Who can predict where distraction can lead you?
Yesterday it took me to Kupishock, Lithuania, and the emigration in 1894 of my parents and grandparents; from there I strayed ever backward to 18th and 19th century eastern Europe and into the middle of the conflict between the Misnagdim and the Hasidim. Who? I’ll tell you. But, first, I need to tell you what I was supposed to be working on: a presentation on the meeting of differing cultures. “Meeting” in this case being a euphemism for: clash, conflict, dominance, subjugation, destruction, annihilation.
And so it was with the Misnagdim and Hasidim. There is this old joke about the rescue of a Jew who had been surviving for decades alone on a remote deserted island. Upon discovery, he was eager to show his liberators all that he had accomplished over the years: his lush garden with flowers and fresh vegetables, his sturdy cabin, and then, of course, the synagogue where he prayed. His liberators, impressed, noticed another structure, a little way off. “And what is that?” they asked. “Oh that,” he said dismissedly, “I built that too. It’s the synagogue I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”
In the 18th century, the Hasidim were a rising sect in Judaism led by the charismatic Baal Shem Tov. The Hasidim were sort of the hippies of their time (I’m not sure they’d appreciate the comparison): Loosen up, don’t get stuck on ritual, put down your books, come sing and dance, be joyous, make your personal connection, get high with God.
The Hasidim were a threat to the traditionalist Misnagdim; the rituals, the rote reading of the Torah, these were at the heart of Judaism. And then there was the political threat. Judaism had been rocked by two debacles: the emergence and humiliating fall of two self-proclaimed Messiahs. Were the Hasidim one more sect who would bring more pogroms? The Misnagdim set about oppressing the Hasidim, burning their books (Jews burning Jews’ books!), prohibiting marriage and commerce, even writing to the Czar explaining that the Hasidim were spies who needed to be controlled, jailed, or destroyed.
What eventually cooled down this conflict was the arrival of the Maskilim, who represented a major threat to both. The Maskillim were the adapters, the secularizers, the Jewish enlightenment, the preference for German and Hebrew over Yiddish, for dressing like the Others, reading their books, writing their own works of substance, striving to become a part of and make their way in and contribution to the larger society.
Hutu/Tutsi, Christian/Muslim, Catholic/Protestant, MIsnagdim/Hasidim, Sunni/Shia, on and on. And it all started with a single cell.
Differentiation is beautiful to behold; differentiation without homogenization, not so beautiful.
So now it’s time to return to my presentation on the meeting of differing cultures. What small dent can I put into this stubbornly enduring edifice?