“But I Will Tell of Their Deeds”: Retelling a Hasidic Tale about the Power of Storytelling

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
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A famous Hasidic tale that depicts the decline of mysticism in Hasidic circles also bespeaks the power of storytelling. This study tracks the metamorphosis of this classic tale over a century of its retelling by writers—including Martin Buber, S. Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem, Walter Kaufmann, Elie Wiesel, and Abba Kovner—who each fashioned the tale in their own image. These authors affirmed but also challenged the tale’s message about the efficacy of storytelling. The use of the tale in Passover celebrations and other contemporary trends are also considered. The question is raised as to whether transmitters have a duty of care not to corrupt the story.




Reuben Zak, Keneset Yiśra⁠ʾel (Warsaw: Y. Edelstein, 1906), 23, my translation. This work was reprinted a number of times during the twentieth century. Square brackets denote my additions or explanations. For slightly different translations, see Idel, Kabbalah, 270–271; Assaf, The Regal Way, 331; Yitzhak Buxbaum, Storytelling and Spirituality in Judaism (Northvale, nj: J. Aronson, 1994), 183.


Glenn Dynner, “The Hasidic Tale as a Historical Source: Historiography and Methodology,” Religion Compass 3 (2009): 655–675.


Idel, Kabbalah, 271. This point was made earlier by Elstein and later by Assaf; see Elstein, “Ha-sippur ha-ḥasidi,” 35; idem, Paʿamei bat melekh (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1984), 78–79; Assaf, The Regal Way, 331.


In 1969, Zak’s 1906 version of the story was included almost verbatim in a four-volume compilation of tales of the Besht published in Tel Aviv; see Klapholtz, Baʿal shem tov, 3:43–44. There is a solitary difference between this version and Zak’s rendition: והשי״ת instead of להשי״ת (see above, n. 4). In this new setting the tale takes on a different significance. In the context of Keneset Yiśra⁠ʾel, the tale is part of a larger narrative that depicts the decline of mysticism in subsequent generations. In the 1969 collection, the compiler was attempting to reconstruct the biography of the Besht, and in this context Zak’s story testifies to the theurgic capabilities of the Besht.


Martina Urban, “The Jewish Library Reconfigured: Buber and the Zionist Anthology Discourse,” New Perspectives on Martin Buber, ed. Michael Zank (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 31–60; idem, “Retelling Biblical Mythos,” 72; idem, Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber’s Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 4, 13–14. On the broader Jewish context, see Zeev Gries, “The Jewish Background for Buber’s Rewriting of Hasidic Tales” [Hebrew], Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore 11–12 (1990): 46–56. Urban also demonstrated that Buber’s call for Jewish renaissance, as expressed in his Hasidic anthologies, should be understood as part of a larger conversation among German intellectuals about language, representation, and perception. This context is beyond the scope of the present study.


Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, 2:92–93. For the original German: Martin Buber, Die Chassidischen Bücher (Berlin: Schocken, 1927), 517; for the Hebrew: idem, ʾOr ha-ganuz: Sippurei ḥasidim (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1946), 390. At the back of the Hebrew edition Buber offered a list of sources and noted that this story came from Zak’s volume (Buber, ʾOr ha-ganuz, 612). The Hebrew and English translations differ greatly. Thus, for instance, “einen langen Spruch,” freely translated into English as “a long prayer,” is given in Hebrew as מאמר ארוך (a long statement). While the Hebrew translation of the German may be accurate, it distances the tale from the language and atmosphere of Zak’s Hebrew version.


Martin Buber, Die Erzählungen der Chassidim (Zürich: Manesse Verlag, 1949), 543.


Martin Buber, “Das Chassidismus ist die Ethos gewordene Kabbala,” in Die Geschichten des Rabbi Nachman, 13;/ “Hasidism is the Kabbalah Become Ethos,” in The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, 10. On Hasidism according to Buber, see Efraim Meir, “ ‘Gog u-Magog’: ʿAl geʾulah u-qedushah be-ḥayei ha-yom-yom,” in Martin Buber, Gog u-Magog: Megillat ha-yamim, ed. Dov Elbaum (Tel Aviv: Mishkal, 2007), 288–303. On Buber’s experience as a Hasidic master, see Vermes, Buber on God, 150–151; idem, Buber, 19–20.


See also Steven T. Katz, “Martin Buber’s Misuse of Hasidic Sources,” in Post-Holocaust Dialogues: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. Steven T. Katz (New York: New York University Press, 1983), 52–93.


