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In Defense of Chassidism

In Defense of Chassidism

An extract from Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh’s expert testimony at the trial of Mendel Beilis

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Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh, government rabbi of Moscow
Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh, government rabbi of Moscow

Translator’s Introduction

Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh served as the government-appointed rabbi in Moscow. He was a prominent figure in Jewish communal affairs; had a reputation as an eloquent Russian orator; and—unlike many other government-appointed rabbis—he was known to be a competent scholar of Jewish law and tradition.

Falsely accused of the ritual murder of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, Mendel Beilis was internationally recognized as a stand-in for the entire Jewish nation by both his defenders and his detractors. In fact, the prosecution alleged that ritual murder was routinely practised by members of the chassidic movement. They also attempted to link the Schneersohn family of Chabad chassidic leaders to the case.

When Beilis was brought to trial in the autumn of 1913, communal leaders from all sectors of the Jewish community joined forces with leading representatives of the liberal Russian intelligentsia to organize the defense. But in order for Beilis to be vindicated, the broader allegation of Jewish ritual murder would have to be addressed, and the accusations against the chassidic movement and its leaders would need to be rebutted.

This momentous task fell to Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh.

On the 28th day of the trial—November 4, 1913 (new style), Cheshvan 4, 5674—Rabbi Mazeh addressed the court as an expert witness for the defense. In the earlier part of his presentation he dealt extensively with the Jewish attitude to non-Jews, the halachic obligation to obey the law of the land, and the fundamental Talmudic exhortation, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend.” After dealing with the classical sources, Rabbi Mazeh began a detailed description of the establishment and spread of the chassidic movement in Eastern Europe, paying particular attention to Chabad and its leaders.

Following the trial, Rabbi Mazeh’s presentation before the court was serialized in the widely read Hebrew-language daily Ha-Tzefirah. His narrative is generally corroborated by the wealth of firsthand documentation now available to researchers, but there are some details that do not wholly conform with the Chabad historical tradition or with today’s scholarly consensus. The following transcript is noteworthy chiefly for the light it sheds on just how central Chassidism became in the case against Beilis.

A century after Beilis’s acquittal, and a century after this transcript was first published in Ha-Tzefirah, we present the section regarding the chassidic movement for the very first time in English translation. For more about the Beilis case, read The Tsar’s Scapegoats: Beilis, the Chassidim and the Jews.

Rabbi Mazeh’s Presentation to the Kiev Superior Court

The Rise of Chassidism

Rabbi Mazeh: After the spiritual emptiness and despair that took hold of the Jewish people in the wake of the Cossack massacres of the mid-1600s, the chassidic movement was established.

The cause of this was as follows: Torah study was always an obligation for the entire nation; not only the rabbis, but every single Jew, whether possessing more or less Torah knowledge, would toil in Torah study day and night, so that the Torah became the inheritance of all the Jews. Over time, however, a barrier arose between the spiritual aristocracy and the general populace.

The simple Jew who experienced persecution and poverty in his daily life began to feel a certain emptiness in his soul. His brothers looked down on him, and as one who knew but a little Torah, he was unable to find a place or a corner in the life of the spirit, there to find some degree of respite. Life itself was far too bitter, and it was impossible to find comfort for one’s spirit. He, the simple man of the people, was thirsty and hungry for spiritual content. With what would he be able to serve G‑d? He is unable to find deliverance. He seeks for himself a refuge in messianism, and here too his hopes are dashed; one false messiah converts to Islam [Shabbetai Tzvi, 1626–1676], the other to Catholicism [Jacob Frank, 1726–1791].

At this time—at a time of twilight for the masses of the people—was born Rabbi Yisroel, who later became known as “The Baal Shem Tov.”

The Baal Shem Tov built his foundation on Torah study, prayer and good deeds. He began his activities at the age of thirty-six, living amongst the general populace. He began to teach them religious lessons and arouse their hearts to the service of G‑d. He soon found that the simple Jewish masses—who had been alienated from the Torah by the aristocratic elitism of Torah scholars, and by their own destitution—no longer possessed that spirit of Jewishness, the foundation of inspiration which could give comfort to their souls and purpose to their lives. They could not act with kindness and charity, due to their harsh economic situation; they could not study Torah, due to their ignorance. Therefore he resolved to lay down, as a foundation for the Torah, that second foundation of Judaism; the service of G‑d, which is prayer.

