Hasidism spread mystical ideas to the masses of East-European Jewry.
This article is reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism, published by Pocket Books.
Contemporary Hasidism traces its roots to a single Polish folk preacher and itinerant healer, Israel ben Eliezer, called the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), or the Besht for short.
The Baal Shem Tov was probably born in 1700. Sometime in the 1730s, he began to gather around him a following of similarly pious Jews, who would come to call themselves the Hasidim, “the pious ones.”
Before his death in 1760, the Besht had incurred the wrath of some of the most important scholars in traditional Judaism [the fervent, official condemnation of Hasidism, however, didn’t truly begin until 1772]. What could this simple man have done that would engender furious opposition from such learned antagonists? He told his followers that the way to oneness with God didn’t necessarily flow through the world of sacred texts and scholarship but that oneness with the Divine was open to any Jew, no matter how unlettered.
At the heart of Hasidic practice were some rather straightforward ideas. The Baal Shem Tov and the first generations of Hasidic rebbes placed a high value on devekut (becoming attached to God), on the annihilation of the self through ecstatic worship, on kavanah (intention and focus) as an absolute necessity in prayer. But where kavanah meant a knowledge of the intricacies of the sefirot to a kabbalist, for the Hasid it signified a sincere involvement of the heart in prayer. Clearly, on some level the Mitnagdim [those who defined themselves “against” the Hasidim] saw this anti-intellectualism as a direct threat. How could unlettered peasants possibly engage in serious study of sacred texts? It was said that the Besht himself was particularly fond of the prayer of a poor shepherd who said, “Dear God, though I keep cattle and sheep for others for pay, for You I would keep them for nothing because I love You.”
The Hasidim were also relentlessly anti-ascetic. Even the perpetually depressed Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the Besht’s great-grandson, counseled his followers, “It is forbidden to despair. Never give up hope!” Worship should be accomplished with joy, with music and dance. The Mitnagdim were appalled by the spectacle of Hasidic worship, of men turning cartwheels and shaking uncontrollably in their prayers, singing and shouting and clapping their hands.
As Herbert Weiner says in his book 9 Mystics: The Kabbalah Today, ecstatic prayer as practiced by the Baal Shem Tov and his followers goes beyond merely allowing the illiterate to partake of the joy of worship. The Besht, he writes, “was a mystic, even an ecstatic...he emphasized the hidden truths over the revealed aspects of Torah.”