What Is Hasidic Philosophy?
Hasidic philosophy or Hasidism (חסידות), alternatively transliterated as Hasidut or Chassidus, consists of the teachings of the Hasidic movement, which are the teachings of the Hasidic rebbes, often in the form of commentary on the Torah (the Five books of Moses) and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Hasidism deals with a range of spiritual concepts such as God, the soul, and the Torah, dealing with esoteric matters but often making them understandable, applicable and finding practical expressions.
With the spread of Hasidism throughout Ukraine, Galicia, Poland, and Russia, divergent schools emerged within Hasidism. Some schools place more stress on intellectual understanding of the Divine, others on the emotional connection with the Divine. Some schools stress specific traits or exhibit behavior not common to other schools.
Etymologically, the term, “hasid” is a title used for various pious individuals and by various Jewish groups since Biblical times, and an earlier movement, the Hasidei Ashkenaz of medieval Germany was also called by this name. Today, the terms hasidut and hasid generally connote Hasidic philosophy and the followers of the Hasidic movement.
Main article: Hasidic Judaism or Hasidism
The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov are founded on two key ideas: 1) religious pantheism (or panentheism), or the omnipresence of God, and 2) the idea of communion between God and man. The doctrines of the Baal Shem Tov include the teaching of the individual’s duty to serve God in every aspect of his or her daily life, the concept of divine providence as extending to every individual and even to each particular in the inanimate world, the doctrine of Continuous Creation that the true reality of all things is the “word” of God brought all things into being and continuously keeps them in existence.
In line with the Kabbalah, The Baal Shem Tov taught that the end of worship of God is attachment to God (devekut), which primarily is the service of the heart rather than the mind. The Baal Shem Tov emphasized the rabbinic teaching “God desires the heart” as the obligation of intention of the heart (kavanah) in the fulfilment of the mitzvot. Where the Baal Shem Tov departs from Kabbalah is his notion that devekut may be attained through even the sincere recitation of prayers and psalms.
Development of Hasidic schools of thought
Some Hasidic “courts”, and not a few individual prominent masters, developed distinct philosophies with particular accentuation of various themes in the movement’s general teachings. Several of these Hasidic schools had lasting influence over many dynasties, while others died with their proponents. In the doctrinal sphere, the dynasties may be divided along many lines. Some are characterized by rebbes who are predominantly Torah scholars and decisors, deriving their authority much like ordinary non-Hasidic rabbis do. Such “courts” place great emphasis on strict observance and study, and are among the most meticulous in the Orthodox world in practice. Prominent examples are the House of Sanz and its scions, such as Satmar, or Belz. Other sects, like Vizhnitz, espouse a charismatic-populist line, centered on the admiration of the masses for the Righteous, his effervescent style of prayer and conduct and his purported miracle-working capabilities. Fewer still retain a high proportion of the mystical-spiritualist themes of early Hasidism, and encourage members to study much kabbalistic literature and (carefully) engage in the field. The various Ziditchover dynasties mostly adhere to this philosophy.
Others still focus on contemplation and achieving inner perfection. No dynasty is wholly devoted to a single approach of the above, and all offer some combination with differing emphasis on each of those.
In 1812, a schism occurred between the Seer of Lublin and his prime disciple, the Holy Jew of Przysucha, due to both personal and doctrinal disagreements. The Seer adopted a populist approach, centered on the Righteous’ theurgical functions to draw the masses. He was famous for his lavish, enthusiastic conduct during prayer and worship, and extremely charismatic demeanour. He stressed that as Tzaddiq, his mission was to influence the common folk by absorbing Divine Light and satisfying their material needs, thus converting them to his cause and elating them. The Holy Jew pursued a more introspective course, maintaining that the rebbes duty was to serve as a spiritual mentor for a more elitist group, helping them to achieve a senseless state of contemplation, aiming to restore man to his oneness with God which Adam supposedly lost when he ate the fruit of the Lignum Scientiae. The Holy Jew and his successors did neither repudiate miracle working, nor did they eschew dramatic conduct; but they were much more restrained in general. The Przysucha School became dominant in Central Poland, while populist Hasidism resembling the Lublin ethos often prevailed in Galicia. One extreme and renowned philosopher who emerged from the Przysucha School was Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Adopting an elitist, hard-line attitude, he openly denounced the folkly nature of other Tzaddiqim, and rejected financial support. Gathering a small group of devout scholars who sought to attain spiritual perfection, whom he often berated and mocked, he always stressed the importance of both somberness and totality, stating it was better to be fully wicked than only somewhat good.
