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The Democratic Genius of Pshyskhe’s Hasidic Masters

The democratic essence of modern Judaism was forged by the Hasidic rabbis of early 19th-century Pshyskhe

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
October 23, 2018
Todros Geller / The L. M. Shteyn Farlag
'From Land to Land—Korohod (a Hasidic dance)'Todros Geller / The L. M. Shteyn Farlag
Todros Geller / The L. M. Shteyn Farlag
'From Land to Land—Korohod (a Hasidic dance)'Todros Geller / The L. M. Shteyn Farlag

One day, sometime in the first quarter of the 19th century in the town of Stryków in central Poland, the Hasidic court of the revered Rabbi Ephraim Fiszele Szapiro (or Szpiro), known as Reb Fiszele Strykower, was thrown into turmoil. Without warning, Reb Fiszele had withdrawn into his room and would not see or receive anyone. His Hasidim were dismayed. No longer could they go to their tzadik, the righteous one, for guidance or consolation.

The news reached Reb Bunim of Pshyskhe, the Yiddish name of the town of Prszysucha, some 100 kilometers southwest of Warsaw. A former disciple of Reb Fiszele, Reb Bunim had become one of the most prominent Hasidic masters in Poland. Reb Bunim rushed to Stryków and insisted on seeing Reb Fiszele, who allowed him into his room.

Reb Fiszele explained the source of his crisis. A Jew burdened with a large family but with no way to support them had come to him for help. Reb Fiszele advised him to play the lottery and promised that he would win. The man tried to do so, and came close to winning but, because he could not afford to redeem the ticket at the final stage, the large reward was taken by another man. And so, Reb Fiszele explained to Reb Bunim, if God did not implement what he as a tzadik had decreed, there was nothing more he could do.

Reb Bunim responded by explaining to Reb Fiszele that a tzadik must not dictate to the Master of the Universe how he is to help a person,“because what right do you have to say what is to be done?” A tzadik, he continued, can express his wish, but only God will decide whether to implement it and, if so, how. Reb Fiszele immediately opened his doors again, and his Hasidim were once again able to come to him and be comforted by him.

I love this particular story for several reasons. First, because it illustrates the central place that Hasidic masters held in early 19th Century Eastern European Jewish life. Second, it embodies the core of the philosophy, the teachings, of Reb Simhah Bunim, a major but under-appreciated figure of Hasidism. And third, because Reb Fiszele of Stryków was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

There are two very distinct types of religious leaders: those who believe themselves to be chosen by God and thus endowed with the certainty of absolute wisdom, and those who, like Reb Bunim of Pshyskhe, are imbued with a divine spark that emanates greatness yet does not delude them into a feeling of infallibility. Leaders of this type know that their task is to help others find their own truths within themselves. At a time when blind obedience to dogma increasingly clashes with independent thought across the religious spectrum of different faiths, the philosophy and teachings of three Hasidic masters during the first half of the 19th century have relevance far beyond the confines of Jewish theology.


“The purpose of knowledge is to know that we don’t know,” said the Hasidic master Ya’akov Itzhak Rabinowitz, called the Yehudi, the Jew, or, more reverently, the “Yid HaKodesh,” the “Holy Jew.” He was one of three friends whose combined spiritual legacy the archetype of the ‘Rebbe’—a Yiddish term encompassing the roles of teacher, mentor and guide—who partners with rather than dominates his followers in the service of both God and Jewish people. The other two were Simhah Bunim Bonhardt, referred to most often simply as Reb Bunim, and Menachem Mendl Halperin, who would change his family name to Morgenstern and who is more widely known as the Kotzker Rebbe.

During the early part of the 19th century in Pshyskhe, these three men caused an intellectual and spiritual revolution that fundamentally changed not only the Hasidic world, but the essence of modern Jewish thought. In the process, they also developed a model for a radically different kind of religious leadership. One cannot truly understand the populist, democratic mindset of Polish-rooted labor Zionism or Jewish socialism without first appreciating their roots or how they were influenced by Pshyskhe. The philosophies of both Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel are linked explicitly and implicitly to the teachings of the Yehudi, Reb Bunim, and the Kotzker Rebbe.

