Hasidism

Teachings and Literature

The term Hasidic theology should refer to a body of ideas that have characterized Hasidic thought from its beginnings in the mid-eighteenth century to the present, and may be distinguished in a meaningful way from the thought of non-Hasidic teachers, both before and during this period and since. Every attempt by modern scholars to present such a body of ideas, however, has failed. The conceptions and ideas that dominate Hasidic literature can be found in kabbalistic and ethical literature before the eighteenth century, and play a prominent role in modern non-Hasidic and anti-Hasidic writings as well. It is very easy to distinguish between a Hasid and a non-Hasid by their dress, customs, manner of prayer, loyalty to a rebbe, and many other obvious aspects of daily life and worship; it is nearly impossible, however, to distinguish between them according to their conceptions of God and of the relationship between God and Israel, their theoretical and practical religious norms, and their notions of ethics.


Defining Hasidic Thought

Some of the most significant attempts to designate a theological concept central to Hasidism have emphasized the following features: devekut (communion with God); transformation and elevation of evil to goodness; the concept of let atar panui mineh (no place is empty of God); and enthusiastic worship versus Torah study.


Devekut.

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. Before Hasidism, it is asserted, devekut was described (by kabbalists and writers of kabbalistic ethical works) 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. Thus the Hasidic concept of devekut is regarded as replacing the messianic endeavor that was central to Lurianic and Sabbatian conceptions of worship.


Most of the evidence supporting this hypothesis was derived from the writings of Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh. It is similar to Martin Buber’s description of Hasidism as sanctifying Jewish daily life and endowing with religious significance the “neutral” and “secular” aspects of life (‘avodah be-gashmiyut). This is a valid theory, relevant to the understanding of the school of the Magid, but it has minimal significance with respect to other and later Hasidic schools. In most Hasidic sects, for example, communion with God was replaced as a guiding principle by adhesion to the tsadik. Moreover, the very concept of devekut has been defined in various ways by different Hasidic teachers, some of whom have regarded it more generally as refined and lofty religious enthusiasm.


Transformation and Elevation of Evil to Goodness.

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. This idea is emphasized in several early Hasidic works, including those of the Magid, and has been designated by some as a Hasidic innovation. The concept is undoubtedly found in Hasidism and is sometimes prominent in Hasidic thought, but its sources actually go back to kabbalistic ethical works of the Safed school (especially Shene luḥot ha-berit [Two Tablets of the Covenant] by Yesha‘yahu ben Avraham Horowitz). In the eighteenth century, the concept was interpreted in a more radical way by non-Hasidim than by the Hasidim themselves.


Let Atar Panui Mineh.

Hasidism asserts that 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. This concept is central in the teachings of the Ba‘al Shem Tov and is prominent in the theology of early Ḥabad Hasidism. It actually encompasses the previous two ideas: the centrality of devekut and the elevation of evil. However, let atar panui mineh (no place is empty of God) permeates earlier kabbalistic and ethical-kabbalistic thought as well, and cannot be considered unique to Hasidism.


Enthusiastic Worship versus Torah Study.

Other suggested essential principles, including the importance of joy in worship or the love of the downtrodden and the ignorant, are actually commonly encountered in early and non-Hasidic Judaism and should be regarded as characteristic of what we might call literary neo-Hasidism; they cannot be found as distinguishing elements in the first Hasidic writings. In the early history of Hasidism it was claimed that whereas the Misnagdim, the opponents of Hasidism, put the study of the Torah at the center of Jewish religious life, Hasidim emphasized prayer, enthusiasm, and spiritual devotion. These differences were minimized in succeeding generations, when the study of Torah became more important in Hasidic communities, especially in the nineteenth century, while groups among the Misnagdim (for example, the Musar movement) emphasized the spiritual and ethical aspects of religious worship.


Another frequently proposed distinction was that the Hasidim were kabbalists, whereas the Misnagdim were thought to be the more “rational.” That is incorrect, however. The teachings of the Kabbalah, especially Lurianic Kabbalah and the Zohar, were the theological basis of both worldviews. When the leader of the Misnagdim, Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, refused to open his door to Shneur Zalman of Liady (the leader of Ḥabad), kabbalists stood on both sides of the closed door.


The Theory of the Tsadik and Hasidic Leadership

Quotations from the Ba‘al Shem Tov’s teachings in early Hasidic writings hold that a spiritual leader should be responsible for the religious welfare of his generation, assist them in bringing their requests before the Throne of Glory, and help mobilize divine assistance to protect them from enemies in the world. These ideas, however, did not coalesce into a systematic theology in the first two generations of Hasidism. Only among the disciples of the Magid of Mezritsh and other Hasidic thinkers in the last third of the eighteenth century were they combined into a coherent theology as well as embodied in a social institution. The novel, revolutionary conception of religious leadership that resulted came to dominate—and distinguish—Hasidism.


