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Hasidus called the "Torah of the Baal Shem Tov" and his "Wellsprings", after his account in a letter to Gershon of Kitov about the elevation of his soul to the Heavenly Realms on Rosh Hashanah 1746. Repeating the Talmudic question, he asked the Messiah, "When is the Master coming?" The reply was, "When your Wellsprings spread forth to the furthest extremes"[1]

Hasidic Philosophy or Hasidus (Hebrew: חסידות, alternatively transliterated as Hassidism, Chassidism, Chassidut etc.) are the teachings, interpretations of Judaism, and mysticism articulated by the modern Hasidic movement. It includes the charismatic folk religious elements of Hasidism, but mainly describes its structured thought, expressed in its range from theology to philosophy.

The word derives from the Hebrew "hesed" (kindness), and the appellation "hasid" (pious) has a history in Judaism for a person who has sincere motives in serving God and helping others. Some earlier Jewish movements were also called by this name, such as the Hasidei Ashkenaz of medieval Germany. However, today, the Hasidic philosophy and movement invariably refers to the mystical, populist revival of Judaism, initiated by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (The Baal Shem Tov) in 18th century Podolia and Volhynia (now Ukraine). His close disciples developed the philosophy in the early years of the movement. From the third generation, the select leadership took their different interpretations and dispersed across Eastern Europe, from Poland, Hungary and Romania, to Lithuania and Russia.

Hasidic tradition and thought has gained admirers from outside its immediate following, and outside Orthodox Jewish belief, for its charismatic inspiration and insights. Distilling a culture of Jewish religious life that began before the arrival of modernity, its stories, anecdotes, and creative teachings have offered spiritual dimensions for people today. In its more systematic and intellectual articulations, however, it is also a form of traditional Jewish interpretation(exegesis) of Scriptural and Rabbinic texts, a new stage in the development of Jewish mysticism, and a philosophically illuminated system of theology that can be contrasted with earlier, mainstream Jewish Philosophy. This quality can bridge and unite the different disciplines of philosophy and mysticism (In the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, that was developed before Hasidism, experiential connection with spirituality takes place through a highly elaborate conceptual theology and textual interpretation. This contrasts with some common, more intuitive definitions of mysticism. In the Jewish tradition, new ideas derive authority from Scriptural interpretation. They therefore gain an intellectual organisation). Hasidic thought builds upon Kabbalah, and is sometimes called a new stage in its development. However, this generalisation is misleading (although implicit in Hasidus are new interpretations of Kabbalah, that can be drawn out and related to its new philosophical positions). Kabbalah gives the complete structure of traditional Jewish metaphysics, using subtle categorisations and metaphors. This studies the Divine interaction with Creation, through describing the emanations that reveal, and mediate Godliness. Because of the concern to divest these ideas from any physical connotations, Kabbalists traditionally restricted their transmission to closed circles of advanced scholars, for fear of misinterpreting sensitive concepts. Hasidus leaves aside the Kabbalistic focus on complicated metaphysical emanations, to look at the simple essence of Divinity that it sees permeating within each level, and transcending all. Hasidus looks to the inner spiritual meaning within Kabbalah by relating its ideas to man's inner psychological awareness, and conceptual analogies from man's observation. This independence from the esoteric nature of Kabbalah, gives Hasidic thought its ability to be expressed in its spiritual stories, tangible teachings, and emotional practices, as well as the ability to pervade and illuminate other levels of Torah interpretation, not only the hidden ideas of Kabbalah. Hasidus only utilises Kabbalistic terminology when it explains and enlivens the Kabbalistic level of Torah interpretation. This distinctive ability to bring Kabbalah into intellectual and emotional grasp, is only one of the characteristics and forms of Hasidic thought. The more involved Hasidic writings use Kabbalah extensively, according to their alternative paths within Hasidism, but only as a means to describe the inner processes of spirituality, as they relate to man's devotional life. The spiritual contribution of the range of Hasidus avoids the concerns that traditionally restricted Kabbalah, and for the first time, offered the whole population access to the inner dimensions of Judaism.

Overview of Hasidic thought in historical context

Tradition records the Baal Shem Tov as a Hidden Tzadik, living in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine before his public teaching

The new interpretations of Judaism initiated by the Baal Shem Tov, and developed by his successors, took ideas from across Jewish tradition, and gave them new life and meaning. It especially built upon the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, and presented it in a way that was accessible for the first time by all Jews. Until then the Jewish mystical tradition had only been understandable and reserved for a scholarly elite. The innovative spirituality of Hasidism, sought to leave aside the advanced and subtle metaphysical focus of Kabbalah on the Heavenly Spiritual Worlds, to apply the Kabbalistic theology to the everyday life and Jewish observance of man. The common folk could feel the spiritual warmth within these new teachings, as they were now related to inner human psychological experience. The creative and insightful new teachings, offered the whole community a description of Divine immanence present in all of Creation, and an experience of Divine love and meaningful purpose behind every occurrence of daily life. With this mystical revival, every person could feel valuable, and Jewish spirituality accessible. This was especially important to the Jewish societies of 18th Century Eastern Europe, who had been crushed by persecutions and disillusionment. Outside of the flourishing centre of Talmudic Rabbinic Judaism in Lithuania, in the regions of the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Russia, the ability to access Talmudic learning had declined. Rabbinic Judaism valued such learning as the main path to spirituality, so the outlying communities were disenfranchised from the consolations of Jewish life.

Rebuilt synagogue of Baal Shem Tov in Medzhybizh

The Baal Shem Tov, and his successors, offered the masses a new approach to Judaism, that valued sincerity and emotional fervour, in addition to advanced learning. This was conveyed through inner mystical interpretations of Scripture and Rabbinic texts, sometimes conveyed by imaginative parables, as well as hagiographic tales about the Hasidic Masters, and new dimensions to melody (Nigun) and customs (Minhag). The soulful warmth of this new level of Torah captured the hearts of the masses, while the deep ideas underlying it also attracted great scholars. The Hasidic movement became one of the most successful revival movement in Jewish history. Its spirituality ensured the allegiance of many followers to Jewish life, through the social, political, and intellectual upheavals of early modern history, and has also had an appeal to non-Orthodox Jewish movements until today (especially through the influence of late 19th Century and 20th Century Neo-Hasidism). The charismatic stories told about the Hasidic Masters, the emotional contributions it brought to Judaism, and the creative originality of some of its teachings, have become well known in the wider Jewish world. Theologians such as Martin Buber and writers such as Elie Wiesel have publicised the charismatic and lyrical dimensions of Hasidism, while Jewish historians influenced by the early Haskalah (Enlightenment movement) helped mould the common depiction of Hasidism as a movement that mainly encouraged emotional exuberance and joy, within the framework of traditional Rabbinic Jewish study and observance. However, its outside admirers, as well as its detractors, have often not been as familiar with the philosophical depth and significance of its ideas, in the history of Jewish thought. In the academic world this trend has been changed, beginning with the scholarly work of Gershom Scholem, though some of the figures in this field give secular interpretations of Jewish mysticism and Hasidism, that can differ with philosophical views from inside the movement. The two dimensions to Hasidism of emotional warmth and intellectual depth, are united in their origins, as the movement began on both levels. The Baal Shem Tov taught by means of parables and short, heartwarming Torah explanations that encapsulated profound interpretations of Jewish mysticism. The unlearned, downtrodden masses were captivated by this new soul and life breathed into Judaism, while the select group of great disciples around the Baal Shem Tov, could appreciate the scholarly and philosophical significance of these new ideas. The anecdotal stories about the legendary figures of Hasidism, offered a vivid bridge between the intellectual ideas, and the spiritual, emotional enthusiasm they inspired. Implicit in Hasidic tales are the new doctrines of Hasidism, as the new interpretations of Torah taught by its leaders, were also lived in all facets of their life and leadership, and their new paths to serving God. This gave birth to new Jewish practices in the lives of their followers that also reflected the new teachings of the movement.

Each school of Hasidic thought adopted different approaches and interpretations of Hasidism. Some put primary emphasis on the new practices and customs ("Darkei Hasidus"-the Ways of Hasidus) that encouraged emotional enthusiasm, and attached the followers to the holy influence of their leaders, and some put their main emphasis on scholarly learning of the Hasidic teachings of their leaders ("Limmud Hasidus"-the Learning of Hasidus). Some groups have seen the Hasidic way as an added warmth to a more mainstream Jewish observance (like "icing on the cake" of Talmudic learning), while others have placed the learning of the writings of their school, on a more comparable level to learning the exoteric parts of Judaism. These differences are reflected in different styles of Hasidic thought, that were shaped by original and innovative thinkers. Some articulated more emotional or poetic descriptions of Hasidic mysticism, that inspire practical encouragement in Jewish observance, or sensitise the hearts of their followers to transcendent spirituality. Some charismatic leaders in Hasidic history personified particular qualities, and centred their teachings around practical outcomes of this. Others gave a more intellectual analysis of Hasidic thought, aiming their followers to be able to more deeply internalise spiritual awareness and feeling, each person at their level of understanding.

The disciples of Dov Ber of Mezeritch spread Hasidism throughout Eastern Europe

This diversity mirrors the historic development of Hasidism. From late Medieval times, Central and Eastern European Kabbalistic figures called Baal Shem encouraged the influence of Jewish mysticism, through groups of Nistarim (Hidden mystics). With the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), centred around Podolia (Ukraine), the new ideas of Hasidism were conveyed initially in emotional forms. After his passing, his great disciples appointed Dov Ber of Mezeritch (1700?-1772) (The Maggid of Mezeritch) to succeed him. Under the leadership of the Maggid, the new movement was consolidated, and the teachings explained and developed. The Baal Shem Tov was a leader for the people, travelling around with his saintly followers, bringing encouragement and comfort to the simple masses. Dov Ber, whose ill health prevented him from travel, devoted his main focus to developing around himself a close circle of great, scholarly followers (called the "Hevra Kaddisha"-Holy Society) who were to become the individual leaders of the next generation, appointed different territories across Jewish Eastern Europe to spread Hasidism to. They formed different interpretations of Hasidic thought, from profound insight in mystical psychology, to philosophical intellectual articulations. Many of the Hasidic leaders of the third generation, occupy revered places in Hasidic history, or influenced subsequent schools of thought. Among them are Elimelech of Lizhensk, who fully developed the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik (mystical leader) that gave birth to many Polish Rebbes, and his charismatic brother Meshulam Zushya of Anipoli. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev became the renowned defender of the people before the Heavenly Court, while Shneur Zalman of Liadi initiated the Habad school of intellectual Hasidism. Subsequent Hasidic leaders include Nachman of Breslav, the most imaginative and poetic Hasidic mystic, and the ascetic seeker of psychological integrity Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Dynastic succession of leadership developed (Hasidic dynasties), where in some courts, such as Yisroel Friedman of Ruzhyn, the Rebbe would conduct himself with regal majesty.

