Modern Jewish History (UCLA Spring 2018)

By Jasmin Cohan and Danielle Goldsmith

Hasidism is a Jewish religious group that has its origins in the 18th century contemporary Western Ukraine where it started as a spiritual revival movement. Israel Ben Eliezer, also referred to as Baal Shem Tov or Besht was the founding father of Hasidism. The followers of Hasidism, also known as Pious Ones or Hasidim, were distinguished by their exercise of street piety. Hasidism emerged in 12th century Germany before the religious reforms. Its main difference from modern Hasidism is that the modern Hasidism rejects asceticism and the strong emphasis on the sacredness of daily life. Hasidism is influenced by the Kabbalah movement as Besht was part of the movement.

During its inception, Hasidism faced opposition from the Mitnagdim who likened it to Sabbatianism. During this time, Sabbatianism was facing nonstop persecution from the rabbinical orthodoxy. The Mitnagdim perceived Hasidism as unorthodox and Hasidic practices as inconsistent with rationalist Talmudic traditions. There was also tension over authority between the Rabbis and Laymen. The founder of Hasidism, Israel Ben Eliezer was a faith healer, a writer of amulets designed to fight illness, and an exorcist. His earliest followers were his patients. Hasidism merged with the existing traditions and spread to the Volhynia and Podolia regions of Ukraine.

According to the teachings of Besht, all people are equal before God including both the ignorant and the learned. He taught people to express their devotion through intense bodily gestures, singing, shouting, dance, and jumping. He also taught the people that divine grace and communion with God was open to all Jews, even the simplest in the society. The Besht did not leave a written record of his teachings, what is known comes from his disciples. After his death, his disciples developed and further refined Hasidism as taught by the Besht. Followers of Baal Shem Tov had many followers who created and became head of Hasidic dynasties.

The Rabbi was the recognized leader during these centuries. The emergence of new social structures led to the rise of prophets as the new leaders. Then came the Tzadik, whose doctrine was planned by Elimelech of Lizhensk and Jacob Joseph of Polnoy. Tzaddikim are described as emissaries of God who have the ability to sustain the entire world. The tsaddik was believed to exist on a level that is higher than the angels and also; they possess the power to transform divine judgment to mercy.

The Hasidic Shtibl was established as an alternative place of prayer where activities not allowed in the synagogue or prayer houses could be practiced. The Hasidic Shtibl was used as a place for prayer and study. Festivities and other social and recreational activities were also allowed in the shtibl. The shtibl attracted new people to Hasidism as it provided a less formal atmosphere of worship.

As Hasidism grew and spread to new regions, the traditional orthodox practices were abandoned. In the late 19th century, Judaism lost its grip on people as more Jews moved to urban centers. Jews interacted with Christians and other religions, leading to many Jews converting and intermarrying with Christians. Teachings and writings of Martin Buber were influential in the new trend of Neo-Hasidism that emerged. Buber revolted against the practices of 19th century Hasidism which was characterized by mysticism and superstition.

Before the First World War, some Jews had high hopes of the coming transformation which they believed would eliminate classes, parties, and religions. However, the war led to the brutal disillusionment of the Jews. Although their hopes of becoming part of a German Volksgemeinschaft, or community, were destroyed, Jewish leaders called for the formation of new forms of community.


Ariel, Yaakov. “Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius: The House of Love and...

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