What is the prayer of a Jew? According to the Baal Shem Tov, there is prayer and there is prayer. There is dry prayer that has no spirit of life—an artificial prayer—where a person comes and repeats words with his lips without any emotion or intent. He is simply doing his duty by rote. Such prayer cannot imbue a person’s life with sustenance.

At that time, you—honored judges—must know, such movements were established not only amongst Jews, but also amongst other nations. In England, for example, there were groups that introduced ecstatic movement into prayer. I am unaware if this was a general sign of the times, or whether this came as a result of the emotional seeking of G‑d that was felt amongst the masses of the Jewish people. But whatever the case, it was clear that the Baal Shem Tov’s ideas were in accordance with the spirit of the nation. Even though no one chose him or appointed him as leader, he nonetheless became a teacher of the people, especially of the general populace, who became his followers.

The Baal Shem Tov lived and operated in Podolia, and the simple folk—who did not have broad Torah knowledge—flocked to him. The simple folk were his first followers, because he opposed the Torah aristocratism.

It must be noted that the Baal Shem Tov was someone who possessed superior ability by nature. He was an extraordinary individual in his personal life, far removed from corruption or from pursuing honor; a person who lived amongst the people, and was close to them, and all his life lived from the toil of his hands. An orphan from a young age, without a mother or a father, he worked very hard throughout his life. At first he was a wagon driver, then he taught children; later he became a chazan and a shochet. He also practiced medicine; he would collect herbs in the Carpathian Mountains, and prepare from them remedies, and the people would visit him to seek medicinal aid. In those days he was the only one of the [Jewish] nation who had a relationship with the indigenous population of Moldova. He would listen to their songs . . .

(Here the presiding judge interrupted him, and asked that Mazeh speak about the substance of Chassidism.)

For the reasons described, the Baal Shem Tov prioritized prayer with feeling and intent. “The foundations of Chassidism,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “are three: humility, joy, and enthusiasm in the service of G‑d.”

The Bible and the Talmud remained the same, and he didn’t change one iota of religious life and observance. He did add, however, implant two ideas in his teachings. Panentheism; the idea that G‑d’s glory fills the entire world. He found (and in this regard some find similarities to the teachings of Spinoza) that divinity is present in all areas of life, that there is no event or action in human life that does not contain the divine, aiding man. He opened and developed this position with breadth and depth. He would say that the source of religion and faith is in emotion rather than intellect; that prayer is the best possible means to become close to the divine presence; that through prayer one is able to become one and unified with G‑d.

In his talks and his teachings he expresses three basic axioms: 1) A Jew must deeply contemplate the greatness of the Torah and its commandments; likewise, he must deeply contemplate the knowledge of his G‑d, and believe that all that happens to him occurs by His will. 2) Subsequently he must be totally committed to G‑d in every aspect, committed with enthusiasm. 3) Regarding the verse, “In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth,” he explained that at every moment the Creator, in His kindness, is constantly recreating the heavens and the earth anew, and if G‑d were to divert His attention from His creation even for a moment, the world would be destroyed.

The Baal Shem Tov did not come to demolish the Jewish tradition or the customs that existed before him. There are no corrections or changes in his teachings. But his teaching that G‑d is everywhere did incite protest amongst the rabbis and great Torah scholars of the generation. They, who still remembered Frank and his disciples, were wary of the Baal Shem Tov, lest he had come to establish a new cult. Cultism—honorary judges—does not sit well with the people of the Jewish nation.

There are many scholars who think that a cult is like a microbe that penetrates a place that is receptive to them. But just like any living organism either swallows and absorbs the microbe within itself or expels it, so is true of Judaism. Cults are either torn away from Judaism, or they become absorbed within it as if they never existed. Even if the original intention was to form some kind of new cult, such movements yet remained a part of Judaism and ceased to function as distinct entities. Such was indeed the case with Chassidism. Chassidism did not deviate at all from the six hundred and thirteen commandments which govern the religious life of a Jew. But changes were incorporated into the prayer liturgy, as I will explain.

