Hasidism

Note: The Hebrew word Hasid means "pious" and is employed in classical Jewish sources to designate one whose spiritual devotion extends beyond the technical requirements of Jewish religious law. The term came to denote an adherent of the popular East European Jewish religious movement whose history and doctrines are outlined below.

Background to the Rise of Hasidism

17th- Century Massacres and Pogroms

Internal Developments

Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (c. 1700-1760)

Subsequent Development of Hasidism

The Ba'al Shem Tov himself does not appear to have defined a framework for leadership of his movement following his death. After some disagreement among the circles of his disciples, one leadership model did emerge as the characteristic one of the movement: that of the Tzaddik ("righteous one").

Rooted in Kabbalistic doctrines, the Tzaddik was a charismatic figure of extraordinary spiritual calibre. Since the common folk who made up the majority of the Hasidic movement did not possess the material or spiritual means to achieve full religious perfection, the Tzaddik would provide a vicarious fulfillment. By devoting oneself to a worthy Tzaddik, the individual could benefit from the latter's spiritual guidance and achievements.

The first generation of Tzaddikim consisted of the actual disciples of the Ba'al Shem Tov, and included individuals of remarkable stature. The cultivation of personal charisma resulted in an immense variety among the individual Hasidic communities, as each was stamped with the imprint of its leaders, emphasizing different aspects of religious piety.

Some of the better known leaders include:

Subsequent generations of Hasidic leadership would be handed down to the principal disciples of the reigning Tzaddik, which in many cases were their own sons. This situation evolved into a system of dynastic succession, in which the heirs to the title of Tzaddik did not necessarily share the qualifications of their predecessors. Abuses of authority became widespread, as Tzaddikim established "courts" with trappings of royalty, to which their followers were expected to furnish generous gifts and make pilgrimages.

Nevertheless, the movement continued to produce several remarkable leaders and religious models, as well as inspiring instances of devotion among the followers.

Although they suffered gravely from the devastation of the European Holocaust, many Hasidic groups continue to exist and thrive on the contemporary Jewish scene, especially in the United States and in Israel. Hasidic factions play prominent roles in both the Naturei Karta anti-Zionist movement, and in the Aguddat Israel.


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