barbs with which the Peshischers, especially Rabbi Menahem Mendel (the Kotzker), were known to use. ("I could revive the dead, but I have more difficulty reviving the living.") In addition to redefining the hassidic rebbe as a role model and teacher rather than an intermediary to the divine, the Peshischa tradition expressed an insistent intolerance for rote in the service of God. It was preoccupied with the idea of probing one's own intentions for fear that ulterior motives (negiot) would interfere with the ideal of perfect devotion. And it scorned asceticism, considering it a violation of a human being's role to pursue devotion to God within the confines of reality. "The Nazirite, who accepted upon himself to be abstinent, and forbade himself permitted things because of frumkeit, had impurity thrust upon him," Rabbi Simha Bunim said. But the defining characteristic of Peshischa was its demand for self-honesty, for a constant probing of one's character to discover any selfishness or self-interest that would interfere with the yearnings inherent in one's soul. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the attitude of Peshischa toward prayer. The rebbes of Peshischa would spend a great deal of time before prayer preparing themselves and probing their inner motives. Sometimes, in disregard of Halacha and disdain for public opinion, these preparations would last well past the required times for prayer. But when they finally did pray, their prayer was not accompanied by ecstatic motions or loud shouts, but was characterized by an internal energy, said to be seen as a fire on the rebbe's face. Peshischa waged a constant war against what it perceived as the hypocrisy and pretension found among many rebbes and disciples of the Hassidism of those times. Not surprisingly, referring to certain rebbes as "Esau dressed in white," or charging that certain groups of hassidim would be ashamed of their rebbes when the messiah came, did not help to pacify those who already stood against Peshischa for ideological reasons. Rosen's book spends a great deal of time detailing these brewing animosities, which culminated in an attempted excommunication in 1822. His research in that regard is extensive, though the strength of his arguments with major historians of Hassidism such as Gershom Scholem and others is sometimes debatable. FROM THE point of view of academic history, Hassidism in general and Peshischa specifically pose a difficult subject. A dearth, or, in the case of Peshischa, a complete lack of written material means researchers need to be very particular in dissecting the secondary sources to differentiate the authentic from that which has been revised. This could be considered a "quest" in and of itself. The historical discussion, which makes up the first part of the book, may leave many lay readers unenthused, especially those who are intimidated by difficult-to-pronounce Polish place names (Kozienice, Miedzyrcz, etc.). Also, one couldn't help wondering if the discussion of the conflicts and rivalries doesn't divert attention from the book's main focus, namely, the presentation of the thought of Peshischa. It does serve as a reminder of the Jewish capability for innumerable divisions and subdivisions. The Hassidism, which was itself the subject of a great rift with the mitnagdim, found itself being splintered further, even as challenges such as the spread of the Enlightenment would have certainly justified unity. Now, after waves of emigration, assimilation and, finally, the Holocaust have almost completely wiped away the various sects which had been at one another's throats, these rivalries seem petty, even childish. And what might such a perspective suggest about the fate of today's intractable factions? But to return from the fleeting to the enduring, that is, the perspectives and spiritual instruction of the rebbes of Peshischa. They used a particularly sharp form of classical Eastern European cynicism to highlight the shortcomings of their age, indeed of the human species as a whole - especially the tendency toward self-delusion in the face of the challenge of authenticity. "If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you," said Menahem Mendel of Kotzk. The goal of "I being I," for Peshischa, is pursued chiefly through the exposition and expurgation of that which is "not I." Thus, the "quest for authenticity" in Peshischa is concentrated heavily on the flight from its opposite. What is left undeveloped is the positive side of the equation. I do not mean to say that Peshischa was not optimistic in its teachings, for example in admonishing its adherents to beware of depression as a pitfall to growth. Rather, it is a negative philosophy in that it is often chiefly concerned with exposing what is rotten and laying bare the ground for new development, rather than addressing that development specifically. The philosophical justification for that priority is the assertion of every human being's natural ability to develop him or herself, so long as negative influences are kept in check. The end result is that Peshischa is focused on a flight from falsehood, and the "quest for authenticity" is left to every individual.