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Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Judaism (also spelled Chasidic) was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, or the Besht. Hasidic Judaism was formed in a time of persecution of the Jewish people, and in a time when European Jews had turned inward to Talmud study; many Jews at this time felt that most expressions of Jewish life had become too academic, and that they no longer had any emphasis on spirituality or joy. The Ba'al Shem Tov set out to change this.

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Prelude to the Hasidic movement

In Poland, where since the sixteenth century the bulk of the Jewry had established itself, the struggle between traditional rabbinic Judaism and radical Kabbalah influenced mysticism became particularly acute after the Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi. Leanings toward mystical doctrines and sectarianism showed themselves prominently among the Jews of the southwestern provinces of Poland, while in the north-western provinces, in Lithuania, and in White Russia, rabbinical Orthodoxy held sway. This was due in part to the social difference between the northern Lithuanian Jews and the southern Jews of the Ukraine. In Lithuania the Jewish masses were mainly gathered in densely populated towns where rabbinical academic culture (in the yeshibot) was in a flourishing state; while in the Ukraine the Jews were more scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers.

Pessimism in the south became more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising under Bohdan Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648-60), which completely ruined the Jewry of the Ukraine, but left comparatively untouched that of Lithuania. The economic and spiritual decline of the South-Russian Jews created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread there from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century.

Besides these influences there were deeply seated causes that produced among many Jews a discontent with rabbinism and a gravitation toward mysticism. Rabbinism, which in Poland had become transformed into a system of religious formalism, no longer provided satisfactory religious experience to many Jews. Although traditional Judaism had adopted some features of Kabbalah, it adapted them to fit its own system: it added to its own ritualism the asceticism of the "practical cabalists" of the East, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practises, suitable for individuals and hermits, was not suitable to the bulk of the Jews.

Hasidism gave a ready response to the burning desire of the common people in its simple, stimulating, and comforting faith. In contradistinction to other sectarian teaching, early Hasidism aimed not at dogmatic or ritual reform, but at a deeper psychological one. Its aim was to change not the belief, but the believer. By means of psychological suggestion it created a new type of religious man, a type that placed emotion above reason and rites, and religious exaltation above knowledge.

Israel ben Eliezer

The founder of Hasidism was Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba'al Shem Tov, also known as the Besht. His fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. He was said to at times successfully predict the future.

Besht was the idol of the common people. Characterized by an extraordinary sincerity and simplicity, he knew how to gain an insight into the spiritual needs of the masses. He taught them that true religion was not religious scholarship, but a sincere love of God combined with warm faith and belief in the efficacy of prayer; that a plain man filled with a sincere belief in God, and whose prayers come from the heart, is more acceptable to God than a person versed in and fully observant of Jewish law. This democratization of Judaism attracted to the teachings of Besht not only the common people, but also the scholars whom the rabbinical scholasticism and ascetic Kabbala failed to satisfy.

About 1740 Besht established himself in the Podolian town of Miedzyboz. He gathered about him numerous disciples and followers, whom he initiated into the secrets of his teachings not by systematic exposition, but by means of sayings and parables. These sayings were transmitted orally, and were later written down by his disciples, who developed the disjointed thoughts of their master into a system. Besht himself did not write anything. Being a mystic by nature, he regarded his teachings as a prophetic revelation.

Fundamental Conceptions

The teachings of Hasidism are founded on two theoretical conceptions: (1) religious panentheism, or the omnipresence of God, and (2) the idea of Devekut, communion between God and man. "Man," says Besht, "must always bear in mind that God is omnipresent and is always with him; that God is, so to speak, the most subtle matter everywhere diffused....Let man realize that when he is looking at material things he is in reality gazing at the image of the Deity which ispresent in all things. With this in mind man will always serve God even in small matters."