Martin Buber, “The Holy Way: A Word to the Jews and to the Nations,” in On Judaism, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer and trans. Eva Jospe (New York: Schocken, 1967), 113; see also Shapira, “Shetei darkhei geʾulah,” 446. On Buber’s notion of the place of the Hasidic master as the Center, see Robert E. Wood, Martin Buber’s Ontology: An Analysis of I and Thou (Evanston, il: Northwestern University Press, 1969), 76; Paul Mendes-Flohr, From Mysticism to Dialogue: Martin Buber’s Transformation of German Social Thought (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1989), 120–121 and 182n292. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss Koren’s response to Mendes-Flohr; see Koren, Mystery of the Earth, especially chap. 3.


S. Y. Agnon, “Sippur shel yeshuʿah,” Haaretz, May 31, 1960, 10, my translation. That same issue carried the first installment of a two-part series entitled “Sifreihem shel tsaddiqim meʾah sippurim va-ʾeḥad”; see below, n. 47. On the authenticity of Agnon’s printed version of the story and his oral version cited by Scholem (below, near n. 50), see Elstein, “Ha-sippur ha-ḥasidi,” 35–36.


Robert Alter, Defenses of the Imagination: Jewish Writers and Modern Historical Crisis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1977), 61.


S. Y. Agnon, Sifreihem shel tsaddiqim: Meʾah sippurim va-ʾeḥad (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1961), 48; idem, Sefer sofer ve-sippur, 438, my translation. As Agnon indicated, this tradition is drawn from Ḥayim Abraham Deitchman, Shemuʿot tovot razin de-ʾoraita (Czernowitz: Wohl, 1885; expanded edition, Warsaw: Alafin, 1890), 25. The original source continues with the tale of a Jew who came to Rużyn after his arenda (lease) was terminated. Israel of Rużyn “told him a number of tales about other matters and when he finished the tales the lessee asked him: ‘With what shall I return to my home?’ ” Israel of Rużyn responded: “Travel home in peace for I have already benefited you.” The implication is that the stories told by Israel of Rużyn miraculously remedied the situation. See also ʿIrin qaddishin, 400; Nigal, Ha-sipporet ha-ḥasidit, 23–24 (n. 52 lists other Hasidic works that cite this tradition); Assaf, The Regal Way, 90; Goldberg, “Ha-sippur ha-ḥasidi,” 164. For further examples from the Rużyn corpus, see ʿIrin qaddishin, 40–41, 122–123, 366, 545, 613–616; Goldberg, “Ha-sippur ha-ḥasidi,” 193–199. Regarding the work Sifreihem shel tsaddiqim, see Urban, Aesthetics of Renewal, 60–62.


S. Y. Agnon, Me-ʿatsmi ʾel ʿatsmi (Jerusalem: Schocken, 1976), 262, my translation. The occasion did not prevent Agnon from critiquing Buber’s approach to Hasidic story retelling.


See also Urban, “Jewish Library Reconfigured,” 52–54; idem, Aesthetics of Renewal, 60–61.


S. Y. Agnon, “ ʿAl sippur mi-sippurei ha-ḥasidim,” Haaretz, June 10, 1960, 10. The midrash appears in a number of compilations with slight variations (ʾEikha rabbah,petiḥta 30; ʾEikha rabbah 4:15; Midrash tehillim 79; Yalqut Shimʿoni, 2 Sam, section 163. Agnon quoted the version from Yalqut Shimʿoni). On this trend in Agnon’s work, see Urban, “Jewish Library Reconfigured,” 53 and the sources cited in n. 92; idem, Aesthetics of Renewal, 60. As Urban noted, Agnon’s attempts to anchor Hasidic tales in earlier textual sources can be contrasted with Buber’s presentation of Hasidic tales without reference to earlier texts. Urban, Aesthetics of Renewal, 12, 61. Elstein picked up from Agnon the idea of a midrashic source for the four-part structure, and this led him to imply that versions presenting four stages were more authentic. Elstein, “Ha-sippur ha-ḥasidi,” 36.


