Although contemporary Jews often use the word "Hasid" as a synonym for ultra-Orthodox, Hasidism, a religious movement that arose in eighteenth century Eastern Europe, was originally regarded as revolutionary and religiously liberal. Its opponents, known as Mitnagdim, were themselves Orthodox Jews. More than any thing else, the stories that each group told about its rabbinic leaders exemplify the differences among them. The Mitnagdim were proud of the fact that their leader, the Vilna Gaon, had delivered an advanced discourse on the Talmud when he was only seven years old, and that he studied Jewish texts eighteen hours a day.
The founder of Hasidism, Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, was the hero of very different sorts of tales. The Hasidim told of how he spent his teenage years working in a job with low status, as assistant in a Jewish elementary school, a cheder. He would round up the students from their homes each morning and lead them to school singing songs. Later, after he married, he and his wife went to live in the faroff Carpathian Mountains. There, the Ba'al Shem Tov worked as a laborer, digging clay and lime, which his wife then sold in town. The couple later kept an inn.
During these years, the Ba'al Shem Tov spent much time in the nearby forest in meditation and solitude. His Hasidic followers subsequently likened this period to the years of isolation and meditation that Moses spent in Midian, tending the flocks of his fatherinlaw.
Around 1736, the Ba'al Shem Tov revealed himself as a healer and a leader. His last name, which literally means "Master of the Good Name," was one that was frequently applied in Jewish life to miracle workers and healers. In 1740, he moved to Meziboz, a town near the borders of both Poland and the Ukraine, and not far from Lithuania. Disciples started coming to him from the surrounding countries, but the talks delivered by the Ba'al Shem Tov differed dramatically from lectures offered at a yeshiva; they focused far more on an individual's personal relationship with God and with his fellowman than on the intricacies of Jewish law. The stories Hasidim later told about the Ba'al Shem Tov — usually referred to by his acronym, the Besht — invariably depict him with a pipe in hand, telling seemingly secular tales with deep religious meanings. He died in 1760, leaving behind Dov Baer of Mezrich as his successor. Shortly before his death, the Besht told the people standing near his bed: "I grieve not at my death, for I can see a door opening while the other is closing."
Many of the dominant themes in the Besht's teachings became the central emphases in the Hasidic movement that his followers developed. There were statements of the Besht, not entirely innovative, which placed great stress on aspects of Judaism that the Mitnagdim generally ignored: the heart, for example. The Besht was particularly fond of a talmudic statement, "God desires the heart" (Sanhedrin 106b), which he interpreted as meaning that for God, a pure religious spirit mattered more than knowledge of the Talmud. It is told of the Besht that one Yom Kippur a poor Jewish boy, an illiterate shepherd, entered the synagogue where he was praying. The boy was deeply moved by the service, but frustrated that he could not read the prayers. He started to whistle, the one thing he knew he could do beautifully; he wanted to offer his whistling as a gift to God. The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out. The Ba'al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. "Until now," he said, "I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd's whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to God."
Another ancient Jewish doctrine that was given particular emphasis by the Ba'al Shem Tov was based on a verse in Isaiah: "The whole world is full of His glory" (6:13). If the whole world is full of God's glory, the Besht reasoned, then the Mitnagdim and the ascetics were wrong in thinking that one had to turn one's back on the pleasures of the world. "Don't deny that a girl is beautiful," the Besht would say. "Just be sure that your recognition of her beauty brings you back to its source-God." If one could do that, then even physical pleasures could bring about spiritual growth.
Because the world was full of God, the Besht believed that a person always should be joyful. Indeed, the greatest act of creativity comes about in an atmosphere of joy: "No child is born except through pleasure and joy," the Besht declared. "By the same token, if one wishes his prayers to bear fruit, he must offer them with pleasure and joy." This doctrine was a strong challenge to many ideas current among Jews in the Besht's time. Many religious Jews, particularly among the kabbalists, preached asceticism, and advocated that Jews fast every Monday and Thursday. The Ba'al Shem Tov warned people against such practices, fearing that they would lead to melancholy, not joy.
