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Solomon Maimon’s 18th Century Critique of the Early Hasidim (Part 1)

Byline Dec. 25th 2009–4:00 PM

Solomon Maimon was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 18th century; not only did he expound the teachings of Maimonides’ famous Guide to the Perplexed in new but contemporary terms, he also established himself as one of Immanuel Kant’s foremost intellectual critics.

For our purposes now, we shall examine Maimon’s autobiographical tale about his encounter with the Hassidic court of Rabbi Dov Baer of Meseritz.

Our story begins with an encounter Maimon had with a young follower of Rabbi Dov Baer. The Hassidic student cited some very impressive teachings that deeply moved the young nineteen year old budding philosopher, when he originally met the aged Maggid (who died within a few years later after their initial meeting). Solomon Maimon wanted to see for himself  what this new movement was all about.

And shortly later, Maimon arrived in Meseritz …

Several weeks later, after listening to many of the deep philosophical sentiments of its master teacher, Maimon briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a part of the Hassidic court. However, he soon becomes disillusioned by the shenanigans he witnesses perpetrated by its leaders and followers. Maimon’s insights represent one of the most important critical reviews of the young Hassidic movement. He writes:

“At last I arrived at M , and after having rested from my journey I went to the house of the superior under the idea that I could be introduced to him at once. I was told, however, that he could not speak to me at the time, but that I was invited to his table . . .

Accordingly on Sabbath I went to this solemn meal, and found there a large number of respectable men who had met here from various quarters. At length the great man appeared in his awe-inspiring form, clothed in white satin. Even his shoes and snuffbox were white, this being among the Cabbalists the color of grace. He gave to every new comer his salaam, that is, his greeting. We sat down to table and during the meal a solemn silence reigned. After the meal was over, the superior struck up a solemn inspiriting melody, held his hand for some time upon his brow, and then began to call out, ” Z of H , M of R ,” and so on.

Every newcomer was thus called by his own name and the name of his residence, which excited no little astonishment. Each recited, as he was called, some verse of the Holy Scriptures. Thereupon the superior began to deliver a sermon for which the verses recited served as a text, so that although they were disconnected verses taken from different parts of the Holy Scriptures they were combined with as much skill as if they had formed a single whole.

What was still more extraordinary, every one of the newcomers believed that he discovered, in that part of the sermon which was founded on his verse, something that had special reference to the facts of his own spiritual life.

It was not long, however, before I began to qualify the high opinion I had formed of this superior and the whole society. I observed that their ingenious exegesis was at bottom false, and, in addition to that, was limited strictly to their own extravagant principles, such as the doctrine of self-annihilation. When a man had once learned these, there was nothing new for him to hear. The so-called miracles could be very naturally explained. By means of correspondence and spies and a certain knowledge of men, by physiognomy and skilful questions, the superiors were able to elicit indirectly the secrets of the heart, so that they succeeded with these simple men in obtaining the reputation of being inspired prophets.

The whole society also displeased me not a little by their cynical spirit and the excess of their merriment. A single example of this may suffice. We had met once at the hour of prayer in the house of the superior. One of the company arrived somewhat late, when the others asked him the reason. He replied that he had been detained by his wife having been that evening confined with a daughter. As soon as they heard this, they began to congratulate him in a somewhat uproarious fashion. The superior thereupon came out of his study and asked what was going on.

At this we were of course greatly astonished by the cause of the noise. He was told that we were congratulating our friend, because his wife had brought a girl into the world. “A girl!” He answered with the greatest indignation, “He ought to be whipped.”[1] The poor fellow protested. He could not comprehend why he should be made to suffer for his wife having brought a girl into the world. But this was of no avail: he was seized, thrown down on the floor, and whipped unmercifully. All except the victim fell into a hilarious mood over the affair, upon which the superior called them to prayer in the following words, “Now, brethren, serve the Lord with gladness.”I would not stay in the place any longer. I sought the superior’s blessing, took my departure from the society with the resolution to abandon it forever, and returned home.” [2]

What I find interesting is that despite Maimon’s ambivalence toward the Hasidic movement, he still nevertheless asked Rabbi Dov Baer for his blessing! We will never know the conversations Maimon had with many of the future Rebbes of the movement. However, the tale nevertheless remains one of the most intriguing testimonies of an era we still know so little about. I am unclear whether Maimon was referring to Rabbi Dov Baer, who ordered the beating of the poor Hasid; perhaps it was someone else who occupied a high position in the Hasidic court. Of the two possibilities, contextually speaking–it seems like it was the former rather than the latter. Maimon deserves a lot of credit for exposing the manipulative manner in how the Maggid conducted himself toward the Hasidim.

Since the very inception of the Hasidic movement, to this very day, Hasidic Jews attribute clairvoyance to its Rebbe. When I was a young Hasid, I cannot begin to tell you about all the miracle stories we heard as students, and the legion of supernatural interventions produced by the Rebbe of Lubavitch. This is not at all unique to the Chabad movement; every Hasidic dynasty has its plethora of such miracle stories–otherwise, the Rebbes would probably go out of business.

While such tales seem to endow the Rebbe (of any generation) with almost superhuman powers, Maimon reminds us not to believe in the hype we hear; Hasidim have always had a penchant for exaggerating the “miracles” of its Rebbes. In reality, the “miraculous” abilities of a true Rebbe lies in his ability to be a pastoral and spiritual influence in the lives of his followers. This is by no means, a small tribute …

In an age where tens of thousands of Hasidim believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe continues to answer prayers for the living, and will even soon come back from the dead–Maimon urges everyone not to let suspend logic and discard rational thought. Still, the power of belief is so great–people will believe in the absurdity of just about anything. Rebbes are not infallible or superhuman beings. Rabbis are mortals like everyone else.

Sigmund Freud used to love telling jokes about Hasidim. In one such tale, Freud describes a few  Hasidim debating about whose Rebbe possesses the most miraculous powers. One student exclaimed that his Rebbe was so great, he could split the Red Sea itself, while another said he could perform even greater miracles. The third Hasid said, “We all know that when a man sins, he deserves to die, but my Rebbe is so great, he prays that the walls of his house should not come crashing down upon the sinner. And guess what? The sinner still lives!”


[1] Maimon notes about the sexism of the early Hasidim, “A trait of these, as of all uncultivated men, is their contempt of the other sex.”

[2] Salomon Maimon, J.Clark Murray (trans), Salomon Maimon: an Autobiography (London: Alexander Gardner, 1888), 168-172.



Discussion

  1. Ellen Rabinowich  December 30, 2009

    I think that Maimon asked for Rabbi Dov’s blessing – in spite of witnessing the terrible beatings he ordered – because it is so difficult to separate and detach from a belief system, even when it becomes abusive. People cling to what they know and what may also offer some good. We witness this in so many areas – wives unable to leave their abusive husbands, adult children unable to detach from alcoholic parents, members unable to separate themselves from their churches or cults. Perhaps Maimon feared he would be beaten, too, if he didn’t follow the ritual of asking for his blessings. This strikes me as an apt metaphor for how difficult it is to break with tradition.

    Thank you so much for this excellent expose and for the Freud joke.

    (reply)

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