How Hasidim Became the Enemies of Progress

Excommunication of Hassidism
by Kalman Marmor
“Jewish Life” Anthology, 1946-1956
Pious and powerful Christians burned their heretics at the stake. But pious Jews in “exile” [from Palestine] have had to be satisfied with burning only the heretics’ books. The Christians could place their dissenters behind prison walls. Jews could only place theirs under the ban–excommunicate them–“arainlegen in herem.”
So we find in the course of Jewish history that among those excommunicated were such esteemed Jews as the Tannai Rabbi Eliezar Ben Hyrcanus, the Gaon Rabbi Saadia, the Rambam (Moses Maimonides), the Cabbalist and moralist Moses Hayim Luzzatto, the free-thinker Uriel Acosta and the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Not only were Jewish individuals declared anathema, but also whole sects of Jews, such as the Hassidim and their Zaddikim, who have been–and still remain–under the ban since 1772. The Hassidim were excommunicated by public pronouncements in the synagogues and the Houses of Study, in the streets and in the market-places to the accompaniments of shofar blasts and the gloomy shimmering of black candles.
The Hassidim and their rabbis were completely “cut off from Israel.” Their food was declared treif (unclean). A pious Jew was forbidden to “fraternize” with them or marry into their families. The Hassid’s children were regarded as non-Jews. The ban extended even to their dead, who were regarded as “Carcasses” and denied burial in Jewish cemeteries. The “Great Excommunication” on the Hassidim was renewed several times and has never up to now been officially rescinded.
Among those who signed the first, second and third excommunications against the Hassidim in 1772, 1781 and 1796, we find the name of the Gaon of Vilna, the greatest scholar of his time whose piety and essential honesty were recognized by everyone. The Gaon, who naively believed everything that the anti-Hassidim invented, considered it his sacred duty to attack the Hassidim and their movement.
The first ban on the Hassidim was announced in the summer of 1772 in Lithuania and Galicia. Nine years later it was renewed at the Great Fair of Zelva (Grodno, Poland) in August-September 1781. The excommunication at Zelve, as described in the official pronouncement, was read publicly at a mass assembly and in the presence of the “Elders and Patriarchs.” It was signed by the “Eminent and Rich Citizens, the Leaders and Elders” of the Jewish communities, and of course, by the rabbis. The pronouncement of 1781 reads as follows:
“May the terrible Excommunication of Joshua Ben Nun, and the Excommunication which is described in the Book of Kol Bo, and all the excommunications, damnations and bands, and all the curses of the Holy Torah, fall upon their heads [the Hassidim] and upon any one who disobeys the following decree: No one shall befriend them or assist them or stand within four cubits of them; most important, no one shall even look at the Wicked One, the High Priest of their Sect {meaning the Hassidic Rebbe}, who serves a false god. …
“Let our provinces, near and far, observe this pronouncement, which has been proclaimed in the presence of the entire community and its holy and prominent personages. The chief rabbi, who rules over all the Jewish towns, has ordered the sounding of the shofar, to make known far and wide the severity of his pronouncement, and it shall be observed in all the Jewish towns under his authority, and let no one go from our community to the place of the Sects of the Hassidim, the ignorant and the damned, to join their uncleanliness.
“And whosoever shall not obey this decree, may he be cursed and damned and expelled and excommunicated and ostracized from the community and from this world and the next; and may there not remain even a name or any trace of them in the sacred community of Israel.”
The “leading citizens” and the rabbis who had not signed the original ban, did so several days later. The Fair was of long duration and almost every day there were new pronouncements against the Hassidim. Thus the Rabbi of Brisk, on the 20th day of Elul, 1781, promulgated a ban which was even more severe than the previous ones.
In his lengthy pronouncement we find, among other things: “Was there ever such a misfortune as that which has come to us at the hands of those unworthy and irresponsible ones, the Sect of Hassidism, may their name be extirpated from the earth. The betrayer betrays, the thief steals and the greater the destruction a man inflicts on the structure of religion, the more he is praised. A plague, an eruption of sores, has spread through the walls of Israel. A band of evil, sinful people has arisen who falsify God and his Torah–a mob, a Sect of Hassidim; may their souls and spirits be afflicted, for that they have separated themselves from all the Tribes of Israel and entered into heresy.
“Excommunicated and ostracized and devastated are all those eat at the table, who use the unclean utensils–whether of clay or wood or stone–of these sinful souls. Let everyone who has the fear of God in his heart gird his loins like a warrior and go forth in battle with all manner of weapons … and curse them with fit cures, until God’s hand comes to our aid. … We give to the leaders of the sacred communities the right to assemble and attack, to confuse and exterminate, to destroy and root out the spirit and the possessions [of the Hassidim]….”
Why did the Jewish “Leading Citizens, Eminent and Rich Men, Elders and Teachers” and their rabbis, place the Hassidim under the ban? Certainly not because they prayed according to a different ritual, or for other reasons of that kind. The sin of Hassidim at that time consisted in this: the masses of Hassidim, by their denial of the accepted, prescribed ritual and customs, expressed their protest against the social crimes of the community leaders–the elders, teachers, leading citizens, rich men, rabbis, etc.
The Hassidism of the earlier period was supported chiefly by the Jewish innkeepers and tavern-keepers in the villages. These villagers were rebelling against the rule of the city “princes” and their rabbis, against “The prominent people, and their ruler, the rabbi of the gubernia {province}, who reigned over all the Jewish towns.”
The simple farmers, tavern-keepers and innkeepers concerned themselves little with the Cabbalistic dissertations of the Hassidic theoreticians. The masses of Hassidim were drawn by the protest against their arrogant exploiters in the big cities and against those religious leaders who supported the rule of the rich in the name of the Holy Torah.
But Hassidism offered no positive social idea. It did not propose even a minimum program to lighten the heavy burden of the impoverished Jewish masses. It built its whole foundation on belief in the Zaddik, who was believed to have the power to reverse even that which was divinely ordained, if he was given the required sum of “pidian” [literally ransom money]. As a result, Hassidism fought with the same weapons as the official rabbinate–physical violence, setting fire to “enemy” property, informing to the tsar’s officials–who of course intervened to the advantage of the tsar’s interests.
The ban on the Hassidim was never officially lifted. The Hassidim, for their part, never recanted their “denials” of the rabbinic laws and customs. Nevertheless, today they are “bosom colleagues” of the most anti-Hassidic zealots. Why? Because the original excommunications were aimed primarily at those who opposed the Jewish ruling class. But as soon as Hasidism gave itself to the service of that class, it became “kosher.” As soon as it began to help the Jewish “leaders” keep the Jewish masses ignorant and backward, it ceased to be “trief.”
The Baal Shem Tov [18th century “Messiah”] and the first Hassidic rabbis were “scoundrels” and “misleaders of Israel” only so long as they were the friends of the poor. The later Hassidic rabbis, who themselves became rich and powerful, were raised to “eminent, respectable” Zaddikim. Today many Hassidic leaders live in luxurious mansions. Their wives and children are clothed in silks and satin. The Hassidic Zaddikim, like other rich and pious Jews, are united in their opposition to every freedom-movement of the progressive Jewish masses.
When the Jewish bourgeoisie was still a radical class, its ideologists sharply attacked the strongholds of Hassidism. Today, however, when the bourgeoisie, Jewish as well as non-Jewish, has become reactionary, its theoreticians defend religion in general and Hassidism in particular.
Generally speaking however, the difference between the Jewish “excommunicators” of yesterday and those of today consists in this: the former emerged from conflict and class struggle between Jews and Jews; today’s excommunicators are insignificant cogs in the machinery with which the wielders of power of our country, seeking to save their dynasty of dollars, try to turn back the wheel of history.
January 1956

