“Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America” by Samuel C. Heilman— Leadership and Succession

Heilman, Samuel C. “Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America”, University of California Press, 2017.

Leadership and Succession

Amos Lassen

Hasidism has had an extraordinary revival since it was nearly decimated in the Holocaust and repressed in the Soviet Union. Now Hasidic communities have settled primarily in North America and Israel and have refilled the losses they and are actually growing. Hasidism involves “attachments to the past, mysticism, community, tradition, and charismatic leadership” and it seems to be the opposite of contemporary Western culture so we can only wonder how it has thrived. The answer to this can be found here in the stories of five contemporary Hasidic dynasties and how they handle leadership and succession.

The “rebbe” is the central figure of the Hasidic world and we see here three variations of this in five different groups. We have two dynasties with too few successors, two with too many and one who believes that their last and now deceased rebbe is still leading them. The fact that Hasidism has been resurrected is fascinating in itself and this is, no doubt, due to its leadership. Writer Heilman gives us a study of the

 social, economic, and political dynamics of Hasidim today that are so important in understanding the movement. As we read, we become part of the struggles over succession that the dynasties face.

Through five case studies that explore the process of leadership transition in Hasidic courts, we come to better understand the Hasidic movement.

Quite basically this is a sociological study on Hasidim, a society that follows a few leaders who are descended from royal families. We have interviews with leaders, an analysis of Hasidic history and learn of the current status of Hasidism in the world today.

Historically Hasidism should have ended with the Holocaust but it is now bigger than it ever was. We read here that instead of being a detriment, the Holocaust actually fueled Hasidism’s growth.  We see that Hasidim is constantly gaining ferocity and strength and we read of the personal struggles of the leaders, the Rebbes and that these are felt by the followers. The Rebbes’ intensity is felt by the collective.

While Hasidim is a society apart, it is part of the broader society surrounding it yet individuals are estranged and hidden from their closest neighbors who are not followers. There are basic fundamental sociological concepts such as collective effervescence and charisma and conflict. Hasidim affect and influence the world by living in New York City, and in other important places. They can change the way of living. Hasidim vote in huge united blocks and this can choke the individualistic interest from the general electorates. They have tremendous influence on social policy and can defy reason when science, health and education clash with their own rituals, beliefs and traditions.

Hasidim, primarily the men, are seen openly in broader society wearing their unusual clothing, beards and “payos”, black hats; black coats. We see them everywhere (even in Arkansas). – even in the scorching heat; white shirts, etc. – They seem to be everywhere. The women who are less a presence in this patriarchal society.

The book is built by the many Rebbes themselves, and by some of their followers. Two very well respected leaders who were interviewed have recently already died and others are sick and old yet there are still many will be with us for years to come and we hear from many of them.

Heilman chose to look at five dynasties because he felt, as he makes the case very succinctly, that they best explain Hasidim.

“The dynasty of Minkatch was an especially conservative sect, that crowned a third son for its leader, instead of his father, because the later embraced too much modernity”.

“The dynasty of Boyan left behind the American way of life that the whole leader’s family chose to live, and instead picked a young teen, sent him off to Israel where he was dogmatizied with right wing Judaism to be their leader.

“The dynasty of Bobov was initially rebuilt in America on charisma, song, holocaust nostalgia. It subsequently split off into royal family feuding”.

“The Satmar dynasty best exemplifies Hasidim. They are the most fervently fanatically attached to their traditional faith, yet materially very successful. They are the largest and most diverse group, having multiple leaders, splintered with sectarian strife, fighting to better preserve their purest version of Jewishness, not giving an inch to modernity”.

“The last dynasty, Chabad-Lubavitch, are the polar opposite of all Hasidim, completely leaderless and engaging modernity in order to missionize the world with their Messianic fervor to stay relevant as Hasidism without any leader whatsoever”.

The same narratives are repeated over and over but the author uses only those which best illustrate the Hasidic full picture. What this means is that in order to get the whole picture, it is necessary to read about all five dynasties. Heilman has drawn on many sources which he presents to us for the first time. He writes like a novelist thus making this a book that is hard to put down. We are taken back to the “political intrigue and the hidden machinations that enabled a handful of individuals to assume incredible power over their communities of followers”, It is this power that makes a Hasidic rebbe the most important figure in the world for his followers, “a leader who is their intermediary with God – a kind of pope, in a way, who is indeed just a couple of rungs below divine”.

For Hasidim, who see their rebbes as so close to God that they are almost infallible, this book reveals their leaders to be human, fallible, sometimes driven by ego, sometimes not all that holy.

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