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«“But I Will Tell of Their Deeds”: Retelling a Hasidic Tale about the Power of Storytelling Levi Cooper Faculty of Law, Bar-Ilan University ...»

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Journal of Jewish Thought

& Philosophy �� (�0�4) ��7-�63


“But I Will Tell of Their Deeds”: Retelling a Hasidic

Tale about the Power of Storytelling

Levi Cooper

Faculty of Law, Bar-Ilan University



A famous Hasidic tale that depicts the decline of mysticism in Hasidic circles also

bespeaks the power of storytelling. This study tracks the metamorphosis of this classic

tale over a century of its retelling by writers—including Martin Buber, S. Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem, Walter Kaufmann, Elie Wiesel, and Abba Kovner—who each fash- ioned the tale in their own image. These authors affirmed but also challenged the tale’s message about the efficacy of storytelling. The use of the tale in Passover celebrations and other contemporary trends are also considered. The question is raised as to whether transmitters have a duty of care not to corrupt the story.

Keywords Hasidic tales – Besht – Israel of Rużyn – Martin Buber – S. Y. Agnon – Gershom Scholem – Haggadah Hasidic lore is rich in tales of the exploits of saintly masters of Hasidism and their faithful disciples. In this study I recount not the adventures of a Hasidic master, but the adventures of a Hasidic tale. The tale discussed here has passed through the hands of philosophers, scholars, and storytellers—notably Martin * My sincere thanks to Shira Atkins, Elyssa Auster, Simon Cohen, Baruch Feldstern, Adam Ferziger, Ben Freedman, Ilan Glazer, Avishai Mizrahi, Bruce Shaffer, Garth Silberstein, and Yehuda Ber Zirkind for insightful comments.

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���4 | doi ��.��63/�477�85X-��34��54 128 Cooper Buber, S. Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem, Walter Kaufmann, Elie Wiesel, and Abba Kovner—and each person who retold the story added their own voice to the narrative. A close reading of each variant facilitates explications of the changes wrought by each storyteller-interpreter.1 The story itself spans the first century of the history of Hasidism, and here I present a further century of retelling of that very tale. Beyond tracing the various renditions of this particular tale, the study is a peregrination in Jewish literary history that illustrates how the mal- leable Hasidic tale may be shaped in the image of the storyteller. Differences among the recensions raise the question as to whether transmitters have a duty of care not to corrupt the story.

The Story of the Decline of Mysticism In 1906 Reuben Zak printed a Hebrew booklet in Warsaw entitled Keneset Yiśra⁠ʾel. The subject of the booklet was the captivating Hasidic master Rabbi Israel Friedman of Rużyn (1796–1850).2 Zak was a disciple of the Hasidic master Rabbi David Moses Friedman of Czortków (1827–1903), the eighth of the ten children of Israel of Rużyn and his wife Sarah. Zak provided the earliest 1  This study is based on the understanding that when a story is retold, and the retelling departs from the original or previous version(s) in salient details, these changes may reflect the storyteller’s own world. In this way, the storyteller also functions as an interpreter. This is true irrespective of whether or not the storyteller was conscious of the changes. As Robinson noted, Hasidic tales from the “Lemberg” period (1864–1912) “reflect the ideas and concerns of their latter-day reactors” rather than events they purport to depict; see Ira Robinson, “The Zaddik as Hero in Hasidic Hagiography,” in Crisis and Reaction: The Hero in Jewish History, ed.

Menachem Mor (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1995), 94–95. For a study along these lines that explores Buber’s reworking of a Hasidic tale, see Martina Urban, “Retelling Biblical Mythos through the Hasidic Tale: Buber’s ‘Saul and David’ and the Question of Leadership,” Modern Judaism 24 (2004): 59–78.

2  On Israel of Rużyn, see David Assaf, The Regal Way: The Life and Times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin, trans. David Louvish (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002). On the historical value of Keneset Yiśra⁠ʾel, see Assaf, The Regal Way, 23. On Zak and his work see also Gedalyah Nigal, Hassidic Tales Collectors [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Carmel, 1995), 167–168. It is likely that the tale existed in Hasidic circles in oral form prior to Zak’s publication. I do not rule out the possibility that similar tales circulated in the surrounding non-Jewish culture. An investigation of such cross-germination, however, is beyond the present study. Similarly, this study does not obviate the need for a broader consideration of the phenomenon described herein, such as identifying similar trends in the retelling of the tales of the Brothers Grimm. This vector is also beyond the scope of this study.

