Hasidism, a movement many believed had passed its golden age, has had an extraordinary revival since it was nearly decimated in the Holocaust and repressed in the Soviet Union. Hasidic communities, now settled primarily in North America and Israel, have reversed the losses they suffered and are growing exponentially. With powerful attachments to the past, mysticism, community, tradition, and charismatic leadership, Hasidism seems the opposite of contemporary Western culture, yet it has thrived in the democratic countries and culture of the West. How? Who Will Lead Us? finds the answers to this question in the fascinating story of five contemporary Hasidic dynasties and their handling of the delicate issue of leadership and succession.
Revolving around the central figure of the rebbe, the book explores two dynasties with too few successors, two with too many successors, and one that believes their last rebbe continues to lead them even after his death. Samuel C. Heilman, recognized as a foremost expert on modern Jewish Orthodoxy, here provides outsiders with the essential guide to continuity in the Hasidic world.
This detailed study of changes in leadership in the major communities of the Hasidic movement Munkacs, Boyan and Kopyczynitz, Bobov, Satmar, and Chabad is not aimed at the same general audience as sociology professor Heilman's acclaimed other works (The Rebbe; Sliding to the Right); instead, he focuses on "the patterns and processes of contemporary Hasidic succession." Heilman presupposes some familiarity with Hasidism, which centers on charismatic leaders who inspire intense devotion among their followers; indeed, the disputes about whom should lead some Hasidic groups often devolved into violence. The descriptions of those physical altercations are just some of the warts-and-all aspects of the tradition that Heilman is able to provide as a result of his remarkable access to insiders, including influential Bobover rebbe Shlomo Halberstam, who brought the Bobov Hasidic dynasty to the U.S. after WWII, and Nachum Dov Brayer, current rebbe of the Boyan Hasidic dynasty. The centrality of the rebbe to his adherents makes the stakes high when he dies, and Heilman traces what happens when there is no successor, when there are competing successors, and when, as with Chabad/Lubavitch, there is denial that a successor is needed (in this case, because they believe the late Rabbi Schneerson did not really die and will return as the messiah). This is an invaluable addition to the ranks of objective studies of a Jewish movement that continues to flourish in the U.S. even as more modern denominations decline.