Elimelekh of Lizhensk was one of the first Hasidic leaders to formulate the theory of the tsadik, along with Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin. Another group of Hasidim, surrounding the Magid of Zlotshev (Pol., Złoczów), developed similar concepts in a more messianic manner, as did the Ba‘al Shem Tov’s grandson, Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav.


The core of the theory of the tsadik maintains that there is a pact between the leader and his community, which exists on two levels, spiritual and physical. On each level, the duties of the leader and those of the community are clearly specified. On the spiritual level, the community owes the tsadik complete faith and loyalty. It has to perceive him as the intermediary between themselves and God—as the divine representative in their midst—and their worship of God is to be directed through him. Complete loyalty to the tsadik and his dynasty on the part of the Hasidim and their families is demanded, and a Hasid identifies himself according to this dynasty. There is no universal “Hasid”; one is a Sadagora Hasid or a Lubavitch Hasid or a Belz Hasid. Without adherence to a leader and his dynasty, there is no Hasidism.


For his part, the tsadik uses the faith that the community puts in him in order to focus the spiritual power of all of them together; he aims to employ it, on earth and in the divine world, to protect and advance the spiritual needs of the community. 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. Some tsadikim were extremely modest and frugal, while others adopted royal mannerisms and imitated the ways of Polish nobility. Hasidim were responsible for maintaining, by their contributions, the court of the tsadik, along with the community’s educational institutions and social welfare activities. The tsadik, in turn, had three primary material obligations relevant to each of his adherents. First, it was his responsibility to endow every one of his believers with sons, health, and livelihood. Throughout the history of Hasidism, extending to today, the tsadik has used all of his powers to ensure that each adherent will have at least one male offspring. Second, the tsadik prays, and sometimes intervenes with regard to medical treatments, for the health of his Hasidim and their families. Finally, he gives detailed advice, direction, and assistance concerning choices of employment and business, so as to make possible at least a modest standard of living.


The tsadik’s role as an intermediary requires him to move, spiritually, from the divine realm to earth and vice versa, in a constant rhythm. Hasidim describe the various states of the tsadik, reflected in his moods, by means of kabbalistic terms (katnut and gadlut, nefilat apayim). He brings from above the shefa‘ (divine flow), which sustains life and existence, and he elevates the spiritual faith and devotion of the righteous from earth to the divine powers, sustaining and strengthening them.


The theory of the tsadik is the spiritual basis of the Hasidic community, and the family is its physical expression. The 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. In a similar way, the term tsadik is no longer the traditional “righteous person”; this meaning becomes unsustainable once the norm “There is no tsadik but the son of a tsadik” (first announced in the early nineteenth century) is adopted. The term tsadik in this context means a divine representative: a reflection of the ninth divine power in the kabbalistic system, yesod or tsadik, following the verse in Proverbs 10:25 (“The righteous [person] is an eternal foundation.”).


The early tsadikim were charismatic leaders who established their communities by the power of their personality and their ideas. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century the norm became to nominate a son to succeed his father, and early in the next century this was the accepted rule. In many Hasidic dynasties, this form of succession has proceeded now for seven or eight generations (the most famous is the Lubavitch line, in which the last leader, Rabbi Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson, was the seventh and last, having died without an heir). Some Hasidic lines integrated by marriage with others; more often, several sons split the community and established their own distinct lines. When there is no male offspring, sometimes the new tsadik is the son-in-law or another close relative of the previous one. But the principle of heredity has always been dominant.


Hasidic Messianism

Hasidic theory limits the messianic role of the tsadik to his own community, and only during his lifetime. These limitations are in force so long as the various tsadikim admit that there are other such leaders employing similar powers. These disappear when a tsadik claims to be the only tsadik, or the true tsadik (tsadik ha-emet). This situation occurred with Naḥman of Bratslav, who viewed himself as the only true tsadik; he therefore did not establish a dynasty, and his adherents have believed in his messianic role and that he will return as a redeemer after his death in 1811. A similar phenomenon has been happening now in Ḥabad Lubavitch since the last leader, Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson, died in Brooklyn in 1995 without leaving an heir. Those Ḥabad adherents who believed in his messianic mission before his death expect now that he will return to the world as a redeemer.


The issue of the messianic element in Hasidism has not been resolved. Most scholars assert that Hasidism neutralized the messianic drive in Lurianism and Sabbatianism, emphasizing individual worship and devotion instead. There is no doubt, however, that Hasidism rejected more radically than any other segment of Judaism all the proposed modern solutions to Jewish problems, including Zionism, emancipation, emigration to new lands across the ocean, and socialism. The court of the tsadik was regarded as the safest, most protected place on earth; Hasidim held this belief even when the Holocaust was imminent, in Warsaw and Budapest and other places. No major Hasidic communities were established in America or Palestine before the Holocaust. The belief in the redeeming powers of the tsadik was paramount.


