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Hasidism’s Many Critics: Mitnagdim and Maskilim

Traditionalists as well as modernists opposed Hasidism on social, theological and cultural grounds.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Hasidism was attacked by the Mitnagdim (“opponents”), the rabbis and communal leaders, on the right and by the Maskilim, the followers of the Haskalah movement of enlightenment, on the left.

The Mitnagdim

The Mitnagedic opposition was on various grounds. Whether or not the suspicion had any substance, the Mitnagdim believed that the new movement was simply [the failed messianic movement] Shabbeteanism in disguise, and the Hasidim, crypto‑followers of the false Messiah [17th-century Turkish scholar] Shabbetai Zevi.

On the social level, the Hasidim, with their separate conventicles and comparative independence of the kahal (the governing body of the community), were often seen as dangerous rebels against the authority that held the community together.

hasidism and its opponentsOn the theological level, the Mitnaggedim saw Hasidic panentheism, the doc­trine that all is in God, to be a heretical understanding of  [the biblical phrase] “The whole earth is full of His glory”, one which blurs the distinction between good and evil, the holy and the profane, the pure and the impure.

The Mitnaggedim were strongly opposed to the doctrine of the Zaddik [the “holy man”, who was also often referred to as “Rebbe”] as an intermediary between God and man. In its more extreme form, the Mitnaggedim pro­tested, Hasidic veneration of the Zaddik bor­ders on idolatrous Zaddik worship. And the interpretation of Torah study by the Hasidim in terms of devotion was seen by the Mitnaggedim as a denigration of the Torah and those who spent their lives studying the Torah.

There is, in fact, in early Hasidic literature, much criticism of the scholars who, the Hasidim maintained, studied out of ulterior motives, to win fame or wealth. The Mitnaggedim thus saw the new movement with its emotional excesses as threatening the old order in which the community was governed by sober, learned rabbis and lay leaders.

The Maskilim

The Maskilim attacked Hasidism for its obscurantism, as they saw it. Instead of the masses trying to improve their financial posi­tion by their own efforts and taking care of their health by consulting and being advised by the physicians, they were encouraged to leave everything to the prayers of the Zaddik on their behalf.

The Hasidic masters were generally opposed to Jews learning foreign languages and adopting any of the mores of Western society, all in direct opposition to the Haskalah, whose main aim was to encourage accommodation to the Gentile world where this did not affect loyalty to the Jewish religion.

Furthermore, the Maskilim maintained, Hasidic life was gov­erned by a superstitious belief in the supernatu­ral powers of the Zaddik to change the naturalorder. Eventually, the Mitnaggedim made com­mon cause with the Hasidim in opposition to the Haskalah, which was not slow to hurl similar accusations against the traditionalist Mitnaggedim.

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