Prof. Joseph G. Weiss was one of the 20th century's leading scholars of Hasidism. Following Weiss's tragic death in 1969, his mentor Gershom Scholem selected 250 books from his former student's personal collection to be brought to the National Library in Jerusalem. Yet something happened along the way. To this day it's not clear what became of many of these books...
Prof. Joseph G. Weiss (1918-1969), was one of the foremost students of Prof. Gershom Scholem. He would go on to direct the Institute of Jewish Studies at University College London and edit its “Journal of Jewish Studies”. Weiss left behind a scholarly oeuvre which, although sometimes debated and criticized, is without a doubt the forerunner of modern Hasidic studies. He was ahead of his time, and that perhaps explains the current reawakening of fascination with his work.
Weiss’s untimely and tragic death and the publication of his correspondence with Gershom Scholem a decade ago have also contributed to the great interest both in Weiss the scholar, and in Weiss the man.
I would like to offer some brief observations regarding the Hasidic books that were held in Weiss’s personal library, and their mysterious fate. After Weiss’s death in 1969, his widow Erna decided to sell his Judaica collection through the agencies of Weiss’s friend and colleague at University College London, Prof. Chimen Abramsky, who also worked as a book dealer. Prof. Jacob Taubes of the Judaica Institute of the Berlin Free University, Scholem’s student (and later nemesis), and an early friend of Weiss, purchased the collection for his institute. However, when the books arrived in Berlin, he noticed that many of the most important volumes were missing. It seems that Weiss, in his will, had given permission to his mentor Scholem to have first choice of the books that he wanted for the collection of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, and needless to say, Scholem had selected the best. Taubes in response angrily cancelled the agreement and returned the remainder of the collection to London, where they were subsequently auctioned.
Extensive correspondence exists in the archives of the National Library of Israel regarding the transfer of “250 books” (“mostly on Hasidism”) from Weiss’s library, that arrived in Jerusalem in February 1970. Some of the correspondence is in the Joseph Weiss archives, and some in non-catalogued folders of donor information. Some of the letters, mostly between Erna Weiss and Dr. I. Adler, who was then the Library’s Director, mention a list of the 250 books, which I have sadly not been able to locate.
Here we see correspondence between Erna Weiss and the Dr. Adler, then Director of the JNUL, regarding the shipping of 250 books (mostly on Hasidism) from Weiss’s estate to the Library. In Erna’s response she refers to a list of the books which was needed for legal purposes. This is the list that I am still searching for.
Shortly after their arrival, the reception of the volumes was noted in the Library’s inventory, which specifically lists Noam Elimelech and Ohr HaMeir, apparently as the only two which the Library did not previously hold. I am still searching for these two volumes.
Approximately one hundred of the volumes were in Hebrew and some 150 in other languages. Some of them contained marginalia in Weiss’s handwriting. By February 1970, the Library reported to Erna Weiss that the volumes had all arrived and in May wrote explicitly that the three special volumes that she had handpicked for Scholem’s personal collection had all been located. The three are Sipurei Maasiot, Yosher Divrei Emet and Ketonet Pasim. In Sipurei Maasiot, the most heavily annotated of the three, Weiss had the book rebound with a blank page for notes next to each page of text, a method that he probably learned from Scholem.
The other two volumes that Erna Weiss had sent for Scholem himself, were two upon which Weiss had published articles, Yosher Divrei Emet and Ketonet Pasim.
Strangely, these books are not located in the Scholem Collection, but rather in the Rare Book Division. All were copied onto one microfilm and later scanned, and are available here.
In total there are currently some eight Hasidic books with Weiss’s annotations in the Rare Book Division, and others in the Scholem Collection.
Some, such as Ketonet Passim, and Haim V’Hesed of R. Haim of Amdor, Weiss had previously published articles on. The other volumes with (less extensive) notes that have been located are, Noam Elimelech,
and Hayim V’Hesed by R. Haim of Amdor.
