September 15, 2013
By Menachem Feuer
In his book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Daniel Boyarin has a chapter where he looks into how some of the stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Hasidism, evince a new approach to Jewish masculinity. Boyarin prefaces this reading by arguing that Jews, traditionally, are averse to masculinity. In fact, he notes that a Yiddishe Naches (a Jewish Joy) as opposed to Goyim Naches (non-Jewish joy) was illustrated, during the Middle Ages, in the Passover Haggadah. The images Boyarin includes in his book show the four sons which, as he argues, demonstrate a clear distinction between the “evil” son and the simpleton. As he argues, the distinction can be read in terms of masculinity. The evil son is stronger and more masculine that the simple son. And this, claims Boyarin, illustrates the fact that Jews in the Middle Ages saw masculinity as other. Instead, Jews valued the quality of humility and edylkeit, qualities that were often found in the pious Jew. Learning and not physical prowess were of interest to the Jewish community.
Boyarin argues that this value is challenged by way of the Baal Shem Tov’s stories. Boyarin, relaying a few selected stories, calls the group that disseminates these stories “revisionist” (61). And by revisionist he implies that they revised the Medieval paradigm which privileged humility and denigrated masculinity. He argues that this revision is “closer to the normative traditional Judaism of the nineteenth-century of East Europe” and not to the normative traditional Judaism of the Middle Ages. And it is closer in the sense that, according to Boyarin, it is more masculinist.
In the story he cites as a proof-text, we learn about how, on the way to school, a teachers assistant would take his students from their homes to the school or to the synagogue. He would sing heavenly songs as he walked them to school:
While he walked with the children he would sing with them enthusiastically in a pleasant voice that would be heard from far away. His prayers were elevated higher and higher…And it was a time of rejoicing in heaven.
However, while this is happening, evil is brewing. The Satan overhears this music and, looking to interrupt it, transforms himself “into a sorcerer.” And, once, while the Baal Shem Tov was walking with the children, “singing enthusiastically with pleasure…”
…the sorcerer transformed himself into a beast, a werewolf. He attacked and frightened them, and they ran away. Some of them became sick, heaven help us, and, could not continue their studies. (62)
In response, the Baal Shem Tov (from here on the BESHT) “recalled the words of his father, God bless his memory, not to fear anything since God is with him.” Drawing on these words, the BESHT goes to the people in the community and “urges them to return the children to his care” since he will “fight with the beast and kill it in the name of God.”
The town agrees to his pleas. And the BESHT then takes up a “sturdy club” with him just in case he is attacked:
While he walked with the children, singing pleasantly, chanting with joy, this beast attacked them. He ran toward it, hit it in the forehead, and killed it. The corpse of the gentile sorcerer was found lying on the ground. After that the Besht became the watchman of the Beit-hamidrash. (62)
Writing on this passage, Boyarin notes that what we find in this passage is a “tension between its valorization of “Diasporic” models of Jewish masculinity (models based in the Middle Ages) and the inability of such men to ‘protect’ Jewish children from anti-Semitic violence”(63). Boyarin points out that the BESHT is different insofar as he is a “Jewish boy who did not grow up like other Jewish boys.” He is different, says Boyarin, insofar as he is more masculine. This text, he argues, provides a “revisionist model of masculinity…one closer to chivalric, romantic ideal of manliness than to the scholarly ideal of the Yeshiva-Bokhur”(63). Nonetheless, says Boyarin, it is trying to “preserve” the “scholarly ideal.” The proof of this can be found in the fact that there is a “delicate semiotic code opposing indoors to outdoors.” The “subversive aspects” are placed on the “outdoors.”
Boyarin goes on to argue that this tension is negotiated in several of the Besht’s text. But the crux of the matter, for Boyarin, is that this is gradually lost when the Hasidic ideal is displaced by the Zionist one. To be sure, Boyarin sees the Medieval Model as offer a critique of Hasidic and Zionist practices. And he would rather we turn back to the older pre-Hasidic ideal. While this reading is interesting, I like to suggest that Boyarin look into the final parts of Meir Abehsera’s parable.