The Chabad school, limited to its namesake dynasty, but prominent, was founded by Shneur Zalman of Liadi and was elaborated by his successors, until the late 20th century. The movement retained many of the attributes of early Hasidism, before a clear divide between Righteous and ordinary followers was cemented. Chabad rebbes insisted their adherents acquire proficiency in the sect’s lore, and not relegate most responsibility to the leaders. The sect emphasizes the importance of intellectually grasping the dynamics of the hidden divine aspect and how they affect the human psyche; the very acronym Chabad is for the three penultimate Sephirot, associated with the cerebral side of consciousness.
Another famous philosophy is that formulated by Nachman of Breslov and adhered to by Breslov Hasidim. In contrast to most of his peers who believed God must be worshiped through joy, Nachman portrayed the corporeal world in grim colors, as a place devoid of God’s immediate presence from which the soul yearns to liberate itself. He mocked the attempts to perceive the nature of infinite-finite dialectics and the manner in which God still occupies the Vacant Void albeit not, stating these were paradoxical, beyond human understanding. Only naive faith in their reality would do. Mortals were in constant struggle to overcome their profane instincts, and had to free themselves from their limited intellects to see the world as it truly is.
Tzvi Hirsh of Zidichov, a major Galician Tzaddiq, was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin, but combined his populist inclination with a strict observance even among his most common followers, and great pluralism in matters pertaining to mysticism, as those were eventually emanating from each person’s unique soul.
Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica promulgated a radical understanding of free will, which he considered illusory and also derived directly from God. He argued that when one attained a sufficient spiritual level and could be certain evil thoughts did not derive from his animalistic soul, then sudden urges to transgress revealed Law were God-inspired and may be pursued. This volatile, potentially antinomian doctrine of “Transgression for the Sake of Heaven” is found also in other Hasidic writings, especially from the early period. His successors de-emphasized it in their commentaries. Leiner’s disciple Zadok HaKohen of Lublin also developed a complex philosophic system which presented a dialectic nature in history, arguing that great progress had to be preceded by crisis and calamity.
The most fundamental theme underlying all Hasidic theory is the immanence of God in the universe, often expressed in a phrase from the Tikunei haZohar, “Leit Atar panuy mi-néya” (Aramaic: “no site is devoid of it”). Derived from Lurianic discourse, but greatly expanded in the Hasidic one, this panentheistic concept implies that literally all of creation is suffused with divinity. In the beginning, God had to contract (Tzimtzum) His omnipresence or infinity, the Ein Sof. Thus, a Vacant Void (Khalal panui) was created, bereft from obvious presence, and therefore able to entertain free will, contradictions and other phenomena seemingly separate from God Himself, which would have been impossible within His original, perfect existence. Yet, the very reality of the world which was created therein is entirely dependent on its divine origin. Matter would have been null and void without the true, spiritual essence it possesses. Just the same, the infinite Ein Sof cannot manifest in the Vacant Void, and must limit itself in the guise of measurable corporeality that may be perceived.