Originally, there was no set prayer liturgy; instead, each Jew would pour out his heart before G‑d as he saw fit. The first who sought to establish a prayer liturgy was Rav Amram [Rav Amram bar Sheshna Gaon, head of the Talmudic seminary of Sura, Babylon, in the 9th century]. The students of Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, famed biblical and Talmudic commentator in 11th-century France] also compiled a prayerbook [Machzor Vitry]. The first was the liturgical custom of the Sephardic Jews, and was accepted by them. The second accorded with the liturgical custom of the Jews of Ashkenaz.

The Jews who came by way of Poland to Russia accepted the Ashkenazic prayer liturgy, and the Jews of the east and elsewhere accepted the Sephardic prayer liturgy. There is no great difference between the two. The only difference is that one version begins with one chapter from Psalms, while the other places a different one earlier. This is the extent of the difference between the prayer liturgies of the Ashkanazim and the Sephardim; nothing more.

Opposition to Chassidism

When the movement opposing Chassidism began, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna issued a proclamation against the new principles of these teachings. He clearly expressed the content of Chassidism. On the basis of these historical documents, I will endeavor to explain to you what the disagreement comprised. He did not accuse them of founding a new cult; he does not mention one word about Chassidim forming a sectarian group. He takes issue only with the fact that they raised the standing of the simple folk more than was fitting. He accuses them of being too democratic, saying that this damages the prestige of the Torah. If the simple folk knew that they are able to serve G‑d solely through prayer, then they will abstain from Torah study. The foundation of faith [he argued] is only Torah study, and not prayer.

He further opposed the notion of cleaving to G‑d, and opposed the recognition of G‑d’s omnipresence. He asked: Is it possible that G‑d is found even in the places where, according to Torah law, one cannot even pronounce G‑d’s name? He could not entertain this notion; such ideas could weaken the diligent study of Torah. It was in this way that opposition to Chassidism took root amongst the populace.

The Baal Shem Tov was not a tzaddik in the sense that that he occupied some kind of priesthood or special position amongst the people. The contrary is true: he remained all his life a dedicated worker, and treated everyone as a friend. Destitute and desperate people would come to him, and he would spend time with them. He would teach them orally, and did not leave a single written work. He would speak in wise aphorisms, and these aphorisms would kindle the spirit of his audience and would give them a unique kind of inspiration.

After his death—he lived only sixty years—his disciple, Rav Dov Ber of Mezeritch [widely referred to as “the Maggid”] succeeded him. He continued the work that was begun in the lifetime of his master. Bit by bit the movement grew, and its numbers reached into the tens of thousands. Originally the movement was essentially organic in its nature. But during the time of Rabbi Ber it became an organized group, and they began to defend themselves against the onslaught of those who opposed them.

After the death of Rabbi Ber of Mezeritch, the active defense of Chassidism was passed on to his disciple Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who later became famous for the name adopted by his family: Schneersohn. It seems certain that this name was given to him because of his personal name.

If the honored judges wish, I could read before you some aphorisms from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, to demonstrate how he set out his doctrines.

Presiding Judge: You have already told us about the content of these doctrines.

Rabbi Mazeh: Could I present some aphorisms?

Presiding Judge: If the defense wishes, later you can mention them.

Rabbi Mazeh: I was only inquiring; I do not demand it categorically.

Chabad

I will now turn to the innovations introduced into chassidic doctrine by Rabbi Zalman Schneersohn. In his religious lectures he turned his attention to certain passages in the Tanach that refer to Torah as wisdom [chochmah]. The Psalmist turns to G‑d, saying, “Consider my meditation [binah]” (Psalms 5:2): meaning, understand what my mind intends to express to You, since a person’s tongue is inadequate to communicate all that he thinks during prayer. Later, in King David’s will to his son Solomon, he uses the word daat, which means to know G‑d and to recognize Him. One should not be simple and naive; instead one should seek to be become acquainted with G‑d and come to know Him.

These three principles—chochmah, binah and daat—are the very foundation of his doctrine, which is specified in his work Tanya. His doctrine is known by the acronym ChaBaD, and his disciples are called “masters of ChaBaD,” for they have mastered the three principles laid out by the author of Tanya.