Scholem, Major Trends, 349–350. According to Scholem, all the published lectures were printed in an enlarged form, except for the final chapter—the chapter relevant to our study—which appears “almost in the original form.” Scholem, Major Trends, preface. This chapter was translated into Hebrew by Tsivia Nardi and published in Peraqim be-torat ha-ḥasidut u-ve-toldoteha, ed. Avraham Rubinstein (Jerusalem: Shazar, 1977), 31–51. The Hebrew translation was recently reprinted with corrections and without the footnotes in a collection of Scholem’s studies on Hasidism: Ha-shlav ha-ʾaḥaron, ed. David Assaf and Esther Liebes (Jerusalem: Am Oved and Magnes, 2008), 1–22.


See also Boaz Huss, “Ask No Questions: Gershom Scholem and the Study of Contemporary Jewish Mysticism,” Modern Judaism 25, no. 2 (2005): 144.


Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1958), 202, section 65.


Élie Wiesel, Les portes de la forêt (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1964); The Gates of the Forest, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966); Shaʿarei ha-yaʿar, trans. Yaakov Hason (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1967).


Steve Zeitlin, ed., Because God Loves Stories: An Anthology of Jewish Storytelling (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 297. At the front of the book before the acknowledgments, Zeitlin wrote “Why were human beings created? Because God loves stories” and identified the quote as a “Traditional Jewish Saying adapted from Elie Wiesel.” See also Norma J. Livo and Sandra A. Rietz, Storytelling: Process and Practice (Littleton, co: Libraries Unlimited, 1986), 1, where the line “That is really the reason God made human beings—because He loves to listen to stories” carries the attribution “traditional Hasidic story.” Zeitlin did not include Wiesel’s version in this anthology; he just used the punch line. Zeitlin did, however, include a version in a later work (see below, n. 70). Wiesel’s version has been widely quoted in English literature. See also below, near n. 72.


Élie Wiesel, Célébration hassidique: Portraits et légendes (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), 173; English translation, Souls On Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Summit Books, 1972), 167–168. Translations into other languages: Dutch, Vuur in de duisternis: Chassidische portretten en legenden (Bilthoven: Amboboeken, 1972); Spanish, Retratos y leyendas jasídicos, trans. Amalia Castro and Alberto Manguel (Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor, 1973); German, Chassidische Feier, trans. Margarete Venjakob (Vienna: Europaverlag, 1974); Swedish, Porträtt och legender: Om chassidismen, trans. Kerstin Hallén (Stockholm: Forum, 1978); Italian, Celebrazione hassidica, ed. Angela Musso, trans. Aldo Miani (Milan: Spirali, 1987); Romanian, Celebrare hasidică: Portrete şi legende, trans. Alexandru and Magdalena Boiangiu (Bucharest: Editura Hasefer, 2001); Hebrew, Be-lahat ha-neshamah: Deyuqanot va-ʾaggadot ḥasidim, trans. Michal Zukerman (Tel Aviv: Miskal, 2004). The translation into Romanian may have been connected to Wiesel’s work in leading a commission organized by the Romanian government to research the history of the Holocaust in Romania and the involvement of the Romanian wartime regime in perpetrating atrocities against Jews, Roma, and other groups. The report of the commission was released in 2004.


Kovner, “From Generation to Generation,” 109–110.


In February 1969, a new version of the Passover Haggadah was compiled by Arthur Waskow (b. 1933) and published by Ramparts, an American political and literary magazine that appeared from 1962 until 1975, where Waskow served as a contributing editor. Waskow is associated with the Jewish Renewal movement and is a political activist and author. Waskow’s Haggadah was the first widely circulated Haggadah to celebrate the liberation of other peoples as well as the exodus of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. It was used in what was termed a “Freedom Seder” that was held in the basement of an African-American church in Washington, dc, on the third night of Passover, April 4, 1969, the first anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King. According to Waskow, eight hundred people took part in the event; half were Jews and the remainder African-Americans and white Christians. Waskow’s original 1969 Freedom Seder can be found at the website of The Shalom Center (www.theshalomcenter.org), an organization he founded in 1983 to confront the threat of nuclear war from a Jewish perspective. Since the end of the Cold War, the organization has shifted its focus toward ecology and human rights. Arthur I. Waskow, The Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah for Passover (Washington, dc: Micah Press, 1969, 1970), preface; Arthur Waskow, Godwrestling—Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths (Woodstock, vt: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996), 9–12.


As of June 2014, “The Place in the Forest” can be heard at Novak and Brachfeld’s website, http://www.jewishstorytelling.com/listen.html.


Yisrael Rappaport, Divrei David (Husiatyn: Kawalek, 1904), 59; reprinted in ʿIrin qaddishin, 615n253, my translation.


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