Hasidic Judaism (from the Hebrew: חסידות ) meaning “piety” is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality through Jewish mysticism as the fundamental aspect of the faith.
Hasidism was founded in 18th-century Eastern Europe by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700 – 176) ( רבי ישראל בן אליעזר) who Jews call the Baal Shem Tov.
Hasidic Judaism was initially born as a reaction against overly legalistic Judaism, although later generations of Hasids eventually readopted a strict interpretation of Orthodox halakhah.
Hasidic teachings cherished the sincerity and concealed holiness of the unlettered common folk, and their equality with the scholarly elite. Later generations of Hasidism reversed this idea, seeing the holiness of their sect’s rebbe as the embodiment and pinnacle of holiness.
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, joy and daily fervor.
Hasidism today comprises part of contemporary Haredi Judaism [right wing Orthodox], alongside the Yeshivish (non-Hasidic, right-wing Orthodox,) the Modern Orthodox, and the Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions.
Hasidism has inspired non-Orthodox neo-Hasidic thinkers and influenced wider modern Jewish denominations, while its scholarly thought has interested contemporary academic study.
Not one but many groups
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
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.
Schism 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.
What makes Hasidic Judaism distinct from other forms of rabbinical Judaism? There is, of course, not a clear, black & white line when distinguishing one religious group from another. But there are general trends that are usually noticeable.
Devekut (communion with God)
Joseph Dan writes
“Before Hasidism, it is asserted, devekut was described as the pinnacle of religious and mystical achievement, a temporary spiritual status attained by the devout for short periods of time. By contrast, Hasidism, it is claimed, considered devekut the initial rung of the spiritual ladder of ascension, which should be maintained constantly during the ordinary Hasid’s daily life and work.” Interestingly, Dan holds that “In most Hasidic sects, for example, communion with God was replaced as a guiding principle by adhesion to the tsadik.”
Transformation and elevation of evil to goodness
Joseph Dan writes “Hasidim believe that evil thoughts (maḥashavot zarot) and inclinations that haunt a person, especially during worship, contain spiritual energy that originally emanated from the divine realms of goodness and were disfigured in the lower world. The task of the Hasid is neither to ignore this energy nor to overcome it, but rather to elevate it to its source and transform it back into goodness, thus strengthening the powers of good and weakening those of evil. ”
Belief that let atar panui mineh (no place is empty of God)
“the divine presence is in every aspect of existence; a person is always surrounded by and immersed in it, and the recognition of this is the paramount directive that should guide one’s emotional and intellectual behavior.”
Veneration of the Tzadik/Rebbe
Hasidic Jews see their Rebbe as an intercessor between them and God, which all other Jewish groups see as a violation of the Jewish principles of faith.
Joseph Dan writes “The tsadik uses this power in order to uplift his followers’ prayers to the divine world, pleading that their sins be forgiven and their repentance accepted, and that divine providence be perpetually extended to them. By putting their faith in their tsadik, Hasidim are assured of constant contact with God as mediated by the tsadik; the closer they are to him—visiting him frequently on holidays, living close to the town of his residence—the closer they are to divine providence and protection.”
“On the physical or material level, Hasidim are obligated to supply the tsadik and his family with all their worldly needs.”
Highest level of tighteousness is inherited, not earned
“Hasidim are loyal to the dynastic family of the tsadik not as individuals but as a family, and the affiliation is continued from generation to generation; it becomes the definitive marker of identity for Hasidic families. Thus, in the Hasidic community the meaning of the term Ḥasid is not the historical one—“a pious person”—but rather an adherent of this or that dynasty of tsadikim.