Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America

Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America

by Samuel C. Heilman

Paperback(First Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Hasidism, a movement many believed had passed its golden age, has had an extraordinary revival since it was nearly decimated in the Holocaust and repressed in the Soviet Union. Hasidic communities, now settled primarily in North America and Israel, have reversed the losses they suffered and are growing exponentially. With powerful attachments to the past, mysticism, community, tradition, and charismatic leadership, Hasidism seems the opposite of contemporary Western culture, yet it has thrived in the democratic countries and culture of the West. How? Who Will Lead Us? finds the answers to this question in the fascinating story of five contemporary Hasidic dynasties and their handling of the delicate issue of leadership and succession.
Revolving around the central figure of the rebbe, the book explores two dynasties with too few successors, two with too many successors, and one that believes their last rebbe continues to lead them even after his death. Samuel C. Heilman, recognized as a foremost expert on modern Jewish Orthodoxy, here provides outsiders with the essential guide to continuity in the Hasidic world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520308404
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/02/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 317,276
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Samuel C. Heilman is Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY. He has written eleven books, including, most recently (with Menachem Friedman), The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Read an Excerpt

Who Will Lead Us?

The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America

By Samuel C. Heilman


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96648-2


Succession in Contemporary Hasidism

Who Will Lead Us?


When the modern Hasidic movement first emerged in the late eighteenth century, it was led mostly by charismatic men, commonly called zaddikim (loosely translated as the saintly or pious), who were themselves the successors of ba'aley shem (wonder masters of the name of God or healers) and their counterparts, the maggidim (itinerant preachers). While the ba'aley shem were said to possess the mystical knowledge of Kabbalah that enabled them to invoke and in shaman-like fashion manipulate powerful, esoteric names of God in order to heal people, do battle with their demons, or liberate the human soul to unify itself with God, powers they used on behalf of those who believed in them, and while the maggidim were powerful preachers and magnetic orators who told tales and offered parables or sermons that inspired their listeners, zaddikim had a combination of these qualities and more. With ba'aley shem they shared a knowledge of how to apply Kabbalah to the practical needs of their followers and to perform "miracles," using their mystical powers ultimately to help their Hasidim (as these followers became known), and from the maggidim they took the power to inspire and attract with stories and teaching while inserting into these what their devotees took to be personal messages tailored just to them. With both, they shared the authority of charisma.

Charisma, Max Weber explained, should be "applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities." Whether the supernatural was an essential aspect of early Hasidism has been debated, but what is almost universally accepted is the idea that the men who became its leaders were viewed by their followers as extraordinary and exceptional. Those who believed in them were convinced that they had qualities "not accessible to the ordinary person" and in the context of Hasidic Judaism regarded these leaders as being "of divine origin" or at the very least "exemplary" and worthy of emulation.

Zaddikim were endowed with what their Hasidim considered remarkable personalities and righteous character that they could and would use for the good of others. While perceived as having a powerful connection to and association with the Almighty God as mysterium tremendum, the zaddik (or "rebbe," as he often came to be called) was a category of leader that challenged the Weberian notion of what a mystic was supposed to be. To Max Weber, a mystic was one who withdrew from the world and became a passive vessel of the divine, one for whom "the extrusion of all everyday mundane interests is always required." Some zaddikim did indeed seek withdrawal — cases in point are Abraham (the so-called Angel) (1740–76), the short-lived son of Dov Ber; the Maggid of Mezherich, who led the life of an otherworldly ascetic Kabbalist; and Menachem Mendel, the Rebbe of Kotsk (1787–1859), who for the last twenty years of his life locked himself away and was seen only very rarely by a few family members and disciples. Other Hasidic leaders isolated themselves at least during prayer or spiritual exercises, a process called hitbodedut (self-seclusion). Yet most of the zaddikim, in contrast to the classic mystics, were seen as using their Kabbalistic powers and essential religiosity to serve this-worldly ends by helping their followers to smooth the naturally rough path of life in the real world. In short, these men (they were always men) were charismatic mystics or Kabbalists who were "active in the world" and worked not only on behalf of individuals but for the sake of the entire community of their followers, if not for the entire Jewish world, seeking to intensify spiritual life in the process.

In contrast to the more staid and predictable scholars and rabbis, the zaddikim emerged as important figures on the eastern European Jewish scene and gained followers. Replacing the maggidim and the ba'aley shem, they challenged the monopoly on religious leadership that scholar rabbis held. Although exceptional intermediaries between God and their Hasidim, rebbes inserted themselves, spiritually and practically, into the this-worldly, mundane lives and demands of their followers. They did all this not with asceticism (although some would invoke that) but with charisma and practices that opened up the esoteric elements of the mystical to all Jews who were devoted to them. They used public prayer, song, dance, the communal breaking of bread, and a host of other methods to connect the human with the divine, turning even profane activity into a means of spiritual ascent. Some Hasidim understood these practices more deeply than others, but all were expected to be transformed by the encounter with the rebbe, and therefore attached themselves to him, voluntarily submitting to their rebbe's authority and even giving it ascendancy over the rule-based dominance of traditional Judaism.