–  –  –

published version of a story that was to be retold numerous times in the

twentieth century:

Our holy master [Rabbi Israel of Rużyn] told a story of the Besht, blessed be his memory, that once there was a dire life-threatening matter where there was a certain only son, who was very good, etc.3 And [the Besht] ordered that a candle of wax be made and he traveled to the forest and attached the candle to a tree and did various other things and performed yiḥudim [mystical unifications of the Divine name], etc., and brought salvation with the help of God, blessed be He. And afterwards there was such an incident involving [Rabbi Israel’s] great-grandfather, the Holy Maggid, and he did likewise as described above, and he said: “The yiḥudim and kawanot [mystical intentions, sing. kawanah] that the Besht performed I know not, but I shall act on the basis of the kawanah that the Besht intended.” And that too was accepted. And afterwards there was a similar incident involving the holy rabbi R. Moses Leib of Sassów, blessed be his memory, and he said: “We do not even have the power to do that; I shall only tell the story, and it is up to God, blessed be He,4 to assist.” And thus it was, with the help of God, blessed be He.5 The actual life-threatening matter is not detailed; clearly for the storyteller this was not integral to the tale. The focus of the story is the ability to affect 3  In the Hebrew: ben yaḥid—literally an only child, but the term also has the connotation of a beloved child. I have translated the Hebrew ben yaḥid we-ṭov as “a beloved and good son.” 4  The original Hebrew has the abbreviation ‫( להשי״ת‬to God, blessed be He). Piekarz suggested emending the text to read ‫( והשי״ת‬and God, blessed be He). Other sources also give this emendation with no comment. Idel retained the original text and translated “I shall only tell the story to God,” explaining that “God may be the principle aim of the narration, preserving the theurgical nature of this activity.” See Mendel Piekarz, Ḥasidut Breslav (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1972; 2nd ed., Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1995), 103. Cf. Yisrael Yaakov (Klapholtz), Kol sippurei Baʿal Shem-Tov (Tel Aviv: Peer Hasefer, 1969; Bnei Braq: Peer Hasefer, 1976; Bnei Braq: Mishor, 1989), 3:44; Yoav Elstein, “Ha-sippur ha-ḥasidi: Transformatsya shel maʿarekhet ʿiyun le-taḥbir sippuri,” Daat 9 (1982): 34; Gedalyah Nigal, Ha-sipporet ha-ḥasidit, 2nd ed.

(Jerusalem: Hamakhon Leḥeker Hasafrut Haḥasidit, 2002), 21; Naftali Hirtz Flintenstein, ed.,

ʿIrin qaddishin ha-shalem (Jerusalem: Siftei Tsaddiqim, 2009), 615; Moshe Idel, Kabbalah:

New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 271, 397n96.

5  Reuben Zak, Keneset Yiśra⁠ʾel (Warsaw: Y. Edelstein, 1906), 23, my translation. This work was reprinted a number of times during the twentieth century. Square brackets denote my additions or explanations. For slightly different translations, see Idel, Kabbalah, 270–271; Assaf,

The Regal Way, 331; Yitzhak Buxbaum, Storytelling and Spirituality in Judaism (Northvale, NJ:

J. Aronson, 1994), 183.

Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 22 (2014) 127-163 130 Cooper salvation using mystical unifications of the divine name. The theurgic capabilities of the Besht—Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (ca. 1700–1760), the inspiration for the nascent Hasidic movement—are at the center of the first part of the

narrative. This part of the story may be drawing on an earlier Besht tradition:

Once the Besht traveled from Kamenka to his home. . . . The Besht said:

