Upstate New York, within 25 miles of my own home in Rhine-beck, is the temporary (summer camps) and permanent home of a sect of strange and interesting Jewish folk. These are the Hasidim. The Hasidim-- "pious ones" in Hebrew-- belong to a special sect or move-ment reacting to (and growing out of) Eastern European orthodox Judaism.1
At its peak, during the first half of the 19th century, the Hasidic movement claimed the allegiance of millions of Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. Demographics on Eastern European Jews are notor-iously unreliable, but the consensus view is that the vast majority of East European Jews prior to WWII were Hasidim. During the Nazi Holocaust (1938-1945) a total of two-thirds of all of Europe's Jews were murdered, including an estimated 4 out of 5 of all Eastern European Hasidic Jews. The masses of Hasidim were murdered together with most all of their leaders. During the war all major Eastern European centers of Hasidic Judaism were also destroyed by the Nazis.
One of the first acts of the invading Nazis in Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine was to seek out Jewish religious leaders. For example, Rabbi Abraham Mordecai, the Rebbe of Ger (Ger was a town located 5 miles from Warsaw), leader of the largest Hasidic group in Poland, was the object of a massive Nazi manhunt. With the help of secular Zionists, and other underground Jewish groups, the Rebbi of Ger, and a handful of other rabbis, managed to escape to Palestine. Today, Gerer [or Gur] Hasidism is based in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.2
After near-total destruction during the Shoah by the Nazis, the Hasidic movement, after some initial internal resistance, was trans-planted by immigrants to America, Israel, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe. In these places (while many Reformed and Con-servative3 American Jews worry about issues such as intermarriage and over assimilation) the Hasidim now thrive as a dynamic creative minority that preserves the language –Yiddish [“essentially a dialect of German”4]-- and many of the rich religious traditions of pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewry.
In the U.S. many Hasidim relocated to Brooklyn. Here in New York --the world’s most sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and post-modern city-- Hasidic folk can be seen quietly going about their daily business in the diamond district and other areas of Manhattan.
Most of the approximately 165,000 Hasidim live in three neigh-borhoods in Brooklyn: Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Boro Park. Each of the three neighborhoods is home to Hasidim of different “courts (see below).” There are approximately 45,000 Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, over 50,000 Bobover Hasidim in Boro Park, and at least 50,000 Lubavitchers5 in Crown Heights. The population of each of these groups has increased dramatically since the first American Hasidic communities were formed in the late 1940s and 1950s. During the last three decades these communities have ex-perienced rapid growth.
Hasidic men dress in strange --from our American perspective-- long flowing black frock coats, wear fur hats [even in the summer!], they wear side-curls [peyis in Yiddish] and they sport long untrimmed beards. Hasidic women –with a flock of ever-present children in tow-- wear head covers and long modest dresses.
When asked to explain his unusual dress one American Hasid said, “If we dress like this, there are certain places we can’t go, and things we can’t do. It’s like a safety belt in a car. It helps prevent accidents.”8 These folk, a stark contrast to the New York urban culture, seem to be a quaint relic of 18th century Eastern Europe.
My more assimilated Reformed and Conservative Jewish friends tend to be embarrassed by these “much too Jewish people” whose living presence reminds them of their own compromises and accommodations to secular American culture. Non-observant "modern" Jews tend to view Hasidic Jews as superstitious outdated fanatics.
In turn, the Hasidim remind their more assimilated American Jews brothers and sisters that the Holocaust started in Germany, a place where for more than a century Jews had seemingly been accepted and assimilated.
Raymond P. Scheindlin reminds us that, “Jews fought alongside other Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71… [and] the Iron Crosses won by Jewish soldiers in WWI… were a touchstone of their pride.” These German Jews “had thought that they were reasonably well integrated into German society.”
Despite a remarkably high level of social advancement and acceptance , supported by pseudo-scientific racial theories, the Nazi regime slaughtered non-religious Jews, converted Jews [e.g., the tragic story of Dr. Edith Stein (Sister Benedicta of the Cross) ], and assimilated and highly cultured Jews -- right along with the Eastern European Hasidic peasants. During the Shoah the Nazis systematically eliminated 6 million of the estimated 9.5 million Jews that lived in Europe prior to 1933.
When I see the Hasidim (I try to respect their privacy and not gawk and stare) I have feelings of deep respect for their courage in standing outside of the plethora of choices and options offered by the materialism of our post-modern culture. I admire their strength and tenacity of clinging to their faith in a hostile world. I also admire the apparently supportive and stable [humane] Society that they have built in the midst of our own cruel, shifting, and decadent society. I sometimes wonder what it must be like living under the discipline of such a community.