In addition, Rabbi Zalman also had an advantage over the Baal Shem Tov in his scholarship and knowledge of Torah; as a first-class scholar, he authored a Shulchan Aruch [code of Jewish law]. As I already had the honor to inform you, Shulchan Aruch is a work that collects laws, and the Jewish people have several such books. I must tell you that the Shulchan Aruch authored by Rabbi Zalman is very popular, partly because it was written in a very beautiful style. Rabbi Zalman knew the Hebrew language extremely well, and also knew how to succinctly summarize the lengthy statements made by Maimonides.

If we take note of the time when this Shulchan Aruch was published, it might be argued that it was then that Chassidism ceased to be seen as a separate group. The rabbis [who had previously opposed the movement] were entirely appeased. Earlier, they had been worried lest Chassidism lead to the formation of a distinct sect. But once they realized that the entire difference lies in the order of the prayer liturgy, this distinction no longer caused them unrest.

Moreover, experience proved that the chassidim observed all the laws of the Torah punctiliously, just as non-chassidim did. The marriage ceremony, for example, is conducted the same way by chassidim and non-chassidim alike. The same applies to divorce, for example, which is a difficult procedure, requiring knowledge of all the laws and exceptions discussed in many places in the Talmud. When they became aware that there is no difference between chassidim and non-chassidim, it became clear that Chassidism could never form a separate sect. All that remained was a new page in the history of the Jewish people, and little by little everyone began to study chassidic books. Afterwards there were no longer any altercations or disputes between chassidim and non-chassidim.

What did remain was that—just as it was previously, so too now—the chassidim have their own authorities, their own rebbes. The chassidim preserved the custom that they had in the early days of Chassidism, choosing a special day to travel to their rebbe. This rebbe is not a communal rabbi; he is not elected as a rabbi is elected by community constituents. If the masses are drawn to him by virtue of his vast knowledge of chassidic works, then they recognize him as a rebbe; if the masses are not drawn to him, then he is not recognized as such.

Is this position passed on dynastically? Only as much as any other spiritual position is passed on dynastically amongst the Jews. If, for example, the rebbe has a son who excels in his studies and in his ethical character, if he is G‑d-fearing and has been ordained, then the firstborn inheritance of his father’s spiritual position is his. If he doesn’t have these qualities, then he obviously doesn’t receive that position. Even the title “rebbe” cannot simply be passed on by inheritance. But the son of a tzaddik obviously does have first right relative to other Jews, who did not have a father or grandfather of such stature.

When I turn my attention to the teachings of Rabbi Zalman, when I strive with all my ability to penetrate their depth, I must say that there is nothing in his Shulchan Aruch against Christians. On the contrary, in their regard he declares unequivocally (if you will permit me, I can read it from the source): “Any kind of monetary deception perpetrated against Christians, whether deception in price or in reckoning, in buying and selling, or in business, is a grave prohibition. If in the merchandise being sold there is any defect or deficiency, he is obligated to inform the buyer, and tell him, ‘I am selling you this merchandise, but it has a deficiency.’ If he does not do so, it is as though he has stolen money from him, which is a biblical prohibition.”

Rabbi Schneersohn

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was succeeded by his son. I feel obligated to talk about Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s personality, as it appeared and was projected, and about his service in the role of tzaddik. First of all, I turn your attention to the famous letter that appears in his work Likutei Amarim [another name for Tanya]. In this letter he says: “Different people come to me and ask me about matters of commerce, how to do business, and how to live. Even the prophets couldn’t do this; how much more so is this not within my ability.” I have the original letter, and can read it in its entirety. Either way, this letter says something about his personality, proving that he wasn’t at all the stereotypical tzaddik who would force the Jewish nation to prostrate themselves to his will.

Similarly, this Rabbi Zalman was remarkable for his patriotism towards Russia. In 1812, for example, he played a role in the opposition to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. He established a network of spies, and in the wake of the French pursuit he passed away before his time. He did not cease to exhort the Jewish nation not to listen to the promises of Napoleon regarding equal rights and other benefits—to all this Rabbi Schneersohn responded that we must be loyal to Russia. My lords the judges, it is extremely interesting to hear his remarks in this regard:

Presiding Judge: We do not require this; the expert testimony will start taking the form of an academic lecture.