To outsiders, unaccustomed to the Besht's teachings, Hasidic prayer services sometimes seemed undignified, even chaotic. In fulfillment of the Psalmist's ecstatic declaration, "All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like You?" (Psalms 35:10), worshipers were capable of performing handstands. Characteristically, the Besht defended such practices at Hasidic services with a story. A deaf man passed by a hall where a wedding reception was being celebrated. When he looked through the window, he saw people engaged in exultant and tumultuous dancing. But because he could not hear the music, he assumed they were mad.
The Besht also taught that the Tzaddik (the religious leader of the Hasidim) should serve as a model of how to lead a religious life. However, he did not emphasize the doctrine of the Tzaddik nearly as much as some of his successors, particularly Dov Baer of Mezrich, who made it central to Hasidism. Dov Baer, the leader of the Hasidim after the Baal Shem Tov's death, taught that God revealed Himself through the Tzaddik's most trivial actions; one of Dov Baer's followers said, "I didn't go to him to learn Torah, but to see him unbuckle his shoes." Dov Baer taught that the ideal Tzaddik had a closer relationship to God than the average Jew, and could bestow blessings on people. In return, it was understood that the Hasidim must bring their Tzaddik gifts.
The belief in the power and greatness of the Tzaddik became one of Hasidism's strongest-and most controversial-ideas. Hasidism's opponents charged that the Tzaddikim (plural) often enriched themselves at the expense of their followers. In the generation after Dov Baer, numerous new Hasidic groups were formed, each with its own Tzaddik, referred to as a rebbe. These rebbes became a kind of Jewish royalty. When one died, he was succeeded by either his son or soninlaw. Those Hasidic groups that established eminent family dynasties became successful. Many Hasidic groups, however, went into decline when their rebbe died and left behind less capable successors.
The best known group of Hasidim in the United States are the Lubavitcher, who are headquartered in Brooklyn. Their current rebbe is Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the seventh leader since the movement was founded in the late 1700s. But though Lubavitch is the one Hasidic group nonOrthodox Jews are most apt to meet-because of the movement's various outreach programs-there are dozens of other Hasidic dynasties in the United States (many of them located in Brooklyn) and in Israel.
In their early years, the Hasidim were actively persecuted by the Mitnagdim, who feared they would become another heretical sect, similar to that of Shabbetai Zevi. But in its formative stages, Hasidism wisely put its primary emphasis on personal religious growth rather than on national salvation, and it downplayed the messianic element. This was not enough, however, to appease the Mitnagdim. Other Hasidic traits, such as their laissezfaire attitude toward the appropriate hours for prayer, bitterly provoked their opponents. The Hasidim answered that they couldn't legislate precise hours for reciting each of the three daily prayer services; they prayed with such intensity (kavannah) that they couldn't do so while looking at a watch.
The Israeli historian Jacob Katz has documented how other practices provocatively separated the Hasidim from their neighbors. For example, Hasidim advocated using a sharper knife when slaughtering animals than the one used by the Mitnagdim's slaughterers. Such stringency had a socially divisive effect: The Hasidim no longer could eat at the Mitnagdim's houses. The Hasidim also adopted a different prayerbook, so that their synagogue service differed somewhat from that of other Jews and had to be conducted separately. Their most brilliant act of "public relations" was labeling themselves Hasidim, the Hebrew word for both "pious" and "saintly," while calling their adversaries Mitnagdim, Hebrew for "opponents." These terms made the Hasidim seem like the more dynamic and positive of the two groups.
With the passage of time, the Hasidim and Mitnagdim recognized that their differences were increasingly inconsequential, particularly after both groups found themselves facing a common enemy: the nineteenth century Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. Jewish parents who once feared that their Hasidic or Mitnagdish child might go over to the other camp, were now far more afraid that their child might become altogether irreligious.
An additional factor that lessened the HasidicMitnagdish split was nineteenth and twentieth century Hasidism's increasing emphasis on Talmud study. As the movement expanded, it put less emphasis on meditation and communing with God, and more on traditional Jewish learning. As a result, Hasidim today are no longer regarded as revolutionaries; in fact, they are the conservative stalwarts of Orthodox Judaism, easily recognized by the eighteenth and nineteenth century black coats and hats worn by most of their male adherents.
Nonetheless, the Hasidic approach to Judaism significantly differs from that of the Mitnagdim. Hasidism generally places a much greater stress on simcha shel mitzvah — the joy of performing a commandment.
Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author