If we can get beyond the Hasidim’s unusual “Amish” like clothing it is surprising to learn that American Lutherans –many of us with Pietistic roots [my ancestors were from the Norwegian Hauge Synod ]-- have more in common with the Hasidim than we are aware of.
Hasidic Jews are not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism originated in the U.S. during the early 20th century as an anti-modernist movement with in Protestantism. It attempted to “preserve and promote conservative, biblical Christian orthodoxy.” Fundamentalism can best be understood as a militant reaction against challenges from liberal theology, the theory of evolution [and science in general], and higher critical methodology in biblical studies. Thus, in contrast to the Hasidic movement, fundamentalist Christians tend to be literalist, rationalist, and non-mystical (even anti-mystical). This is the exact opposite of the Hasidism.
In addition, Hasidic Jews are not “ultra-orthodox.” In fact, in many ways Hasidic Jews are counterculture and quite unorthodox. Some branches of the Hasidic movement teach and believe in things such as reincarnation, numerology, prophetic dreams, miracles, angels, near pantheist mysticism (they stress the imminence of God), and spiritual healing. Today, many of these ideas are typically associated with the New Age Movement.
Thus, like other dynamic religious revitalization and revival movements (such as Lutheran Pietism), Hasidism was both a call to spiritual renewal and a protest against the prevailing orthodox religious establishment and culture.
Hasidism grew out of two major spiritual and political/economic factors. On the spiritual side, many Jews were attracted to the new Hasidic movement after the profound shock and disappointment of the messianic expectations that surrounded the kabbalist Shabbetai Zevi (1627-1676) and his “prophet” Nathan of Gaza (1644-1680). Shabbetai Zevi is perhaps, “the most remarkable and famous of all the false Jewish Messiahs.” In 1666, after leading many Jews astray, Shabbetai Zevi –claming to be the Messiah (Mashiah)-- converted to Islam when threaten with death by the Turkish authorities. As an apostate he died in disgrace leaving his followers disillusioned and confused.
On the political/economic side in Russia, Poland, and in the Ukraine thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Cossacks (starting in 1648). Bogdan Chmielnicki (1595-1657) was elected hetman of the Zaporizhzhya Cossacks in 1648. Chmielnicki and the Cossacks, with the support of Ukrainian peasants and Crimean Tatars, revolted against their oppressive Polish Roman Catholic overlords. In the mayhem --while the Orthodox Ukrainians slaughtered Polish nobles and Catholic clergy-- combatants on all sides were particularly vicious toward the Jews. The defeated Roman Catholic Poles, the victorious Cossacks, and the Ukrainian Orthodox peasants murdered over 100,000 Jews. The situation was complicated because a few Jews happened to be tax collectors and estate managers [for the Polish Roman Catholic overlords] on the land that the Ukrainian Orthodox peasants farmed. Sometimes the Jews, offered the opportunity to save themselves by converting to Christianity, reenacted the behavior of their ancestors during the First Crusade (1096), killed themselves and their families. Amid fearful massacres and atrocities the revolt spread west and north. The disaster lasted until 1655 when the Russians and Swedes invaded Lithuania. In each wave of attacks, the helpless Jews were victims. The Jewish population of Eastern Europe was significantly reduced both by the slaughter and by the resultant migration to Western Europe. In this savage pogrom over 700 Jewish communities were decimated.
Thus, Hasidism arose against the background of conditions in 18th century Poland and Russia during a troubled time of foreign invasions, misguided messianic expectations, peasant uprisings, a declining central government, and conflict between Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Christians [i.e., The Chmielnicki Revolt and Pogrom, and The Thirty Years War (1618-1648)].
German Lutheran Pietism grew out of the ashes --and the moral and spiritual depravity-- left in the wake of the chaos and horrors of The Thirty Years War (1618-1648). During the war “the population of Germany [which was divided into 300 territories] was cut by about two thirds with a loss of several million lives.” Paul Tillich writes that in the wake of the war, “life became extremely brutal, unrefined, and uneducated.” And, “the orthodox Lutheran theologians do not do much about it.”
Like the Jews who had built their hope on Shabbetai Zevi, many German Lutherans suffered a profound crisis of faith. The Reformation –and the Christian religion in general-- apparently had merely degenerated into the horrors of The Thirty Years War.
In Pia Desideria (1675) --“the `manifesto’ of Pietism” -- before calling for spiritual renewal and reform, Philip Jacob Spener first attacked the corrupt and ineffective state of Lutheran clergy. Spener then went on to attack the common people for their drunkenness, whoredom, adultery, robbery, homosexuality, and total spiritual ignorance. Indeed, after the slaughter, the plundering, and social upheavals of the endless Thirty Years War, morals and Christian faith were at a low ebb. And worse, argued Spener, the aloof and inattentive orthodox Lutheran clergy were not responding to the urgent spiritual crisis.
Robert G. Clouse details the serious disconnect between the common people and the orthodox Lutheran clergy that afflicted the Church during this period. Characteristic of orthodox sermons of this time was “a surplus of useless scholarly verbiage.” This had two major First, it made their sermons difficult for the average person to comprehend and to apply to daily life, and second, it made the orthodox preachers appear to be learned and profound scholars [i.e., it built them up as opposed to their congregations]. For example, John Gerhard (1582-1637), a leading orthodox pastor and a professor --who was praised at his funeral for never having fallen asleep in church — typically piled on an arsenal of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew words and phrases to add depth to his sermons.
In addition, according to Clouse, the orthodox clergy typically included a host of ridiculous sensational and imaginary materials in their sermons. Clouse writes, “In an attempt to add interest to scholarly detail, the preachers often used fables, stories, illustrations, strained metaphors, and strange images.” Typical titles of orthodox sermons and sermon collections during this time would include: "Heaven's Kiss of Love," "Bitter Oranges and Sour Lemons," "Pale Fear and Green Hope in Sleepless Nights,” “Splendid Poverty," "Salted Sugar," "Heaven in Hell," and "The Only Begotten Twin."
The famous Lutheran orthodox scholar Johann Benediki Carpzov the elder (1607-1657), writes Clouse, “once delivered a year long series of sermons in which he compared the Lord to various workmen, including a welldigger, a lantern maker, and a cloakmaker.” Thus, only 100 years after the death of Martin Luther (1546), the orthodox clergy, the Lutheran Scholastics, supported by the state Lutheran Church, preached their stiff and formal dead orthodoxy and drove a wedge between the clergy and the common people. As a result, in reaction to the coldness and formalism of the Protestant state churches, a deep spiritual hunger grew with in the German people.
It is also interesting to note that while the Pietism movement was breathing new life into the Lutheran branch of the Reformation; the philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was seeking a new more personal understanding of God and the world; Jansenism [a Roman Catholic pietistic movement (opposed by the “orthodox” Jesuits and later suppressed by the Church) was being led by Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638); Puritanism (e.g., John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, etc.) was on the rise; and the remarkable John Wesley (1703-1791) was active at this time.
God was apparently moving His spirit all across Europe and all across religious lines. For example, Wesley brought the Gospel to the common people and taught the Christian life virtues of temperance [gin was the crack cocaine of the 18th century ], cleanliness, thrift, honesty, and a basic education. The consensus among historians is that had it not been for the work of John and Charles Wesley, England would have been plunged into an equivalent of the French Revolution (1789-1799).
One way to understand Hasidic Judaism is to place it within the broader context of the Pietistic movement that swept Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, Aryeh Rubinstein states that “Hasidism is… a pietist-mystical-revivalist movement.” With this in mind, there are three main principles (familiar to students of Lutheran Pietism) which Hasidism stresses: the priority of emotion over intellect [heart over head]; God's immanence [the real presence of God]; and joy [or love, joy, and compassion for this world ]. Hasidism also stresses the idea that all men are equal before God (we would say “the priesthood of all believers”), and that sincere prayerful devotion (a revolution in prayer life) is preferable to traditional Talmudic study. Like Lutheran Pietism --a heart over head attack on dead orthodoxy-- the Hasidic movement in Poland and the Ukraine attempted to heal the chasm that had developed between an educated elitist leadership and the common people.
This dichotomy –a condition called perud (i.e., the radical separation between the learned class and the common people) -- was one of the main themes of the first Hasidic book, Toledot Ya'akov Yosef (1780), by Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye. For Rabbi Jacob Joseph perud was the greatest tragedy of the age. In his book the Rabbi launched a scathing attack on the aloofness and arrogance of orthodox Jewish scholars and rabbis. Reminiscent of Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria (1675), Rabbi Jacob Joseph charged that intellectual pride and vanity were very common among the learned establishment orthodox clergy. Rabbi Jacob Joseph charged, “Their sermons, which should have shown the people the path they should follow, were mainly used to display their own brilliance.”
Rabbi Jacob Joseph added, “Too many scholars were overly fond of money, a sin which led them to flatter the rich. They permitted the members of the ruling class to act as it pleased so long as their own positions were secure. They felt little obligation towards the common people, towards whom their attitude was often one of contempt.”
In Pia Desideria Spener charges that the Lutheran clergy in Germany, to the neglect of the spiritual needs of the common people, “seek promotions [money and status], shift from parish to parish and engage in all sorts of [ecclesiastical and political] machinations!”
The life of Israel ben Eliezer is shrouded with mystery and embellished by many amazing legends [including healing the sick, exorcising demons, levitations, clairvoyance, seeing the Angel of Death hovering over a seemingly healthy man (who died that very night!), and the resuscitation of a child!]. Like St. Nicolas of Myra, St. Patrick, St. George, or St. Francis of Assisi, the figure of the historical Israel ben Eliezer is all but lost under the layers of panegyric and eulogistic legends that grew up around him after his death. To this day, it is the legendary first leader, “the Besht,” who lives in Hasidic memory and still informs basic Hasidic spirituality.
Like Socrates and Jesus, the Ba’al Shem Tov left no writings. However, there is a vast literature of Hasidic stories and legends about the life and teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov related by his devoted followers. One of the Besht’s followers complied an anthology of 230 stories or shevahim [“praises”] concerning his amazing life and works [published in 1814]. According to these stories Israel --born of poor and elderly parents-- was orphaned at an early age. He was raised in the Jewish community of Okup in the province of Podolia in the western Ukraine. He was a dreamy child who was barely educated by the community in the local Hebrew school. Thus, it is implied that his spiritual wisdom comes directly from God, not from the Tradition, the sages, or from Jewish holy books. When he was not studying the Kabbalah young Israel often escaped into the woods to seek solitude.
One legend reports that “At the age of 12 Israel became a helper to a schoolmaster, gathering the children from their homes in the morning and taking them back in the evening. On the way he taught them the synagogue hymns, which they sang with such enthusiasm that they penetrated the heavens. A jealous Satan thereupon assumed the shape of a werewolf, and put the children to flight. Fearing for their children's lives, their mothers refused to send them to school the next day, but Israel, remembering his father's last words - `that he should fear no one but God’- begged for another chance. And when the werewolf appeared a second time, he routed him with a club.” Before we dismiss this weird Hasidic tale we should recall the Christian world’s own legend of St. George the Christian knight who slew the dragon that had been terrorizing the town of Sylene, Libya.
In another legend, the Ba’al Shem Tov sounds very Jesus-like. Jesus begins his early ministry with a 40 day fast in the wilderness [Mark 1:12-13], and he often is described in the Gospels as retreating from the crowds into the country for pray and meditation [e.g., John 6:15].
In his twenties, accompanied by his wife Hannah, Israel went into isolation in the Carpathian Mountains in preparation for his future tasks. Their life together in the wilderness was one of great privation. For several years he eked out a living by digging clay and lime, which his wife (who also deserves 230 praises!) sold in town. But here, in nature, like St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), “he learned the language of the beasts and the birds, of the plants and trees.”
At the same time, from the local peasant women, Israel also learned the healing properties of certain grasses and herbs [at about the same time the Lutheran Pietists at the Halle Institution in Germany were interested in studying and used herbs for healing. In addition, Pietistic literature tends to be laced with earthy (earth and soil connected) and “flowery” horticultural images]. Thus, in the solitude of the mountains the Besht learned to cure the sick, and to drive out evil spirits, and to write amulets.
On his 36th birthday the Ba’al Shem Tov came down out of the mountains to reveal himself as a spiritual guide, a healer, and leader in the Polish-Ukranian town of Miedzyboz. During his journey he expelled demons and evil spirits. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught largely through parables that stressed humility and purity of heart. His message was one of tolerance, humility, compassion, and optimism. He taught that even common and illiterate people could find God (again, a sort Jewish “priesthood of all believer’s” concept).
Like Jesus and John Wesley, he traveled throughout the countryside preaching and teaching directly to the common people [i.e., the very people that the orthodox held in contempt and typically ignored]. With his warm and charismatic personality he taught “a living faith” that brought hope to people who had suffered persecution, messianic disappointment, spiritual neglect, and extreme poverty. The Besht explained to people that in order to reach God one does not need sophisticated technical learning [as the orthodox seemed to teach], but that God can be found with simplicity and with sincerity. Rather than cold and formalistic ritual, Ba’al Shem Tov stressed spontaneous and ecstatic prayer and worship of God [Spener and Francke also called for reform of worship and increased emphasis on prayer life]. To find God all that is needed, argued the Besht, is simple heartfelt prayer and sincerity [again, here the Ba’al Shem Tov sounds like the “heartfelt” desires of Spener and the Lutheran Pietists]. Thus, “he taught that sincere devotion, zeal, and heartfelt prayers are more acceptable to God than great learning.” He added that one could best serve God and the community “through deep-seated joy rather than solemnity and intellectualism.”
Soon, as his fame spread, people began to seek him out for inspiration, advice, or a blessing. Paul Johnson reports that the Ba’al Shem Tov was so famous that, “people came to see him from long distances.” According to The New Jewish Encyclo-pedia, “When people were troubled they came to him for good advice, for benedictions, and for cheerful promises of better times.” The Ba’al Shem Tov also taught the hundreds of people that flocked to him that the first duty of a Jew is to seek God, and that God is in all places and in all things in the universe.
Another well-known story reveals much about the inner thought of Ba’al Shem Tov and the Hasidic movement. Accord-ing to this tale, once on Yom Kippur the Ba’al Shem Tov was conducting a prayer service. He suddenly paused in the middle of his chant.
The Besht’s face looked troubled and strained. As time passed and the congregation become increasingly anxious over the unusual delay. In the meantime, a simple young shepherd boy was sitting in the back of the synagogue. Not having received a religious education, he is unable to read or understand the Hebrew words of the prayers. Yet, his heart yearned to pray to his heavenly Father. At this point he pulled out his shepherd's whistle from his pocket and decided to pray in the form of a tune. As he sounded the first note the startled congregation turned around and silenced him. Suddenly, a wide smile brightened the Ba’al Shem Tov's face. He resumed the service and brought it a joyous conclusion (again, the theme of JOY in life and worship!).
After the service, the Besht’s disciples inquired about his strange behavior. The Ba’al Shem Tov replied, "During the service I sensed that the gates of heaven were closed to our prayers. A year of misfortune was to be decreed upon our people. I tried to break through, but to no avail. However, that one sincere and heartfelt note which the shepherd boy emitted was enough. That note pierced through all the heavenly gates. Thereafter, all our prayers were permitted to follow."
This story illustrates a number of essential Hasidic teachings:
First, that the Master or zaddik (discussed below) has the ability to act as a bridge between God and man. Like a Moses figure, the zaddik seeks --and sees--God when the people do not.
Second, every person's behavior, no matter how humble, can have a cosmic influence. All people --even humble shepherd boys—are important to God and play a vital role in His creation.
Third, that the common person's sincerity is preferable to the most erudite and labored scholarship. Scholars might have vast and subtle head knowledge, but an honest and sincere faithful heart honors God.
And fourth, a wordless song from the heart can be more important to God than a correct and rigid liturgical text sung or repeated with meaning or sincerity. Hence, many Hasidim worship and praise God with an endless happy word-less song, “Ya, Ya, Ya…”
While being regarded as a saint, it is interesting to note that the Hasidim also speak of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s great humanity. His followers gleefully point out that the Besht “was addicted to smoking his pipe.” And, among early Hasidic rabbis, pipe smoking became “a kind of ritual.” Opponents of the Hasidic movement constantly ridicule the Ba’al Shem Tov and his followers for this habit.
One of the Besht's disciples, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, developed an elaborate definition of the relationship between the mystical adept (in Pietism we have the related concept of “Mystical Union”), or the zaddik [Johnson explains that a zaddik (saint) is an ancient concept –revived by the Ba’al Shem Tov-- of a “superior human being” with a special charisma of “adhering to God.” ]. To his followers, the zaddik is also known as a “rebbe.” “The rebbe is regarded as the ladder between heaven and earth, his mystic contemplation linking him with God, and his concern for the people and his leadership of love tying him to the earth.” Others added further refinements, and toward the end of the eighteenth century such rebbes were appearing in a number of Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian Jewish communities. Each developed his own leadership style (and dynasty) and his own emphases.
Just as Lutheran Pietism was a corrective to the dominant cold and formal orthodoxy of the day, Hasidism “was a corrective to the excessively intellectual Talmudism that had formerly dominated Eastern European Jewish piety.” The key theological elements of Beshtian Hasidism include the primacy of subjective and inner spiritual experience (opening the movement up to charges of being “anti-intellecual”), deep spiritual enlightenment over mere rational and intellectual textual study (again, heart over head), direct access to the zaddik to his community --and his role in the revelation of the hidden meanings of Torah and mitzvoth, and the universal presence of God in the midst of the seemingly mundane and banal (like radical Pietism, Hasidism is almost pantheistic).
Paul Johnson writes that, “The Besht taught that, in order to enter in [a relation or union with God], the man has to annihilate his personality and become nothing (sounds like Buddhist mysticism). He thus creates a vacuum, which is filled up by a sort of supernal being, who acts and speaks for him. When the words of the prayer-book blur and merge into a single point, the transformation occurs, the man ceases human activity and, instead of the man sending up his words, they are sent down into his mouth. The mouth continues to speak but the spirit supplies the thoughts. The Besht said: 'I let the mouth speak whatever it wants to say.' His successor, leader in the second generation of Hasidism, Dov Baer, explained that the spiritual power which made this divine possession possible arose because the Torah and God were actually one, and divine energy, as it were, was stored up in the letters of the book. A successful act of contemplative prayer released this power.”
The Hasidim scorned the formal orthodox dominated synagogues. In stark contrast to the orthodox, Hasidic ceremonies and worship services often became very noisy affairs. They had their own shtiblekb, or prayer houses. Here the Hasidim assembled in their rustic clothes and broad fur hats. Unlike Pietists, the Hasidim often smoked or drank at these religious gatherings. When they prayed --often at the top of their voices-- they swayed and clapped their hands (like the American Charismatic movement or African-American churches). They sang their wordless tune called a niggun, and, like Shakers, they danced with spirit filled joy. They had their own special unorthodox prayers, i.e., a mixture of heart-felt praise, Polish Ashkenazi, and Luriac Sephardi. Like many European Pietists, the Hasidim were poor, rural, and rough peasants. They shocked the Jewish establishment, particularly when their practices rapidly spread over Poland and into Lithuania. They were accused of secret Shabbeteanism [the notorious false messiah], and from the orthodox there were angry calls for their suppression.
The Besht's main followers became, in due course, zaddikim in their own right. After a protracted struggle against their orthodox opponents they established a powerful counterculture movement. By the end of the 18th century the Hasidim grew to become the dominant form of Judaism in many parts of Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. The common folk were drawn to the movement’s charismatic leaders and to the emotional and spiritual appeal of their message, which stressed joy, faith, and ecstatic prayer, accompanied by song and dance. This dominance occurred by being connected and rooted in the life of the common people, using a less formal modified liturgy, allowing for flexible hours for prayer, incorporating their own group rituals and ecstatic practices into religious praxis, and insisting on the exclusive authority of their own charismatic religious leadership. Hence, the Hasidim as a sect remained a distinctive form over and against orthodox Judaism with whom they shared many basic beliefs.
In Germany the authoritarian orthodox Lutheran establishment reacted strongly against the attacks by Spener and the Pietists. For example, Paul Tillich writes that one orthodox champion of the period wrote a book called, Malum Pietisticum (“The Pietistic Evil.”).
The center of Hasidic opposition during the late 18th century was Vilna, Lithuania. At the time, because of its importance as a center for Jewish culture and Talmudic study, Vilna was considered “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” The orthodox group that fought and opposed the Hasidic movement became known as the Mitnagdim.
At the time, Vilna was the leading city of traditional Torah study (yeshiva, seminary). A campaign against the Hasidim was led by the outspoken Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-97), also known as the Gaon (Hebrew for "great scholar") of Vilna. At age 20 Elijah ben Solomon Zalman was already famous as a great Talmudic authority. Even at this young age many prominent rabbis sought his council.
Paul Johnson writes that, “In Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the gaon of Vilna, the early Hasidics found a dedicated enemy. The Gaon, even by the standards of Jewish infant prodigies, was a spectacular child. He had delivered a homily in the Vilna synagogue at the age of six. His grasp of secular as well as his religious knowledge was awesome [He even advocated the study of astronomy, mathematics, and geography (the new science of the day) for a heightened understanding of the ancient Jewish documents]. When marriage at 18 brought him independent means, he purchased a small house outside Vilna and concentrated entirely on study. His sons said he never slept more than two hours a day, nor more than half an hour at a time. To eliminate distractions, he closed the shutters even in daytime and studied by candlelight.”
Johnson adds that Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman ”regarded Hasidism as an outrage. Its claims to ecstasy, miracles, and visions were… all lies and delusions.” In addition, the Gaon thought that the very concept of the zaddik --central to the Hasidic movement— was idolatry [creature worship]. And worst of all, the new Hasidic theory of prayer (including prayer in “vulgar” Yiddish!) was a substitute and an affront to Hebrew scholarship “the be-all and end-all of Judaism.”
