Hasidic Mysticism

Hasidism spread mystical ideas to the masses of East-European Jewry.

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Perhaps that is the key to what [scholar of mysticism] Gershom Scholem told Weiner: “The method which Hasidism used for finding joy and meaning was ‘to extract, I may even say distill, the perpetual life of God out of life as it is. This extracting must be an act of abstraction. It is not the fleeting here and now that is to be enjoyed, but the everlasting unity and pres­ence of Transcendence.’ ”

At the same time that he acknowledged the “unity and presence of Transcendence,” the Hasid still found the Divine Presence immanent—inhering—in everything. Among the most controversial positions espoused by the first generations of Hasidim, they believed that the immanence of God in everything meant that even great evil or pollu­tion had a spark of the divine hidden somewhere within it. The Hasidim took this to mean that one must not only redeem and raise the holy sparks from the hand of evil, but that it was imperative to correct and uplift the evil itself. As Dov Baer, the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezeritch, the Besht’s successor as leader of the rapidly expanding Hasidic flock, explained it, since the evil once resided in the Godhead itself, it must have been good at its origin; if we can return it to the source, it will not only be cleansed of its evilness but its force will be added to the good­ness of the Divine. For the Mitnagdim, this veered dangerously close to the Sabbatean and Frankist (false messianic) heresy of “redemption through sin,” fight­ing evil by becoming one with it. At the very least, such exposure to the forbidden put one at considerable risk.

Then there was the matter of the role of the tzaddik (wise or just man). The idea that a Hasid could not by himself achieve the fullest potential of oneness with God without help from a divinely inspired source—his rebbe—echoed Nathan of Gaza (an advocate of Shabbetai Tzvi, the seventeenth-century false Messiah). It reminded the Mitnagdim of the Sabbateans (the followers of Tzvi) more than they were comfortable with. The tzaddik or rebbe or admor (an acronym for adoneinu, moreinu, ve-rabeinu [our master, our teacher, our rabbi]), whatever his designation, is able to intercede with the Almighty on behalf of his Hasidim. He serves not only as a spiritual advisor, but counsels his charges in material matters too, everything from choosing a bride to making investments.

In fact, this particular element of Hasidic thought did not gain currency until late in the eighteenth century, around the time that the second and third generation Hasidic masters were emerging from under the great shadow cast by the Besht and the Maggid. As the “courts” of the various local rebbes became established and the movement grew, hereditary dynasties began to form. (Intriguingly, although his son was a rabbi, the Besht did not pass the reins to him but, rather, to Dov Baer, undoubtedly out of recognition of the latter’s brilliance.)

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.