The radical departure from Torah practice in Western European makes the rest of Jewry extremely wary and resistant to change. However, the world is changing and adjustments are becoming necessary.
In the 18th century, large segments of Eastern European Jewry are becoming depressed from poverty and loss hope from the Shabsai Tzvi debacle. The environment is unfriendly, hostile, even deadly.
There is a growing vacuum of Torah knowledge among the masses, as the necessities of life drag boys as young as thirteen years of age into the work force. In general, only the brightest remain in school to advance and an increasing number of people become dissociated with Torah scholarship. In a culture where scholarship is valued and ignorance is scorned, there are insufficient mechanisms to provide self-worth for these people.
In 1734, a person earns the reputation as a miracle worker. He is scholarly in the Torah, including the kabala. He is very charismatic and he attracts a following. He emphasizes selected Judaic concepts. This person becomes known as Rav Yisroel Ba'al Shem Tov.
He teaches that G-d is everywhere, that He is approachable, and that He is concerned with even the most trivial matters. Your personal and mundane world are important to G-d. It is OK to ask G-d to heal your cow.
While scholarship is important, is not the only focus in Judaism. A person can achieve a close relationship with G-d and thereby obtain self-worth through prayer. Prayer requires preparation and devotion. Through his teachings, prayer becomes the central event of the day for many people.
One must maintain an optimistic frame of mind. Joy and song are encouraged.
He emphasizes the concept of a Rebbe, a spiritual leader of high caliber, a mentor. He maintains that the masses can achieve greatness through their association with a Rebbe. The Rebbe is invested with an aura of holiness. He may be able to perform miracles. His followers are called Chasidim.
The Chasidic movement is not a product of the establishment, the community of scholars. It has a potential of degenerating into something that is not within the clear-cut boundaries of Torah-true thinking, though this was not the desire of their leaders.
Many scholars become highly suspicious. They raise an alarm as Chasidic Jewry grows in number. The opponents of Chasidim are called Misnagdim and they launch a holy war, a war of words and social strife. Both sides have extremists. Leaders are denounced to the government and jailed.
The Vilna Goan becomes involved. This revered and pious scholar is a remarkable person. For example, he is known to sleep no more than two hours a day, studying for five and a half hours and sleeping for a half-hour, around the clock. It is as though he has no memory, for he is vividly aware of everything that he studies. The Goan takes it upon himself to suggest corrections for what appears to him to be typographical errors in the Talmud. Prior to each suggestion he fasts a complete day.
With fierce and powerful energy, the Vilna Goan slam-dunks the Chasidim's every potential departure from Torah-true Judaism. He eventually issues a ban again against Chasidic Judaism.
Due to the intense pressure and scrutiny, the Chasidim have no where to turn but to complete Torah practice. Their new and revolutionary branch of Judaism is Torah-true. Chasidic Judaism is well within the mainstream and it sweeps Eastern Europe. By the 19th century, shortly after the death of the Gaon, the ban is no longer relevant and the bitterness is defused. The Chasidic revolution becomes part of the establishment.
The experience refines the lives and Torah practice of people on both sides of the controversy. Scholarly Misnagdim now think more about warmth and care. Chasidim now think more about Torah scholarship.
Unlike the German Jewish Reform movement, the Chasidic movement is a prime example of a Jewish religious innovation that was made within the mainstream of Torah practice. It quickly becomes accepted within the mainstream.
In their formative period, Chasidic Jewry represented a change from tradition. Today, they best represent tradition and resistance to change by the way they dress and speak.
Today, members of the Chassidic community typically have special customs such as unique styles of dress. They still have a strong and loyal relationship with their spiritual mentors.
No contemporary Jewish group has ever been more misunderstood and abused than Chassidic Jewry.
Lets take a Chassidic Jew walking down the street. He has long earlocks, hes wearing a big black hat, a black robe, and white stockings.
- Myth Number One: He must be a Rabbi.
Truth: Hes probably not a Rabbi. Most people who walk down the street are not Rabbis. Most Rabbis, especially in America dont have long earlocks, nor do they wear black robes or white stockings.
Not every Chasidic Jew is a Torah scholar. Yet, their long black frocks represent Torah association and this sight evokes a sense of emptiness for many who are ignorant of their tradition.
- Myth Number Two: He must be weird.
Truth: How do you know? From his looks? Maybe you look weird to him. Ive personally known many Chassidic Jews. Like any other group of people, some are highly intelligent and sensitive and others are not.
- Myth Number Three: I cant walk on the same side of the street with him. Wheres the nearest crack in the sidewalk for me to hide in.
Truth: Maybe you (and I) can learn something from his being steadfast to the customs of his parents, at all costs. Instead of running for cracks, run over and ask him how he manages it all. Why not learn something from him?
- Myth Number Four: Hes against the State Of Israel.
Truth: There were some sects who opposed the state during its early formative years. They dressed in Chassidic garb. However, most Chassidic Jews were not members of these sects. The State Of Israel is today the homeland of a large number of Chassidic Jews. They pay taxes and are loyal citizens of the State.
- Myth Number Five: They are withdrawn from society and that is wrong.
Truth: They are somewhat withdrawn from general society. They are not comfortable with where society is headed. Are you? They do not feel that they are able to launch a crusade to purify society. Are you?
As a whole, Chassidim are a noble, caring, practical, and sharing people. They are strong proponents of the trait of loyalty. You owe it to yourself to give them a chance and check them out.
Periodicals and organizations that consistently cast Chassidim in a negative light are doing a disservice to the Jewish people.
Chasidim are a great people. I encourage you to learn how to read newspaper articles about them.
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