Rabbi Mazeh: At that time, when opposition to Chassidism started, false allegations were submitted against Rabbi Schneersohn; (to the Presiding Judge) I do not know—is this required?

Presiding Judge: Please tell us: were the allegations sent from Vilna?

Rabbi Mazeh: It is difficult to say so with clarity. Officially the accuser was a certain rabbi, Avigdor ben Chaim, who was removed—if my memory does not make me mistaken—from his rabbinic position. He had a private agenda. They did not explicitly remove him, but stopped paying his salary, and therefore he prosecuted the chassidim. But this is not important. The allegations were received, and Rabbi Zalman was interred in the Peter and Paul fortress; this was in the reign of Tsar Paul I.

Rabbi Zalman penned a letter to Tsar Paul presenting all his teachings. The Tsar was favourably impressed by this letter and issued a special command that he be released. But he added that Rabbi Schneersohn should not be permitted to leave St. Petersburg, and that he should remain under police supervision, until the senate confirmed the judgement.

When Alexander I rose to the throne, he was completely freed. In addition, the chassidim were appeased by the law which allowed them to pray in their own synagogues and according to their own custom, and it was recognized that their doctrine contains nothing forbidden, nor the ideology of a distinct sect. From that time and on, Chassidism existed in peace. The earlier opposition came to a complete end, and Chassidism penetrated into the general stream of Jewish life.

The Enlightenment Movement and Chassidism

However—my lords the judges—there was one more movement amongst the Jews against Chassidism, that is “the Enlightenment Movement,” as it is called. When the Enlightenment began amongst the Jews, the chassidic movement—as a movement that [for reasons explained below] opposed global Enlightenment—did not find favour in the eyes of the Enlightenment, and they leveled various insults against it.

In 1819 the center of Enlightenment was in Galicia, and one of the enlightened writers, Yoseph Perl, authored a pamphlet against Chassidism. This pamphlet was titled Revealer of Secrets [Megalleh Temirim]. As a satirization, this work displays talent, and is similar to the work Letters of Obscure Men that appeared in Germany after the Reformation. Yoseph Perl imitated the language employed by the chassidim and their dialect. He cites a few ideas from their books, and at the same time adds or leaves out one word or another so that the statement acquires comical meaning.

In some historical accounts about Chassidism, these citations are taken verbatim from the satirical work of Perl. It is extraordinary that a scholarly Jew like Tugenhold—as often occurs in polemical conflicts—ignored the fact that one shouldn’t cite a satirical pamphlet. When I first read these historical documents I was astounded; afterwards I sought out these references in their original sources, and I found an extra word or a missing word, and a completely different meaning. Perl transmitted these citations in a flawed and incorrect form. Such that if I speak now regarding the question, “Where are the sources that are mentioned in the document?” I must answer that they do exist, but differently expressed and with a different meaning.

I am very upset by this: Tugenhold skipped over those lofty ideas that are found in chassidic texts, and did not realize that Chassidism has no quarrel with Enlightenment. If the chassidim opposed the Enlightenment, this was because they feared that the Enlightenment would shake the foundations of faith. This fear was partially vindicated. From that time and on, letters of allegation began to be recieved from the Enlightened camp. I am even more astounded that a learned and talented writer like Eliyahu Orshanski, if my memory doesn’t mistake me, also talks of the chassidim in one of his articles about the Jewish question in a sharp tone, and makes no mention of the splendid ideas that are found in their books.

The son of this Rabbi Schneersohn was Rabbi Ber [or DovBer, also known as the Mittler Rebbe], who also authored a work of interest titled Imrei Binah, and his grandson was Rabbi Mendel of Lubavitch [also known as the Tzemach Tzedek].

