The Faith of the Mithnagdim
Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture
The Faith of the Mithnagdim is the first study of the theological roots of the Mithnagdic objection to Hasidism. Allan Nadler's pioneering effort fills the void in scholarship on Mithnagdic thought and corrects the impression that there were no compelling theological alternatives to Hasidism during the period of its rapid spread across Eastern Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Nadler's account, Mithnagdism emerges as a highly developed religious outlook that is essentially conservative, deeply dualistic, and profoundly pessimistic about humanity's spiritual potential—all in stark contrast to Hasidism's optimism and aggressive encouragement of mysticism and religious rapture among its followers.
About the Author
Allan Nadler is the Wallerstein Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Drew University. He has written for Commentary, Modern Judaism, New Republic, and other journals.
Allan Nadler has performed a great service by bringing the Mithnagdim more to light. The spiritual universe that he has unearthed with erudition, imagination, and care is now more accessible to students of Jewish history and of religion in general..
After reading this book, and as one who was brought up by teachers of Judaismsin the Mitnagdic tradition, I found myself wondering whether Nadler's picture of Mitnagdic pessimism, other worldliness and asceticism is really typical of that movement or only of some of its early leaders. Perhaps the answer to this will be in a forthcoming book. But whatever Nadler's future plans, this reviewer feels that he has presented us with an important, interesting, and readable work for anyone seeking a better and more balanced understanding of Judaism in the modern age.
In many ways Nadler's work defines the model of a first-rate monograph on an important subject... It is lucidly argued and carefully drafted. The technical achievement of figuring out what is going on in difficult texts matches the intellectual achievement of framing the whole in terms that bear consequence for a wide audience interested in the history of Judaism within the history of religion—work that makes a difference, indeed a huge difference.
In reconstructing the 'faith of the Mithnagdim,' Nadler introduces us to a remarkable universe of individuals and ideas. His pioneering reconstruction of Mithnagdic thought marks a turning point in our understanding of a crucial moment in Jewish history. From now on, anyone interested in the development of modern Judaism will have to take into account what he has done.
Nadler's work is a significant contribution to Jewish intellectual history and has wider significance in that it is also the first attempt to come to terms with thinkers who, until now, have been greatly misunderstood. It would not be surprising if Nadler's book became the impetus for much further research in this area.
Nadler's book opens up a whole area of investigation in the history of Jewish religious thought. Through a close analysis of the writings of the renowned Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (the 'Vilna Goan') and several of his disciples, Nadler totally revises our image of Mithnagdism and establishes it as an extremely important movement. He deals with a whole array of basic theological and religious issues—divine immanence, prayer, asceticism, worldliness, and enlightenment. It is required reading for anyone interested in Jewish religious thought.
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