A handwritten English note dated 21.12.75 and preserved at the National Library, describes a visit by “Mrs. Erna Weiss, accompanied by Prof Y. [Isaiah] Tishby…and her son [the poet Amos Weisz], came in to inquire what had become of her husband’s collection – mainly ‘Hassidut’ – sent 1970 via London…. apparently, the collection was to be kept intact… (Prof. G. Scholem also took an active role)”. In a second note from a few days later we learn that “Prof. P. [Peretz] Tishby, Chief librarian…telephoned to inform me that most of the collection, as well as relevant correspondence and inventory of the collection is in the Dept. of Manuscripts and Archives – no need to search further”.
On the other hand, Jonatan Meir has written that, “Due to Scholem’s intervention some 250 volumes arrived in Jerusalem, yet a large portion of them mysteriously disappeared”. Sadly, this indeed seems to be the case. In retrospect, it is well known that Scholem’s desperate attempts to preserve the life of his beloved student, ultimately failed. More surprising is that the preservation of Weiss’s library also fell short of Scholem’s usual efficiency. For the world of Hasidic research, this is a double tragedy.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Weiss’s student, Prof. Ada Rapoport-Albert, z”l, who first encouraged me to look into the fate of Weiss’s books at the National Library of Israel.
For Further Reading:
Works of Weiss
Joseph Weiss, unpublished Hebrew dissertation on Dialectical Torah and Faith in R. Nahman of Breslov, can be viewed here
Joseph Weiss, Circles of Discussion: A Collection of Discourses and Customs of R. Nahman of Breslov, Tel-Aviv 1947.
Joseph Weiss, Studies in Braslav Hassidism (Hebrew, Mendel Piekarz, ed.), Jerusalem 1974.
Joseph Weiss, Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, London and Portland (David Goldstein, ed.), 1985, 1997.
Joseph Weiss, Likutim, (Hebrew, Avinoam Stillman and Yosef Sweig, eds.), Jerusalem 2019.
Works on Weiss
Daniel Abrams, “The Becoming of the Hasidic Book”: An Unpublished Article by Joseph Weiss, Study, Edition and English Translation, in Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts vol. 28 (2012), pp. 7-34.
Joseph Dan, Joseph Weiss Today, in Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, pp. ix-xx.
Jacob Katz, Joseph G. Weiss: A Personal Appraisal, in (Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed.), Hasidism Reappraised, London and Portland 1996, pp. 3-9.
Esther Liebes, On Joseph Weiss [Hebrew], in (David Assaf and Esther Liebes, ed.), The Latest Phase: Essays on Hasidism by Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem 2008, pp. 313-315.
Shaul Magid, The Correspondence of Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss, Between Zionism and Friendship, in The Jewish Quarterly Review (summer 2017) 423-440.
Jonatan Meir, Tiqqun ha-Paradox: Josegh G. Weiss, Gershom Scholem, and the Lost Dissertation on R. Nahman of Bratslav [Hebrew], in Mahshevet Yisrael 4 (2023), pp. 151-206.
Jerry Z. Muller, Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes, Princeton and London, 2022, pp. 322-323.
Muki Tzur, Introduction, in (Muki Tzur, ed.), Joseph Weiss: Love Letters to Channa Senesh [Hebrew], Tel-Aviv 1996, pp. 5-19.
Sara Ora Heller Wilensky, A Portrait of Friendship: The Correspondence of Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss 1949-1957 [Hebrew], in Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, 3:2 (Jewish Thought and Literature), Jerusalem 1990, pp. 57-64.
Sara Ora Heller Wilensky, Joseph Weiss: Letters to Ora, in (Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed.), Hasidism Reappraised, London and Portland 1996, pp 10-41,
Noam Zadoff, On Joseph Weiss and Gershom Scholem: Introductory Words, in (Noam Zadoff, ed.), Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss: Correspondence 1948-1964, Jerusalem 2012, [Hebrew], pp. 10-32.