The encounter of Judaism in the different Jewish communities of Europe with modern thought, led to different philosophical interpretations of Judaism today. It has been said that the three figures of the Baal Shem Tov (Hasidic spirituality), the Vilna Gaon (Lithuanian Jewish Orthodox scholarship), and Moses Mendelssohn (the founding influence on the secularising Haskalah movement), have each influenced the range of Jewish responses today, through inspiration or counter-reaction. Initial schisms could lead to beneficial synthesis. The division between Hasidic and Mitnagdic Orthodoxy characterised Eastern European Judaism, but from the mid-19th century onwards they became reconciled in response to the Haskalah. The early rejection of Jewish mysticism by the reformers of Haskalah, led to a renewed interest in the 20th century from academia (begun by Gershom Scholem) and Jewish Renewal (Neo Hasidic) movements.

Characteristic ideas of Hasidic Philosophy

Hasidic conduct

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Dveikut of mystical joy and cleaving to God

  • Dveikut: Hasidism teaches that dveikut (Hebrew: דביקות-bonding), or bonding with God, is the highest form of God's service and the ultimate goal of all Torah study, prayer, and fulfilling the Mitzvot religious commandments. The highest level of dveikut is Hitpashtut Hagashmiut (Hebrew: התפשטות הגשמיות), which is an elevated state of consciousness in which the soul divests itself of the physical senses of the body and attains a direct perception of the Divine in all things. The very act of striving toward dveikut is meant to elevate one's spiritual awareness and sensitivity, and to add life, vigor, happiness and joy to one's religious observance and daily actions.
  • Hitbonenut: One of the methods through which to experience dveikut is hitbonenut (Hebrew: התבוננות), which is a method for contemplating God and His greatness (see Jewish meditation) and the inner significance of the Mitzvot.
  • Character Refinement: An important element in Hasidic philosophy is the essential task of character refinement and improving interpersonal relationships, known as tikun hamidot-"the rectifying of the character traits", or shvirat hamidot (Hebrew: שבירת המדות)-the "breaking of the character traits." Negative character traits, such as arrogance, jealousy, resentment, pursuit of physical pleasure as an end in itself, and the seeking of materialistic wealth or honor, are considered a hindrance in man's ability to achieve a bonding, or dveikut, with God. This goal is common to all historical paths in Rabbinic Judaism. Maimonides, the great exponent of Medieval Jewish philosophy incorporates character refinement in his Code of Jewish Law, as an inherent goal and obligation within Jewish observance. The particular, mystical, Hasidic approach to this is often compared with the ethical approach of Mussar. In Hasidism, breaking negative traits is viewed as a temporary stage in spiritual development. The ideal is to reach the higher level of transforming negative tendencies into Divine service. This is to be achieved through contemplation of Hasidic mystical thought, until the understanding awakens the mystical fervour of dveikut. Through incorporating this into daily life, habitually the natural, material traits of man can be taught the superior delight of Godliness. Hasidic thought explains that the natural, instinctive drives possess an advantage of superior strength over the more concealed holy inclinations. Once they are transformed into aiding Divine service, their vigour enables a higher and deeper level of Jewish observance. This correlates with Hasidism's identification of Divine Omnipresence and hidden goodness in all Creation. The Baal Shem Tov taught this foundational lesson by interpreting the verse in Exodus (23:5):

"If you see the donkey (chamor-also meaning physicality) of your enemy fallen under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it" - In examining your instinctive traits, you will discover that they are your enemy in Divine consciousness. Do not think that you should escape from them by rejecting physicality and leaving it under their influence, rather help this enemy and its burden to be transformed into holy service.

  • Godliness in all Matter: Hasidism emphasises the previous Jewish mystical idea to extract and elevate the Divine in all material things, both animate and inanimate. As taught in earlier Kabbalistic teachings from Isaac Luria, all worldly matter is imbued with nitzotzot (Hebrew: ניצוצות), or Divine sparks, which were disseminated through the "Breaking of the Vessels" (in Hebrew: שבירת הכלים), brought about through cosmic processes at the beginning of Creation. The Hasidic follower strives to elevate the sparks in all those material things that aid one's prayer, Torah study, religious commandments, and overall service of God. A related concept is the imperative to engage with the Divine through mundane acts, such as eating, sexual relations, and other day-to-day activities. Hasidism teaches that all actions can be utilized for the service of God when fulfilled with such intent. Eating can be elevated through reciting the proper blessings before and after, while maintaining the act's intent as that of keeping the body healthy for the continued service of God. Sexual relations can be elevated by abstaining from excessive pursuits of sexual pleasures, while maintaining focus on its core purposes in Jewish thought: procreation, as well as the independent purpose of deepening the love and bond between husband and wife, two positive commandments. Business transactions too, when conducted within the parameters of Jewish law and for the sake of monetary gain that will then be used for fulfilling commandments, serve a righteous purpose.
  • Joy and rejection of asceticism: Hasidism emphasizes joy as a precondition to elevated spiritual awareness, and teaches the avoidance of melancholy at all costs. Furthermore, the Hasidic masters warn that excessive obsession with trivialities and minutia of Jewish law can become an unnecessary hindrance in the service of God due to its potentially disheartening nature. For the same reason, Hasidism shunned the earlier practices of asceticism known to Kabbalists and Ethical followers, as having the potential to induce downheartedness and a weaker spirit for God's service. Nonetheless, the Hasidic masters themselves would often privately follow ascetic practices, as they could adopt such conduct without fear that it would damage their Jewish observance. This was not intended as an example for the followers.

Hasidism extolled love and encouragement of the sincere unlearned Jewish folk. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was renowned for his dialogue with God, arguing in their defence before the Heavenly Court. The Baal Shem Tov taught self-sacrifice through negation of ego to help another person

  • Valuing the Simple Jew and rejection of admonishment: Despite the elite intellectual profundity and scholarly attraction of Hasidic philosophy, Hasidism became wildly popular for its soulful embrace of the simple, unlearned Jewish masses of the time. The prevailing attitude when the Baal Shem Tov began spreading his new teaching, extolled advanced Talmudic learning and belittled the non-scholar. This traditionally placed Torah study as the ultimate spiritual activity in Rabbinic Judaism. However, this had developed a chasm between the scholarly elite and the disenfranchised masses. Hasidism, through its emphasis on dveikut with God, as the ultimate purpose of all commandments, relegated Torah study to being merely one, albeit one supremely important, commandment. In some Hasidic interpretations, prayer superseded study, as the spiritual vitality which could infuse all other activities. This was born out in the main Hasidic theoretician,[2] Schneur Zalman of Liadi's interpretation of the traditional Jewish concept of learning Torah Lishmah (learning "Torah for its own sake"), to mean learning Torah in order to cleave to God, rather than to perform the commandment of Torah study itself. Furthermore, with its shunning of arrogance, Hasidism emphasized the equality of all who approach the service of God with sincere intent, going so far as to elevate the ignorant but sincere simpleton over the haughty scholar. It similarly rejected the tradition in Jewish ethics that sometimes focused on admonishment and reward and punishment as initial stages in worshiping God. At the time of the Nistarim (Hidden mystics), popular preachers, known as Maggidim would tour Jewish communities offering admonishment as spiritual incentive. The Baal Shem Tov and his circle opposed this as disheartening and unproductive, especially after the recent tragedies Eastern European Jewry had experienced. To the Nistarim, it was also superficial and portraited God in a way that appeared oppressive, rather than the true source of Goodness. Through the early influence of the Baal Shem Tov,[3] the Nistarim spread the new message of encouragement and love of the common folk.

The Hasidic Rebbe exemplified the mystical doctrine of the Tzadik

  • Bonding with the Tzadik: Hasidism teaches that while not all are able to attain the highest levels of elevated spirituality, the masses can attach themselves to the Tzadik, or truly righteous one, (in Hebrew: התקשרות לצדיקים) whereby even those of lesser achievement will reap the same spiritual and material benefits. By being in the Tzadik's presence one could achieve dveikut through that of the Tzadik. The Tzadik also serves as the intercessor between those attached to him and God, and acts as the channel through which Divine bounty is passed. To the early Rabbinic opponents of Hasidism, its distinctive doctrine of the Tzadik appeared to place an intermediary before Judaism's direct connection with God. They saw the Hasidic enthusiasm of telling semi-prophetic or miraculous stories of its leaders as excessive. In Hasidic thought, based on earlier Kabbalistic ideas of collective souls, the Tzaddik is a general soul in which the followers are included. The Tzaddik is described as an "Intermidiary who connects" with God, rather than the heretical notion of an "Intermidiary who separates". To the followers, the Tzaddik is not an object of prayer, as he attains his level only by being completely bittul (nullified) to God. The Hasidic followers have the custom of handing pidyon requests for blessing to the Tzaddik, or visiting the Ohel graves of earlier leaders. The radical statements of the power of the Tzaddik, as the channel of Divine blessing in this world through which God works, are based on a long heritage of Kabbalistic, Talmudic and Midrashic sources. The beloved and holy status of the Tzaddik in Hasidism elevated storytelling about the Masters into a form of dveikut:

One Hasidic Master related that he visited the court of Dov Ber of Mezeritch to "see how he tied his shoelaces"[4]

Goals of Hasidic Philosophy

  1. Revival: At the time when Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov founded Hasidism, the Jews were physically crushed by massacres (in particular, those of the Cossack leader Chmelnitzki in 1648-1649) and poverty, and spiritually crushed by the disappointment engendered by the false messiahs. This unfortunate combination caused religious observance to seriously wane. This was especially true in Eastern Europe, where Hasidism began. Hasidism came to revive the Jews physically and spiritually. It focused on helping Jews establish themselves financially, and then lifting their morale and religious observance through its teachings.
  2. Piety: A Hasid, in classic Torah literature, refers to one of piety beyond the letter of the law. Hasidism demands and aims at cultivating this extra degree of piety. Not from a legal perspective, but out of love of the Creator.
  3. Refinement: Hasidism teaches that one should not merely strive to improve one's character by learning new habits and manners. Rather a person should completely change the quality, depth and maturity of one's nature. This change is accomplished slowly by carrying out the practices of Hasidic Philosophy, and travelling to see the Rebbe, the leader of the Hasidic sect to which one belongs.
  4. Demystification: In Hasidism, it is believed that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah can be made understandable to everyone. This understanding is meant to help refine a person, as well as adding depth and vigor to one's ritual observance.

In general, Hasidism claims to prepare the world for Moshiach, the Jewish Messiah, through these four achievements.