In the time of Rabbi Mendel of Lubavitch the law regarding the establishment of third-class schools, and rabbinical schools to train “enlightened” rabbis, was publicized. It was widely accepted—whether correctly or incorrectly—that Rabbi Mendel of Lubavitch was obstructing these measures, which the government of the time was undertaking in an attempt to enlighten the Jewish people. It was widely thought that Rabbi Mendel of Lubavitch was obstructing the governmental directives because he did not favorably regard the desire to educate rabbis in the spirit of the Enlightenment and the like. It is almost certainly true that these opinions were the foundation for that [anti-chassidic] material which has been publicized here.

On the other hand, I have other historical sources about the rabbinical committee that convened at the command of the Tsar in 1843. At that time only four rabbis were on the committee, and one of them was Rabbi Mendel of Lubavitch. I know that when a person is chosen as a member of such a committee, specific information regarding his uprightness and ethical character is gathered. The fact that Rabbi Mendel of Lubavitch was a member of such an exclusive committee makes me think that a proper process of inquiry proved that he did not possess any of the [negative] opinions that were earlier attributed to him. There is yet another strong proof of this. It is a fact that in the 1840s he was honored by the Tsar with the title of “hereditary nobleman,” and all the Schneersohns, his grandchildren, are hereditary noblemen.

This point concludes my knowledge regarding the theory of Chassidism. Of course, I could add various details, but the broad strokes are already in place. That which is known regarding the development of Chassidism afterwards is not particularly interesting, because the question of Chassidism had lost its sharpness. The current rebbe in Lubavitch, the grandson of Rabbi Schneersohn, Rabbi Ber [Shalom DovBer, known as the Rebbe Rashab], is known to me. Three years ago . . .

Presiding Judge (interrupting): This is already personal testimony.

Rabbi Mazeh: Now, my lords the judges, the name of Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin was mentioned. A letter of allegation was received against him, but he was acquitted. No books regarding this have remained, and therefore I am unable to offer an opinion about the thought of this Rabbi Yisrael. But I will say that he was accorded great honor by his admirers; this I know with certainty.

Religious Fanaticism

Finally, the last question: “Are there pointers that prove—and what are they—that the murder of Yushchinsky was carried out inspired by religious fanaticism, which derives from the teachings of the Jewish faith, or from its various interpretations—and if the latter is true, which of them?” In my scientific clarification of the term fanaticism, I believe that fanaticism is the extreme intolerance of people who think otherwise, and the desire to be martyred for the sake of ideology. Speaking of the Yushchinsky murder, despite all the interest I have devoted to this case and the fate of the child victim, I am not able to pass judgment on whether this was an act of fanaticism. But when I pay attention to the the accusation that has been leveled against the defendant, [I ask you,] does the accused Beilis show any signs of fanaticism?

Presiding Judge: On this occasion you are speaking from a scientific point of view.

Rabbi Mazeh: I have already had the honor to state that such fanaticism has no place in Judaism. Judaism asserts at every opportunity that human blood is impure, and the blood of a corpse especially is impure. Judaism consistently asserts that someone who touches a dead body is not able to participate in eating the Passover offering. The prohibition to use blood in food encompasses everything and all places. There is a law in the Talmud that a forbidden substance can become permitted if it has become diluted by [a permitted substance] sixty [times its volume]. Blood, however, can never become permitted.

Thus, if there was a fanatic Jew, it would be more likely that his fanaticism would lead him to distance himself as far as possible from any connection with blood. In fact, there were such fanatics who did not eat any meat at all in an effort to avoid blood. Such fanaticism is possible. But the opposite kind of fanaticism, to drink blood, lacks any foundation. Therefore, I state with absolute strength that I saw no support to this [accusation] in the process of this court case; and all the more so, I never saw any hint of this from the Torah and Judaism itself.

I have concluded.

Karabchevsky [lawyer for the defense]: The question regarding Chassidism interests us. In what way, upon the foundation of Chassidism, could one put forward the notion that things that are not forbidden by the Talmud are forbidden by the Tanach?

Rabbi Mazeh: There is no way such a notion could develop. From its very foundation Chassidism expressed its content in these words of the Baal Shem Tov, “I came only to awaken the spirit in the foundational service of G‑d.”

Karabchevsky: Please tell us: the foundational inclination of Chassidism was to uplift the masses and develop them religiously and morally. Did this inclination include hatred of others, or the expansion of ethical principles?