Thus, there is a dualism between the true aspect of everything and the physical side, false, but ineluctable, with each evolving into the other: as God must compress and disguise Himself, so must humans and matter in general ascend and reunite with the omnipresence. Elior quoted Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in his commentary Torah Or on Genesis 28:21, who wrote that “this is the purpose of Creation, from Infinity to Finitude, so it may be reversed from the state of Finite to that of Infinity”. Kabbalah stressed the importance of this dialectic, but mainly (though not exclusively) evoked it in cosmic terms, referring for example to the manner in which God progressively diminished Himself into the world through the various dimensions, or Sefirot. Hasidism applied it also to the most mundane details of human existence. All Hasidic schools devoted a prominent place in their teaching, with differing accentuation, to the interchanging nature of Ein, both infinite and imperceptible, becoming Yesh, “Existent” – and vice versa. They used the concept as a prism to gauge the world, and the needs of the spirit in particular. Rachel Elior noted: “reality lost its static nature and permanent value, now measured by a new standard, seeking to expose the Godly, boundless essence, manifest in its tangible, circumscribed opposite.“
One major derivative of this philosophy is the notion of devekut, “communion”. As God was everywhere, connection with Him had to be pursued ceaselessly as well, in all times, places and occasions. Such an experience was in the reach of every person, who only had to negate his inferior impulses and grasp the truth of divine immanence, enabling him to unite with it and attain the state of perfect, selfless bliss. Hasidic masters, well versed in the teachings concerning communion, are supposed not only to gain it themselves, but to guide their flock to it. Devekut was not a strictly defined experience; many varieties were described, from the utmost ecstasy of the learned leaders to the common man’s more humble yet no less significant emotion during prayer.
Closely linked with the former is Bitul ha-Yesh, “Negation of the Existent”, or of the “Corporeal”. Hasidism teaches that while a superficial observance of the universe by the “eyes of the flesh” (Einei ha-Basar) purportedly reflects the reality of all things profane and worldly, a true devotee must transcend this illusory façade and realize that there is nothing but God. It is not only a matter of perception, but very practical, for it entails also abandoning material concerns and cleaving only to the true, spiritual ones, oblivious to the surrounding false distractions of life. The practitioner’s success in detaching from his sense of person, and conceive himself as Ein (in the double meaning of ‘naught’ and ‘infinite’), is regarded as the highest state of elation in Hasidism. The true divine essence of man – the soul – may then ascend and return to the upper realm, where it does not possess an existence independent from God. This ideal is termed Hitpashtut ha-Gashmi’yut, “the expansion (or removal) of corporeality”. It is the dialectic opposite of God’s contraction into the world.
To be enlightened and capable of Bitul ha-Yesh, pursuing the pure spiritual aims and defying the primitive impulses of the body, one must overcome his inferior “Bestial Soul”, connected with the Eyes of the Flesh. He may be able to tap into his “Divine Soul” (Nefesh Elohit), which craves communion, by employing constant contemplation, Hitbonenot, on the hidden Godly dimension of all that exists. Then he could understand his surroundings with the “Eyes of the Intellect”. The ideal adherent was intended to develop equanimity, or Hishtavut in Hasidic parlance, toward all matters worldly, not ignoring them, but understanding their superficiality.
Hasidic masters exhorted their followers to “negate themselves”, paying as little heed as they could for worldly concerns, and thus, to clear the way for this transformation. The struggle and doubt of being torn between the belief in God’s immanence and the very real sensual experience of the indifferent world is a key theme in the movement’s literature. Many tracts have been devoted to the subject, acknowledging that the “callous and rude” flesh hinders one from holding fast to the ideal, and these shortcomings are extremely hard to overcome even in the purely intellectual level, a fortiori in actual life.
Another implication of this dualism is the notion of “Worship through Corporeality”, Avodah be-Gashmi’yut. As the Ein Sof metamorphosed into substance, so may it in turn be raised back to its higher state; likewise, since the machinations in the higher Sephirot exert their influence on this world, even the most simple action may, if performed correctly and with understanding, achieve the reverse effect. According to Lurianic doctrine, The netherworld was suffused with divine sparks, concealed within “husks”, Qliphoth. The glints had to be recovered and elevated to their proper place in the cosmos. “Materiality itself could be embraced and consecrated”, noted Glenn Dynner, and Hasidism taught that by common acts like dancing or eating, performed with intention, the sparks could be extricated and set free. Avodah be-Gashmi’yut had a clear, if not implicit, antinomian edge, possibly equating sacred rituals mandated by Judaism with everyday activities, granting them the same status in the believer’s eyes and having him content to commit the latter at the expense of the former. While at some occasions the movement did appear to step at that direction – for example, in its early days prayer and preparation for it consumed so much time that adherents were blamed of neglecting sufficient Torah study – Hasidic masters proved highly conservative. Unlike in other, more radical sects influenced by kabbalistic ideas, like the Sabbateans, Worship through Corporeality was largely limited to the elite and carefully restrained. The common adherents were taught they may engage it only mildly, through small deeds like earning money to support their leaders.
The complementary opposite of corporeal worship, or the elation of the finite into infinite, is the concept of Hamshacha, “drawing down” or “absorbing”, and specifically, Hamschat ha-Shefa, “absorption of effluence”. During spiritual ascension, one could siphon the power animating the higher dimensions down into the material world, where it would manifest as benevolent influence of all kinds. These included spiritual enlightenment, zest in worship and other high-minded aims, but also the more prosaic health and healing, deliverance from various troubles and simple economic prosperity. Thus, a very tangible and alluring motivation to become followers emerged. Both corporeal worship and absorption allowed the masses to access, with common actions, a religious experience once deemed esoteric.
Yet another reflection of the Ein–Yesh dialectic is pronounced in the transformation of evil to goodness and the relations between these two poles and other contradicting elements – including various traits and emotions of the human psyche, like pride and humility, purity and profanity, et cetera. Hasidic thinkers argued that in order to redeem the sparks hidden, one had to associate not merely with the corporeal, but with sin and evil. One example is the elevation of impure thoughts during prayer, transforming them to noble ones rather than repressing them, advocated mainly in the early days of the sect; or “breaking” oneself’s character by directly confronting profane inclinations. This aspect, once more, had sharp antinomian implications was and used by the Sabbateans to justify excessive sinning. It was mostly toned down in late Hasidism, and even before that leaders were careful to stress that it was not exercised in the physical sense, but in the contemplative, spiritual one. This kabbalistic notion, too, was not unique to the movement and appeared frequently among other Jewish groups.
While its mystical and ethical teachings are not easily sharply distinguished from those of other Jewish currents, the defining doctrine of Hasidism is that of the saintly leader, serving both as an ideal inspiration and an institutional figure around whom followers are organized. In the movement’s sacral literature, this person is referred to as the Tzaddiq, the Righteous One — often also known by the general honorific Admor (acronym of Hebrew for “our master, teacher and Rabbi”), granted to rabbis in general, or colloquially as rebbe. The idea that, in every generation, there are righteous persons through whom the divine effluence is drawn to the material world is rooted in the kabbalistic thought, which also claims that one of them is supreme, the reincarnation of Moses. Hasidism elaborated the notion of the Tzaddiq into the basis of its entire system – so much that the very term gained an independent meaning within it, apart from the original which denoted God-fearing, highly observant people.
When the sect began to attract following and expanded from a small circle of learned disciples to a mass movement, it became evident that its complex philosophy could be imparted only partially to the new rank and file. As even intellectuals struggled with the sublime dialectics of infinity and corporeality, there was little hope to have the common folk truly internalize these, not as mere abstractions to pay lip service to. Ideologues exhorted them to have faith, but the true answer, which marked their rise as a distinct sect, was the concept of the Tzaddiq. A Hasidic master was to serve as a living embodiment of the recondite teachings. He was able to transcend matter, gain spiritual communion, Worship through Corporeality and fulfill all the theoretical ideals. As the vast majority of his flock could not do so themselves, they were to cleave to him instead, acquiring at least some semblance of those vicariously. His commanding and often — especially in the early generations — charismatic presence was to reassure the faithful and demonstrate the truth in Hasidic philosophy by countering doubts and despair. But more than spiritual welfare was concerned: Since it was believed he could ascend to the higher realms, the leader was able to harvest effluence and bring it down upon his adherents, providing them with very material benefits. “The crystallization of that theurgical phase“, noted Glenn Dynner, “marked Hasidism’s evolution into a full-fledged social movement.“
In Hasidic discourse, the willingness of the leader to sacrifice the ecstasy and fulfillment of unity in God was deemed a heavy sacrifice undertook for the benefit of the congregation. His followers were to sustain and especially to obey him, as he possessed superior knowledge and insight gained through communion. The “descent of the Righteous” (Yeridat ha-Tzaddiq) into the matters of the world was depicted as identical with the need to save the sinners and redeem the sparks concealed in the most lowly places. Such a link between his functions as communal leader and spiritual guide legitimized the political power he wielded. It also prevented a retreat of Hasidic masters into hermitism and passivity, as many mystics before them did. Their worldly authority was perceived as part of their long-term mission to elevate the corporeal world back into divine infinity. To a certain extent, the Saint even fulfilled for his congregation, and for it alone, a limited Messianic capacity in his lifetime. After the Sabbatean debacle, this moderate approach provided a safe outlet for the eschatological urges. At least two leaders radicalized in this sphere and caused severe controversy: Nachman of Breslov, who declared himself the only true Tzaddiq, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom many of his followers believed to be the Messiah. The rebbes were subject to intense hagiography, even subtly compared with Biblical figures by employing prefiguration. It was argued that since followers could not “negate themselves” sufficiently to transcend matter, they should instead “negate themselves” in submission to the Saint (hitbatlut la-Tzaddiq), thus bonding with him and enabling themselves to access what he achieved in terms of spirituality. The Righteous served as a mystical bridge, drawing down effluence and elevating the prayers and petitions of his admirers.
The Saintly forged a well-defined relationship with the masses: they provided the latter with inspiration, were consulted in all matters, and were expected to intercede on behalf of their adherents with God and ensure they gained financial prosperity, health and male offspring. The pattern still characterizes Hasidic sects, though prolonged routinization in many turned the rebbes into de facto political leaders of strong, institutionalized communities. The role of a Saint was obtained by charisma, erudition and appeal in the early days of Hasidism. But by the dawn of the 19th century, the Righteous began to claim legitimacy by descent to the masters of the past, arguing that since they linked matter with infinity, their abilities had to be associated with their own corporeal body. Therefore, it was accepted “there can be no Tzaddiq but the son of a Tzaddiq“. Virtually all modern sects maintain this hereditary principle. For example, the rebbes’ families maintain endogamy and marry almost solely with scions of other dynasties.
- Devekut (דביקות – “cleaving”) – The “attachment” or “adherence” to God is a state of worship which goes beyond ecstasy (hitlahavut). Devekut is described as the state of self-transcendence into the divine. It is understood to be the highest goal of Jewish mystical striving. Some scholars have maintained that Hasidism is distinguished by its insistence that the starting point of religious life is complete adhesion to and communion with God. According to Gershom Scholem, the originality of Hasidism lies in the fact that the mystics of the movement did not simply cherish their attainment of devekut but undertook to teach its secrets to all. In Hasidism, devekut is an ideal to be striven for by both the saintly as well as the average Jew, though hasidic thinkers generally add that it is only the saint who can maintain a life of devekut and that his followers can be led to its approximation only through their attachment to the saintly man. Hasidism uses devekut in a more casual and general way, instructing its followers to seek a life of devekut where one’s mind is always concentrating on God. Techniques for this purpose were inherited from the Kabbalah, including meditation on the four lettered name of God (Y-H-V-H).
- Hispashtut hagashmiut (התפשטות הגשמיות “divestment of corporeality”) – This is understood as a spiritual practice where one regards his or her body as being ina state of union with the rest of the world. Hitpashtut hagashmiut is the stripping-away of materialism, allowing one to abolish his or her own selfhood (yesh), becoming a part of the divine will. Hitpashtut hagashmiut occurs during the height of the devekut experience, where the Hasid is able to dissolve the forces of the ego, making it possible for the soul to be reunited with its divine source.
- Godliness in all Matter – Hasidism emphasises the previous Jewish mystical idea to extract and elevate the Divine in all material things, both animate and inanimate. As taught in earlier Kabbalistic teachings from Isaac Luria, all worldly matter is imbued with nitzotzot (ניצוצות), or divine sparks, which were disseminated through the “Breaking of the Vessels” (in שבירת הכלים), brought about through cosmic processes at the beginning of Creation. The Hasidic follower strives to elevate the sparks in all those material things that aid one’s prayer, Torah study, religious commandments, and overall service of God. A related concept is the imperative to engage with the Divine through mundane acts, such as eating, sexual relations, and other day-to-day activities. Hasidism teaches that all actions can be utilized for the service of God when fulfilled with such intent. Eating can be elevated through reciting the proper blessings before and after, while maintaining the act’s intent as that of keeping the body healthy for the continued service of God. Sexual relations can be elevated by abstaining from excessive pursuits of sexual pleasures, while maintaining focus on its core purposes in Jewish thought: procreation, as well as the independent purpose of deepening the love and bond between husband and wife, two positive commandments. Business transactions too, when conducted within the parameters of Jewish law and for the sake of monetary gain that will then be used for fulfilling commandments, serve a righteous purpose. Scholars refer to this concept as Hasidic pantheism.