As I have pointed out, the end of this parable works on a few levels and draws on Magical Realism. In the parable, the Old Beggar – who was once the schlemiel whistler – is met with a major challenge: the Miser. Before visiting the Miser, the Old Beggar is reminded that he is a schlemiel and of what great power this comic character has. To sum up, the schlemiel has the power to break illusion and bitterness by way of joy. The emphasis on breaking presents us with an ideal that Boyarin may take issue with since it includes a kind of violence that he might deem masculine. Nonetheless, the notion of challenging evil and “breaking” klippot (shells that conceal God’s light) is actually a Medieval notion (found in the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria) that made its way to the Hasidim.
When the Old Beggar encounters the Miser, he is rudely accused of being a thief and a liar and it told to leave his premises. In response, the Old Beggar transforms himself into a dog. At first he goes at the miser, but then he becomes playful. The joy seems to break the Miser, but, the audience is troubled when they see what looks like an attack on the Miser. But, and this is the twist, they see that they are really play fighting with each other.
Although Boyarin might call this yet another model of the “revisionist model of masculinity,” I think it would be wiser to call it a neo-Hasidic revision. In Abehsera’s parable, the Old Beggar becomes a new kind of schlemiel, a schlemiel which can be aggressive and playful. Moreover, in this model, the Old Beggar transforms into a dog (and reverts back to the schlemiel). Instead of the Satan transforming into a Sorcerer, we see another trick that, this time, is played by the Old Beggar (who has much in common with Yeshiva Bocher of the Middle Ages insofar as he is humble and not aggressive). However, the Old Beggar doesn’t become a schlemiel; he always was one.
But the schlemiel he originally played was one who actively disturbed an entire town by whistling in the middle of the night. Moreover, the Old Beggar’s reversion to the schlemiel-as-dog ends with the dog-becoming-man. This is where the tale ends. And in this reversion the Miser and the Schlemiel/Beggar are now friends. And the community, in bewilderment, learns of a deeper kind of joy which emerges out of a struggle that appears negative but is actually positive and playful. The point of Abehsera’s neo-Hasidic tale is to revise the schlemiel.
Instead of extremely humble schlemiels who wouldn’t know evil if it stared them in the eye, this schlemiel, while humble, is also touched by a zealousness and playfulness which looks to “break” seriousness by way of play and joy. There is definitely a force behind this schlemiel that we don’t see in the Hasidic schlemiel evninced by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s “simpleton” (in “The Clever Man and the Simple Man”).
At the outset of Abehsera’s parable, we meet a schlemiel who whistles and the wind that comes from him, in the end, either moves people to laugh or takes their breath away. That’s the point. The neo-Hasidic schlemiel – for Abehsera – transforms and breaks the rules of realism and culture so as to transform the community and transform bitterness into joy. For Abehsera, this is the task the writer needs to communicate to the reader. After all, as I pointed out in previous blog entries, the writer is the “relay” of the schlemiel.
Regarding Boyarin’s reading, I think it would be a mistake to simply read this in terms of a “revisionist” masculine paradigm which he, ultimately, sees as problematic. Instead, this should be read in terms of what good it can do. Abehsera responds to Walter Benjamin’s question as to whether the fool can do humanity any good with a resounding yes. And we see this by way of the community’s response to the schlemiel’s magical realist transformation from a dog back to a beggar who seems to be fighting with the Miser but is really playing with him. And that response is not simply laughter; it’s laughter followed by dumbfoundedness. That’s the neo-Hasidic revision.
Menachem Feuer, the author of the Schlemiel in Theory blog, teaches Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. He has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and an M.A. in Philosophy. He writes and has written several articles and book reviews on the schlemiel, philosophy, and Jewish studies. A documentary on his life, music, and struggle with Jewishness, rock ’n’ roll and family life, “Shlemiel,” is here.