In a letter, the Ba'al Shem Tov describes how one Rosh Hashana his soul ascended to the chamber of Moshiach, where he asked Moshiach, "when will the master (Moshiach) come." Moshiach answered him, "when the wellsprings of your teachings, which I have taught you, will be spread out."

Mystical theology

Hasidic philosophy teaches that knowledge of God is the essence of the Torah and of everything in the world. Hasidic Philosophy (along with Kabbalah) is also known as "Pnimiyut HaTorah", the Inner Dimension of the Torah. The first premise of Hasidic Philosophy is God and His unity: That God transcends everything and, yet, is found in everything. God transcends all forms and limitations, even the most sublime. To God all forms are equal, and so His intents can be discovered in all of them equally. All existence is an expression of His Being. In the Baal Shem Tov's words, "God is everything and everything is God."

(This is a very subtle and difficult subject, based on the Kabbalistic doctrine of Tzimtzum, and not to be confused with Pantheism, which is heretical in Jewish belief. Charges of Pantheistic tendencies were incorrectly ascribed to Hasidism, by their early religious opponents(Mitnagdim), and by historians of the later secularising Haskalah movement. This was partly done out of mistaken fear that Hasidism was another mystical heresy, like the Sabbatean following, from the recent past. Pantheism equates God with nature, and because it denies the trancendence of God, is opposite in tendency to Hasidism. In Jewish mystical thought, God is so unlimited, that He is also able to express Himself in the finite world of nature. This is more accurately described as a Jewish version of Panentheism-"All is within God").

This premise means that everything is an infinite revelation of God, even the smallest and most trivial thing. This basic axiom leads to four points which are the pillars of the Ba'al Shem Tov's approach:

  1. Torah: According to the Ba'al Shem Tov the Torah is all God's "names." This means that every detail of the Torah is an infinite revelation of God, and there is no end to what we can discover from it. Just as God is infinite so is the meaning of the Torah infinite. The Ba'al Shem Tov often explains a verse or word in unconventional, and sometimes contradictory ways, only to show how all of these interpretations connect and are one. The Baal Shem Tov would even explain how all of the combinations of a word's letters connect.
  2. Divine Providence:a) According to the Ba'al Shem Tov every event is guided by Divine Providence. Even the way a leaf blows in the wind, is part of the Divine plan.b) Every detail is essential to the perfection of the entire world. If things weren't exactly this way, the entire Divine plan would not be fulfilled.c) This Divine purpose is what creates and gives life to this thing. Thus, its entire existence is Divine. Based on this, the Ba'al Shem Tov preached that one must learn a Godly lesson in everything one encounters. Ignoring His presence in every factor of existence is seen as a spiritual loss.
  3. Inherent Value: The Ba'al Shem Tov teaches that even a simple Jew is inherently as valuable as a great sage. For all Jews are "God's children" (Deuteronomy 14:1), and a child mirrors his father's image and nature. And, just as God is eternal and his Torah and Commandments are eternal, so are his people eternal. Even the least Jew is seen as a crown that glorifies God.
  4. Brotherly Love: The command to love another, according to the Baal Shem Tov, does not mean simply being nice. Rather, one must constantly strive to banish negative traits and cultivate good ones. This command encompasses one's entire life.

Other aspects of the Ba'al Shem Tov's approach: One should strive to permanently rectify negativity and not just suppress it. The effort in one's divine service is most important. If God wanted perfection, He would not have created us with faults and struggles. Rather, God desires our effort and struggle and challenges.

Hasidic Philosophy: Definition and relation to the other levels of Torah interpretation, and to mainstream Jewish Philosophy

The 4 levels of Torah interpretation (Pardes)

Classic Jewish teachings interpret each verse of the Torah (and often, other Jewish Scriptures from the Tanach-the Hebrew Bible, that are held to be revealed by "Nevuah"-Prophecy or the lower level of "Ruach Hakodesh"-Divine Spirit, also occasionally applied to the Oral Tradition, liturgy etc.) on four levels. They are:

  • Pshat: Meaning "Simple"-the plain meaning of the text. Can be ingenious
  • Remez: A "Hinted" meaning, another concept concealed within the wording, that may be alluded to in a variety of ways
  • Drash: A homiletic interpretation of the words, from the word "Doresh"-to expound. Gives a tangential meaning that is often imaginative or ethical, sometimes derived from comparing similar wording from different Scriptural verses. Stories in the Midrash can movingly personalise God's relationship with His people, and their response, and are held by commentators to contain deeper secrets
  • Sod: The "Secret" interpretation of the text found in Kabbalah that involves deep, spiritual meanings of the Torah, derived from the Scriptural words using esoteric rules of hermeneutics. Describes the metaphysical order of Creation, with the systems of the Jewish mystical tradition. While the Kabbalah was rooted in prophetic and visionary experiences of the Divine, over time it gained greater conceptualisation, so that it became an intellectual system, based on the Biblical text, taught to initiates. It relates its abstract descriptions of emanations, souls etc. to the descending levels of spiritual "Worlds" between the Infinite and our finite physical Universe. Specific and subtle categories of Divine manifestations are described. In this way the concern of Kabbalah is with the Heavenly realms, and man's impact on them.

The first letters of these 4 words spell the word Pardes-"Orchard". Each successive level of exegesis gives a more esoteric and spiritual explanation of the Biblical text. The first 3 methods are used in the part of Judaism described as "Nigleh"-"Revealed", comprising many classic Bible commentaries, the Talmudic literature, Halachic works, Medieval Philosophy etc., that frames Jewish thought from man's perspective and intellectual terms. This was historically the main part of Jewish study. The 4th level is involved in the "Nistar"-"Hidden" aspect of Judaism, that is found in the books of Kabbalah and some other classic Bible commentators. This is a spiritually orientated study, explaining Judaism in metaphysical terms, "God's intellect" drawn progressively down into human comprehension. "Toras haHasidus", the teachings of Hasidus, are also considered part of Nistar, and often also utilise Kabbalistic terminology, but what is the true nature of Hasidic thought? Is it part of Sod, as is commonly thought? What is the difference between Kabbalah and Hasidus? Is it hidden in the way that Kabbalah can only truly be sensed by the most advanced student? Does not Hasidic thought have multiple forms of expression, from the principles inherent in legendary spiritual stories, to the analytical texts that speak to the soul? If a Hasidic parable or short explanation can avoid all words of Kabbalah, does Hasidus not also relate to Pshat, Remez and Drush?

The origin of the Jewish mystical tradition until Hasidism

After Biblical references to esoteric descriptions of the Divine, texts devoted to mysticism in Judaism first emerge in the "Merkavah" and "Heichalot" literature of the Second Temple period. The distinctive works of the Kabbalah first appear in 13th Century Spain and France. Kabbalists differ with the general view of secular scholarship, by holding that the source of the main Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, lies over a thousand years earlier with Shimon bar Yochai, and they believe the hidden transmission to continue further back to Mount Sinai, and beyond. The Medieval flowering of Kabbalah gained greater momentum after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, which encouraged greater mystical endeavour in response to the tragedy. With the 16th Century school of Safed, the Kabbalah reached its complete structure, with the successive Kabbalistic systems of Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria. While reserved for the scholarly elite, it became mainstream to Jewish thought and religious life. It replaced the earlier Aristotelian school of Philosophy, as the authoritative and complete Jewish theology. Its concepts infused the prayerbook and folklore. In the Ashkenazi world of European Jewry, the distorted mysticism and apostasy of Shabbetai Zvi in 1665-6, brought about restrictions to the spread of Kabbalah, and its popularisers were looked on with suspicion. It was such concern that later informed the opposition from the Mitnagdim("Opposers"), to the mystical revivalism and revolution of Hasidism, that for a few generations split the world of Eastern European Jewry. More recently, after Hasidus had replaced Kabbalah as the predominant European Jewish mystical expression, the spread of the Haskalah("Intellectualism", reframing Judaism from the perspective of the secular Enlightenment) from Western Europe eastwards, became the second influence that restricted the mystical in Judaism. However, the new academic study of Jewish mysticism, and a new interest in Hasidism and Kabbalah across the spectrum of Jewish denominations in the 20th Century, have reversed the legacy of these trends today. The Sephardi world of Oriental Jewry was more remote from these challenges to mysticism, and so maintained on the whole, its tradition of Kabbalah in its mainstream life, even without the European input of Hasidism. Nonetheless, in the last two generations some Sephardi communities have come under the influence of Hasidism, especially the outreach movements of Habad and Breslav.

The significance of the Kabbalistic system to mainstream Jewish tradition

The hidden dimension of Judaism described in the Kabbalah is not separate from the revealed dimension of mainstream tradition, but accompanies and explains it on a deeper and spiritual level. Looking at the reasons given in Judaism for the commandments of Jewish observance, and the purpose of Creation in general, can illustrate the significance of Nistar to the rest of Jewish thought. The Torah outlines the commandments of Jewish observance with occasional explanations, later Scriptures movingly encourage their observance in Prophetic admonishment and transfigured poetry, the Talmud codifies the law, and the Midrash imaginatively describes how Jewish observance affects God in human psychological terms. The Commentators, Philosophers, and Masters of Mussar give explanations for the commandments on various symbolic, psychological, and ethical levels as to their particular significances and reasons. With all this, the commandments are given many meanings, and the spiritual path of mainstream tradition awakens in the individual psychology, feelings of sensitivity and responsibility to their fellow man and to their Heavenly Father. Philosophically, however, for the person who only studies the revealed dimension of Judaism, ultimately the commandments are observed because they are Divine decrees, and the reasons given are not absolute. It is clear that this applies to the ritual commandments, where God could have asked for different practices, and reasons given for them in Nigleh are symbolic. But the ethical commandments encouraging caring behaviour, and forbidding cruel behaviour, would seem to have reason why God would instruct them. However, since God is infinite and has no needs, according to human intellect, then the purpose of the commandments is for the improvement and benefit of man. This is the usual view of Jewish Philosophy within the revealed part of Judaism, without the influence of Kabbalah. The hidden dimension of Nistar in Judaism, is a Divine aspect of intellect, and is not limited to boundaries of human logic. The Torah of Nistar is able to approach the limitless mystery of infinitude that is expressed in Divine paradox. In the mainstream philosophical view, the ethical commandments are given for man's benefit, to encourage him to resemble the goodness of God and rise in holiness. True goodness for man only lies in the superior life of the soul, rather than the temporary life of physicality. The ultimate attainment of this is the eternal reward of the hereafter, and Messianic era. So the greatest purpose of the commandments is their gift of a chance to earn this reward. As will be explained later, one of the characteristic qualities of Hasidic thought is that it brings the Hasid to a selfless nullification in serving God, where the idea of looking for reward is felt to be impure and repulsive. However, according to Nigleh without Kabbalistic thought, the greatest purpose why God commanded even the ethical laws is to give man a test, through which he can receive eternal reward. Nonetheless, according to this human perspective, where God has no needs, why should it inherently matter if man is good or not? It therefore seems that also the ethical precepts of Judaism depend on Divine decree.

The complete mystical system depicted in Lurianic Kabbalah introduces new teachings (new revelations from the perspective of Jewish belief) that transform Jewish mysticism and its power of explanation. In the "Kabbalah of the Ari" (Isaac Luria), metaphysical reasons for the commandments are given that describe how the revelations in the upper, spiritual Worlds, and the messianic work of redemption in all levels of Creation, depends upon the sanctifying conduct of each individual in this World. The introduction of the cosmic event of the "Breaking of the Vessels" in the primordial World of "Tohu"(Chaos), before our order of Creation, gives rise to fallen sparks of holiness that infuse all matter. The spiritual service of separating and elevating the fallen sparks, through the present Worlds of "Tikkun"(Fixing), is accomplished by observance of the Jewish precepts that are taught in the revealed dimension of Judaism. Particular explanations of each commandment's metaphysical function are given, that are seen as deriving from the Scriptural words of their source. Where the Talmud interprets the verses of the Torah, according to its rules, to learn out details of law - in this study the same words are seen as offering spiritual explanations, derived by applying the esoteric textual rules of Kabbalah. This idea of the redemption of the fallen sparks of holiness, gives innovative sanctity to mundane reality, and yet is also traditionally conformative - the effect of redemption is achieved whether one is aware of it or not. This radical doctrine depends on, and is inseparable from the revealed dimension of Judaism, and the observance of daily Halacha (Jewish law). For the student of Kabbalah, the "soul" of the observance, its "kavanah"(intention) can be different. It remains a matter of opinion whether one's intention can be directed to achieving the Kabbalistic rectification of the commandment, the redemption of Divine manifestations throughout the levels of existence. Alternatively, the Kabbalistic scheme can open the door to greater "dveikus"(cleaving) to God Himself, the Divine essence. As this illustrates, the intricate explanations of Kabbalah, which describe the effect of man on the systems of Divine manifestation in the spiritual Worlds, are inseparable from the revealed aspects of Judaism.

To the Medieval school of Jewish Philosophy, that framed Judaism in light of Greek thought and human intellect, God the Infinite has no needs. As the student of Torah ascends through the thought of the Pardes system, as the interpretations become more inward and spiritual, it becomes progressively understood that God desires man's observance of the Jewish precepts, so to speak. With the hidden dimension of "Penimiut haTorah"(the "Inner" mystical level of Nistar) the thought describes how, in the purpose of Creation that God chose to take upon Himself, man is needed to fulfil the redemption. So why ultimately, would God have set up such a system? Surely He had no needs to be met. Judaism gives various answers, and Nistar gives its own reasons and explanations. Explanations range from "it is in the nature of the good to do good", to Creation being a process of God knowing Himself, each answer reflecting a different aspect of Divinity. Hasidus focuses on the most essential reason, that most describes the infinite ability and unknowability of Divine paradox, beyond human grasp, reflected in the description of Nistar("hidden") for the mysical levels of Judaism. In this explanation the purpose of Creation is that "God desired a dwelling place in the lower realms" - it is man who transforms the mundane, lowest World into an abode for God's essence. In Jewish belief, its fulfilment will be revealed in the cumulation of Creation, in the era of resurrection, in the physical World. The word "desire", best summarises the essential wish, because in Kabbalistic explanation this is desire rooted in God's essence, above rationality.

Hasidus, a new way in the mystical tradition

Emotional aspects of Hasidism: Present Kaliver Rebbe at left. Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1744-1828) of Kaliv adapted Hungarian folk songs. "The rooster crows, Dawn brightens the sky.."[5]


Imaginative aspects of Hasidism: Nachman of Breslov articulated the most creative and poetic interpretation of Hasidic thought. His personal mission, autobiographical accounts and mystical Tales began a separate path in Hasidism. His wonder stories of Royalty and Sages, animals and forests have Kabbalistic allusions[6]

Hasidism, the most recent expression of the Jewish mystical tradition, is founded upon the earlier Kabbalah. In the 18th century the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, reframed Jewish spirituality in a new paradigm, that described the Kabbalah in relation to man. This represented a profound change in the expression of Jewish mysticism, because it left aside the Heavenly focus of Kabbalistic understanding, which had required enormous intricacy and subtle esoteric categorisation, that had only been accessible to great scholars. The new path of the Baal Shem Tov related Kabbalistic ideas to human psychological experience, that was accessible to every person. The follower of the Baal Shem Tov, and later Hasidic Masters, was given the ability to perceive the Divine here in this world, through the sensitivity of their heart, and grasp of their mind to Godliness. Biblical and Rabbinic thought describes the two feelings of love and fear(awe) of God, as the basis of Jewish observance and the experience of holiness. In this quest of the spirit, various levels of both are described, and paths to develop them are given. The variety of Scriptural, practical and spiritual texts in the Jewish tradition can awaken in a sympathetic reader many responses, from poetical delight to intellectual reverence. If the reader feels through them an encounter with Divinity, they can inspire personal shades of love and awe, in proportion to each individual's understanding. To the Medieval school of intellectual Philosophy, additionally, considering the wonders of Creation offered another path to seeing Divine Providence. The spiritual teachings of the Hasidic Masters, that brought mysticism into tangible grasp, awakened soulful, innermost levels of the two main feelings of love and awe of God, and their derivatives. The teachings of Kabbalah include discussion of the Divine spark in the soul of man, and the unique embrace of God inherent in the commandments of the Torah. By referring the whole mystical tradition around this Godly essence, higher than the Heavenly emanations, the Hasidic path uncovered the inner simple essence of the Kabbalah. Because this approach was rooted in the essential unity of God rather than the elaborate Divine manifestations, it could be conveyed to the whole community of Israel, great and small alike. The teachings, stories and conduct of the Baal Shem Tov uncovered this essential holiness in sincerity to God and one's fellow man, which came naturally to the unlearned, who had previously been looked down to, by those more spiritually adept, and who now could learn from them lessons in serving God. The Baal Shem Tov reached out to two groups of people: the simple unlearned masses whom he encouraged and invigorated, and the great Torah scholars who formed a close circle of saintly mystics around him. He would teach both groups with short, mystical Torah explanations, parables and stories that alluded to the inner meaning of Kabbalistic ideas. To the simple masses this was the first time Jewish mysticism had been conveyed in a way they could grasp, while his close circle understood the profound nature of the ideas alluded to. This "Holy Society" of saintly followers would later go on to become Hasidic Masters themselves, in the second generation under the leadership of Dov Ber of Mezeritch, and in the third generation diversifying into many branches across Eastern Europe.

The systematic articulation of Hasidus in intellect

Intellectual aspects of Hasidism: Sholom Dovber Schneersohn called the "Maimonides" of Hasidut in Habad for his new systematic development. Habad differed from mainstream Hasidic fervour by seeking the philosophical investigation and internalisation of its mystical spirituality

This idea, that the new path begun by the Baal Shem Tov, opened up the mystical tradition to everyone, however is not the complete explanation of the relationship of Hasidus to the other parts of Torah. According to this characteristic quality, Hasidus gave every person a perception of the Divine, and made Kabbalistic explanations understandable. As its inner meaning, or "soul", the esoteric terminology of Kabbalah could now be made alive, and emotionally invigorating. In this way, Hasidus might be viewed as a vital commentary on Kabbalah. Indeed, during the secular Haskalah-Jewish Enlightenment, many scholars who were disparaging of mysticism saw the Baal Shem Tov only as a populariser of Kabbalah. However, there is a deeper explanation. One follower of Dov Ber, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was the founder of Habad-a Kabbalistic acronym for the intellectual powers of the soul, that expressed the "wellsprings" of the Baal Shem Tov in systematic intellectual form. This approach was very different from the other schools of Hasidism, and at first glance looked to be the opposite of the path of the Baal Shem Tov, who had emphasised simple sincerity. Shneur Zalman's approach used an intellectual contemplation of understanding inner Torah concepts to achieve elevated states, as opposed to the mainstream aim to arouse the emotions by devotion in prayer. All approaches, however, aim to evoke the emotions of love and fear of God, which are the two 'wings' on which a person can elevate himself to the direct perception of the Divine. His main work, the Tanya became established as a classic, inspirational text, and was studied by other Hasidic paths even though they did not follow its methods. The approach of Habad, later to be called Lubavitch after its home town, developed over 7 generations of leaders, each Rebbe explaining the teachings of Hasidus in ever greater elucidation and clarity. If the inner dimension of Nistar describes Jewish thought from God's perspective, then the increasing explanation of Hasidic philosophy through the teachings of the 7 leaders of Habad draws God's intellect down into man's comprehension. It would seem that the finite mind should not be able to grasp the infinite. However, true infinity should also find expression in the finite, a paradoxical achievement, similar to God's relation with Creation. Medieval Jewish Philosophy systematically studied Jewish thought in line with Ancient Greek methods, framing it from Man's Intellect. To some extent the abstract Kabbalistic systems of the 16th Century, elucidated a Divine image of Judaism that the Human mind could grasp, but it was not a complete understanding from Man's perspectve. With the study of Habad Hasidic philosophy, that intellectually explained the inner soul of Judaism that the Baal Shem Tov and subsequent leaders had conveyed, the Divine intellectual image of Torah could be truly assimilated into Human thought. This intellectual explanation of "the Torah of the Baal Shem Tov" represents a study of the Divine - The fifth lubavitcher Rebbe Shalom Dov Ber said that Habad Hasidus enables the human mind to know God's essence. When the student contemplates deeply the concepts of Godliness delineated in Habad Hasidus, and senses emotionally the holiness, the inherent love and awe of God within the ideas, then he realises that within the idea he has grasped is true Divinity. This philosophy retains an aspect that is transcendent and beyond grasp, the Divine origin of the idea.

Philosophical explanation, from inside the Hasidic movement, of the nature of Hasidus

On the Hasidic festival of the 19th of Kislev (traditionally described in Habad as the New Year for the Torah of Hasidus) in 1965, the 7th leader of Habad, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, gave a discourse that gave a philosophical explanation of the nature of Hasidic thought. It was later published by Kehot Publication Society in a bilingual edition as "On the essence of Chassidus". In line with the aim of Habad to articulate the inner Torah with fullest intellectual explanation, each subsequent Rebbe of Lubavitch saw their task as to spread the "wellsprings" of Hasidus to new intellectual frontiers. Each Rebbe had their own style of thought, and this discourse is an example of the depth and clarity of the last Rebbe's thought. Like the common saying found in other contexts, "standing on the shoulders of the previous generations", the explanations and emphases of each successive Rebbe was made possible by the developing teachings of their predecessors. In this discourse, the Rebbe asks what is the nature of Hasidus, and how does it differ from those parts of Torah that had been revealed until then?

  • To begin with, he gives four answers that have been given in earlier sources and manuscripts. Firstly, at the time of the Baal Shem Tov the Jewish world was in a state of faint, and common to the custom to arouse the soul of someone who has fainted by whispering their Jewish name in their ear, so the Baal Shem Tov, who shared his name Israel with all the Jewish people, awoke the people of Israel from this state. Secondly, commenting on the Talmudic dictum that "a Hasid (pious person) is one who goes beyond the letter of the law", Hasidic explanation of this sees in this idea an ability to serve God with true selflessness. While seeking personal spiritual revelations is commended in Torah, nonetheless, the motivation of a true Hasid is to sacrifice these goals to help another person, or serve God more sincerely. Thirdly, the main point of Hasidus is to change the nature of the emotional attributes in one's personality, including rectifying the instinctively good traits, so that they become intentionally holy ones. The fourth answer is that by explaining Kabbalistic ideas, Hasidus enables everyone to grasp Divinity, even those people without lofty souls, or who have not refined themselves.
  • After this the Rebbe concludes that none of these answers captures the essence of Hasidus, but are characteristic aspects. Distinguishing between essence and manifestations, the Rebbe defines the essence of Hasidus as a new revelation in Torah directly from the highest possible Kabbalisic levels, corresponding to the 5th level of the soul, its essential "Yechida" (complete "singular unity" with God). While all of Torah is believed to derive from God's essence, the 4 levels of Pardes are seen to be affected by the ever-increasing concealment of Tzimtzum (contractions of the Divine "light") as they descend through the Kabbalistic system of the 4 spiritual "Worlds". Each level of Torah relates to and is affected by each World, that also correspond to the 4 lower levels of the soul. Each of the 4 levels of Pardes become limited and fixed in the defining qualities of each of their particular natures, even the most lofty and abstract mysticism of the 4th level, Sod. Only a 5th level, the Hasidic explanation of Torah, remains unresricted and unaffected by Tzimtzum, which is why it is not listed among the 4 levels (similar to the way that a person's soul is not listed in relation to their head, or their foot). While the 4th level, the Kabbalistic interpretation, is called "the soul of the Torah", as it gives the metaphysical explanation of Torah, the 5th level of Hasidus is called the "soul of the soul", or "inner soul", the true infinite essence of Torah, that reveals the Divine origin of the lower 4 levels.
  • To explain this, the Rebbe takes a line from Jewish liturgy (poigniantly the first words a Jew says upon awakening in the morning, "Modeh ani...", in line with the Rebbe's emphasis on action in serving God) and then proceeds to explain it on each of the 4 successive levels of Pardes interpretation. Afterwards the Rebbe gives the Hasidic meaning of Modeh ani, the 5th level of explanation. A soul has two qualities: it both transcends the body, and also descends into and permeates the body, being found from the highest faculty of the body (the head), even down into the limbs with the most simple function (the feet). In this way, the 5th explanation represents the soul in itself, as it transcends the 4 levels of Pardes. After this the Rebbe then goes on to show how now that we know the Hasidic interpretation of Modeh ani, each of the previous 4 explanations takes on a whole new meaning. We are now able to see the soul of Hasidus within each of the previous 4 levels. Each one now becomes alive and soulful, as we now understand each of the 4 levels of Pshat, Remez, Drush and Sod "in light of Hasidus". To demonstrate this the Rebbe goes through their 4 explanations, illuminating each in light of the 5th level. In each case their meaning is deepened and spiritualised. This represents the soul as it descends into and permeates the 4 levels of Pardes. To conclude, the Rebbe shows how it only the Hasidic explanation that unites each of the preceding 4 commentaries, by revealing the essential common thread that runs through them, as essence permeates all manifestations. For this reason, Hasidus is likened to olive oil, its concealment in the olive representing "secret of secrets", which analogously possesses the two qualities of an essence: it does not mix with other liquids, similar to the way that essence is separate, but permeates other substances, as essence infuses all its manifestations. This is contrasted with wine, whose concealment before pressing represents Kabbalistic "secrets", but whose ripening in the fruit improves its quality. Hasidus is above all boundaries of concealment and revelation, and so can reach and reveal the "innermost secret" soul of the most distant person to holiness.
  • During the demonstration of the 4th level of Kabbalah, as it is explained and lives in light of the 5th level of Hasidus, the Rebbe addresses a widely held misconception. It is commonly held that Hasidus came along to explain Kabbalah so that everyone could grasp ideas of Godliness. In this way, maybe Hasidus is a commentary on Kabbalah, and Kabbalah, with its hidden and complicated terminology mastered only by great Kabbalists, is more lofty? This accords with the misconception that Hasidus is just a part of the 4th level of Sod. Was the Baal Shem Tov merely a populariser of the Jewish mystical tradition, as many secular historians have depicted him? To answer, the Rebbe explains that just the reverse is true, Kabbalah is a commentary on Hasidus! In this discourse the Rebbe shows that Hasidus is not just part of the 4th level of Sod, but the true "Quintessetial" (the translator was excited that this word also indicates the concept of 5!) 5th level of Torah, the Divine source of the 4 manifestations. Each of the 4 levels of Pardes are limited commentaries, in their respective fashions, on the inner, infinite soul of Torah, that is only expressed in the 5th Hasidic level. The Hasidic illumination of Kabbalah is a characteristic manifestation of this essence, and is only one of the qualities of Hasidus. The reason that Kabbalah is abstract and complicated, while Hasidus is soulfull and simple, is because Hasidus alone is a reflection of the infinite simplicity of God. It takes a higher light of spirituality to unite multiplicity and division, so Hasidus derives from a higher source. As well as explaining concepts of Kabbalah, Hasidus interprets ideas from all 4 levels of Torah, in addition to the vitality with which it permeates the explanations themselves, of each of the 4 levels.
  • In the rest of the discourse, the Rebbe explains the relationship of Hasidus, the Yechida of Torah, to the Messiah, the general Yechida soul of the community of Israel, and to the Messianic era he inaugurates, the Yechida of Creation. He also describes the relationship of Hasidus to Halachah (Jewish ritual and ethical law), which comprises the vehicle in Judaism by which man approaches God in his daily life. The Rebbe takes an example from Jewish law to illustrate this (the Rabbinic law of temporary acquisition of property in a person's vicinity). The "revealed", legal part of Judaism has its own methodollogy and logic from first principles to final rulings, independent of additional philosophical, ethical, or mystical meanings of the law. Nonetheless, the mystical tradition in Judaism sees itself as united, inseparable, and complimentary to the revealed tradition. (Some great figures in Jewish history who expounded both dimensions, state that true decisions in Jewish law should only be made in light of Kabbalistic understanding.) While this connection with halachah is found in the esoteric explanations of Kabbalah, the simple Divine essence articulated through Hadidic philosophy brings a true, essential connection with the law. Using the example given in this discourse, the Rebbe demonstrates how the legal rulings gain new depth and clarity on their own terms, once their spiritual Hasidic explanations are understood. The mysticism of Hasidus, unlike Kabbalah, is able to descend and be revealed in all parts of Jewish thought, and gives new vitality to each level, within the style of thought of each one.
  • Since, the Rebbe explains, Hasidus is the essence of Torah, and an infinite essence cannot be grasped itself, the nature of Hasidus is expressed only from its manifestations. The Jewish mystical text Sefer Yetzirah describes the dynamic process of spirituality with the words "the beginning is wedged in the end, and the end is wedged in the beginning". In Jewish mysticism, this flow of Divinity applies to the purpose of Creation: the true and initial desire of God was for a dwelling place in the lowest physical level of Creation. In the Kabbalistic description of Creation, the infinite "light" that emanates from God, descends through innumerable contractions, levels, and concealments until it reaches and continuously creates our physical Universe. The purpose is only found in the lowest level, where man mystically elevates the material world by using it to fulfill the will of God. When the process is complete, this world will become the dwelling place for God's essence. The same dynamic expressed by the Sefer Yetzirah applies to Hasidus. The true essence of Hasidus is expressed most when it extends to and revives the furthest places, reflecting the classic answer of the Messiah to the Baal Shem Tov on Rosh Hashanah of the year 5507 (1746) that he would come when "your wellsprings are spread to the furthest places". All parts of Torah have the ability to spiritually awaken people far from the Jewish tradition. However, often their estrangement from Jewish thought precludes them from feeling a connection to Jewish spirituality, that might inspire them to investigate further. Because Hasidic thought sees the hidden purity and goodness in everything, it can awaken those who feel most distant. Through understanding Hasidic thought, they can then identify themselves with the Hasidic dimension in their own consciousness, and become inspired to develop their Jewish connection to reflect this. In this way, the Baal Shem Tov revealed the unique spiritual connection with God that unlearned Jews possess, whereas the revealed levels of Jewish thought highlighted their distance. In similar fashion, the leaders of Habad, who articulated the greatest scholarly profundity of Hasidic thought, in the latter generations also sought to give Hasidus its greatest outreach beyond traditional boundaries of Jewish life (perhaps reflected in this tradition's other name of Lubavitch. "Habad" refers to the intellectual powers of the soul, while "Lubavitch" means the emotion of "town of love" in Russian). Hasidic thought seeks, and is most truly expressed, when it can spiritually revive a person most estranged from Judaism, who may not be awoken by other levels of Torah. In accord with the expression from the Tanya, that "from the reward of a commandment, one can know the true nature of the commandment" (Schneur Zalman's Hasidic explanation of the statement from Perkei Avos, "the reward of a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah"), the discourse explains that since the task of spreading Hasidus is the prerequisite to bringing the Messiah, so Hasidus itself is the Messianic level of the Torah, and a foretaste of the Messianic era when God's essence will be revealed.

Hasidic thought today in view of historical tendencies to restrict Kabbalah

File:Reb Zalman 2005.jpg

Non-Orthodox Jewish Neo-Hasidism and Jewish Renewal spirituality inspired by Hasidism

Non-Orthodox Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) was the first to publicise Hasidism to the wider non-Jewish world. His popular Neo-Hasidic interpretation of its stories was criticised by Gershom Scholem for leaving aside Hasidic Kabbalistic interpretation. Scholem began 20th-century academic interest in Jewish mysticism

This discourse of the Rebbe gives a systematic explanation of the philosophical nature of Hasidism inaugurated by the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), and developed since then by the great Hasidic Masters, across the many different interpretations and schools of thought. The early great teachers of Hasidism, from the first few generations, are depicted through their teachings and stories as legendary figures. The later generations of the Hasidic movement, traditionally regard the spiritual stature of their leadership to have gradually declined. As the charismatic inspirations of the initial teachers receded, and with the changing social circumstances, so the spiritual ideals began to diminish. However, in the tradition of Habad, which developed separately from mainstream Hasidic paths, the followers tend to believe that their leadership avoided this decline. This derives from the differences of their approach, where the task of each leader was to communicate and explain the systematic teaching of Hasidus. The charismatic appeal to emotions was placed secondary. The dynasty of the 7 Habad leaders sought, in each generation, to broaden the articulation of the teachings, so that it could appeal to, and reach, further audiences. From this derives the view that each leader filled the place of their predecessor. While the particular emphasis of each Rebbe differed, in accord with their times and personalities, their leadership remained great. This discourse, typical of the 7th Rebbe's thought, itself represents a major contribution to Hasidic thought. In this description of Hasidus, the Rebbe teaches, using the intellectual expression of the Habad method, the loftiness of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and his successors. The emotional enthusiasm of Hasidism, and the popular stories and teachings of its leaders have often been emphasised by outside commentators, through the prism of their own frames of reference, that don't always do justice to the profound dimensions of Hasidic thought. These two aspects reflect the two sides of conduct ("the Ways of Hasidus"), and study ("the Learning of Hasidus"), with some Hasidic traditions emphasising one, or the other. The learning itself has often been depicted as a folk popularisarion of Kabbalah. According to the discourse "On the essence of Chassidus", implicit in the practices of Hasidism, are the profound contributions of Hasidic thought, which give a special emphasis to action. In turn, the essential meaning of the teachings is a new spiritual, and inner contribution to all levels of previous Jewish thought. This new contribution may take more poetic forms, that retain an appeal to faith. Or in other approaches, especially Habad, fullest intellectual articulation is sought.

The quality of Hasidus to permeate other levels of Torah, including the level of Pshat (the simple explanation of Torah), means that even someone on their initial stages in discovering Judaism, can relate to the enlivening wellsprings of Hasidus, and so be connected to the highest levels too. The traditional, restrictive conditions placed upon the learning of Kabbalah, were enacted in the wake of the problematic episode of Shabbetai Zvi in 1665-6. They applied to the intricate study of the abstract Kabbalah, which it is possible to misinterpret. They do not apply to Hasidic thought, even in the more Kabbalistic explanations of some texts, where the ideas are brought into personal grasp. There is such range of expression of ideas in Hasidism, from the spiritual stories of Hasidic Masters, to parables, sayings, and the wonder tales of Breslav, from informal talks offering the relevance of Hasidism to all of Torah and beyond, and to the classic and more Kabbalistic writings. When Kabbalistic terminollogy is used in Hasidic writings, it is illuminated and explained in relation to man, so that it becomes felt in the person's perception, that gives life and vitality in their daily life. This avoids the danger of misinterpretating the mystical ideas in the way that Shabbetai Zvi did. The explanation of Kabbalah into complete grasp is only given in Hasidism. Hasidus gives a way to introduce oneself to the world of Kabbalah. Furthermore, in our time of assimilation in the Jewish world, there is a need to encourage the mystical side of Judaism, including basic Kabbalistic concepts, so that the Torah becomes an enlivening inspiration. If the danger in the 17th Century was of misrepresenting ideas of Kabbalah, today the spiritual concerns are different. Alienation from the wonders of the Jewish heritage in a secular age, characterises our times. This gives each Jew the task and ability, to personify the Hasidic ideal of being a "lamplighter" to others, each person in their own environment, and to whatever degree they can. Before the lamplighter can spread their flame to another, they need to light their own soul with the warmth and contribution of Hasidus. In Judaism, observance of Halachah offers a path in daily living to sanctify life. The wisdom of the Talmud, and the visions of the Bible enthuse a person in the ideas of Judaism. In Kabbalah, but especially in Hasidus one can learn about and perceive God, the giver of the Torah.

Schools of thought

Grave of Elimelech of Lizhensk, who led the dynastic theology of mainstream Hasidic Rebbes

Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Habad school, was imprisoned in St.Petersberg. His followers interpret his vindication as Heavenly permission to reveal teachings

The Izhbitza school took radical creativity in the thought of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk into theologcal expression

  • Habad: The Chabad school was formulated by Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his classic work Tanya, in which the principles of Chabad-Hasidic thought are expounded systematically and comprehensively. Chabad emphasized in-depth study of Hasidic philosophy (as opposed to mainstream Hasidic schools, who believed the study of Hasidism to be a tool and a means, rather than an end in itself). Followers of the Chabad school are, generally speaking, those of the Lubavitch sect.

With the spread of Hasidism throughout Ukraine, Galicia, Poland, and Russia, divergent schools emerged within Hasidism.

  • Breslov: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, in his general encouragement of emotional intensity, taught the importance of being joyful in the extreme at all times. He advised the practice of hitbodedut (Hebrew: התבודדות) among his followers; a form of prayer in which the Hasid seeks out solitude and speaks to God in his native tongue about his most personal matters.
  • Kotzk: Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk demanded of his followers uncompromising honesty. Placing truthfulness, both toward oneself and others, as the highest value, and self-deceit as the lowest, Kotzk became synonymous among Hasidim with harsh and demanding attitudes, and intolerance for hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
  • Satmar: Satmar is renowned for its political stance, opposing the state of Israel. It is currently the largest Hassidic group. Its strength was due to the leadership of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, an outstanding Hassidic master who survived the concentration camps and settled in America. Rabbi Teitelbaum's most notable battles were against Zionism and the Orthodox groups (some of them Hasidic) that recognized them. However, he was also famed for his phenomenal scholarship, piety and love for his fellow man.

Contemporary Hasidism

From little more than a few individuals who survived the war, in the past two generations there has been a phenomenal growth in Hasidic communities, and there are currently several different large groups in the major centres of Israel and America.

Like any society, Hasidism has its share of social problems. However, it has succeeded in recreating a lifestyle and sense of community that many thought would never return.

Notable works

Shivchei HaBesht-In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov began Hasidic hagiographic storytelling of Hasidic Masters

Hasidic literature incorporates both classic works of mystical, philosophical Torah exegesis, and hagiographic compilations of oral tales of beloved Hasidic Masters.

The first published works of Hasidic philosophy were authored by the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov and of his successor Dovber of Mezeritch. These include:

Notable works of later periods include:

Classic works of the two forms of Hasidic storytelling (hagiographic stories of Hasidic Masters, and mystical parables of Kabbalistic commentary) include:

Hasidism versus Mussar

Practical aspects of Hasidism: Ger followed Menachem Mendel of Kotzk in seeking psychological insight and objective Talmudic study, in common with non-Hasidic Mussar, and separate from the mysticism of mainstream Hasidic groups

Mussar helps a person to appreciate the intellectual and spiritual and Godly matters to decrease attachment to the bodily and physical things. Hasidism responds that as much as one will run from physical things, one can never truly succeed in this because we are found in a physical world. Hasidism teaches that, ultimately, one must have both the spiritual and the physical together to prosper in one's service of God. This is a two step process. First one must be able to appreciate the spiritual and Godly, but then one must connect this inspiration back to seeing Godliness in the mundane world. Therefore, physicality is not suppressed, but transformed, such that it is not differentiated from divinity but is filled with it, as it serves it.[7]

The key to all wisdom

Hasidism offers an analogy to explain the difference between learning Hasidism and other parts of the Torah. It was once asked: What is the difference between Rambam and Aristotle? Torah vs. Wisdom. Both are philosophers and scientists. The answer was that Aristotle is like a person trying to draw a circle and find its center. This is a difficult job. The Torah, by contrast, starts with the center then goes and can make a circle of any size around it, and it will always be in the center. Likewise, once one grasps Hasidism, it is believed that he will have the key to all the other aspects of the Torah because he will understand its underlying message. Once the inner point of the Torah is grasped (the middle of the circle) the only job is then to learn how to put it into practice in daily life which is what the other levels teach a person to do.

Connection to the Jewish Messiah

David Moses Friedman of the Ruzhin dynasties. Yisroel Friedman of Ruzhin (1797-1850) most exemplified regal splendour in Hasidic history, such as his carriage with silver handles drawn by four horses. Claiming descent from the Davidic line, the sons' dynasties inherited this path

Hasidut is based on the concept that it is possible for the individual to achieve a direct perception of the Divine in this world. This idea is not original to Hasidut, being a basic goal of Judaism, but Hasidut emphasises that it is attainable even by the non scholar, using the simple techniques of joy and simplicity in prayer and study at all levels of expertise. Since the Messianic era is about the direct revelation of the Divine in all things, it is clear that Hasidut is offering a microcosm of the Messianic era in the present time.

Hasidism tries to find the good in everything. It does not say that the bad becomes good, but rather that in the bad itself—in the struggle—we find Godliness.

This is synonymous with the concept of the Jewish Messiah which is an era in which even things we saw as being bad we will see as being good. Life before the times of the Jewish Messiah and redemption are compared to characters living within the story. But with Moshiach we will see things from outside of the story and see how we are all like actors and God is directing the show. Outside the story, even the bad is good because the struggle is what makes the story worth reading.

We, like actors playing a role, can express freely, not trapped by the particular character we are playing. Really one can act freely with the mask. We make this self-image, thinking that we have our certain qualities and self-imposed limitations, and this stops us from expressing our true selves.

Hasidism wants us to get in touch with that essence so we are able to act in the world with whatever character is best at the time. In this way a person can come in touch with his real self and be free to choose how to act.

Hasidism tries to give us a taste of Moshiach-and bring this type of awareness into the world which itself will bring Moshiach by bringing a personal redemption to each person.

The Ba'al Shem Tov maintained that God is everything and everything is God. Torah is considered all the names of HaShem (God), not anything definite just the way you call them. So too Torah is considered infinite; one can always see more and more revealing an infinite God.

Hasidic philosophy also reemphasizes and expands upon the Jewish belief in Divine Providence. Before the Ba'al Shem Tov there was the general idea that God is watching over us. The Ba'al Shem Tov said that not only is God watching over everything, but even a feather in the wind and other seemingly minute details have infinite importance and are essential to the entire existence of creation.

Since, according to Hasidism, God is choosing everything that happens in the world without any external influences that he wants exactly like that, therefore everything that goes on is a unique expression of Him.

The purpose of Torah and Mitzvos is seen as only a revealing of that connection, not creating it (like father and son-the son may walk more or less in his father's footsteps, but this will never change the fact that he is his son. This is an essential connection).

Hasidic philosophy also stresses the concept of love of the fellow Jew. According to Hasidic philosophy, loving another fellow Jew is not just a good character trait but rather it should be one's whole life's work to cultivate good character traits.

See also

Historical regions of Central Europe (Hasidism began in Podolia, Volhynia and surrounding areas):

Jewish history, Jews and Judaism in Europe (Links to Jewish histories of each Country):

Judaism and Jewish philosophy:


20th Century academic study of Kabbalah and Hasidism (Select list. Scholars can come from diverse philosophical viewpoints. Some specialise in Jewish mysticism, others contribute in many fields):

Prelude to Hasidism:

Hasidic Judaism:

Select list of foundational or innovative figures in Hasidism:

List of Hasidic dynasties. Two are involved in the Baal teshuva movement, and developed separately from mainstream Hasidism:

  • Chabad (Intellectual Hasidism)
  • Breslov (Imaginative faith)

Wives and daughters of Hasidic Masters, Hasidic followers, and visitors to Hasidism:

  • The feminine in Kabbalah
  • Rebbetzin
  • Baal Shem Tov family tree
  • Salomon Maimon (Early secular visitor)
  • Nathan of Breslov
  • Rogatchover Gaon
  • Meir Shapiro
  • Aryeh Kaplan
  • Adin Steinsaltz


Non-Hasidic developments in Jewish thought, with contrast or connection to Hasidism:

  • Abraham Isaac Kook (Various sources)
  • Yehuda Ashlag (New interpretation of pre-Hasidic Kabbalah)

Lithuanian Jewish Orthodoxy:

  • Mitnagdim
  • Vilna Gaon (Leading figure)
  • Chaim Volozhin (Main theoretician)
  • Mussar movement

Jewish culture:

Suggested guide to books on Hasidism, and interpretations of it today from inside and outside

Hasidic thought and life comprises a Jewish culture of many dimensional aspects, from emotional creativity and flavour, to psychological and spiritual insight, and profound intellectual theology and philosophy. These different elements can be connected together, so that its intellectual thought can sometimes incorporate a feeling of its charismatic poetry. The different streams and personalities in its history share ideas in common, and differences of thought and spirituality. Because of this, an overview of the range and variety of books on Hasidism offers insight into the nature of Hasidism itself, and interpretations of it from inside and outside the movement today, as well as a guide for further interest. It is important to note that books on Hasidism, like books on other aspects of Judaism, reflect alternative philosophical positions in relation to the Jewish tradition and belief. With the rise of modern thought, a number of different views emerged on the nature and meaning of the Jewish concept of Divine revelation, from the secular, through the historical, to the literal. These influential views reach a range of conclusions, and there is philosophical variety within each of the different Jewish denominations that emerged. Hasidism has offered spiritual meaning to people from all these backgrounds, and the interpretations are reflected in the range of books by Hasidic followers, and by outsiders. The Hasidic contribution to Judaism has gained adherents (Baal Teshuva-"Returnees") from secular backgrounds in the 20th Century, as well as contributing, often through Neo-Hasidism, to many non-Orthodox Jewish people's spirituality. It has also attracted the interest of many academics of Jewish thought and history, especially after the mid-Century establishment of critical investigation of Jewish mysticism as a full University discipline. A guide to suggested reading should indicate the philosophical background to different works, where it is helpful. It is also beneficial to include writings in a full range of examples, from accessible and inspiring introductions, to traditional and classic works, to academic studies. Artistic presentations can offer their own unique insight, as the soul of Hasidism articulated in its deeper thought, can often be appreciated more tangibly in poetic and transcendent works.

Biographical foundations of the general Hasidic movement:

  • The Great Mission - The Life and Story of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov ,Compiler Eli Friedman, Translator Elchonon Lesches, Kehot Publication Society. Accessible and inspiring traditional account of the founder of Hasidism, and the significance of his thought. It can offer an introduction to Hasidic ideas and spirituality. Because the many different streams of the Hasidic movement trace their origins back to the Baal Shem Tov, they have sometimes transmitted different stories and teachings attributed to him. One traditional source of storytelling about the Baal Shem Tov, and the most consolidated and complete account of his esoteric life, is encapsulated in a Genizah (collection of documents) that was said to be passed from the Hasidic dynasty of Ruzhin to the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe.[8] This account, that describes the Baal Shem Tov's spiritual teacher, and the narrative of his forced revelation, forms a backbone to this book. The Baal Shem Tov has received alternative interpretations and various views, from the school of critical scholarship. Some of these can compliment religious philosophical views, while others offer revisionist positions. For further book citations, see the page on the Baal Shem Tov
  • The Great Maggid - The Life and Teachings of Rabbi DovBer of Mezhirech , Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Kehot Publication Society. A scholarly survey in English of the architect of Hasidism. It records the different versions of the initial encouter of DovBer with the Baal Shem Tov, and recounts the life of the Maggid's close circle of disciples, the "Holy Society". This academy gave philosophical articulation to the Baal Shem Tov's seminal teachings, and organised the future shape of the movement. This third generation of leadership were assigned the different regions of Eastern Europe, after the passing of the Maggid. The historically documented stories and teachings in the book can offer an accessible introduction to the depth and breadth of Hasidic thought, and the warmth of its different early personalities

Components of Hasidic thought:

  • The Hasidic Tale , Edited by Gedaliah Nigal, Translated by Edward Levin, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. More than any previous movement in Jewish history, Hasidism gave significance to the tradition of storytelling as a spiritual inspiration
  • The Hasidic Parable, Aryeh Wineman, Jewish Publication Society. Hasidic thought gave new life to the traditional Jewish medium of using parables to explain ideas. Hasidic parables make the mystical ideas tangible, in keeping with the emphasis in Hasidism, to transform Jewish mysticism from abstract theology to personal fervour
  • The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary ,Edited by Norman Lamm, Michael Scharf Publication Trust of Yeshiva University. Perhaps the most comprehensive collection and explanation in English, of the variety of theological content in Hasidic thought. Rather than offering a secondary survey of Hasidism, it presents excerpts from the main Hasidic mystical source texts, and gives a commentary that sets Hasidic thought within wider Jewish philosophy. This conveys the common denominators and differences within the underlying theology of the Hasidic movement, and how it differed from non-Hasidic theological interpretations of Judaism. Mostly focuses only on the writings of the first three generations of the Hasidic movement, when the main Hasidic ideas were shaped. Since the popular publicity in the 20th Century of Hasidism, the charismatic and emotional aspects have been well presented, while the depth of Hasidic thought has been less well known. The aim of this book is partly to restore emphasis to the theological depth and significance of Hasidic thought, so it mostly avoids including Hasidic stories. The theory presented here, especially in the early chapters on the fundamental topics in Judaism, is the source for the popular aspects. However, the book also gives insight into social realities in Hasidism, because the later chapters of collected texts also cover ideas of practical significance to Jewish life. While other books offer better first introductions to Hasidism, this gives a subsequent deeper understanding for the reader, and an encounter with the writings of the movement

Accounts and biographies of the variety of interpretations and streams, in the historical development of Hasidic thought: Biographical accounts of the lives of the Baal Shem Tov and Maggid of Mezeritch are listed under their own heading at the start, to offer a choice of approaches into the subject. The new inspirations and creative ideas of early forms of Hasidism, later became settled into new paths, thoughts and practices. Some thinkers offered radical reinterpretations of the legacy of the Baal Shem Tov, and of all of Jewish tradition. The books here that describe individual schools of thought in Hasidism, are some of the more well known and innovative paths Overviews of the movement and its variety of leaders:

  • Hasidism: The Movement and its Masters, Harry Rabinowicz, Jason Aronson. This book is unusual amongst English works, as it gives a historical overview of the whole historical movement, as it was shaped by its many personalities. Until a full English history of Hasidism is published, this fills a gap. It describes the early Hasidic ideas and practices of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid, through the flourishing schools of the 19th century, to the consolidations of Hasidism after the Holocaust, in the 20th century. It may be out of print, though many titles in Jewish thought by Jason Aronson, were reissued by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. It is an expanded version of the earlier book by Rabinowicz The World of Hasidism, published by Hartmore House
  • Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of The Hasidic Masters, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jossey-Bass. "Reb Zalman" is a leading figure in Neo-Hasidism and Jewish Renewal amongst non-Orthodox Jews. He takes the spiritual warmth, teachings and thought of his earlier experiences inside Hasidism, to inspire wider circles of worship and Jewish life. This book offers his personal take on Hasidism, addressed to the cosmopolitan spiritual contexts of society today, and has the great advantage over many books on Hasidism in capturing its emotional relevance for personal growth. The book divides into three sections: the general leaders of the new revitalising movement, a special look at the Habad dynasty and its thought, and latter figures who developed Hasidism in radical directions or reinterpreted it through Neo-Hasidism for wider audiences. The selection of figures it looks at is necessarily selective, but most of the main distinctive luminaries of Hasidism are understandably included. Rather than a historical survey or academic analysis of the whole movement, this book is one of the best introductions to the variety of leaders of Hasidism, chapter by chapter

Specific schools of thought:

  • The Zaddik: The Doctrine of the Zaddik According to the Writings of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy, Samuel H. Dresner, Jason Aronson publishers. Yaakov Yosef was one of the leading disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, and in 1780 published the first Hasidic book Toldos Yaakov Yosef. This Hasidic commentary on the Pentateuch, is seen as one of the most direct records of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and attracted opposition from Hasidism's Opponents. It set the tone for future Hasidic writings. Its author was the other main contender to succeed in the leadership of the new movement, instead of the emergent successor, the Maggid. This describes the new Hasidic doctrine of the saintly Hasidic Master (Rebbe or Tzadik), through whom simple folk can experience the Divine Presence, and who can channel spiritual and material blessing to them
  • Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School, Naftali Loewenthal, University of Chicago Press. The theoretical sources for the Habad interpretation of Hasidism, that led to its ideals of articulating Hasidus in fullest intellectual forms, and seeking to communicate that to the widest degree. The founder of Habad was one of the great disciples in the leadership-academy of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who dispersed across the different regions of Eastern Europe after the passing of the Maggid. Habad, later to be called after its Russian village of Lubavitch, can be seen as a separate offshoot of general Hasidism. While its founder Schneur Zalman of Liadi is venerated by other groups as one of the leading figures of Hasidism, other Masters have tended to see its teachings as too close to Philosophy for their paths, and kept some distance from it. Often, the great Hasidic thinkers drew from the Rabbinic and Mystical(Kabbalistic) traditions, and shunned the religious Jewish Philosophical tradition(Hakira), seeing independent intellect as a hindrance to revelation based faith, for all but great scholars. Schneur Zalman, and the path he founded, expressed Hasidism in intellectual descriptions, that could incorporate sources from all traditional Jewish thought. He aimed, through this, to enable the mind and heart to unite in Hasidic life. This scholarly survey only covers the first generations of the Habad dynasty, which would continue until recent times, as it initially developed from amidst different Hasidic views
  • Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Arthur Green, Jewish Lights Publishing. Nachman of Bratslav founded a unique path of faith in Hasidism, but could have no successor, because of the special nature of his personality. He is seen as the most imaginative and poetically creative Hasidic Master. While he was a third generation, direct descendent of the Baal Shem Tov himself, his followers venerate him to a degree beyond even usual Hasidic fervour. This offers a psychologically speculative biography of his life and thought
  • A Passion for Truth, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish Lights Publishing. Heschel was one of the famous 20th Century theologians in non-Orthodox Judaism. Descended from a dynasty of Hasidic leadership, his spirituality was shaped by the life and thought of Hasidism. In the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, he influenced a generation of students towards greater traditional adherence to Halachah (Jewish practical observance), and became a leading figure in Neo-Hasidism. In this personal exploration, he contrasts the spiritual message of the Hasidic Master Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, with the Christian theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The Rebbe of Kotzk, in his ascetic passion for truth, became one of the most individual, and different figures in Hasidic history. The book gives as much insight into the Hasidic creativity of Heschel, as his mentor the Kotzker. Heschel also wrote a main Yiddish work on the Kotzker, but until it is translated into English, this is a good alternative

Accompanying collections of Hasidic stories from across its history:

  • Tales of the Hasidim (vol.1 The Early Masters, vol.2 The Later Masters, here published together), Martin Buber, Schocken books. Martin Buber was the first person to bring Hasidism to the attention of the Western world, and gave new strength to the Neo-Hasidic movement, that interpreted Hasidic spirituality for secular society. This book most encapsulated his articulation, and so has historic status. It provides an English anthology of the traditional stories, told and recorded by the Hasidim about their leaders. Its spiritual insights cover the history of early and later Hasidism. However, it needs to be read with caution, as its translations represent Buber's personal reinterpretation of Hasidic tradition. Buber was one of the famous 20th Century theologians in non-Orthodox Jewish thought. His existential philosophy of I-and-Thou describes a personal relationship with God. To Buber this conflicted somewhat with the mystical humility of self negation in Hasidism. As a result, Buber retells the tales from traditional sources through his own spiritual view, rather than offering accurate translations. Similarly, in his interpretation of Hasidism, he leaves aside theoretical Hasidic teaching and thought, finding spiritual meaning in the Hasidic stories alone. Nonetheless, with these reservations aside, this book offers a valuable resource companion to much of Hasidic traditional history for the English reader. For an analysis of the spiritual difference between Buber's translations, and the originals, see the article in the Wellsprings magazine reader, collected in the book Feeding Among the Lilies: The Wellsprings Reader, selected essays edited by Baila Olidort, published by Wellsprings Journal, distributed through Kehot Publication Society

Artistic presentations of Hasidic tradition:

  • Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs: Tracing the Origins of the Chasidic Movement - vol.1,2, Yoseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, Translated by Nissan Mindel, Kehot Publication Society. The 6th leader of Habad wrote the Yiddish original of this compiled history, to imaginatively record the stories of the early origins of Hasidism, that he had absorbed and recorded from the world of his youth. Through this and other works, the 6th Rebbe was renowned as a unique recorder of the transmitted history and spirit of Hasidism, that complimented his serious writings. Blessed with a dedicated memory, and the skill of a storyteller, he captured a lost world of mystics and scholars, simple folk and landowners, and their stories, that lay behind the early roots of Hasidism. Rather than giving the well known stories of the Hasidic Masters, this narrative sets the later developments in the life and thought of the traditional circles of mysticism from which Hasidism would spring
  • Souls on Fire - Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, Elie Wiesel, Simon & Schuster. Well know for his personal testimonies of the Holocaust, such direct writings only comprise a small part of Elie Wiesel's output. In many of his books, he celebrates the great traditions of Jewish study that lasted until the War. Some of these evoke the ever-present lives of Biblical and Talmudic Figures, while others dwell on the life of Hasidism in which he grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. Elie Wiesel distils this life of Judaism, that enveloped him before the War, with artistic mastery. In his retelling of traditional Hasidic tales, he displays the soul of a Hasid, infused with his personal philosophical interpretations. This book was followed by subsequent volumes of portraits (Somewhere a Master, Four Hasidic Masters: and their struggle against melancholy, and chapters in other books), and his other works are influenced by Hasidism, but here he imaginatively presents the lives and thoughts of many of the most famous Hasidic Masters. What this account lacks in straight presentation of the traditional stories, it gains greatly in the author's artistic vision of the poetry of Hasidic life, and can offer someone an introductory approach to Hasidism
  • The Earth is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish Lights Publishing. Just as the old world of Jewish Eastern Europe was destroyed, Heschel wrote this evocation of the period he described as the crowning glory of Jewish history. The preceding centuries had seen a flourishing of traditional Jewish thought and life, both in the Hasidic movement, and in the civilisation of non-Hasidic Lithuanian Jewish Orthodoxy. Jews of the Western World have often come to look back on the Old World with some nostalgia. This has fed the popularity of Neo-Hasidic spirituality in the 20th Century. This book gives context to other Hasidic accounts, by picturing the warmth and soul of the world from which it emerged
  • Rabbi Nachman's Stories, translated by Aryeh Kaplan, Breslov Research Institute publication. In the literature of Hasidism, the "Sippurei Ma'asiyyot"(Wonder Tales) of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov are unique. Here, this does not mean traditional Hasidic stories about Rabbi Nachman, told by his followers, of which there are many. Rather, Nachman told special mystical fairy tales, recorded down by his early disciples, that his followers study for Hasidic meanings and inspiration. The Hasidic Masters, beginning with the Baal Shem Tov especially, developed the medium of the Hasidic parable, to convey the new, inner mystical ideas of Hasidism to their followers. These might utilise short stories of Kings and Princes to refer to the relationship between a Jew and his "Father in heaven" (In later, systematic articulations of Hasidic thought, other direct observational analogies from human perception are used as well). Rabbi Nachman's lengthy wonder stories seem to have extended this traditional vehicle, but here to a new ultimate degree. In these works of great literature, however, the direct analogies are not stated. The tales have received commentary from Breslav followers, and also from secular perspectives, in the history of Jewish literature. This book compiles the traditional commentaries made by Rabbi Nachman's followers, that draw on Rabbinic and Kabbalistic thought. In Breslav Hasidism, the stories become profound articulations of Hasidic thought and worship. Nachman of Breslav's artistic and immaginative, radical Hasidic thought has appealed to many secular thinkers, and the tales inspire admiration for their many layered structures
  • A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling, David G. Roskies, Harvard University Press. The author describes the history of Yiddish literary fiction, by devoting a chapter to each of its greatest figures. He calls their reinvention of traditional social themes and folk literature forms "creative betrayal", as they simultaneously represent and reshape the authentic Eastern European Jewish world and its spirit. For most this was a personal way of overcoming their distance from this world, and involved various motivations, from the early critical desire of secular figures to leave behind the Shtetl, to later nostalgia of the immigrants for their origins. Hasidism, above all representing Jewish spirituality, is one of the themes in the writing of these secular authors, whether critical or appreciative. Their literary characters have helped shape the way Hasidism is popularly imagined in the wider world. Stories by Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to give the most well known examples, were later adapted for the musicals "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Yentl". However, most relevant is the chapter devoted to the first of the great Yiddish storytellers, and the only religious figure, the Hasidic Master Nachman of Breslav. In this chapter, Roskies analyses his "Sippurei Ma'asiyyot"(Wonder Tales) from both traditional and critical literary perspectives. He relates them to the events of Rabbi Nachman's life, and shows how they began, and influenced, later secular Yiddish writing. For their literary analysis, this chapter is indispensable.

Studies in Hasidic thought:

  • On the Essence of Chassidus, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, translated by Y.Greenberg and S.S.Handelman, Kehot Publication Society. This discourse, delivered by the 7th leader of the Habad movement, gives a philosophical explanation from within Hasidic thought, of the essential nature and contribution of Hasidus to Judaism

Scholarship on Hasidic history, including some of its thought, connected to page on Hasidic Judaism:

  • Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society ,Glenn Dynner, Oxford University Press


  1. Letter from Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov to his brother in-law Abraham Gershon of Kitov
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lamm, Norman: Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah's Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries. Publisher Ktav. Norman Lamm compares Hasidic and Mitnagdic interpretations of Judaism, by examining their different attitudes to the traditional concept of learning Torah Lishmah-"Torah for its own sake". Schneur Zalman of Liadi and Chaim Volozhin are cited as the two main theoreticians of each camp. Their different interpretations are seen to be founded in different philosophical emphases on Divine immanence and Divine transcendence, rooted in different Kabbalistic interpretations of the Tzimtzum
  3. Cited in book The Great Mission: The life and story of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov Eli Friedman, Elchonon Lesches. Kehot Publications
  4. Cited in The Great Maggid by Jacob Immanuel Schochet. Kehot Publications
  5. The Singing Tzaddik English webpage about the first Kaliver Rebbe
  6. The Essential Rabbi Nachman English website compilation
  7. "On The Contribution of Chasidus to Jewish Thought and To A Jew's Service of G-d - Appendices". Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  8. This collection, the Cherson Genizah, appeared in this Russian town in the Russian revolution. It offered itself as copies of earlier documents from Yisroel Friedman of Ruzhin. Scholars have argued over its authenticity, as it offers copies of other documents, and includes scribal errors. The prevailing critical view is to reject it. But some scholarly opinions, especially from inside the Hasidic movement, authenticate it, with reservations for its errors. This debate is similar to wider academic discussion on the authenticity of the classic hagiographic collections of stories about the Baal Shem Tov that were written down posthumously. Two recent academic works on the historical Baal Shem Tov take different views on them (books by Moshe Rosman and Immanuel Etkes). For alternative views on the Cherson Genizah see The Mystical Origins of Hasidism by Rachel Elior - "Hasidic historiography" (the common critical scholarly view that rejects them), and The Great Maggid by Jacob Immanuel Schochet - long footnote about the Baal Shem Tov (scholarly acceptance). The contemporary Lubavitcher Rebbes at the time, Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn and Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, spent a long time studying their authenticity before accepting them. Yosef Yitzhak incorporated them into his historical accounts of the Baal Shem Tov. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in his profound talks, saw additional spiritual meaning to the disclosure of the Cherson Genizah as new public revelations about the Baal Shem Tov.

External links

Hasidic and Jewish spirituality websites:

Other resources: