Review: Jonatan Meir, Literary Hasidism: The Life and Works of Michael Levi Rodkinson.

 

 

 

Jonatan Meir, Literary Hasidism: The Life and Works of Michael Levi Rodkinson. Translated from Hebrew: Jeffrey G. Amshalem. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2016.  ix + 257 pp.  ISBN: 9780815634478

 

When Martin Buber introduced Hasidic tales to the world through his polished retellings and philosophical commentary, he presented them as sacred texts, comparable to Sufi and Zen stories. Among researchers who accepted this premise, Kabbalah scholar Joseph Dan made a major contribution in his book Hasipur haHasidi (1975), which analyzes Hasidic tales as expressions of Kabbalistic theology.

 

In his later work, however, Dan presented a surprisingly different view of Hasidic stories. Many of them, he argues, were not written by Hasidim at all, but by Maskilim – rationalistic intellectuals antipathetic to Hasidic ways. These authors took advantage of the gullibility of religious readers, and also catered to a nostalgic but increasingly secularized non-Hasidic readership.

 

The poster child for Dan’s revisionist view is Michael Levi Frumkin, later Rodkinson, (1845-1904), author of books of Hasidic tales as well as sharp criticisms of Hasidic practice. Dan presents Frumkin/Rodkinson as a typical author of Hasidic stories, while quoting contemporary characterizations of him as a man motivated by greed and hypocrisy.

 

Jonatan Meir’s Literary Hasidism refutes Dan’s thesis, at least regarding Rodkinson. Meir also engages with the genre of Hasidic hagiography as a whole, and provides a rich overview of Rodkinson’s entire literary career. This is an important contribution to scholarship on the authors of books of Hasidic tales and their historical context. Previously, Gedalyah Nigal compiled bibliographic and biographic data on many such authors. Ira Robinson analyzed the literary work of Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg (grandfather of Canadian literary icon Mordecai Richler), author of Hasidic tales and of the best-known version of the Golem legend. I have studied the works of Israel Berger and Abraham Hayim Michelsohn, authors of early twentieth-century compilations of Hasidic stories which were among Martin Buber’s sources, in my Imagining Holiness: Classic Hasidic Tales in Modern Times (2009).

 

 Meir’s contribution to the study of Hasidic tales is well written and thoroughly researched; this English version incorporates additional research since the 2012 Hebrew edition (ix). At the same time, it is an easy read for an academic study, with only 143 pages of text (followed by 111 pages of notes and bibliography), dealing with an intriguing person. Jeffrey Amshalem’s English translation is clear and readable, and seems to avoid the common pitfall of confusing rabbinic, Yiddish/Ashkenazi, and Israeli meanings of Hebrew words. Only the copy editing needed more care; for example, the name of Martin Buber’s grandfather, a significant scholar and a friend of Rodkinson’s, appears as Solomon, Salomon, and Shlomo; an interesting observation on trends in Hasidic hagiography since the 1980s is endnoted to a source dated 1972 (87).

 

The book begins with Rodkinson’s enemies – so intemperate were their attacks on Rodkinson and so influential have they been on the sparse scholarship about him. Rodkinson moved in a milieu of Eastern European Jewish writers who spilled a great deal of ink attacking each other. His chief enemy, Ephraim Deinard, emerges from Meir’s summary as a very unattractive character, yet worthy of a biography of his own. Meir undermines aspects of Dan’s argument that rely on Deinard, whose polemics against Rodkinson were probably no more accurate than his attacks on other notable figures like Hillel Zeitlin or Eliezer ben Yehudah.

 

            Following this introduction, the first chapter is entitled “The Life and Works of Michael Levi Rodkinson.” Meir appears to have found and read every book, article, and periodical published by Rodkinson – a remarkable achievement in itself. This extensive research allows him to present a full picture of Rodkinson’s intense and eclectic working life as an author, publisher, and journal editor in Eastern and Western Europe, England, and the United States, in various genres, ideologies, and languages. His final great project was an abridgement of the Talmud and the publication of an English translation of the abridgement. The Rodkinson Talmud is still available in libraries, and on the internet, with no indication that it is anything but the entire Talmud (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/FullTalmud.pdf). But it never played the role that Rodkinson intended for it: to serve as the foundation of a revived rabbinic Judaism, distinct from both secularized liberalism and traditionalist Orthodoxy.

