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Holy Dissent: Jewish and Christian Mystics in Eastern Europe, edited by Glenn Dynner. Detroit, Wayne University Press, 2011. 395 pp. $44.95.
Scholars who work on Jews and Christians in Eastern Europe have often wondered about the exposure those in one community had to the other. Jews and Christians were living in very close proximity to one another, their respective folk religions sometimes exhibit strikingly similarities, and the existence of saints and holy men, many of whom were also faith healers, begs some kind of interaction.
The myth of Eastern European Jewry in the popular Jewish imagination among many who nostalgically view this period as an exemplar of authenticity (perhaps epitomized by the American adaptation of Shalom Aleikhem’s “Fiddler on the Roof” and the photographs of Roman Vishniac’s A Vanished World) would be surprised at how much these people were (1) not as religious as often appears; and (2) far less insulated from their Christian neighbors than we think.
Holy Dissent is a collection of technical but largely accessible essays by various scholars of Eastern European Judaism and Christianity who illustrate in great detail the complex, colorful, dark, and messy marketplace of Eastern Europe from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The essays include a wide variety of topics by those who work with very different methodological premises. Historical studies such as Moshe Idel’s search for the birthplace of the Baal Shem Tov and Paul Radensky’s description of the Hasidic court in Tal’noye are accompanied by much more philosophical essays by Elliot Wolfson on a Jewish apostate’s Hebrew commentary to Luke and Harris Lenowitz’s study of Eva, the daughter of Jacob Frank. Essays such as Eugene Clay’s “Judaism and Jewish Influences in Russian Spiritual Christianity” and Marsha Keith Schuchard’s essay exploring Sabbatean influences on Zinzendorf, Swedenborg, and William Blake highlight the theme that holds this book together, i.e., the confluence of Judaism and Christianity in a time and place where one may have thought each lived enclosed in separate theological and social enclaves. One area of confluence that is perhaps predictable is in the area of medicine and faith healing. This is discussed at great length and depth by Yohanan Petrovsky-Stern in his essay “You Will Find it in a Pharmacy.” The volume ends with Nicholas Breyfogle’s “The Religious World of Russian Sabbatarians (Subbotniks)” a fitting finale exploring a sect of Russian Orthodox Christians who take on various Jewish practices. Glenn Dynner’s “Hasidism and Habitat” offers a fascinating window into the Hasidic masters’ choice of urban versus rural living, showing how the shtetl, while safer than the city or small town, was still a place where Jews regularly interacted with their gentile neighbors, although such interaction could be regulated. The shtetl was less a place of romantic Jewish habitat than a place where religious leaders could more easily wield their power.
What holds this collection of disparate essays together is the way each one undermines common myths about the communities and traditions they study. Apart from the case of the Frankists, Jews who converted to Catholicism, or idiosyncratic individualists such as Immanuel Frommann, a Jew who converts to Christianity and then writes a New Testament commentary in Hebrew (for whom exactly?), and the Subbotniks, Christians who acted like Jews, we have this grand experiment in the middle: communities that adhered to their religious and ethnic ties yet regularly ventured over the borders, sometimes for economic reasons but also for healing, advice, and perhaps mere curiosity. The question is no longer “was there interaction?’ but rather “what kind of interaction was there and how did it affect each community?.” While we often view the ones who took the plunge of conversion as acting totally outside the framework of two isolated communities living in close proximity, Holy Dissent contests that conventional wisdom by exhibiting two things: first, the extent to which religious subversion and nonconformity was common in this part of the world, and second, that these acts of religious “dissent” created conditions that sometimes spilled over from one community to the other. Conversion was perhaps an extreme act of dissent, but it did not exist in a vacuum.
This kind of study is more complex and in my mind more fruitful than comparative religion. Most of the essays in this volume do not engage in comparative analysis at all. Rather, they explore various themes from the confines of their own boundaries and the expertise of the particular author. Taken together, however, they raise a series of interesting questions regarding normativity, borderlands, charisma as a tool of power and subversion, and the sociological complexity where nonconformists of two “enemy” religions meet in the public square. This book is replete with characters whom today we might call “freaks.” In the here-and-now we too easily write off these freaks as ill-informed, unsocialized, derelict, and dangerous. With a historical lens, however, these freaks of the past are fascinating creatures and tell us a great deal about the religious life and culture in which they lived and, in many cases, helped to form. Figures like the Baal Shem Tov become iconic heroes, Eva Frank becomes a villainous heretic, and Immanuel Frommann and the prophet Maksim Rudometkin are largely forgotten. But they are all of a piece, and in their time they may not have been as different as we might think. They were all dissenters and they all had a role to play in the formation and, in some cases, deformation of religion in Eastern Europe. The contributors to Holy Dissent tell their stories, and we are the beneficiaries of their tales.
Indiana University at Bloomington