Hasidic Homiletic Literature

Throughout its 250-year history, the Hasidic movement elected to express itself mainly by means of one literary genre: the traditional Jewish collection of sermons, or derashot. This genre, which became dominant in Jewish culture after the sixteenth century, is a conservative mode of religious discourse that relies, in every paragraph, on biblical verses, Talmudic sayings, medieval commentaries, and quotations from kabbalistic works. In a derash, a preacher is essentially saying to his audience: “I’m not presenting you with anything new; everything is intimated in our traditional sources.” At the same time, this was the most popular genre of religious expression, as it spoke to all those who attended synagogue, both scholars and the uneducated. Since the beginning of the publication of Hasidic works—by Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye and Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh, in 1780 and the following years—Hasidic teachers have addressed their public in this way, based on oral teaching and then edited to produce a written, printed form.


Hasidism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Scores of books and hundreds of studies dealing with all aspects of Hasidic history and thought have been published by scholars. Most relate to the beginnings of Hasidism and its development in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The history of the two full centuries of Hasidic development up to and including the present, however, has received very little attention. Few monographs and no comprehensive study of Hasidism as a whole for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exist. There are no detailed historical studies of the development of Hasidism during the nineteenth century, its rapid spread throughout Eastern and Central Europe, and its survival of the horrors of World War I and the civil wars in Russia and Ukraine after the Russian Revolution—or of the reestablishment of Hasidic courts after the destruction of their communities by the Bolsheviks. Only one monograph (by Mendel Piekarz) is dedicated to Polish Hasidism between the world wars and during the Holocaust. The miraculous recovery of Hasidic communities after the Holocaust in Israel and the United States and their confrontation with their new surroundings have likewise not been the subject of analysis and discussion. All these traumatic developments were accompanied by ideological creativity that has not been studied systematically.


The Hasidism That Never Was

Since 1863, the image of Hasidism has been defined, in the eyes of non-Hasidim, by a literary phenomenon that was started by Mikha’el ha-Levi Frumkin in a series of collections of “Hasidic” stories. (Kehal ḥasidim [1863] was the first.) Frumkin had left the Ḥabad community and published these anthologies for purely commercial purposes. Many others followed him, and by 1914 more than 100 such collections had been published in Hebrew and Yiddish, using some authentic Hasidic material (mainly Shivḥe ha-Besht [1815]), and the biographies of Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav, to which other material was added, both traditional and invented.


The anthologies inspired some modern Jewish writers to describe Hasidism as a humanistic, philosophical movement, seeking social justice and benefiting the simple and ignorant as they told folktales and rejoiced in their worship of God. Y. L. Peretz and Yehudah Steinberg expressed this attitude in Hebrew literature, and Martin Buber presented it in his numerous works (especially Tales of the Hasidim) in a more profound and systematic manner. This image, developed by non-Hasidim, acquired a nostalgic dimension especially after the Holocaust, and gained the patina of being an authoritative description of Hasidism. The phenomenon lost much of its power in the last decades of the twentieth century, however, when the presence and impact of historical Hasidism became more forceful in contemporary Judaism, and the distance between the nostalgic image and reality became obvious.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, Joseph Dan, and Immanuel Etkes, eds., Meḥkere ḥasidut (Jerusalem, 1999); Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism, vol. 4 (Northvale, N.J., 1999), pp. 67–130; Rachel Elior, “Between ‘Yesh’ and ‘Ayin’: The Doctrine of the Zaddik in the Works of Jacob Isaac, the Seer of Lublin,” in Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert and Steven J. Zipperstein, pp. 393–456 (London, 1988); Rachel Elior, Ḥerut ‘al ha-luḥot: Ha-Maḥashavah ha-ḥasidit, mekoroteha ha-mistiyim vi-yesodoteha ha-kabaliyim (Tel Aviv, 1999); Immanuel Etkes, The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, trans. Saadya Sternberg (Waltham, Mass., and Hanover, N.H., 2005); Arthur Green, ed., Jewish Spirituality, vol. 2, pp. 127–280 (New York, 1987); Gershon David Hundert, ed., Essential Papers on Hasidism (New York and London, 1991); Moshe Idel, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany, N.Y., 1995); Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment (Philadelphia, 1985); Mendel Piekarz, Ḥasidut Polin: Megamot ra‘ayoniyot ben shete ha-milḥamot uvi-gezerot 1940–1945 (“ha-sho’ah”) (Jerusalem, 1990); Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed., Hasidism Reappraised (London, 1996), includes detailed bibliography; Rivkah Schatz-Uffenheimer, Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought (Princeton, 1993); Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 3rd rev. ed. (New York, 1954), pp. 325–350; Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York, 1971), pp. 176–250; Joseph George Weiss, Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism (London, 1997).

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