- Simcha (שִׂמְחָה – “joy”) – Joy is considered an essential element of the Hasidic way of life. In the early stages of the Hasidic movement, before the name “Hasidim” was coined, one of the names used to refer to the followers of the new movement was di Freyliche (Yiddish: די פרייליכע), “the Happy”. Aharon of Karlin (I), one of the early Hasidic masters, reportedly said, “There is no mitzvah to be joyous, but joy can bring on the greatest mitzvot.” It is also true, he said, that “it is not a sin to be sad, but sadness can bring on the greatest sins.” Hasidism emphasizes joy as a precondition to elevated spiritual awareness, and teaches the avoidance of melancholy at all costs. For the same reason, Hasidism shunned the earlier practices of asceticism known to Kabbalists and Ethical followers, as having the potential to induce downheartedness and a weaker spirit for God’s service. Nonetheless, the Hasidic masters themselves would often privately follow ascetic practices, as they could adopt such conduct without fear that it would damage their Jewish observance. This was not intended as an example for the followers. (See also: Happiness in Judaism)
- Hiskashrus (התקשרות לצדיקים – “bonding to the righteous ones”) – Hasidism teaches that while not all are able to attain the highest levels of elevated spirituality, the masses can attach themselves to the Tzadik, or truly righteous one, whereby even those of lesser achievement will reap the same spiritual and material benefits. By being in the Tzadik’s presence, one could achieve dveikut through that of the Tzadik. The Tzadik also serves as the intercessor between those attached to him and God, and acts as the channel through which Divine bounty is passed. To the early Misnagdim (opponents of Hasidism), its distinctive doctrine of the Tzadik appeared to place an intermediary before Judaism’s direct connection with God. They saw the Hasidic enthusiasm of telling semi-prophetic or miraculous stories of its leaders as excessive. In Hasidic thought, based on earlier Kabbalistic ideas of collective souls, the Tzadik is a general soul in which the followers are included. The Tzadik is described as an “intermediary who connects” with God, rather than the heretical notion of an “intermediary who separates”. To the followers, the Tzadik is not an object of prayer, as he attains his level only by being completely bittul (nullified) to God. The Hasidic followers have the custom of handing pidyon requests for blessing to the Tzadik, or visiting the Ohel graves of earlier leaders. The radical statements of the power of the Tzadik, as the channel of Divine blessing in this world through which God works, are based on a long heritage of Kabbalistic, Talmudic and Midrashic sources. The beloved and holy status of the Tzaddik in Hasidism elevated storytelling about the Masters into a form of devekut.
“One Hasidic Master related that he visited the court of Dov Ber of Mezeritch to ‘see how he tied his shoelaces’.”
Hasidism often uses parables to reflect on mystical teachings. For example, the well-known parable of the “Prince and the Imaginary Walls” reflects a pantheistic or acosmistic theology and explores the relationship between the individual Jew and God.
How, then, can those who are distant from Torah be aroused from their spiritual slumber? For such people, the Torah must be clothed and concealed in stories. They must hear narratives of ancient times, which go beyond simple kindness and are “great in kindness”.— Nachman of Breslov
Nachman of Breslov authored a number of well-known tales, or expanded parables. Nachman believed he drew these “tales of the ancient wisdom” from a higher wisdom, tapping into a deep archetypal imagination. One such tale is The Rooster Prince, a story of a prince who goes insane and believes that he is a rooster.