“We will pray Minḥah in such and such a place.” . . . This was in the winter time and it was intensely cold. They were still a few versts from that place, and they were becoming chilled to the bone. They said: “It is impossible to reach that place. It is still far away and we will freeze.” Even the Besht’s servant said, “We will get very cold.” They were traveling through the forest. The Besht ordered them to stop. He touched a tree with his finger and the tree was enkindled. They warmed themselves by the fire.6 . . . Then they traveled to such and such a place.7 In the second part of Zak’s tale the Besht’s successor (and great-grandfather of the storyteller Israel of Rużyn), Rabbi Dov Ber, known as the Maggid (preacher) of Mezritch (d. 1772; Polish: Międzyrzec Korecki) laments that he is incapable of performing the necessary mystical unifications and therefore has no choice but to imitate the Besht’s actions and rely on his master’s kawanot.8 The third stage of the story introduces a new character, Rabbi Moses Leib of Sassów (1745–1807), who bemoans that “we do not even have the power to do that.” What can Moses Leib of Sassów not achieve? Since the candle and the trip to the forest are not mentioned in the second act, it can be assumed that they are not central to the story. Moses Leib of Sassów bemoans that he cannot even mimic the Besht’s actions, as the Maggid had. All Moses Leib of Sassów 6  Idel noted that in the original version of the story the candle was never lit and on this basis he suggested a symbolic interpretation for the candle (see below, n. 35). If Assaf is correct in his assumption that this Besht story forms the background of Zak’s version, then we would have to assume that the candle was indeed lit. The motif of going to a tree in a forest appears

in other Hasidic tales as well; see, for instance: Gevurat ʾari: Toledot . . . Leib Sarah’s . . . (Lwow:

R. Margulies, [1931]), 22.

7  Dov Baer ben Samuel of Linits, In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov [Shivḥei ha-Besht]: The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism, trans. and ed. Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 131, section 106. I am following Assaf’s suggestion that this is the background of Zak’s version (Assaf, The Regal Way, 408n16).

8  For examples from Hasidic writings of yiḥudim being performed on their own, see Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein of Kraków, Ma⁠ʾor va-shamesh ([Breslau: Hirsch Zaltsbakh, 1842]), va-yetse, s.v. va-yiqaḥ; nitsavim, s.v. ʾomnam.

Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 22 (2014) 127-163 131 “ But I Will Tell of Their Deeds ” can do is to retell the account of days gone by. The tale concludes that this too sufficed.

Zak’s distance in time from the events he depicts, together with the nature of the genre, call the tale’s historicity into question.9 Notwithstanding, the

story expresses a theme in the collective memory of the Hasidic movement:

the initial centrality of the mystical pursuit and its subsequent sidelining. For the Besht, mysticism was central. In a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Abraham Gershon of Kitov (ca. 1710–1761), at the time residing in the Land of Israel, the Besht described a mystical experience he had in 1746.10 The Besht detailed how he ascended to the heavens and met the Messiah. When he asked the Messiah when he would come to redeem the Jewish people, the Messiah responded by saying: “This is how you will know: when your teaching becomes famous and revealed in the world.” Then the Messiah quoted a biblical verse: “When your wellsprings sprout forth” (Prov 5:16), and added a word of explanation: “[That is,] what I have taught you and what you have attained;

and other people will also be able to do yiḥudim and ascents like you. Then all the evil forces will expire and it will be a time of favor and salvation.” Alas, the lofty goal of mystical prowess was not attainable by most. The Besht knew this and therefore felt faint when he heard the words of the Messiah. The Besht’s fears were confirmed as subsequent generations forsook the centrality of the mystical endeavor, seeking mysticism-substitutes to fill the void. The tale told by Israel of Rużyn reflects this very narrative.

In analyzing the story, scholars have emphasized that all three heroes achieved their goal: the Besht by means of theurgic acts, the Maggid by his imitation of the Besht, and Moses Leib of Sassów by his account of the deeds of previous generations. Thus Moshe Idel noted that “if there is a decline, it is in the knowledge of theurgy. . . . The loss of theurgy . . . is compensated by the 9  Glenn Dynner, “The Hasidic Tale as a Historical Source: Historiography and Methodology,” Religion Compass 3 (2009): 655–675.

10  For the current discussion, it is not necessary to consider the different versions of this letter that have reached us. I have used the version printed at the back of the early Hasidic work by Yaakov Yosef HaKohen of Polonnoye, Ben porat Yosef (Koretz: Tsevi Hirsh b. Aryeh Leib and Shmuel b. Yissakhar Ber Segal, 1781), for this is the version that circulated in the Hasidic milieu of the time and therefore is most appropriate when considering Hasidic collective memory. For a discussion of the different versions, see Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Baʿal Shem Tov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996; reprint, with new introduction, Portland, OR: Littman Library, 2013), xlviii–lv, 99–113.

Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 22 (2014) 127-163 132 Cooper discovery of forms of personal mysticism.”11 In the final act of the story the mysticism-substitute is storytelling; thus the tale tells of a decline in the efficacy of mystical acts, but not a decline in the ability of subsequent generations.

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