Hasidic Judaism (from the Hebrew: חסידות ) meaning “piety” is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality through the popularization and internalization of Jewish mysticism as the fundamental aspect of the faith. It was founded in 18th-century Eastern Europe by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700 – 176) ( רבי ישראל בן אליעזר) often called The Baal Shem Tov. The Hebrew literally translates as “Master of the Good Name”, i.e. “Master of God’s name”, indicating that he was seen as a miracle worker.
Hasidic Judaism was initially born as a reaction against overly legalistic Judaism, although later generations of Hasids eventually readopted a very strict interpretation of Orthodox halakhah. His example began the characteristic veneration of leadership in Hasidism as embodiments and intercessors of Divinity for the followers. Contrary to this, Hasidic teachings cherished the sincerity and concealed holiness of the unlettered common folk, and their equality with the scholarly elite.
The emphasis on the Immanent Divine presence in everything gave new value to prayer and deeds of kindness, alongside rabbinical supremacy of study, and replaced historical mystical (kabbalistic) and ethical (musar) asceticism and admonishment with Simcha, encouragement, and daily fervor. Hasidism today comprises part of contemporary Haredi Judaism, alongside the Yeshivish (non-Hasidic, right-wing Orthodox) approach and the Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions.
Its mysticism has inspired non-Orthodox Neo-Hasidic thinkers and influenced wider modern Jewish denominations, while its scholarly thought has interested contemporary academic study.
Each Hasidic dynasty follows its own principles; thus, Hasidic Judaism is not one movement but a collection of separate groups with some commonality. There are approximately 30 larger Hasidic groups, and several hundred smaller groups. Though there is no one version of Hasidism, individual Hasidic groups often share with each other underlying philosophy, worship practices, dress (borrowed from local cultures), and songs (borrowed from local cultures).
Historical origins of Hasidic Judaism
In Poland, where the bulk of Yiddish-speaking Jewry had established itself by the 18th century, several approaches to Judaism developed.
* Some were against the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism)
* some supported Kabbalah
This schism became particularly acute after the disastrous Jewish Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century. In Lithuania and Estonia, Jews lived mainly in densely populated towns where anti-kabbalistic (mysticism) rabbinical academic culture flourished. In Poland Jews tended to live scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers. In these villages, the influence of the kabbalists (mystics) prevailed; while other communities of Yiddish speakers were becoming secular, finding commonality with the
Pessimism in the south was more intense after the Cossacks’ Uprising (1648–1654) under the genocidal, anti-Semitic Chmielnicki, and the turbulent times in Poland (1648–1660). The general population of Poland itself declined and economic chaos reigned. After the Polish magnates regained control of southern Rus in the last decade of the 17th century, an economic renaissance ensued. The state of the Jews of what would later become southern Russia, created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread in the area from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century.
At this time, rabbinic Judaism in Europe had become transformed into a system of religious formalism, no longer provided a satisfactory religious experience for many Jews.
Mystical individuals arose, called Baal Shem (“Masters of the Name” of God, used for healing and miracles); they sought to offer the masses spiritual and physical encouragement, and practical healing. The image of these charismatic figures, often wandering among the people, became shaped by the Kabbalistic legend of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim (36 hidden righteous people who sustain the world).
From these circles of spiritual inspiration, the early Hasidic movement arose, led by Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, in 18th century Podolia (now Ukraine). He is also commonly known by the acronym, the BeShT (Baal Shem Tov)
Hasidic Jewish literature itself offers little detailed historical information on the Baal Shem Tov’s life and influences; only in recent decades have historians tracked down original documentation from that time period in Eastern Europe, and in so doing have shined a light on the theological influences of Hasidism, including influences from the Khlysty Sect, a splinter Christian group. Yaffa Eliach writes, in “The Russian Dissenting Sects and their influence on Israel Baal Shem Tov.”
Until now, it has been generally accepted that in founding the Hassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov drew exclusively from ancient Jewish sources: the mystic writings of the Kabbala, the Bible and its various commentaries, later Rabbinical writings and – to a lesser extent – the Talmud. However, the Rabbinical authorities at the time of the beginning of the Hassadic movement certainly did not see Hassidism as part of normative Judaism, for they fought violently against it. Today, a close examination of Hassidic sources, its customs, dances, songs, and dress shows that Hassidism indeed drew heavily on sources foreign to Judaism: the Russian Schismatics and Dissenters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Besht’s life was greatly influenced by manuscripts received through a certain Reb Adam…It should be noted, as was pointed out by Dubnow, that Adam was “a strange name; it was never used by Jews.” Professor Scholem is also puzzled by the name Adam and he suggests that it was a fictitious name…While Adam is not a Jewish name, it is the name of a prominent man of letters who lived in Russia during the last decades of the seventeenth century who wrote a number of books on religion. [who turns out to be a sectarian Christian philosopher]
This is not to say that Hasidic philosophy is identical to Christian, but many historians say that there are neo-Christian theological elements in Hasidus, which do have strong theological implications.
At this time in Eastern Europe there were also public preachers (“Maggidim”), who would visit the shuls (synagogues) of the shtetls (towns and villages). During their sermons, they would encourag observance with ethical promises and warnings of Heaven and Hell. The Baal Shem Tov opposed their use of admonishments of punishment, which in their view lacked love and inner spiritual values. Under the early Hasidic movement, ideas of reward and punishment were often avoided, and were replaced by the spiritual life of dveikus (cleaving) to God in all daily conduct.
Israel ben Eliezer’s disciples attracted many followers, who established Hasidic courts across Europe.
After the Besht’s death, followers continued his cause, under the Maggid, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch. By the 1830s a large percent of Jews in Ukraine, Galicia, and central Poland were Hasidic.
After the passing of Rabbi Dov Ber, his inner circle of followers informally agreed to divide their teachings in Europe into different territories. Hasidism branched out into two main divisions: (1) in Ukraine and in Galicia (Central Europe) and (2) in Litta (Greater Lithuania from the time when it encompassed Belarus). Elimelech of Lizhensk fully developed the belief in Tzaddikism as a fundamental doctrine of Hasidism. In his book No’am Elimelekh he conveys the idea of the Tzadik (“righteous one”) as the mediator between God and the common people.
Lithuanian Hasidim followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Habad Hasidism, and Rabbi Aharon of Karlin.
A serious schism evolved between Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were referred to as misnagdim ( נגד, literally, opponents). Critics of Hasidic Judaism:
* decried the novel Hasidic emphasis on different aspects of Jewish law.
* found problematic the exuberance of Hasidic worship and outward dress.
* expressed concern that Hasidism might become a deviant messianic sect (similar to what had occurred among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, Sabbatai Zevi, and Jacob Frank).
* did not accept the Hasidic belief in miracle workers – namely that the Ba’al Shem Tov and some of his disciples literally performed miracles. Stories of their miracles became a part of Hasidic literature. Misnagdim held such views as heretical.
* did not agree with the basis of Hasidic philosophy (chasidus) – the belief that God permeates all physical objects in nature, including all living beings. Depending on how this is interpreted, this philosophy is formally known as either pantheism, or panentheism. Many Jewish religious rationalists view this as a violation against the Maimonidean principle of faith that God is not physical, and thus considered it heretical.
* Misnagdim regarded hasidim as pursuing a less scholarly approach to Judaism.
Hasidic Jews eventually were put in cherem (communal excommunication); only after many years of bitter acrimony, a rapprochement occurred between Hasidic Jews and their opponents within Orthodox Judaism. The reconciliation took place in response to the perceived even greater threat of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. Despite this, the sharp distinctions between the various sects of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews remain.