Early Hasidic works
Among the major tracts compiled by early Hasidic masters are:
- Toldot Yaakov Yosef, by Jacob Joseph of Polnoye (1780)
- Magid Devarav L’Yaakov, by Dovber of Mezritch, compiled by Shlomo of Lutzk (1781)
- Noam Elimelech, by Elimelech of Lizhensk (1788)
- Likutei Amarim (Tanya), by Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1796)
- Kedushas Levi, by Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1798)
- Meor Einayim, by Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl (1798)
- Likutei Moharan, by Nachman of Breslov (1808)
- Siduro Shel Shabbos, by Hayyim Tyrer (1813)
- Sippurei Ma’asiot by Nachman of Breslov (1816) – a book of parables reflecting mystical concepts
In Jewish scholarship
The lengthy history of Hasidism, the numerous schools of thought therein, and particularly its use of the traditional medium of homiletic literature and sermons – comprising numerous references to earlier sources in the Pentateuch, Talmud and exegesis as a means to grounding oneself in tradition – as the almost sole channel to convey its ideas, all made the isolation of a common doctrine highly challenging to researchers. As noted by Joseph Dan, “every attempt to present such a body of ideas has failed.” Even motifs presented by scholars in the past as unique Hasidic contributions were later revealed to have been common among both their predecessors and opponents, all the more so regarding many other traits that are widely extant – these play, Dan added, “a prominent role in modern non-Hasidic and anti-Hasidic writings as well“. The difficulty of separating the movement’s philosophy from that of its main inspiration, Lurianic Kabbalah, and determining what was novel and what merely a recapitulation, also baffled historians. Some, like Louis Jacobs, regarded the early masters as innovators who introduced “much that was new if only by emphasis”; others, primarily Mendel Piekarz, argued to the contrary that but a little was not found in much earlier tracts, and the movement’s originality lay in the manner it popularized these teachings to become the ideology of a well-organized sect.
Among the traits particularly associated with Hasidism in common understanding which are in fact widespread, is the importance of joy and happiness at worship and religious life – though the sect undoubtedly stressed this aspect and still possesses a clear populist bent. Another example is the value placed on the simple, ordinary Jew in supposed contradiction with the favouring of elitist scholars beforehand; such ideas are common in ethical works far preceding Hasidism. The movement did for a few decades challenge the rabbinic establishment, which relied on the authority of Torah acumen, but affirmed the centrality of study very soon. Concurrently, the image of its Opponents as dreary intellectuals who lacked spiritual fervour and opposed mysticism is likewise unfounded. Neither did Hasidism, often portrayed as promoting healthy sensuality, unanimously reject the asceticism and self-mortification associated primarily with its rivals. Joseph Dan ascribed all these perceptions to so-called “Neo-Hasidic” writers and thinkers, like Martin Buber. In their attempt to build new models of spirituality for modern Jews, they propagated a romantic, sentimental image of the movement. The “Neo-Hasidic” interpretation influenced even scholarly discourse to a great degree, but had a tenuous connection with reality.
A further complication is the divide between what researchers term “early Hasidism”, which ended in the early 1800s, and established Hasidism since then onwards. While the former was a highly dynamic religious revival movement, the latter phase is characterized by consolidation into sects with hereditary leadership. The mystical teachings formulated during the first era were by no means repudiated, and many Hasidic masters remained consummate spiritualists and original thinkers; as noted by Benjamin Brown, Buber’s once commonly accepted view that the routinization constituted “decadence” was refuted by later studies, demonstrating that the movement remained very much innovative.Yet many aspects of early Hasidism were indeed de-emphasized in favour of more conventional religious expressions, and its radical concepts were largely neutralized. Some rebbes adopted a relatively rationalist bent, sidelining their explicit mystical, theurgical roles, and many others functioned almost solely as political leaders of large communities. As to their Hasidim, affiliation was less a matter of admiring a charismatic leader as in the early days, but rather birth into a family belonging to a specific “court”.
Main article: Kabbalah
Hasidic tradition and thought has gained admirers from outside its immediate following, and outside Orthodox Jewish belief, for its charismatic inspiration and kabbalistic insights.
In the 20th Century, Neo-Hasidism renewed interest in Hasidism and Kaballah, where its reach extends beyond Orthodox Jews.
Jewish existentialist philosopher Martin Buber spent five years in isolation studying Hasidic texts, having a profound impact on his later writing. Buber later brought Hasidism to the western world through his works on Hasidic tales.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia