Hasidic Ideas

Though Hasidism is not a homogenous philosophy, there are certain ideas common to its many subgroups.

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Humility and joy are virtues prominent in Hasidism but these are understood in a particular Hasidic way. Humility does not mean that a person should think little of himself but that he should not think of himself at all. Humility means for Hasidism that perception of God’s glory and majesty leads inevitably to self‑transcendence. A Hasidic master observed that there is no precept urging humility and there cannot be such a precept since a conscious striving for humility is self‑defeating. In true humility there is no self to be commanded.

Joy in Hasidism denotes the attitude of intense spir­itual delight in being a servant of God. Since the divine is everywhere present, how can the heart help leaping in joy? Another Hasidic master said that to be joyful is not an actual mitzvah,a religious obligation, nor is it an actual sin to be miserable. Yet joy leads to the performance of all the Jew’s obligations and misery leads to despair and every kind of sin. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye writes in this vein that one should not be over-scrupulous in the performance of the precepts because this can easily lead to a morbid striving for perfec­tionism that frustrates the ideal of joy.

The Hasidim were, of course, observant Jews, but for them, the precepts of the Torah were to be carried out in love and fear of God and were, at the same time, the means to love and fear. Fear in Hasidism usually refers to the sense of awe (Rudolf Otto’s “the numinous”) in God’s pres­ence. In the classical works of Hasidism, there is little reference to the fear of punishment in hell or in this world as the motivation for leading a good life. Love and fear, as the Baal Shem Tov is reported to have put it, are the two wings by which the soul soars upwards.

Hasidism generally considered prayer as superior in the scale of Jewish values to the stud­y of the Torah, a reversal of the traditional picture in which no religious activity is more sublime than the study of God’s word. Kalonymus Kalman Epstein of Cracow (d. 1827) writes in his book Maor Va‑Shemesh, a book that came to assume classical status among Hasidic works and which can be said to express authoritative Hasidic doctrine, if there is such a thing: “From the time of his coming, the holy Baal Shem Tov, may the memory of the holy and saintly be for a blessing, caused the tremendous sanctity of prayer to illumine the world for whoever wishes to draw near to God’s service. However, in order for a man to attain to pure prayer, it is necessary for him to engage in much service of the sages, to labor long, night and day, in the study of the Torah and in the performance of good deeds so that, as a result, he may learn how truly to pray with fear and great love, as those who have discernment know full well.”

In this passage, prayer is not said actually to supersede Torah study, yet the latter is considered important as a means to an end, unlike in the rabbinic tradition where the study of the Torah is an end in itself with prayer, for all its importance, only secondary. The reversal in Hasidic thought is due to the Hasidic doctrine of devekut,an ideal more readily realized in prayer than during study. In most early versions of Hasidism, the further step was taken of treating the study of the Torah itself as a devotional exercise. In this version, the rabbinic ideal of Torah study for its own sake does not mean, as it does for the Mitnagdim, study with the Torah in mind but with God in the mind. The Mitnagdim retorted that the student of the Torah will never be able to master whatever subject he studies if his mind is on God instead of being immersed in the complexities of the subject.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.