That night, after the Shabbat meal, David tells Reuven about Danny and Mr. Saunders. He gives Danny a pretty intense history lesson.
Essentially, he tells the story of how the type of Hasidism which Reb Saunders practices came in to being.
If you are curious, read on.
Oh, yes – keep in mind that, while historically accurate, this is from David Malter’s perspective.
As David himself told us, there are always multiple perspectives.
In the 1400s, Western European Jews, particularly Jews from Germany, were persecuted.
Most countries did not welcome the persecuted Jews, but Poland was different. Poland itself was in bad shape.
Its aristocrats were broke and its peasants were broken.
Jews had a reputation for getting things organized and stimulating economies, so Poland thought they would be good for the country.
The Jewish people did well in Poland, redeveloping the nation’s economy, creating industry, and building wonderful places of learning. By the end of the 1500s, Poland had become the global center of Jewish learning.
Sounds good, right?
Unfortunately, there was a hitch.
The Jews who emigrated to Poland worked for the Polish nobles and collected taxes from peasants and serfs (slaves).
Needless to say, none of those people wanted to have their taxes collected.
There was much resentment, hostility, and hatred.
And, that wasn’t the only problem.
There existed a community of Cossacks in Russia who were members of the Greek Orthodox Church. At the time, this community was under Polish rule and the Catholic Polish nobles treated the community horribly, taxing even their churches.
The Polish nobles sent in the Jews to do their dirty work.
So, by the time 1648 rolled around, even more hatred was brewing.
That year, Bogdan Chmielnicki, a Cossack leader, led a rebellion against Poland.
In the ten-year revolution, seven hundred Jewish communities were destroyed and a hundred thousand Jews were brutally murdered.
By 1658, there was nary a Jew to be seen in Poland.
David explains that the Chmielnicki uprising created religious conflict among the Jewish people.
Some Jews stopped believing in God altogether; others believed that the disaster was a sign that the Messiah was on his way.
(The Messiah: "The promised deliverer of the Jewish nation and redeemer of the human race prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures".)
A man named Shabbtai Zvi claimed he was the Messiah, and half the Jews in the world believed him. Sadly, he was a fraud.
David says that "Chmielnicki was a physical disaster; the false Messiah was a spiritual disaster."
By the year 1700, the Polish Jews were "a degraded people," and Jewish scholars became more interested in showing off their knowledge, than studying to help the people.
There grew "a wall between the scholars and the people."
At the same time, there was intense superstition among the people. They wanted to find something, anything, to explain their great suffering.
Many uneducated people believed that ghosts and demons were behind the horrible problems that the Jews of Poland were facing.
Some other Jews said that they had the power to drive away these ghosts and demons, and they developed all kinds of rituals to do so.
David Malter pauses with his story to make sure Reuven isn’t bored, and to tell him that the next is more directly related to Danny.
He continues by telling Reuven the story of a boy named Israel who was born to poor parents, orphaned, and essentially raised by the village. Israel eventually founded Hasidism. He even convinced other rabbis that God could be worshipped with a sincere heart, and that study of the Talmud wasn’t that important.
Hasidism really took off and each community had its own Hasidic leader, called a tzaddikim.
Many of these were good people who practiced in the original spirit of Hasidim.
But, eventually, corruption crept in and, while there were still many brilliant and compassionate tzaddikim, many others abused their positions.
Eventually, many Hasidim became insulated and "frozen" in history, dressing and acting like they were still in the 1700s, and not reading secular literature – like the Hasidim we’ve been reading about in this book.
Still, David makes sure that Reuven understands that there are many different kinds of Hasidim, and also that Reb Saunders "is a great Talmudist and a great tzaddik," and that Danny is set to inherit his position (which we already know).
It’s a bit confusing and it gets a bit more so, but look how much we’ve already learned!
So, if you are still with us, there is one last bit of the story (for the time being anyway) that David feels he needs to tell to help Reuven understand Danny.
He tells him to think of Danny when he’s listening.
It’s the story of Solomon Maimon, a Polish man who lived in the mid-1700s.
Like Danny, he was steeped in Talmudic learning, but soon found that he was too smart to be content with the Talmud alone.
He sought out secular literature and philosophy, even though it was forbidden, absorbed it and eventually wrote influential and brilliant philosophy himself.
David’s point is that Danny is a complete and total prodigy, like Solomon, and, because he lives in America, he is totally free to pursue any the education he wants without worrying about anything happening to him.
David says that Reuven has a fine mind, but that we find a mind like Danny’s "only once in a generation." It should not go to waste.
But what a lonely life he leads.
David wants Reuven to understand just how much Danny needs a good friend. He says that they are bound by the baseball-in-the-eye thing, and that they should let each other become good friends.
Reuven spends a little time telling his father how amazed he is about how much everything has changed, but David is pretty spent from all that talking and he tells Reuven to go to bed so that he can drink his tea.