HASIDIC HAGIOGRAPHY IN THE AGE OF MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION – A HISTORICAL AND LITERARY PERSPECTIVE.
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“Hasidic Hagiography in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” sheds light on a neglected genre in the scholarship of modern Hebrew literature – Hasidic hagiography. Nineteenth-century Jewish Enlightenment activists, influenced by Romanticism with its perspective on “primitive,” “national” literatures, read Hasidic hagiographies as folklore; until today this genre is excluded from the canon of Modern Hebrew literature and from critical literary discourse. My work challenges this myopia and offers a critical perspective on the complex relationships among religion, mysticism, and modernity within the Hasidic stories; it shows how Hasidic hagiography represented an alternative path for Jewish modernization that rejected the binary lens of the Enlightenment’s secular rationalism. The dissertation’s title references Walter Benjamin, who revolutionized an understanding of literature as a reaction to changes in society wrought by industrialization and market capitalization. My dissertation applies a similar perspicacity to the study of Hasidic hagiography.
The 1848 revolutions, the growing political and cultural awareness, and the influences of print-capitalism in Galicia, prompted two Hasidim–Menachem Mendel Bodek (1825-1874) and Michael Levi Rodkinson (1845-1904) to print oral Hasidic hagiographical stories in the popular format of folktale collections, thereby constituting Hasidic hagiography as a new genre in Hebrew literature. These projects marked a sharp transition from oral and intimate gatherings with the tsadik to popular printed experience of the masses. The process through which mechanical reproduction replicates the first-hand meeting with the tsadik for the masses, reflects the Hasidic engagement with the project of Jewish modernity. Distributed through networks of popular media, Hasidic hagiography became the device through which Hasidism integrated into contemporary Jewish and secular discourses, responding to ideas such as nationalism and individualism.
The goal of this project is twofold: first, to offer a new critical methodology for reading those texts and establish a framework for discussing similar cases of marginalized texts in world literature; and secondly, to offer a new understanding of the political role of Hasidic hagiography and its promise for modern Jewish experience and literature. Finally, my dissertation contributes to our understanding of the political and cultural functions of popular literature, and illuminates alternatives to historiographies of national literatures.