 

Chapter Two places Rodkinson’s three books of Hasidic tales, first printed in 1864, in the context of other such works published at the time. Some scholarship has referred to a “fifty-year silence” between the first printing of Shivhei haBesht, stories in praise of the Baal Shem Tov (and Shivhei haRan, in praise of Nahman of Breslov, generally ignored in these discussions) and the wave of Hasidic story compilations in the mid-1860s. Following Gedalyah Nigal and others, Meir points out that Hasidic stories were certainly being told orally, and included in books of sermons, during the “silent” decades. Thus there is really no “silence” to be accounted for, but there is a sudden flourishing of books of stories to be explained. Meir sees this as part of a more general flourishing of Hebrew and Yiddish literature among the Orthodox, the Hasidim, and the enemies of Hasidism, the Maskilim, all motivated in part by opposition to each other’s publications. He clearly and thoughtfully delineates the historical context.

 

I am particularly struck by Meir’s insight into the enduring influence of the Maskilim on scholarship about Hasidic tales. Both the exaggerated view of stories as Hasidic “holy scripture” and the counter-argument that “hagiography is a low literary form, a folk literature” can be traced to the Maskilim who obsessively denounced and satirized Hasidic tales (85).

 

The third and final chapter reviews Rodkinson’s relationship with Hasidism over the course of his career. There appears to be no reason to doubt that Rodkinson the author of Hasidic tales, a young man proud of his distinguished Habad lineage, was a sincere Hasid. Only later – contrary to Dan’s assessment – did he become a Maskil. For years, however, he was a Maskil interested in Hasidic stories and broadly sympathetic to Hasidism. Only late in his life did the occasional mentions of Hasidism in his writings become harshly derogatory; even then, he specifically exempted Habad, and especially the writings of his renowned grandfather Aharon of Starosselje, from any such criticism.

 

A brief epilogue partially endorses Dan’s view of Rodkinson as the founder of a romanticized depiction of Hasidism by modern non-Hasidic authors. Meir, however, relates this to Rodkinson’s Maskilic period, rather than to his 1864 books of Hasidic tales as in Dan’s argument. This would need more fleshing out to be convincing; Meir does not show any connection between Rodkinson’s Maskilic writings and “neo-Hasidic” authors.

 

            Overall, the English title of this book is less accurate than that of its Hebrew original, Shivhei Rodkinson: Michael Levi Rodkinson and Hasidism – an ironic fulfillment of a satiric “prophecy” by Rodkinson’s enemy Deinard (4). This is primarily a study of the literary relationship between Rodkinson and Hasidism, not a full “life and works.” Aspects of Rodkinson’s career unrelated to Hasidism are described in enough detail to arouse interest – he seems to have pioneered an ideal of non-partisan journalism that scarcely existed in his time (21) – but not explored at length.

 

Meir scarcely gives us personal details about Rodkinson’s life. We read in quick succession that he pleaded for help “to bury the wife of his youth” and that he had a “son born to him in his old age,” all without names (80). Deinard’s accusation that Rodkinson was a compulsive womanizer is not addressed. Most frustratingly, though perhaps for want of evidence, we get no indication of how Rodkinson felt about his embrace of Haskalah and abandonment of Hasidism – except for a glimpse of later-life nostalgia for “a ‘Hasidish drink’” with friends (79).

 

Thus this book leaves me wanting to know more about its subject – surely a success for Meir’s project of rescuing Michael Levi Frumkin/Rodkinson from opprobrium and obscurity. It also makes a significant contribution to the scholarly understanding of Hasidic hagiography, a genre that continues to charm and fascinate both Hasidic and “Maskilic” readers.

 

Justin Jaron Lewis

 

University of Manitoba

EDITORIAL BOARD

Prof. Frederick Krantz, Director Prof. Frederick Krantz, Director (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research)

Rob Coles (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research) Rob Coles (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research)

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