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03/21/2023 07:07:42 PM


The rise of Chassidic Judaism

In our yearlong examination of Jewish history (in honor of CBSW’s 40th birthday) we have reached the rise of Chassidic Judaism. Beginning in the 18th century, this movement began as a charismatic appeal to the spiritual in life. The rabbi was replaced with the rebbe, or tzaddik. Learning was replaced by charisma. The spiritual depression, influenced by economic problems, political persecution, and the collapse of traditional communal leadership, led to a response that celebrated joyous piety. The founder, called the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) or Besht, for short, was a healer, a teacher, and a mystic, operating in southeastern Poland.
Key components of this Chassidic Movement:

  •  Charisma trumps Torah knowledge
  • Less messianic ideology and more personal closeness to God
  • Enjoying the world instead of avoiding the world (i.e., legitimate pleasures)
  • Stories and parables for teaching values
  • A theology that suggested God is everywhere (even inside of us)

The response to these innovations from the traditional rabbinate was a total rejection of this new stream of Judaism. Chassidic Judaism spread despite the backlash but some of the more radical components, such as a more naturalistic theology, did not survive. In the end, the anti-intellectualism of the movement waned but the focus on inner meaning and moral development spread beyond the Chassidic world. And of course, the mutual threat of modernity led to a rapprochement between the Chassidic and non-Chassidic Orthodox community—an alliance that still stands.
Next time: Napoleon and the Jews

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784