Dor ve-dorshav (A Generation and Its Seekers)

Samuel Joseph Fuenn


Now when I was a young lad, sitting amidst the dust of the feet of those bound up with the houses of study, I would never hear them speaking anything sensible about the Hasidim, explaining and portraying the fundamental basis of the Hasidic system of thought, the reasons for it and its motivations, but only idle talk consisting of complaints about a few of their novel practices, which were not in accordance with the halakhah, and most of all, in relation to their practices, were their alterations in the fixed times for prayer and their recitation of the Shema outside its correct time. And insofar as this was concerned, although I was already diligent in my studies and in gaining an understanding of the works of those exploring the beliefs and opinions held among the Jewish people, it had never occurred to me to pay any special attention to Hasidism and to investigate its ways: however, the wife whom the Almighty had designated for me hailed from the daughters of the Hasidim, and she had two brothers belonging to the most Orthodox of the Hasidim of Chabad.

[ . . . ] There was also aroused within me a yearning to become acquainted with the researches into the pathways of the Hasidic system of thought—and in particular, when my brothers-in-law, my kinsmen, brought me the welcome news that the rebbe of Lubavitch was preparing to come in his honored person, to Vilna, to pay a visit to his community, to enlighten its eyes with the light of his Torah, and to revive its spirit with a spirit of knowledge and discernment. They even assured me faithfully that they would do everything within their power to bring me into his innermost sanctum of glory, and to arrange for me to be placed before him to enable me to speak with him face to face, and to present before His Honor my doubts, something which not even all the Hasidim succeeded in achieving. Those good tidings reached the assembly of Hasidim within our community at the end of Sivan or the beginning of Tammuz (5595), and from that time on, not even a few days elapsed without letters reaching them bringing good news, informing them on a daily basis of the stopping-places of the rebbe, while on his journey, for the purpose of visiting his well-wishers in every locale where they formed an association, and relating marvels, culled from his Torah teachings which he had expounded at his gatherings. And the joy of the anticipation of greeting the presence of their rebbe increased day by day, as he approached ever closer to Vilna. [ . . . ]

I too joined in their mirth, even though the Hasidic system of thought was still alien to me and I did not desire to sit in its shade. I was also genuinely furious with those who ridiculed them with contempt, without knowledge or sensitivity. After six or seven weeks (in the month of Av), the rebbe came to take up his abode, in all his glory, in our city. The men initiated into his mystic lore paid him great honor amongst us, the likes of which our brethren, the learners, and indeed the entire nation, never paid to any rabbi and illustrious genius, the wonder of the generation! The small community of the Hasidim found the wherewithal to turn over a special courtyard for hosting him, within which there were houses and rooms designated for his honor, and for his men who stood before him in the capacity of his aides and his servants; and there were large, spacious houses for the assembly of the Hasidim and of all those who desired to hear the expositions of his Torah teachings. The honor which the Hasidim pay to their rebbe is not just that of some extra adornment, but that of true glory and greatness, glory that involves them in a great deal of expense. [ . . . ] Accordingly my own desire also increased to see the face of the master whom they were seeking, and whose Torah teachings they were awaiting in anticipation.

On the second or third day after the honorable rabbi had come to Vilna, at the time of the afternoon service, I pressed through the crowd and entered the synagogue building to listen to Torah, and the house was filled, from one end to the other, with people standing closely pressed together, Hasidim who were Torah scholars learning Talmud among the people. The rabbi descended from his attic and came into the house, and swiftly passed through the assembly without turning to either side, until he reached the table and the chair which they had prepared for him. After a few moments, he sat as though deeply engrossed in thought, and after that he commenced his discourse. He spoke for about an hour; his head was on an incline, his eyes closed, his face awe-inspiring; he did not raise a hand, nor project a finger, nor did he modulate his voice, either by raising it or lowering it. Nor did he cease for a moment—it was as though a certain holy spirit was speaking from inside his throat. The content of this discourse, and his manner of speech, which were new to me, emboldened me to make my ears like a funnel, to hear and pay attention, and to focus my mind on acquainting myself with them. The rebbe concluded his discourse, and instantly returned to the chamber where he taught. He turned away, passed on, and was there no longer. The Hasidim stood up, astounded and trembling on account of the words of the Torah of their rebbe, as they were most elevating and uplifting. The discourses delivered by the Hasidic rebbes are not discourses of chastisement and reproof, for the purpose of bringing people back from sin and of stirring them to repentance, nor are they discourses of analytical dialectics, the themes of which are halakhah and logical reasoning, but rather, expositions of biblical verses and of statements of our Sages of blessed memory, based upon principles of the wisdom of the mystic lore, interpreted in accordance with the Hasidic system of thought, or, more correctly, they are explanations of basic principles of the wisdom of the mystic lore and of Hasidism, by way of allusions to and support from the biblical verses and statements of our Sages of blessed memory, which, for the sake of endowing them with additional worth, the Hasidim call Torah or Hasidism. Discourses of this type require Talmudic learning and mental acuteness, and to this end, men known as “reviewers” lodge as guests of the group of the rebbe, and they are men of perspicacity, who grasp and imbibe the words of Torah or of Hasidism emanating from the mouth of the rabbi, and then return and repeat them to their Hasidim just as the rebbe said them, and in like manner, get them to understand them explicitly with additional clarification. [ . . . ]

In order to save myself an unnecessary burden, I took up my pen to record the discourse of the rebbe in writing, and my wish came to fruition. I wrote it down in correct sequence, and did not abridge or omit anything. Armed with my composition, I came the next day to the reviewers of the rebbe, and showed it to them. They looked at it and were astonished, and did not believe what their own eyes had seen, that the rational power of a young man such as myself, belonging to the Misnagdim, who had never heard Hasidic teachings before, since the day of his birth, could succeed in understanding, imbibing, and recording in writing a great and profound discourse recalled from memory. After they had tested me by posing questions based upon the things said during the discourse and its subject-matter, and it had been demonstrated to them that I had understood and had come to an appreciation of its true quality, they drew me near to them with love and extended kindness to me; they entered into conversation with me, they explained various statements in accordance with their system of thought, they related great and wondrous events culled from the deeds of their great men and their holy ways. As their words flowed on, there also escaped from their mouths words of scorn and mockery directed against the Misnagdim who had placed them under the ban—those dry bones whose natural vigor had departed and who had no spirit within them.

[ . . . ] I was unable to extract from their mouths a single didactic principle or a single rational hypothesis set forth in a didactic manner, to the point where I mustered up sufficient fortitude within my soul to request and to beg: “My Masters, please do make known to me the ways of Hasidism. If I have now found favor in your sight, please teach me and enable me to understand a little of its general principles, so that I may know on what foundations the pedestals of its edifice have been sunk, for that is all that I desire!” Then they each marveled with one another, and they replied to me and said: “You are seeking great and wondrous things; Hasidism is the very body of the Torah—its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea, and you cannot learn it while standing on one leg!

[ . . . ] Out of all the words, the dialogues, the arguments, and the responses that had passed between me and the reviewers. [ . . . ] I could recall just two serious responses that I considered to be worthy of mention in this story of ours too. To my enquiry: “What is the difference between the mystical teaching of the Gaon of Vilna and that of the Ba‘al Shem Tov?” they replied, saying: “The mystical teaching of the Gaon of Vilna is a desiccated tree, while the mystical teaching of the Ba‘al Shem Tov is moist and juicy. [ . . . ] By way of response to my question: “Is the power of their rebbe sufficiently great as to perform miracles?” they replied pithily and by way of allusion: “Signs and wonders in the land of the children of Ham,” and explained their statement, saying: “The performance of miracles in general is a small thing, and it pales into insignificance among those matters that are within the capability of the righteous. It is not on account of these that the rebbe is praised, nor is it in regard to this that his glory lies!” [ . . . ] The rebbe sat in the attic-chamber all day long, and it was there that the Hasidim went up to converse with him in private—as one went out, another went in. [ . . . ]

