Defend­er of the Faith­ful: The Life and Thought of Rab­bi Levi Yit­shak of Berdychiv

  • Review
By – September 22, 2023

Draw­ing on pub­lished works asso­ci­at­ed with R. Levi Yit­shak, Arthur Green has writ­ten a live­ly biog­ra­phy of this mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure who is thought to have spear­head­ed Hasidism in East­ern Europe.

Unlike his inspi­ra­tion, Rab­bi Dov Baer of Mezritch, who pre­ferred that indi­vid­u­als ded­i­cate them­selves exclu­sive­ly to God, R. Yit­shak believed that the reli­gious val­ues of Hasidism would find fer­tile ground among the Jew­ish mass­es. Fol­low­ing Rab­bi Baer’s death, he urged his col­leagues to devel­op a pro­gram that would both relate Judaism to the aver­age Jew and pro­duce Tzad­dikim” who sub­scribed to high­ly intense stan­dards of spirituality. 

Green describes the cor­rupt lead­er­ship that exist­ed in both the Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish worlds, as well as the for­mal denun­ci­a­tions and even bans against Hasidut by the lead­er­ship of Lithuan­ian Jew­ry. R. Yitshak’s excep­tion­al integri­ty shines through in Green’s analy­sis: he becomes not only a leader of Hasidism, forced out of dis­tin­guished rab­binic posi­tions in Zele­chow and Pin­sk, but also a skilled polemi­cist, tak­ing on Hasidut’s detractors.

Green has the chal­lenge of writ­ing about some­one who passed away more than two cen­turies ago, and who left very few clues about his fun­da­men­tal beliefs. As a result, many of the author’s con­clu­sions seem high­ly spec­u­la­tive. In the chap­ter enti­tled Plea­sures Sub­lime and World­ly in the Reli­gious Realm,” Green describes the erot­ic aspects of Kab­bal­is­tic Judaism and their trans­for­ma­tion by some Hasidim into a pro­gram empha­siz­ing a par­ent-child rela­tion­ship, with God as par­ent and Hasid as child. 

The first part of the book is devot­ed to the descrip­tion of R. Yitshak’s mete­oric rise to lead­er­ship in ear­ly Hasidic cir­cles; Green then turns to the mys­ti­cism on which Hasidism is based. Final­ly, he sug­gests that a con­tin­u­um can be traced from Levi Yit­shak to cur­rent-day secularists:

How much gap is there between that view of real­i­ty and the claim of the ear­li­est Zion­ist or Bundist lead­ers, less than a cen­tu­ry in the future, who saw them­selves liv­ing in a God­less uni­verse, but still lov­ing Israel? … Might Levi Yit­shak … have served as a bridge … between two eras, with their very dif­fer­ent views of how to replace the absent divine hand and bring about Israel’s … redemption?

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

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