Ultimately, Hasidim viewed their leaders as model individuals to be emulated and embraced with devotion (dvekut). In return, the rebbes would (sometimes miraculously) provide for their followers the blessings of children (bonei), health (chayei), and livelihood (mzonei). Hasidism held that the material and spiritual well-being of the entire community was part of the rebbe's responsibility.

So attached did Hasidim become to their rebbes that they sought to spend as much time as possible with them, basking in their presence. Celebrating around the table (tish) with the rebbe, toasting him with "L'chaim!" (To life), singing or dancing with him, even eating his leftovers (shirayim), enhanced the relationship as much as praying or studying with him. At the heart of the tish were the rebbe's words, a maymer, or discourse by which those listening to and learning from him believed they came closer to God.

In some cases, even the rebbe's smallest gestures were judged as having cosmic significance, and his Hasidim dwelt endlessly on the meaning of them. They might watch the rebbe to see, for example, "how he brought his spoon to his mouth, whether he bent his mouth close to the food or whether he brought the food up to his lips, whether he tasted only an olive's bulk [the ritual minimum] ... and left the remainder for shirayim" for them to eat. "How much did he eat and how much did he drink? How did he sit — erect or bent over?" And of course, what tunes did he choose to sing? Every detail mattered in this drama, in which both the observers and the observed were certain heaven was involved because the zaddik was after all able to ascend spiritually to the highest regions and powers.

Attachment to a rebbe became so pervasive that Hasidim were expected to travel, repeatedly if necessary, to be near him in order to request his advice and counsel or seek blessings and spiritual support. No matter was too small or too complex for his help and guidance. The longing to be near him even competed with the Hasid's attachments to his own family, and often attachment to the rebbe and the other Hasidim trumped family obligations, so that men left home, wife, and children to spend extended time near their master. To be sure, the attachment to a particular rebbe and court did not happen overnight. Hasidim might feel attachments to a number of zaddikim who shared a common forebear.

The Hasidim who were attached — really, who belonged — to the rebbe saw him as a projection of their attachments to one another and to God. He became a "collective representation," a collective symbol. Hasidim often measured their rebbe by the intensity and power he could demonstrate. The more Hasidim he could sustain, the more supported him, in a synergy that led to rebbes being like royalty and Hasidim competing against other groups of Hasidim over whose king was greater.

The Hasid's ultimate goal was a personal relationship with his rebbe. It might be confirmed by the rebbe's gaze into his eyes at a tish or his shaking the Hasid's hand (either in reality or in a gestural way). A blessing, in a personal letter from the rebbe or a message sent by a shaliach, an emissary, might also suffice. But it was expressed most powerfully through a direct one-on-one, face-to-face private meeting with him called yechidus, praven-zich, or gezegenen-zich. Hasidim treated this moment as akin to an encounter with the numinous, if not the otherworldly. They might prepare for it with ritual immersion in a mikveh to purify themselves or other spiritual exercises.

Paradoxically, newcomers might be offered this sort of direct encounter, which also served as a kind of recruitment strategy. In many accounts Hasidim report how transformative their first meeting with the rebbe was for them and how it led to their personal attachment and life-changing experiences that were religiously meaningful in the extreme. Perhaps the best-documented such encounter is found in the autobiography of Solomon Maimon. At least initially this encounter aroused not only "admiration" for the zaddik but "a desire to belong to the group of Hasidim connected to him." Reports such as these, passed by word of mouth or letters, as well as propaganda by Hasidim, whose enthusiasm for their master was often infectious, served to encourage more young men to join. For those who were already Hasidim, seeing newcomers become attracted to their rebbe reaffirmed their own attachments.

Often direct meetings with the rebbe were accompanied by a kvittel, a note of supplication the Hasid brought along with hopes that the rebbe would accept it and intercede on high on his behalf. The note, accompanied by a pidyon nefesh (sometimes called acronymically a PaN), a monetary "ransom" of one's soul (essentially atonement for sins, almost like a papal indulgence), cleared the way for the rebbe's blessing or prayers to work. In addition, among confirmed Hasidim there emerged the custom of giving ma'amad, a standing donation to the rebbe, equivalent to about 5 or even 10 percent of the Hasid's income. The more Hasidim a rebbe had, the more pidyon and ma'amad he received. As pidyon and ma'amad become a routinized aspect of the rebbe/Hasid relationship, they not only symbolized moral purification but came to play a growing economic role in the rebistve (a rebbe's reign or career).

In time, beyond spiritual guidance and blessing, a whole array of services that the rebbe provided for his Hasidim developed, institutionalizing the economic relationship that bound them together. These might include the certification and therefore the provision of kosher meat — an important source of income for the certifier — or the provision of matzah for Passover, another staple that was paid for by users. These became an income source for some rebbes, especially if these leaders were also appointed official rabbis of a town or community, as was often the case in Poland and Galicia — a reason why many Hasidic rebbes sought such a position. At the outset only the official rabbi could control these sorts of certifications and services, but by the time Hasidism had relocated to America and Israel particular rebbes acquired this entitlement as well, and with it important economic and hence political power. Later, after Hasidic yeshivas and other institutions (mosdos) became established features of the community, they became a critical conduit for funds and a cadre of new Hasidim.