Devekut (communion) refers to the belief that between the world of God and the world of humanity there is an unbroken intercourse. It is true not only that the Deity influences the acts of man, but also that man exerts an influence on the will of the Deity. Every act and word of man produces a corresponding vibration in the upper spheres. From this conception is derived the chief practical principle of Hasidism — communion with God for the purpose of uniting with the source of life and of influencing it. This communion is achieved through the concentration of all thoughts on God, and consulting Him in all the affairs of life.

The righteous man is in constant communion with God, even in his worldly affairs, since here also he feels His presence. An especial form of communion with God is prayer. In order to render this communion complete the prayer must be full of fervor, ecstatic; and the soul of him who prays must during his devotions detach itself, so to speak, from its material dwelling. For the attainment of ecstasy recourse may be had to mechanical means, to violent bodily motions, to shouting and singing. According to Besht, the essence of religion is in sentiment and not in reason. Theological learning and halakic lore are of secondary importance, and are useful only when they serve as a means of producing an exalted religious mood. It is better to read books of moral instruction than to engage in the study of the casuistic Talmud and the rabbinical literature. In the performance of rites the mood of the believer is of more importance than the externals; for this reason formalism and superfluous ceremonial details are injurious.

The spread of Hasidism

Israel ben Eliezer's disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. After the Besht's death, his cause was carried on by his followers, especially Dovber of Mezeritch. From his court students went forth; they in turn attracted many Jews to Hasidism, and many of them came to study in Mezhirech with Dov Baer personally. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life of the majority of Jews in the Ukraine, Galicia, and central Poland; the movement also had sizable groups of followers in Belorussia-Lithuania and Hungary. Hasidic Judaism came to Western Europe and then to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.

Hasidism gradually branched out into two main divisions: (1) in the Ukraine and in Galicia and (2) in Lithuania. The first of these divisions was directed by three disciples of Dovber of Mezeritch: Elimelech of Lezhinsk[?], Levi Yitzchak[?] of Berdichev, and Menachem Nahum[?] of Chernobyl, besides the grandson of Besnt, Baruch of Tulchin. Elimelech of Lezhinsk[?] affirmed that belief in Tzaddikism is a fundamental doctrine of Hasidism. In his book "No'am Elimelekh" he conveys the idea that the Tzaddik ("saint") is the mediator between God and the common people, and that through him God sends to the faithful three earthly blessings, life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Hasidim support the Tzaddik by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonim"), in order to enable the holy man to become completely absorbed in the contemplation of God. Lithuanian Hasidim followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

Practically this teaching led to the contribution by the people of their last pennies toward the support of their tzaddik ("rebbe"), and the tzaddik untiringly "poured forth blessings on the earth, healed the sick, cured women of sterility," etc. The vocation of tzaddik was made hereditary. There was a multiplication of Hasidic dynasties contesting for supremacy.

Hasidim versus non-Hasidim

Early on, there was a serious schism between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed by the Hasidim as "mitnagdim", (lit. opponents). Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism was a novel emphasis on different aspects of Jewish laws; even more problematic was the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship; their untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and Miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messainic sect, which in fact had occurred among the followers of both Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank.

On a more prosaic level, other Mitnagdim[?] argued that Jews should follow a more scholarly approach to Judaism. At one point Hasidic Jews were put in cherem (a Jewish form of communal excommunication); after years of bitter acrimony, there was a rapprochement between Hasidic Jews and those who would soon become known as Orthodox Jews. Since then all the sects of Hasidic Judaism have been subsumed into Orthodox Judaism, particulary Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

During the Holocaust the Hasidic centers of Eastern Europe were destroyed. Survivors moved to Israel or America, and established new centers of Hasidic Judaism. Some of the larger and more well-known Hasidic sects still extant include Breslov, Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Ger, and Bobov Hasidim.

There has been significant revival of interest in Hasidic Judaism on the part of non-Orthodox Jews due to the writings of non-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish authors like Martin Buber, Arthur Green[?] and Abraham Joshua Heschel. As such, one now finds some minor Hasidic influences in the siddurim (prayerbooks) of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.

See also: Orthodox Judaism, Neturei Karta, Judaism

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