Hence, led by well-respected and powerful orthodox leaders such as the Gaon of Vilna, bans, book burnings, and excommunications were issued against Hasidism in 1772, and again in 1781, 1784, and 1796. Other Jews were commanded not to marry, to help bury, or even to share food or drink with the "heretical sect." The dispute grew so bitter that the great Rabbi Elijah once stated that, "had I the power, I would punish these infidels as the worshippers of Ba’al were punished of old [The Biblical Elijah slaughtered the prophets of Ba’al!].” At times, writes Scheindlin, both the Hasidim and the orthodox “denounced each other to government (i.e., Christian) authorities.”
Thus, "the established non-Hasidic leadership," explains Gershon David Hundert, "objected to the emphasis on experience rather than study, to the cult of the zaddik, to the hubris of the masses who behaved like mystics, and to the apparently mindless joy and raucous prayer services of the Hasidim. More practically, there were objections to the establishment by the Hasidim of their own separate prayer halls which removed them somewhat from the community's control, and to the Hasidic method for slaughtering animals which meant they were evading the communal tax on meat."
Like the persecutions of the Early Christian Church, the more the orthodox attacked, ridiculed, and attempted to suppress the Hasidim the more the movement seemed to spread. By the beginning of the 19th century more than half of the Jews of Eastern Europe identified themselves with Hasidism. And, the movement continued to grow. By the 1830's, Hasidism provided a viable way of life to the majority of Jews in the Ukraine, Galicia (southern Poland), and central Poland, and large numbers of Jews in Belorussia-Lithuania and Hungary.
At the same time, it is interesting to note that Hasidism never took root in Western Europe. Again, Hasidism was a dynamic counter-cultural and enthusiastic folk movement that enriched the lives of the Jew people as a group separating them from their Christian neighbors by language, culture, religion, and civil status. In contrast, Western European Jews of the late 18th century and 19th century --influenced by the French Revolution (1789-1799) and Napoleon— tended to concentrate their efforts on cultural, social, and civic integration into the emerging industrial societies of England, France, and Germany. Until the shocking Dreyfus affair in France (c. 1893), these societies appeared to hold out the best hope of equality to many Jews.
After the long struggle against the Mitnagdim (the orthodox), the Hasidism slowly settled down and created their own unique social structures. These included a number of competing rebbes. An elaborate system of dynastic succession evolved, with a son or son-in-law of each rebbe inheriting court leadership. The rebbe combined political and religious authority. The circle of followers who gathered around each rebbe came to be known as a hoyf, [Yiddish for “courtyard,” or “court”]. These tightly knit communities often developed into completely self-sufficient social institutions. Centered around the rebbe's house and the bedmedresh [the house of study and prayer] each court had its own artisans, storekeepers, and religious functionaries, schools, and evolved its own oral and musical traditions.
Over time, as the number of competing hoyfs multiplied, courts were established in towns and villages scattered across Eastern and Central Europe. The many different courts and their rebbes are known by the name of the town where they originated. Thus, in the U.S. the Bobov came the town of Bobova in Poland (Galicia); the Satmar from Satu Mar in present-day Hungary; the Belz from Poland; and the Lubavitch from Russia.
Hence, Hasidism is not a denomination, but an all-embracing religious lifestyle and ideology. Today the movement is expressed --and still lives-- in a variety of ways by adherents of the diverse “courts (or sects).” In Brooklyn today, there are over sixty courts represented. Most of these are very small, with some comprising only a handful of families. The great majority of American Hasidim belong to one of a dozen or so principal surviving courts. Some of the better known courts are (in alphabetical order): Amshinov, Alecsander, Belzer, Bobover, Bostoner, Boyaner, Breslov, Ger (Gur), Karlin-Stoliner, Kloisenberger, Lubovicher (Chabad), Modziter, Muncatz, Radziner, Satmar, Skvirer, Slonimer, Tauscher, Vizhnitzer, etc., etc., etc.
The last Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe --he was the seventh in the dynasty-- was the great Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. Rebbe Schneersohn was a remarkable man. He was born in the Ukrainian-Russian town of Nikolaev on April 14, 1902. The Rebbe spent his youth struggling for survival and helping his fellow Jews survive during the last years of pogrom ridden Czarist Russia. Then, during the 1920's Menachem Schneersohn worked with his future father-in law [the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880-1950) ] battling underground against the brutal Stalinist attempts to eradicate all Jewish life in the Soviet Empire.
