(also Mitnagdim; Heb., opponents), common name for rabbinical opponents of the Hasidic movement, based largely in Lithuania, northern Belorussia, and northeastern Poland, that is, the territory inhabited by Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews). While the terms Menagdim and were first employed in defensive Hasidic writings from the 1770s to describe the rabbinical enemies of the movement, those opponents of Hasidism eventually came to embrace the appellation with pride. Over time, and with the growth of non-Hasidic and anti-Hasidic religious institutions—most notably the Lithuanian yeshivas and the Musar Movement—whose purpose was, at least in part, to counteract the rapid spread of Hasidism, the term Misnagdim took on a positive connotation among non-Hasidic Jews of northeastern Europe, and became almost synonymous with Lithuanian Jewry. (In contemporary Israel, the term Lita’im [Hebrew for Lithuanians] is commonly used instead of Misnagdim.)
Misnagdic and Hasidic centers in East European Jewry, early nineteenth century.
Although the term Misnagdim is not, strictly speaking, limited to Jews of Lithuanian or Belorussian origin, non-Hasidic and anti-Hasidic Jews from Central European lands such as Austro-Hungary and Bohemia were typically referred to as Ashkenazim, an allusion to their continued use of the standard Hebrew liturgy of European Jewry—in contrast to the Hasidim (in Hungary, dubbed at times Sephardim) who adopted Yitsḥak Luria’s prayer book, based on the Sephardic liturgy. What follows will be limited to the Litvak phenomenon.
The emergence of Hasidism in Podolia and Volhynia in the mid-eighteenth century provoked the occasional opposition of some prominent rabbis, including Yeḥezkel Landau of Prague (1713–1776), Ya‘akov Emden of Altona (1697–1776), and Shelomoh ben Mosheh Khelm (1717–1781), who polemicized against the new sect in their writings. But it was not until the spread of Hasidism to Lithuania and Belorussia that an organized and forceful opposition was mounted on the part of the rabbis who were to become known as Misnagdim.
The first communal opposition to the Hasidic movement came from the Jewish community of Shklov in Belorussia during the winter of 1772. Rabbis and communal leaders communicated their concerns about the alleged heresies of the Hasidim, who were making rapid inroads into Belorussia, to the renowned Vilna Gaon, Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman. Although some scholars differ, a majority agree that it was the Gaon who in turn galvanized the leading Jewish communities of Lithuania and Belorussia, such as Vilna, Brisk, and Minsk—in addition to Brody in Galicia—into a major battle with Hasidism. This battle was initially engaged through rabbinical letters of excommunication forbidding the establishment of Hasidic prayer houses, ordering the public burning of Hasidic literature, encouraging the humiliation and even imprisonment of Hasidic leaders, and banning contact with them or their followers.
The beginnings of the organized, pan-communal campaign against Hasidism are documented in the first published anti-Hasidic polemic, Zemir ‘aritsim ve-ḥarvot tsurim (1772), which includes the earliest texts of what was to become a protracted Kulturkampf within East European Jewish society. A significant Misnagdic polemical literature followed, including two major anti-Hasidic tracts: David of Makev’s Shever posh‘im (1798–1800) and Yisra’el Loebl’s Sefer vikuaḥ (1798).
A public letter from the Jewish community of Vilna, bearing the signature of the Vilna Gaon, is the first document included in Zemir ‘aritsim ve-ḥarvot tsurim. It appeared shortly after the Passover festival of 1772, and accused Hasidim of a variety of religious offenses, focusing in particular on the allegedly phony and supercilious nature of their displays of piety—characterized by ecstatic prayers, recited in unsanctioned, breakaway synagogues, that included twirls and somersaults—along with their dancing, smoking, and drinking. Generally, the ban that was the subject of this letter condemned what was deemed as the Hasidim’s inappropriate, irreverently joyful demeanor in the service of God and their disregard for Torah study and disrespect for rabbinical scholars. All this stood in sharp contrast to the ascetic, dour, and severely scholarly demeanor of the Gaon and his disciples. The main reason that Hasidism ultimately made far fewer inroads into northeastern Europe—western and northern Lithuania in particular—was the enormous and enduring influence of the Vilna Gaon in that region, and the attribution to him of the fiercest opposition to the new movement.