8 thoughts on “How Hasidim Became the Enemies of Progress

  1. mobius wrote: “pious Jews in “exile” [from Palestine]” I assume the Palestine reference was added by you as in academic circles, square brackets denote an editorial comment added in for the sake of clarity. However, the Jews in question weren’t in exile from Palestine. They were in exile from Israel or Judaea.
    Back in the day, people were issuing decrees of ecommunication left, right and center. Just as the Misnagdim excommunicated the Hassidim, so too did the Hassidim excommunicate the Misnagdim. Tit for tat! Fun times, fun times…

  2. Arch denier of Palestine? Heh… I don’t deny the existence of a Palestinian nation. Or of Palestinians. Nationalism being what it is, when a discernible group of people identify themselves as a nation, then they are a nation! It’s not so complicated. Does that mean I have to accept their national myths? Or ignore well documented history? We all know who coined the term “Palestine” and I promise you it wasn’t some guy looking over his fertile Orange and Olive groves, smoking shisha, noshing on hummus and tapping on his darbouka.
    But who cares? Palestinians exist. I never denied that! You really need to chill, sir.

  3. Hey Mob,
    Nice to see you making good use of your Jewish Life reader. Neat little piece here.
    Readers should keep in mind that Jewish Life was the Jewish magazine of the American Communist party. Jewish Life was published alongside the yiddish labor daily Morgn Freiheit. It ceased publication, briefly, in 1956 and was reborn as Jewish Currents. But all the talk of bourgeois this and reactionary that has never died, as I was recently accused in the letters page of Currents of being a bourgeois nationalist. Plus ca change…

  4. B”H
    This article is at the best thinly veiled hate speech against traditional Judaism founded on very poor or non-existent research. At worse it’s propaganda portraying religious Jews as the “bourgeoisie”, rich with money and power and totally corrupt. The historical inaccuracies within the article are tremendous and many. First of all it is written from the absurd view of a Socialist and likely a communistic. Equating social reform as a religious goal is ignorant and stupid. The ban was lifted from Hasidim! Look at the Chabad Rebbe and how he lived, a ruler? In a small brooklyn home? This person has the agenda of pushing non-sense and obviously has little knowledge on the whole subject.

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