A Life Apart - Hasidism in America A Hasidic Boy

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    Hasidism arose against the background of conditions in eighteenth-century Poland, a troubled time of foreign invasions, peasant uprisings, a declining central government, and conflict between Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians.

    As historian Eli Lederhandler explains, the Jews, who were organized in their own self-governing municipal and rural communities, were also experiencing serious difficulties. From without, they were subject to exploitative taxation, regulations barring them from certain cities, laws restricting their participation in certain trades and crafts, as well as periodic violence and the general insecurity that affected all inhabitants. From within, they suffered a decline in the quality of lay and rabbinic leadership, and were also beset by recurring challenges from mystical and messianic heresies.

    On the other hand, as historian Gershon Hundert points out, the situation of the Jews was dynamic and varied according to region:

    The Polish economy was beginning to recover from the disastrous effects of the Northern War during the first decades of the eighteenth century. Jews were moving to villages in large numbers, some were prospering as a result of increasing foreign trade, others were impoverished as centers of economic activity shifted. Jewish numbers were increasing rapidly, much faster than the total rate of growth for Poland, and thus the proportion of young people in the Jewish population was constantly expanding. And Jews enjoyed considerable governmental autonomy.

    Hundert characterizes early Hasidism as a "diffuse movement of religious revival with charismatic leaders." Lederhandler elaborates that "Hasidism was a pietist movement of great force that came upon the scene when conditions were ripe for its rapid diffusion. It combined charismatic leadership, a large rural following, and a new teaching that emphasized the close link between the zaddik (holy man) and his disciples (Hasidim, or "pious ones"). Its founders came not from the established elite but from the second rank: popular preachers and mystical "saints" who had local reputations."

    As Hundert recounts,

    During the eighteenth century, pious Jews who studied Kabbalistic texts came to be seen by the masses as models, and as the possessors of special powers and ties to divinity. In some larger communities one or two such people were exempted from taxes and their housing was paid for by the community. In turn, some of these mystics began to interpret their life's task as involving not only contemplative prayer and study alone or in small groups, but also now seeking out and addressing masses of Jews so that they too could experience the joy and exaltation of attachment to God. Some of these new mystics developed followings in their own communities.

    Hasidic tradition traces the movement's origins to one such saintly figure, Israel ben Eliezer (ca. 1700 - 1760), referred to as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), who had made a niche for himself as a spiritual guide and healer in the Polish-Ukranian town of Miedzyboz. (Itinerant Jewish healers and magicians were known as Baalei Shem, or Masters of the Name, as their powers were thought to stem from mystical knowledge of the secret names of God.) The figure of the historical Besht (the acronym by which the Baal Shem Tov is known) is all but lost under the layers of legend that grew up around him. But it is the legendary first leader, the Besht, who lives in Hasidic memory and informs Hasidic spirituality.

    As Hundert notes, it was one of the Besht's disciples, Ya'akov Yosef of Polonne, who "developed an elaborate definition of the relationship between the mystical adept, or, now, the Zaddik or rebbe, and his followers. Others added further refinements, and toward the end of the eighteenth century such rebbes were appearing in a number of Polish, Ukranian and Lithuanian Jewish communities. Each developed his own style of leadership and his own emphases."

    The key elements of Beshtian Hasidism include the primacy of inner, spiritual enlightenment over mere dexterity in textual study; the accessibility of the zaddik to his community and his role in the revelation of the hidden meanings of Torah and mitzvot; and the universal presence of God, even in the seemingly mundane and banal.

    The Besht left no writings, but many Hasidic tales concern his life and teachings. Here is a typical and well-known story:

    It is Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgement. The Baal Shem Tov is conducting the prayer services. In the middle of his chant, he pauses abruptly. His face looks troubled and strained. Time passes and the congregation becomes increasingly anxious over this unusual delay.

    In the meantime, a young shepherd boy is sitting in the back of the synagogue. Never having received a religious education, he is unable to read the Hebrew words of the prayers. Yet his heart yearns to pray to his heavenly father. He pulls out his shepherd's whistle from his pocket and decides to pray in the form of a tune. As he sounds the first note, the startled congregation turns around and silences him. Suddenly a smile brightens the Baal Shem's face. He resumes the service and brings it to a joyous conclusion.

    Afterwards, his disciples ask for an explanation of his curious behavior. The Baal Shem replied, "I sensed the gates of heaven were closed to our prayers. A year of misfortune was to be decreed upon our people. I tried to break through but to no avail. However, that one sincere and heartfelt note which the shepherd boy emitted was enough. It pierced through all the heavenly gates. Thereafter, all our prayers were permitted to follow."

    The story illustrates a number of essential Hasidic teachings: that the master has the ability to act as a bridge between God and man; that every person's behavior can have cosmic influence; that the common person's sincerity is preferable to the most erudite and labored scholarship; and that wordless song can be more important than liturgical text.

    The Besht's main followers became, in due course, zaddikim in their own right, and established a counterculture that, by the end of the eighteenth century and after a protracted struggle against their traditionalist opponents, became the regnant form of Judaism in many parts of Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. Using a modified liturgy, allowing for flexible hours for prayer, incorporating their own group rituals and ecstatic practices into the religious regimen, and insisting on the exclusive authority of their own religious leadership, the Hasidim remained distinctive from other Orthodox Jews with whom they shared most basic beliefs.

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