Hasidic Mysticism

Hasidism spread mystical ideas to the masses of East-European Jewry.

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This article is reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism, published by Pocket Books.

Contemporary Hasidism traces its roots to a single Polish folk preacher and itinerant healer, Israel ben Eliezer, called the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), or the Besht for short. The Baal Shem Tov was probably born in 1700. Sometime in the 1730s, he began to gather around him a following of similarly pious Jews, who would come to call themselves the Hasidim, “the pious ones.”

Before his death in 1760, the Besht had incurred the wrath of some of the most important scholars in traditional Judaism [the fervent, official condemnation of Hasidism, however, didn’t truly begin until 1772]. What could this simple man have done that would engender furious opposition from such learned antagonists? He told his followers that the way to oneness with God didn’t necessarily flow through the world of sacred texts and scholarship but that oneness with the Divine was open to any Jew, no matter how unlettered.

At the heart of Hasidic practice were some rather straightforward ideas. The Baal Shem Tov and the first generations of Hasidic rebbes placed a high value on devekut (becoming attached to God), on the anni­hilation of the self through ecstatic worship, on kavanah (intention and focus) as an absolute necessity in prayer. But where kavanah meant a knowledge of the intricacies of the sefirot to a kabbalist, for the Hasid it signified a sincere involvement of the heart in prayer. Clearly, on some level the Mitnagdim [those who defined themselves “against” the Hasidim] saw this anti-intellectualism as a direct threat. How could unlettered peasants possibly engage in serious study of sacred texts? It was said that the Besht himself was particularly fond of the prayer of a poor shepherd who said, “Dear God, though I keep cattle and sheep for others for pay, for You I would keep them for nothing because I love You.”

The Hasidim were also relentlessly anti-ascetic. Even the perpetually depressed Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the Besht’s great-grandson, counseled his followers, “It is forbidden to despair. Never give up hope!” Worship should be accomplished with joy, with music and dance. The Mitnagdim were appalled by the spectacle of Hasidic wor­ship, of men turning cartwheels and shaking uncontrollably in their prayers, singing and shouting and clapping their hands.

As Herbert Weiner says in his book 9 Mystics: The Kabbalah Today, ecstatic prayer as practiced by the Baal Shem Tov and his followers goes beyond merely allowing the illiterate to partake of the joy of worship. The Besht, he writes, “was a mystic, even an ecstatic...he empha­sized the hidden truths over the revealed aspects of Torah.”

Perhaps that is the key to what [scholar of mysticism] Gershom Scholem told Weiner: “The method which Hasidism used for finding joy and meaning was ‘to extract, I may even say distill, the perpetual life of God out of life as it is. This extracting must be an act of abstraction. It is not the fleeting here and now that is to be enjoyed, but the everlasting unity and pres­ence of Transcendence.’ ”

At the same time that he acknowledged the “unity and presence of Transcendence,” the Hasid still found the Divine Presence immanent—inhering—in everything. Among the most controversial positions espoused by the first generations of Hasidim, they believed that the immanence of God in everything meant that even great evil or pollu­tion had a spark of the divine hidden somewhere within it. The Hasidim took this to mean that one must not only redeem and raise the holy sparks from the hand of evil, but that it was imperative to correct and uplift the evil itself. As Dov Baer, the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezeritch, the Besht’s successor as leader of the rapidly expanding Hasidic flock, explained it, since the evil once resided in the Godhead itself, it must have been good at its origin; if we can return it to the source, it will not only be cleansed of its evilness but its force will be added to the good­ness of the Divine. For the Mitnagdim, this veered dangerously close to the Sabbatean and Frankist (false messianic) heresy of “redemption through sin,” fight­ing evil by becoming one with it. At the very least, such exposure to the forbidden put one at considerable risk.

Then there was the matter of the role of the tzaddik (wise or just man). The idea that a Hasid could not by himself achieve the fullest potential of oneness with God without help from a divinely inspired source—his rebbe—echoed Nathan of Gaza (an advocate of Shabbetai Tzvi, the seventeenth-century false Messiah). It reminded the Mitnagdim of the Sabbateans (the followers of Tzvi) more than they were comfortable with. The tzaddik or rebbe or admor (an acronym for adoneinu, moreinu, ve-rabeinu [our master, our teacher, our rabbi]), whatever his designation, is able to intercede with the Almighty on behalf of his Hasidim. He serves not only as a spiritual advisor, but counsels his charges in material matters too, everything from choosing a bride to making investments.

In fact, this particular element of Hasidic thought did not gain currency until late in the eighteenth century, around the time that the second and third generation Hasidic masters were emerging from under the great shadow cast by the Besht and the Maggid. As the “courts” of the various local rebbes became established and the movement grew, hereditary dynasties began to form. (Intriguingly, although his son was a rabbi, the Besht did not pass the reins to him but, rather, to Dov Baer, undoubtedly out of recognition of the latter’s brilliance.)

The Hasidic doctrine of the tzaddik differs in key elements from the Sabbatean notion of the Messiah. The tzaddik is empowered to speak on behalf of only his own Hasidim, and only during his own lifetime. He seldom is called upon to act in cosmic and messianic matters but almost exclusively in questions of daily life and of redemption and sin. Still, the echoes of Nathan and Shabbetai Tzvi were certainly there.

Despite those echoes, the Hasidic belief that, as the Torah said, “there is no place that is empty of [God]” would lead Hasidism not only back into the fold, but to a position of unprecedented conservatism within Orthodoxy.

The Besht taught that one could show devotion to the Almighty in everything one did. There is a famous story about a Hasid who traveled hundreds of miles to worship with a particular rebbe; when asked why, he said, “I wanted to see how he ties his shoes.” Driven by their concern with even the tiniest of quotidian details, Hasidic Jews, even today, fol­low halakhah (Jewish law) with a determination and even rigidity that is unparalleled in the Jewish world. Regardless of which branch of Hasidism one belongs to, the strict adherence to even the most minute details of halakhah is essential.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.