Rabbi Mazeh: Only the latter. I wanted to speak about this. If there was ever a phenomenon that religious Jews could have straightforward relationships with Christians, I saw it first amongst the chassidim.

Karabchevsky: It has been found that most of the synagogues in Kiev are chassidic. Are the synagogues divided to this very day, and how can the phenomenon be explained, that in such a large city as Kiev most of the synagogues are chassidic?

Rabbi Mazeh: I already had the honor to state that Podolia [which included parts of Ukraine] was the cradle of Chassidism. In subsequent generations, I allow myself to use the Talmudic expression, “the custom of their forefathers is in their hands.” The customs are passed on by inheritance from father to son. If I pray from childhood with one prayerbook, it is difficult for me to pray with a different prayerbook.

But I must state before the court that at the present time no one pays attention to this. I live in a community where there is not even one chassidic synagogue, and they come and pray in the non-chassidic synagogues. I should state that amongst the Jews anyone can stand before the ark and lead the prayers; if a quorum of people gathers to pray, no one even asks if the prayer leader prays according to the liturgy of the chassidim or of the non-chassidim. Today they print prayerbooks that contain both liturgies together. The reading of the Torah and the Prophets is the same amongst the non-chassidim and the chassidim, and the order of the reading is the same too.

The tzaddikim do not serve in the position of rabbis. The tzaddikim don’t decide legal questions relating to practical life, and if the tzaddik himself has a question, for example regarding the kosher laws, he sends someone to ask the opinion of the rabbi. If you ask in Lubavitch, or in a different town (I was never there), they will tell you that the tzaddik himself sends to ask the rabbi’s opinion, because his role is only to instruct the chassidim in chassidic matters.

Karabchevsky: Do the tzaddikim fill any religious rituals?

Rabbi Mazeh: They serve only as teachers and inspiration for Chassidism.

Presiding Judge: Do either of the sides have more questions?

The Prosecutor [Vipper]: I have no questions.

Shmakov [prosecuting attorney]: Me neither.

Presiding Judge: I call a recess.

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Discussion (7)
November 12, 2013
It's pretty impressive that even in 1913 they were using expert witness testimonies in cases. Guess we haven't evolved as much as we thought. Thanks for a very interesting read.
Rhett
November 7, 2013
Remarkable testimony by a brilliant man
If one wants to find exception to his oration, then on what grounds? Was this a deficient defense of Beilis? Was this a deficient defense of Chassidism? Was this a deficient defence of Judaism? No, on every count. It was not even a deficient account of Misnagedism, or "Enlightenment". If one wants to find exception, then only the perpetually biased would want to bring it up.
Anonymous
November 6, 2013
Thank you
R. Mazeh spoke long and beautifully about Judaism, showing how wrong the prosecution "expert" witness was in everything he said. R. Mazeh had not only mastered Jewish classics, he cited Stoic philosophy and referred to numerous later works from the 1500s on, including Balaban's work on the Frankists then in the process of being written. (It's on HebrewBooks.org). He also had to stand up to the judge's hypocritical claims that the trial wasn't an accusation of all Judaism and causeless interruptions designed to disguise that Mazeh, without notes, far and away bettered the performance of the prosecution "expert" without having to be asked leading questions. What a performance!
Pat
November 6, 2013
Hey Herz, it's a court testimony. Not unlike the disputation of the Ramban in the 13th century. You sound like somebody with an ax to grind.
Anonymous
Usa
November 6, 2013
But...
Jack Herz may be accurate in his assessment. I cannot judge. But he should consider the circumstances of the piece: its testimony for the defense in a Tsarist blood libel trial, aimed at unsympathetic outsiders, and designed to sway hearts and minds.
Slooch
November 6, 2013
I am moved to the heart by the depth and modesty of this testimony. I am a secular Jew who wishes only that he could be included among the company of the spiritual.
Slooch
November 5, 2013
A comment on the
I read the article with great interest. However, it is not an objective, historically significant document. It is a partisan propaganda piece. True or not, it is questionable and thus tainted, and would never qualify religiously as Torah She B'al Peh. The commentary alone disqualifies the work. My view is "Too Bad". I would have loved to see this as an unassailalbe document.
Jack Herz
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