The death of the Gaon in 1797 and the decision of the tsarist government in 1804 to legalize Hasidic prayer houses and severely restrict the anti-Hasidic measures of the Misnagdim had the combined effect of dashing the Misnagdim’s dreams of utterly destroying Hasidism. These setbacks initially led to even more vitriolic anti-Hasidic sentiments in the polemical literature, however, along with harsher, at times desperate, Misnagdic communal measures that continued well into the nineteenth century, both in Eastern Europe and in Palestine.
There are several, often conflicting, reasons identified by historians to explain the vehemence of the Misnagdim’s hostility to Hasidism, which included their willingness to denounce Hasidic rabbis to the tsarist authorities for sedition. It is generally agreed that the rabbis were mainly scandalized by Hasidism’s diminution of the religious supremacy of Torah study in the hierarchy of Jewish religious values and their disrespect for Torah scholars, the elite of traditional Jewish society. Additionally, Misnagdim were offended by Hasidism’s popularization of Jewish mysticism and its rebbes’ encouragement of mystical prayer, performed with bizarre and ecstatic histrionics and at all hours, among their followers. The Hasidic tendency to establish separate places of worship, to ignore the halakhically mandated times of prayer, and to use their own prayer books (which followed the kabbalistic liturgy of Luria), along with the Hasidim’s insistence on more meticulous standards of sheḥitah, or ritual slaughter, were all viewed by Misnagdim as dangerous breaches of Jewish communal unity and ritual conformity, and as constituting a serious challenge to established religious authorities and institutions. Moreover, the Hasidic approach to these matters had serious implications with respect to communal revenues.
In addition, the celebratory nature of Hasidic worship, which included singing and dancing often fueled by heavy drinking, was perceived by some Misnagdim as dangerously reminiscent of Sabbatian and Frankist excesses. And the elaborate, often supernatural, claims of Hasidic rebbes and tsadikim were seen as posing a threat to the scholarly rabbinical leadership of the major Jewish communities. While it is not entirely clear if the Misnagdim were initially motivated to battle Hasidism for primarily theological or sociopolitical reasons, it is evident that the Vilna Gaon, for his part, considered Hasidim to be heretics, not least on account of their emphasis on the immanence of God in all things, no matter how profane, and their degradation of the Kabbalah through its popular dissemination. Consequently, both the Gaon, from his theological standpoint, and the lay communal leaders, from their sociopolitical perspective, had powerful motives to try to crush the Hasidic movement through a series of very harsh decrees—especially the widespread use of the ḥerem, or ban of excommunication, the most powerful weapon in the rabbis’ arsenal.
The nature of the Misnagdic denunciations of Hasidism, and the harshness of the tactics used to suppress the spread of Hasidism, became most extreme between 1785 and 1815, as Misnagdic leaders used every tool available to them in an ultimately failed effort to destroy Hasidism. Among the leading foes of Hasidism during this period were Avigdor of Pinsk (d. ca. 1805) and Avraham Katzenellenbogen of Brisk (d. mid-nineteenth century). The struggle between Hasidim and Misnagdim became so violent in the last years of the eighteenth century that “intermarriage” with Hasidim was banned by Misnagdic leaders, and Hasidic rebbes were often jailed after being denounced by Misnagdic rabbis to the tsarist government, usually on the groundless charges that they were political subversives, spies, and traitors.
Among prominent Hasidic leaders who were jailed on account of the denunciations of the Misnagdim were two disciples of the Magid of Mezritsh: Shneur Zalman of Liady (ca. 1745–1812), the founder of the Ḥabad Hasidic movement; and Asher Perlov (1765–1826), the tsadik of the Karlin-Stolin dynasty. The net result of the persistent growth of Hasidism despite the vehement rabbinical condemnations of the revolutionary theology, mystical enthusiasm, and ritual changes was a near-total fissure between Hasidim and Misnagdim for the better part of the nineteenth century. Yet it should be noted that in this period, most East European Jews were neither Misnagdim nor Hasidim, and that there were degrees of opposition to Hasidism, ranging from passive distaste to active opposition.