The Yehudi was born in 1765 or 1766 in Przedborz, near the city of Kielce in central Poland, the son of a respected non-Hasidic rabbi. A brilliant Talmudist, he was an itinerant teacher before he became a disciple of the Seer of Lublin. Why was he called Yehudi or the “Yid HaKodesh,”? Perhaps because he was at heart a populist who carried himself as, just another Jew.

Reb Bunim was born in Wodzisław in southern Poland, also in 1765 or 1766, the son of a German-born maggid, or preacher. He grew up speaking German, exposed to medieval Jewish philosophy, a subject of particular interest to his father. After studying at two Hungarian yeshivas, Reb Bunim married and went into business, first as a bookkeeper, then in the timber trade, and ultimately as a licensed pharmacist. It was not until 1812, shortly before he succeeded the Yehudi as Rebbe, that he devoted himself full-time to his religious and communal pursuits. He was unlike any other Hasidic master, before or since, in that he spoke numerous languages, including German and Polish, dressed in so-called western clothes, had been to trade fairs at Leipzig and Danzig, and enjoyed playing cards and chess with assimilated Jews.

The Kotzker Rebbe, the youngest and best known of the three, was born in 1787 in Biłgoraj in south-eastern Poland, near the city of Lublin, the son of a glazier. Tempestuous, brilliant, sharp-tongued and pessimistic, he is the central figure of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic A Passion for Truth. After he succeeded Reb Bunim as Rebbe, he left Pshyskhe and eventually settled in Kotzk, about 45 kilometers north of Lublin, where he spent the last 20 years of his life in virtual isolation.

The full significance of these three iconoclastic figures can only be understood in the historical and spiritual context that gave rise to Hasidism.

Oppressed, poor, mostly uneducated, the lives of the Jewish masses of much of eastern and central Europe during the second half of the 18th century seemed unbearably bleak, and their religious leaders provided little spiritual comfort. The elite studied Talmud and classical rabbinics in an atmosphere that stifled both exuberance and innovation. The masses knew, for their rabbis made it clear to them, that they would not, could not possibly become religiously or spiritually elevated – they were too ignorant, too unlearned, too superstitious, too primitive, with no hope of ever changing their preordained status.

And then along came Israel, the son of Eliezer and Sarah, the founder of Hasidism who became known as the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name. Born around 1700 somewhere in Podolia, toward the end of a 27-year occupation of the region by the Ottoman Empire, he transformed Jewish self-identification from a stern hierarchical meritocracy in which only a select few could come close to God through their intellectual abilities into a populist peoplehood in which every Jew could aspire to a personal interaction with the Divine.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that every Jew was a part, a limb, of the Shekhina, the Divine Presence in Exile. The Baal Shem Tov reassured the poor, downtrodden Jew that he, too, was special, with a Divine essence. My late teacher and mentor, Elie Wiesel, explained that the Baal Shem Tov’s call, “was a call to subjectivity, to passionate involvement; the tales he told and those told about him appeal to the imagination rather than to reason. They try to prove that man is more than he appears to be and that he is capable of giving more than he appears to possess.” Martin Buber wrote that, “One cannot understand the tremendous influence exerted by Hasidism on the mass of the people, unless one observes the ‘democratic’ strain in it, its peculiar tendency to set, in place of the existing ‘aristocracy’ of the spiritual domain, the equal right of all to approach the absolute Being. Inequality may prevail in all things pertaining to the outer life: into the inmost realm, into the relationship to God, it may not penetrate.”

