Hasidic Ideas

Though Hasidism is not a homogenous philosophy, there are certain ideas common to its many subgroups.

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

Hasidism is less a movement with ideas of its own than one in which ideas found in the classical Jewish sources, especially the kabbalah, are given new life and fresh emphasis. The task of discovering in what this emphasis consists is rendered difficult because each of the early masters has his own interpretation of Hasidic doctrine. In some respects, for instance, the teachings of Dov Baer of Mezhirech are at variance with those of Jacob Joseph of Polonoyye, those of Habad different from those of Nahman of Bratslav.

Moreover, the Hasidic works do not normally present their ideas in any systematic form but are in the form of stray comments on biblical verses and talmudic sayings. Students of the movement are consequently obliged to try to note which teachings are common to all the versions and which belong to the particular bent of individual teachers. The Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism) himself conveyed his ideas in the form of brief aphorisms in Yiddish so that even sayings in Hasidic works that are attributed to the first master come to us at second or third hand and it is often desirable to question their authenticity. The most one can do when describing Hasidic doctrine is seek the ideas that are not found in the Hasidic form in earlier Jewish sources and upon which there is a fair degree of consensus among the Hasidic masters no matter to which they belong. Only with these reservations in mind is it possible to speak of the doctrine of Hasidism.

 

An idea common to every variety of Hasidism is that of pervasiveness of the divine presence. Behind and in all created things is the divine energy that keeps them in being. The kabbalistic doctrine of the “holy sparks” inherent in all things is laid under tribute [marshalled] in Hasidism to reject asceticism (though a few Hasidic masters did pursue the ascetic way). The ascetic, by abstaining from food and drink and other worldly pleasures, fails to set free the holy sparks clamoring to be released from the demonic forces. The task of the true Hasid is to rescue the holy sparks by engaging in worldly pursuits in a spirit of sanctity. This is the meaning of the older ideal of devekut, “attachment to God” as applied in Hasidism. The Hasid is to have God constantly in his mind even when going about his daily affairs. In a work attributed to Baruch of Meziboz (1757‑1830), grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, it is said that the Baal Shem Tov introduced a new way, without mortification of the flesh, in which the three essentials are love of God, love of the Jewish people, and love of the Torah.

In the earliest period, the masters relied on the doctrine of the “holy sparks” to introduce the teaching regarding “strange [or foreign] thoughts.” When sinful thoughts invade the mind of the Hasid at prayers, the doctrine runs, he should not reject these entirely since even these contain holy sparks to be elevated by thinking of their source on high. For instance, if the Hasid thinks during his prayers of a pretty woman he has met, he should contemplate that her beauty is but a pale reflection of the divine beauty on high, and instead of allowing his mind to dwell on the woman herself, he should see the thought that has entered his mind as calling him to contemplate the spiritual source of all beauty. The staid Mitnagdim (the opponents of Hasidism) were horrified at the very idea which was, in fact, eventually aban­doned by the Hasidim themselves on the grounds that only the great masters of the past were sufficiently strong in soul to succeed in elevating the “strange thoughts” without allowing simple lust to obtain lodging in the mind.

Humility and joy are virtues prominent in Hasidism but these are understood in a particular Hasidic way. Humility does not mean that a person should think little of himself but that he should not think of himself at all. Humility means for Hasidism that perception of God’s glory and majesty leads inevitably to self‑transcendence. A Hasidic master observed that there is no precept urging humility and there cannot be such a precept since a conscious striving for humility is self‑defeating. In true humility there is no self to be commanded.

Joy in Hasidism denotes the attitude of intense spir­itual delight in being a servant of God. Since the divine is everywhere present, how can the heart help leaping in joy? Another Hasidic master said that to be joyful is not an actual mitzvah,a religious obligation, nor is it an actual sin to be miserable. Yet joy leads to the performance of all the Jew’s obligations and misery leads to despair and every kind of sin. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye writes in this vein that one should not be over-scrupulous in the performance of the precepts because this can easily lead to a morbid striving for perfec­tionism that frustrates the ideal of joy.

The Hasidim were, of course, observant Jews, but for them, the precepts of the Torah were to be carried out in love and fear of God and were, at the same time, the means to love and fear. Fear in Hasidism usually refers to the sense of awe (Rudolf Otto’s “the numinous”) in God’s pres­ence. In the classical works of Hasidism, there is little reference to the fear of punishment in hell or in this world as the motivation for leading a good life. Love and fear, as the Baal Shem Tov is reported to have put it, are the two wings by which the soul soars upwards.

Hasidism generally considered prayer as superior in the scale of Jewish values to the stud­y of the Torah, a reversal of the traditional picture in which no religious activity is more sublime than the study of God’s word. Kalonymus Kalman Epstein of Cracow (d. 1827) writes in his book Maor Va‑Shemesh, a book that came to assume classical status among Hasidic works and which can be said to express authoritative Hasidic doctrine, if there is such a thing: “From the time of his coming, the holy Baal Shem Tov, may the memory of the holy and saintly be for a blessing, caused the tremendous sanctity of prayer to illumine the world for whoever wishes to draw near to God’s service. However, in order for a man to attain to pure prayer, it is necessary for him to engage in much service of the sages, to labor long, night and day, in the study of the Torah and in the performance of good deeds so that, as a result, he may learn how truly to pray with fear and great love, as those who have discernment know full well.”

In this passage, prayer is not said actually to supersede Torah study, yet the latter is considered important as a means to an end, unlike in the rabbinic tradition where the study of the Torah is an end in itself with prayer, for all its importance, only secondary. The reversal in Hasidic thought is due to the Hasidic doctrine of devekut,an ideal more readily realized in prayer than during study. In most early versions of Hasidism, the further step was taken of treating the study of the Torah itself as a devotional exercise. In this version, the rabbinic ideal of Torah study for its own sake does not mean, as it does for the Mitnagdim, study with the Torah in mind but with God in the mind. The Mitnagdim retorted that the student of the Torah will never be able to master whatever subject he studies if his mind is on God instead of being immersed in the complexities of the subject.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.