The Misnagdim did not merely polemicize, protest, and issue bans against the Hasidim. As a response to the Hasidic “menace,” they fortified certain traditional rabbinic values and formulated a rather elaborate theological alternative to Hasidic spirituality. At the very pinnacle of Misnagdic religion stands Talmud Torah, traditional rabbinical Torah study. According to the Misnagdim, it is only the devout study of the sacred texts of rabbinic Judaism, not the popular mystical enthusiasm endorsed by Hasidic tsadikim, that will guarantee Jews God’s favor. The most concise and coherent formulations of Misnagdic theology are found in Keter Torah (1788), by Pinḥas ben Yehudah of Polotsk (d. 1822), and Nefesh ha-ḥayim (1824), by Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak of Volozhin (1749–1821), the most distinguished disciple of the Gaon of Vilna.
Beyond the insistence on the supremacy, in the hierarchy of Jewish religious values, of diligent Torah study, Misnagdim maintained a very different religious weltanschauung from that of the Hasidim. In contrast to the monistic Hasidic perception of Divine immanence in the material universe, and the belief in the proximity of God to even the simplest of Jews, Misnagdim insisted that the average person is incapable of attaining mystical union with the Creator. Misnagdim maintained the traditional rabbinic dualism that viewed the physical universe as inherently ungodly and insisted that all sensual, material pleasures are a distraction from divine worship. In opposition to Hasidic tsadikim who encouraged their disciples to engage in lengthy and ecstatic mystical prayers; who treated rabbinic works such as the Mishnah and the Talmud as talismanic, magical objects; and who “worshiped God corporeally” (‘avodah be-gashmiyut) through eating, drinking, and even conjugal relations, Misnagdic rabbis warned that the only legitimate worship of God is through statutory prayer at prescribed times and study of Torah. Only the latter, moreover, could put man in direct contact with the true will of the Creator.
In addition to composing Nefesh ha-ḥayim, arguably the most influential work of Misnagdic thought, Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak established the first Misnagdic yeshiva in 1802, in the Belorussian town of Volozhin. In a fashion not entirely unlike the way in which Hasidic court were spread by the students of the Magid of Mezritsh, the Volozhin yeshiva spawned a network of yeshivas throughout Lithuania, in towns such as Mir, Telz, Slobodka, Ponevezh, and Kamenets. Though destroyed by the Nazis, most of the great Lithuanian yeshivas were reestablished after the war, in both Israel and America, bearing their original East European names—again, not unlike today’s Hasidic courts. To this day, the yeshiva—with its dean (or rosh yeshivah) as supreme religious authority—stands at the very center of Misnagdic religious life, thereby playing a role close to that which the rebbe’s court plays in Hasidic life. But if the changes in the way the yeshiva and the rosh yeshivah have come to be viewed are an instance of Misnagdic echoing of Hasidic practice, the establishment of yeshivas attached to virtually every Hasidic court suggests a reciprocal Misnagdic influence on Hasidism.
The enmity of the Misnagdim toward Hasidism lessened as both groups were forced, over the course of the nineteenth century, to confront a common and far greater threat to traditional Judaism: namely, the European Enlightenment and the assimilation and religious reform that it ultimately generated among Jews. In fact, today’s Hasidim and Misnagdim have far more in common with each other than they do with the vast majority of other Jews. Particularly in the United States, where the Jewish community is predominantly secular, Hasidim and Misnagdim feel equally besieged by the assimilatory pressures of modernity. Intermarriage between the two groups has become common, and numerous Hasidim attend Misnagdic yeshivas.
Indeed, most contemporary secular Jews would have great difficulty distinguishing Hasidim from Misnagdim. This is only partly because of their shared austere, black-clad physical appearance and their rigorous adherence to ancient religious norms. It is also the consequence of both groups’ social insularity and political conservatism, which deepened over the course of the last century—and of the gradual dilution of genuine theological differences between these once-warring Orthodox religious communities. Still, and despite the emergence of this blended ultra-Orthodoxy, echoes of the old hostility remain to this day.
Immanuel Etkes, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Berkeley, 2002); Dovid Katz, Lithuanian Jewish Culture (Vilnius, 2004), pp. 121–161; Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim (Baltimore, 1997); Mordecai Wilensky, Hasidim u-mitnagdim 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1970); Mordecai Wilensky, “Hasidic-Mitnaggedic Polemics in the Jewish Communities of Eastern Europe: The Hostile Phase,” in Essential Papers on Hasidism, ed. Gershon David Hundert, pp. 224–274 (New York, 1991).