For the Baal Shem Tov, all of creation was an integral part of God’s universe. His studies of kabalistic masters led him to search for divine sparks everywhere, in sacred writings and the world around him. Instead of fasting and asceticism, he sought to bring joy into the worship of God. And the task of the leaders, the so-called tzadikim, the “Righteous Ones,” was to imbue their followers with an individual connection with God, a sense that God, working through the tzadik, the Rebbe, noticed them, cared for their plight, believed that their personal worries were not irrelevant. In short order, the new Hasidic movement permeated much of Jewish Eastern Europe. Within 50 years of the Baal Shem Tov’s death in 1760, his disciples and theirs created Hasidic centers, Hasidic courts, in cities and towns from Ukraine, Lithuania and White Russia through Poland and Galicia.

Many of these Hasidic masters soon became elitist in their own ways. Centered on the tzadik, the Hasidic courts created cults of personality in which allegiance to the Rebbe was paramount and intellectualism was increasingly deemphasized. At the same time, the Rebbes often came to believe their own propaganda. Steeped in kabalistic mysticism, they developed what historian Glenn Dynner has called “a miracle-centered approach to Hasidism, stressing the tzadik’s obligation to magically provide for his follower’s material needs.” This resulted in superstitious Hasidim who looked upon their Rebbes as quasi-iconic figures, capable of interceding with Heaven on their behalf and thus the path through which they, the masses, could achieve redemption. In Poland, at the beginning of the 19th century, by far the most influential tzadik was Ya’akov Itzhak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin.

The Yehudi, Reb Bunim and the Kotzker Rebbe were among the Seer’s most brilliant disciples, but sometime in the first decade of the 19th century, they rebelled against the intellectual mediocrity that prevailed in their master’s court. They rejected kabalistic belief in miracles at the expense of Torah and Talmudic studies. They also rejected anything and everything that they considered inauthentic, including reciting prayers by rote, according to a set time table. Not for them the anti-intellectual personality cult in which blind allegiance to the Rebbe was essential to the faith. And so they left Lublin for Pshyskhe to create a religious, spiritual and intellectual environment according to their principles.

The essence of Pshyskhe was an absolute, uncompromising commitment to truth, to absolute authenticity and integrity in every sense of these terms. In Pshyskhe and later in Kotzk, one was not allowed to lie, especially to oneself. One of the Kotzker Rebbe’s most famous sayings is that: “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.”

“The seal of God is truth,” said the Yehudi, “and it is a seal that cannot be forged, for if one were to forge it, it could not be true.” Reb Bunim remarked that the only sinners he could not reform were liars, and among the liars he included those who lied to themselves. “‘Thou shalt not steal,’” he said, “always meant that you should not steal from yourself, just as you must not steal from anyone else.”

In Pshyskhe as in Kotzk, all study, all prayer, all worship of God, had to be both authentic and pure. “An idol is an image which is not real,” said Reb Bunim, “and if one’s service of God is done without the desired intention, it is a great abomination in the eyes of God, like the image used by an idol worshipper.” For Reb Bunim, praying by rote was utterly inadequate. “If keeping the Sabbath is simply a remembrance,” he observed, “namely that he remembers what he saw by his father; then even though he is called a Sabbath observer, he is not doing the will of God, for he is not thinking about that at all.” Thus, he stressed that “A person should not behave with deceit, saying that he is learning sincerely and in truth, whereas in reality this is not so, but it is only an image. Rather, a person should do everything for the sake of Heaven, without ulterior motive.” “What is the difference between the Hasidim of Kotzk and other Hasidim?” asked the Kotzker Rebbe. “The latter perform the commandments openly but commit transgressions in secret, while the Hasidim of Kotzk commit transgressions openly and perform the commandments secretly.”

Moreover, it was clear that in Pshyskhe one had to find one’s own truth, one’s own spiritual identity, within oneself. Whenever young Jews would come to Reb Bunim, wanting to be his Hasidim, he would tell them the story of one Yitzhak ben Moshe, known as Reb Ayzik Reb Yekeles who had lived in Krakow in the early 17th century. Night after night, Reb Ayzik had a dream, always the same dream, in which he traveled to Prague where he would find a treasure buried underneath a certain bridge. Finally, he went to Prague, to the bridge he had seen in his dreams, but found it guarded by soldiers. Afraid to search for the treasure, Reb Ayzik left and came back the next day, and the next, and the next, hoping in vain for an opportunity to dig unobserved. The captain of the guard stationed at the bridge noticed the stranger who came back day after day, and asked him what he was doing there. When Reb Ayzik told him the story, the officer laughed and said, “Who believes in dreams? I dreamt that I should journey to Krakow and there find someone named Reb Ayzik Reb Yekeles, and that if I dig there, in the home of that Jew, I will find a treasure under the stove.”

“When Reb Ayzik heard the captain’s words,” Reb Bunim continued, “he understood that the purpose of his coming was to hear these words and to know that the treasure wasn’t here, but in his home, and that he had to dig and search for the treasure in his own house, and there he would find it. He returned home, searched, found the treasure in his house under the stove, and became rich.”

Reb Bunim told this story as a warning that Truth, with a capital “T”, was not to be found in a tzadik, a Rebbe, but in one’s own house, within oneself. That was the essence of the Pshyskhe ideology.

Pshyskhe also redefined the role of the Rebbe, the tzadik. The late Rabbi Michael Rosen wrote in his masterful book, The Quest for Authenticity, The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim, that, “It was impossible for someone who had absorbed the world of Przysucha to have a one-dimensional relationship with a tzadik. That which for the rest of Polish Hasidism was a sign of faith – namely, total reliance on the tzadik – was anathema to the world of Przysucha.”

The Yehudi used to say that “A pupil is obligated to help himself as much as possible… but if he does nothing but simply relies on the tzadik, then, unfortunately, the tzadik cannot help him.”

“Everybody needs a teacher to teach him both Torah and service, to learn the path in which light dwells,” said Reb Bunim, “and a man should [follow that path] all the days of his life. But someone who has the quality of learning from everyone, even from simple people speaking about mundane matters, and who finds in them some wisdom that alludes to how to serve God – such a person does not need a master at all.”

In Pshyskhe all were deemed to be equal. Reb Bunim saw himself as a fellow Jew, not as some kind of aristocrat. “A person” he said, “should have two pieces of paper, one in each pocket, to be used as necessary. On one of them [is written] ‘The world was created for me,’ and on the other, ‘I am dust and ashes.’” According to Reb Bunim, “no Jew, however learned and pious, may consider himself an iota better than a fellow Jew, however ignorant or irreligious the latter may be.

On another occasion, Reb Bunim said that, “If he achieves a certain level, every Jew can work wonders. And it is not necessary to first go to the Rebbe and behold his miracles and wonders. It is much more important for the Rebbe to be one of the congregation, to mingle with them, and to take part in the political and social life of the Jewish community.”

What, then, was the role of the Rebbe in Pshyskhe? He was the guide, the teacher, the moral compass. But in sharp contrast to the other tzadikim of their time, the Yehudi, Reb Bunim and the Kotzker Rebbe did not see themselves or wish to be seen, as infallible miracle workers. This is the context of the Yehudi’s above-quoted observation that, “The purpose of knowledge is to know that we don’t know.”

Pshyskhe was a star that blazed briefly, then found its reflection in Kotzk, and ultimately entered legend and memory. Its moral teachings, its commitment to Truth, have pervaded modern Jewish thought, often intuitively, without attribution. The Tzadikim of Pshyskhe and Kotzk may have understood, even in their own time, that their legacy was uncertain, uncharted. “We are going farther and farther away from the light at Sinai,” said the Kotzker Rebbe, “yet we do not come any closer to the light of the Messiah!” And almost as if he had a window into our own age, Reb Bunim prophesied: “Before the Messiah will come, there will be Rabbis without Torah, Hasidim without Hasidism, rich men without riches, summers without heat, winters without cold, and grain stalks without grain.”

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, and lecturer in law at Columbia Law School. He is a past president of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities and is general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.