Shortly after his marriage [to the second daughter of presiding Rebbe], Menachem and his wife Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson (d. 1988) moved to Berlin. Here the future Rebbe enrolled in the University of Berlin and took courses in philosophy and mathematics. When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin relocated to Paris. Here, until 1938, the Rebbe continued with his studies at the Sorbonne and at a Parisian engineering college. However, while he pursued scientific and engineering studies the Rebbe’s primary occupation continued to be with his total immersion in Torah study.
In 1941 Menachem and his wife [and the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn] escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and settled in Brooklyn, New York. Thus, a link between the old world of the Belorussian village of Lubavich and the United States was established. Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn died in 1950. One year later, bowing to the demands of the people, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn became the seventh Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe. From Crown Heights, for nearly the next 50 years, the Rebbe worked to revive and transform Jewish life in every corner of the globe. Over the next four decades he used modern means of communication for a massive program of outreach to Jews in the United States, Israel, and other countries, urging them to return to the traditional observances of their faith.
It is also interesting --and surprising-- to note that during his years of his leadership, the Rebbe addressed the faith/science nexus on a variety of levels. On the question of perceived contradiction between faith and science the Rebbe rejected the “apologetic” approach which reinterpreted biblical passages, and other articles of faith, to better fit the prevalent scientific theory. Instead, with the Hasidic holistic, almost pantheist, world-view the Rebbe taught that faith and science are compliments not contradictions.
In another essay, "On the Essence of Chassidism," the Rebbe states, “The Torah has four primary levels of interpretation: pshat, the plain meaning; remez, the hinted, intimated meaning; drush, the homiletic, expounded meaning; and sod, the esoteric meaning. Each defines and expresses the Infinite Divine Light contained within Torah in its particular manner. The teachings of Chassidism, however, are not bounded and defined by any form. Chassidism includes all four dimensions of Torah, transcends them, unites them, and breathes life into each of them.”
From this passage we, as Western Christians, are once again back on familiar territory. We are reminded of the four-fold method of interpreting Scripture as taught by the Scholastics of the Middle Ages; 1.) the Literal; 2.) the Allegorical (typological, or hidden prophetic meaning); 3.) the Anagoglical (eschatological meaning); and 4.) the Tropological (the moral or way of life teaching).
Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson died on June 12, 1994. Since this time the movement has been without a grand rabbi for the first time in 230 years. The Rabbi led the movement for 44 years, and since he was childless, there are no prospects for a successor. With his death, the movement –which continues to grow-- has had to adjust to life without him.
Perhaps the Lubavitcher Hasidium will now develop like the smaller Breslov Hasidic group. The Breslov court was founded by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Breslov is located in the Ukraine. Although Rebbe Nachman died almost 200 years ago, he is still considered to be the leader of the movement through the guidance of his books and stories. To this day, the Breslover Hasidim do not have a "Rebbe in the flesh." Each individual Hasid is free to go to any Jewish guide or teacher that he (or she) feels comfortable with.
Hasidism continues to hold the allegiance of significant segments of Eastern European and new diaspora Jewry. Rebbes continue to exert considerable influence among hundreds of thousands of followers. It is ironic to note during the 18th century Hasidism had been seen as a radical threat to orthodoxy. Now, at the by the beginning of the 21st century, the movement has become a bastion of Jewish tradition and orthodoxy itself. Despite the apparent conflict with the post-modern secular world; a host of new religious and social movements --including secular education; high technology; atheism; materialism; the Shoah; Zionism; the rise and fall of Marxist-Leninism (1917-1991); and post-WWII mass immigration to the New World-- the Hasidic movement continues to survive and even thrive. In the face of the shallowness, cruelty, and crassness of post-modern culture --and despite the gains of modernized Reformed and secular Jews in rejecting mysticism for a more literalist rationalism-- Hasidism continues to offer a rich, elaborate, and exotic distinctive form of Jewish cultural life.
In Max Weber’s methodology --applied to the study of the philosophy of religion [comparative religions]-- we use Wertfreiheit [ethical or value neutral, or value-free method] and we strive toward Verstehen [deep understanding]. With this in mind, we Lutherans (with nearly forgotten Pietist roots) can have a deep respect for the beauty and the mystery of the Hasidic movement. And, with the historical, philosophical, and theological similarities to Pietism, Hasidism is not as foreign as we might first have assumed. Indeed, the world is a more humane place because of these wonderful and interesting people.
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[Editors Note: Pastor Isaacs paper is heavily footnoted from the above cited Bibliography but space did not permit us to include the footnotes in the hard copy of the ELCM Quarterly. If any would like to receive a copy of the paper with footnotes please contact
Pastor Mark Isaacs at
371 Wurtemburg Road,
Rhinebeck, New York 12572]