As a Hasid and his family would go to their rebbe's schools, eat the meat and foods he certified as permissible, or look to him for approval over whom to marry and how to live, this strengthened his authority and power. His control over their personal lives became extraordinary and intimate. As they shared their troubles and hoped for his blessings, they elevated him over almost everyone in their lives. Rebbes, Hasidism, and Hasidim became a formidable economic, commercial, social, and political force wherever they established communities.


All this became institutionalized in the formation of Hasidic courts, with their own set of practices, customs, and organizations, along with administrative personnel. "The court of the Maggid of Mezirech, which was active from the mid-i76os until the Maggid's death in 1772, was, as far as we know, the first Hasidic court."

The term court refers to the physical enclosure in which the Hasidic leader lived, prayed, and received followers and visitors. Life at the court regulated contact between the leader and the Hasidim. Some who lived near the rebbe populated his court regularly. Others who lived at a distance might make regular pilgrimages to it, often on special days, commonly holy days and the month leading up to and including the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or days of significance in the life of the rebbe.

Though viewed as steeped in spiritual vitality and religious meaning, goings-on there also became routinized and ritualized. The tension between the routine and the numinous was always present, so certain moments were made to seem extraordinary. The entrance of the rebbe at the tish or moments of yechidus, as well as any rite of passage in his family, stood out. Of course, those on pilgrimage were less affected by the routine than family members, those who spent more time at court, or the administrative staff, gabbaim (aides) or house bochurim, young Hasidim serving as butlers or footmen. The latter lived not only for the sake of the rebistve but also off it, financially depending on it. Of course, the rebbe also lived for his calling as well as off it.


Unlike the biblical prophets who in Jewish tradition felt called by God to speak to the people, one might say rebbes were those whom the people called on their own, believing them to have abilities far beyond those of mere mortals to arouse the human spirit in the service of heaven and to move heaven to reciprocate. Yet, as with the prophets, when a rebbe engaged in extraordinary behavior many of his followers believed that it was as if "the holy spirit descended upon him." Indeed, there were those who asserted that a zaddik was only apparently selected by his followers but in truth was chosen by God.

Certainly in the early years of Hasidism's emergence, this belief in rebbes' extraordinary thaumaturgic powers was encouraged by some of the leaders themselves. No less a leader than the Maggid of Mezherich (d. 1772), the man some have called the first true zaddik, a direct disciple of the reputed progenitor of modern Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (d. 1760), the so-called Ba'al Shem Tov (Besht), asserted that his followers had to believe that "a zaddik can modify [the higher and lower regions] at any time he desires," and his great-grandson, Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796–1850), was said to have claimed, "Had I wanted to, I could make all barren women fecund, even those whose menses have ceased." Meir Horowitz of Dzikov (1819–77) insisted on the power of the zaddik "to resurrect the dead and to create heaven and earth." While these and similar claims may seem extreme, the conviction widely held was that these leaders were endowed with ruach ha'kodesh, the Holy Spirit. Some went so far as to assert that "the spirit of Moses, the master of all prophets, the redeemer of Israel, beat in the souls of the zaddikim." The rebbe could help followers "acquire spiritual and religious perfection."

With supreme confidence and power projected on them by their Hasidim, rebbes acted as agents of God, dispensing blessings, effecting miracles, even looking into the hearts of human beings. While Hasidim may have affirmed the rebbe on their own by virtue of his charisma and powers, spiritually and metaphysically his appointment, no less than that of the prophets, was increasingly seen as coming from on high. The closer the Hasid was to his rebbe, the more he shared in the rebbe's reflected grace. That was why the personal encounter was so vital.


It was in the nature of such powerful beliefs in and attachment to these charismatics that few if any Hasidim imagined that their rebbe would die. And if the zaddik himself did think about it, he was unlikely to stress that prospect, for to do so would undermine the confidence of his followers in him as an instrument of God. But, like all mortals, rebbes did die, although in the language of Hasidism they were sometimes said simply to have "departed" in what was known as histalkus (leavetaking). They were described as having simply thrown off the human limitations of the earthly realm and mystically returned to God, with whom they had such a special relationship.


Excerpted from Who Will Lead Us? by Samuel C. Heilman. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Prologue xiii

1 Succession in Contemporary Hasidism: Who Will Lead Us? 1

2 Munkács: An Oedipal Challenge 26

3 Boyan and Kopyczynitz: Running Out of Rebbes 69

4 Bobov: A Clash of Families 96

5 Satmar: Succession Charged with Conflict 152

6 ChaBaD Lubavitch: A Rebbe Who Never Dies 210

Final Thoughts 256

Notes 271

Index 311

Customer Reviews