The Light of Learn­ing: Hasidism in Poland on the Eve of the Holocaust

  • Review
By – March 4, 2024

Glenn Dynner’s most recent book, The Light of Learn­ing, great­ly enrich­es our under­stand­ing of Hasidism. Stud­ies of the Hasidic move­ment tend to focus either on its ear­ly years — from its ori­gin and devel­op­ment into a mass, pop­u­lar move­ment — or its post – World War II boom. More­over, Hasidism is often asso­ci­at­ed with oth­er­world­ly mat­ters: the charis­mat­ic author­i­ty of the leader or rebbe, dis­tinc­tive wor­ship prac­tices, and mys­ti­cal texts. With­out deny­ing these com­po­nents, Dynner’s study focus­es on the polit­i­cal and edu­ca­tion­al activ­i­ties of Hasidism dur­ing the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a peri­od that has often been over­looked by schol­ars. Dyn­ner shows that, dur­ing the inter­war peri­od in Poland, both Hasidic lead­ers and (male and female) prac­ti­tion­ers grap­pled with a num­ber of mod­ern polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and social changes. Rather than ignor­ing or reject­ing these devel­op­ments, Hasidic lead­ers respond­ed to them by cre­at­ing new edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions, and by engag­ing polit­i­cal­ly with the sec­u­lar state in ways pre­vi­ous­ly for­eign to Hasidism.

The Sec­ond Pol­ish Repub­lic (1918 – 1939) emerged out of the wreck­age of World War I. For the first time in over a cen­tu­ry, Poland was polit­i­cal­ly autonomous. The new state includ­ed Gali­cia, home to many impor­tant Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties. The nascent Pol­ish state sought to fos­ter Pol­ish accul­tur­a­tion through edu­ca­tion­al reform. Jews also expe­ri­enced vio­lent pogroms dur­ing this peri­od. The death of Pol­ish states­man Józef Pił­sud­s­ki in 1935 gave rise to an increase in anti-Jew­ish activ­i­ty, sig­nif­i­cant­ly restrict­ing the lives of Hasidic Jews.

In addi­tion to these polit­i­cal devel­op­ments, a wide range of new cul­tur­al forms and reli­gious prac­tices offered an alter­na­tive to both Hasidic and non-Hasidic tra­di­tion­al Judaism. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Zion­ist and social­ist move­ments com­pet­ed with tra­di­tion­al Judaism for the hearts and minds of young Jews through a vari­ety of edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al projects.

To address this cri­sis,” Hasidic groups cre­at­ed edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions that sought to keep Jew­ish youth with­in the fold. Dyn­ner explains that the mobi­liza­tion of Torah edu­ca­tion emerges as Pol­ish Hasidism’s pri­ma­ry tac­tic for sub­vert­ing the civ­i­liz­ing projects of the state and its per­ceived sec­u­lar­ist Jew­ish allies.” Rather than focus­ing on the reli­gious expe­ri­ence that char­ac­ter­ized Hasidism at its out­set, these schools empha­sized intel­lec­tu­al engage­ment with Jew­ish texts. Just as impor­tant­ly, thanks to the work of Sarah Schrein­er, a net­work of girls schools, called Bais Yaakov, emerged.

The con­di­tions of the Sec­ond Pol­ish Repub­lic spurred tra­di­tion­al­ist Jews to orga­nize them­selves polit­i­cal­ly. Build­ing on orga­ni­za­tion­al momen­tum from the pre­war peri­od, East­ern Euro­pean tra­di­tion­al­ists — cen­tral­ly under the influ­ence of the Ger­rer Rebbe, Rab­bi Avra­ham Mordechai Alter (1866 – 1948) — formed Agu­dath Israel (called Agu­da), an inter­na­tion­al polit­i­cal move­ment of Ortho­dox Jews that engaged in Pol­ish par­ty pol­i­tics and elec­tions. Oth­er Hasidic groups reject­ed Agu­da and its engage­ment with the Pol­ish state. They argued that polit­i­cal activ­i­ty drained one’s abil­i­ty to engage in Torah study, the reli­gious activ­i­ty par excellence.

The final chap­ter explores how Hasidic Jew­ish lead­ers sought to save Jew­ish lives and resist Nazi attacks dur­ing the Holo­caust. It’s melan­cholic to read The Light of Learn­ing and its analy­sis of Hasidic life in inter­war Poland, know­ing that the Nazis would soon wreak destruc­tion on Euro­pean Hasidism. Nonethe­less, Dynner’s book shows that there is ample rea­son to appre­ci­ate the dis­tinc­tive­ly vibrant forms of Hasidic Judaism that flour­ished in inter­war Poland.

Bri­an Hill­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

Discussion Questions