When I came into the room of the rebbe, the shadows of evening were already extended, and in the light of dusk, I could see him pacing about hither and thither, engrossed in thought, in a state of deep concentration, and his eyes were shut, his long and sloping eyelashes concealed with the shades of the forest. His face emitted dread, and his entire person bespoke glory and awe. I stood for a few moments on the threshold of the room; I did not move from my place so as not to disturb him, until he opened his eyes and turned toward me. The light in his eyes was like a flame of fire flashing up in the midst of the darkness. His eyes met mine, and I was seized with trembling. With a single gaze, he scrutinized me from the soles of my feet up to the crown of my head, and I felt just as is mentioned in scripture: “Who am I?” He said to me: “Come closer here, and tell me your request!” And as he spoke, he approached the table, sat on his chair, and beckoned to me to sit beside him, even though I was of tender years. I began presenting my request, saying: “I have already heard a great deal about Hasidism, and after we had had the merit of seeing the light of your countenance, which we had never expected, I request with all my soul: ‘Teach me, I implore you, our Master, you who are the chief of the princes of Hasidism among us, a little of its fundamental principles—for who can teach as well as you?’”

“But why do you seek to know the ways of Hasidism?” asked the rebbe. “Is it to enable you to learn the ways of service of the Divine? Is there not sufficient information in all the sacred books of Israel? Are they not all replete with love of the Almighty and fear of Him? Even from within the commentaries of Rashi you are able to recognize your Creator and to gain knowledge of the ways in which to serve Him?—and there is no novel Torah whatsoever contained within Hasidism!”

“But, my Master and Teacher!” I replied in a supplicatory tone of voice: “Have I not been informed by, and heard from the mouths of the most discerning of the Hasidim, that Hasidism is the pathway leading up to an understanding of the spirituality of the Torah? And I, though but of tender years, have found sufficient strength within myself to delve deeply into the works of those investigating the beliefs and opinions of the Sages of Israel, and my eyes brightened with the light of their intellectual grasp of the internal aspects of the Torah, in accordance with their methodology. So for this, I implore you—magnify your kindness, to enlighten my eyes with the light of Hasidism, in order that I should have the merit to develop a discriminatory approach toward different ways of interpretation—for a young man such as I am cannot spiritually live off that which emerges from the plain meaning of things!” The rebbe remained silent for a few moments, after which he opened up with an explanation of the biblical verse: “His majesty is above the earth and the heavens, and He has exalted the power of His people, to the praise of all His loving ones”—and he presented a number of expositions by way of explication of the mysteries of atsilut [divine withdrawal]. And after obtaining permission from his exalted Honor, I presented my doubts and my arguments before him; and these matters stretched out for around half an hour. But when I also found strength within my soul to argue with force, he ceased speaking and responding, and said: “The time has arrived for the evening prayer.” I understood that I had breached the bounds of etiquette and that the favorable moment had passed. I blessed the rebbe that he should enjoy peace, and took my leave of him. I had come into his presence full of anticipation of good things, but I departed from him empty-handed. I took mental stock of the situation, and knew that the reviewers had been correct in their assessment that my soul was not suited to imbibe Hasidism.

Translated by
David E.


S. J. (Samuel Joseph) Fuenn, “Dor ve-dorshav,” Ha-Karmel (Vilna), N.S. Vol. 4 (1879). Republished as: S. J. (Samuel Joseph) Fuenn, “Dor ve-dorshav,” in Me-Haśkalah Loḥemet le-Haśkalah Meshameret : Mivḥar mi-kitve R. Sh. Y. Fin = S. J. Fuenn, from Militant to Conservative Maskil, by S. J. (Samuel Joseph) Fuenn, ed. Shmuel Feiner (Jerusalem: Merkaz Dinur, 1993), 79-84.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 6.

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