A Life Apart - Hasidism in America Image Loading...

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    Hasidism met with much opposition from the Jewish establishment. The center of opposition to Hasidism in the late eighteenth century was Vilna, Lithuania, the leading city of traditional Torah study. A campaign against the Hasidim was led by Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, known as the Gaon (Hebrew for "great scholar") of Vilna. Bans and excommunications were issued against Hasidism in 1772, and again in 1781, 1784, and 1796. Other Jews were commanded not to marry, to help bury, or even to share food or drink with the "heretical sect." Rabbi Elijah did not lack conviction: "Had I the power, I would punish these infidels as the worshippers of Baal were punished of old." (The Biblical Elijah "slaughtered" the prophets of Baal.)

    "The established non-Hasidic leadership," explains Hundert, "objected to the emphasis on experience rather than study, to the cult of the Zaddik, to the hubris of the masses who behaved like mystics, and to the apparently mindless joy and raucous prayer services of the Hasidim. More practically, there were objections to the establishment by the Hasidim of their own separate prayer halls which removed them somewhat from the community's control, and to the Hasidic method for slaughtering animals which meant they were evading the communal tax on meat."

    Soon after the 1772 decree of excommunication, a letter from Vilna made its way through Eastern European Jewry, denouncing the Hasidim, who

    In the middle of...prayer, interject obnoxious alien [i.e. Yiddish] words in a loud voice, conduct themselves like madmen, and explain their behavior by saying that in their thoughts they soar in the most far-off worlds... The study of Torah is neglected by them entirely and they...emphasize that one should devote oneself as little as possible to learning and not grieve too much over a sin committed... Every day is for them a holiday... When they pray according to falsified texts they raise such a din that the walls quake... And they turn over like wheels, with the head below and the legs above... Therefore, do we now declare...the people shall robe themselves in the raiment of zeal...for the Lord of Hosts, to extirpate, destroy, outlaw and ex-communicate them.
    But this was like issuing an edict against a volcano: by the beginning of the nineteenth century, more than half of the Jews of Eastern Europe identified themselves with Hasidism. The movement continued to grow; by the 1830's, Hasidism provided a way of life to the majority of Jews in the Ukraine, Galicia(southern Poland), and central Poland, and large numbers of Jews in Belorussia-Lithuania and Hungary. It is revealing to note that Hasidism never took root in Western Europe: it was an enthusiastic folk movement that enriched the Jews' existence as a group separated from their neighbors by language, culture, religion, and civil status. In contrast, Western European Jews of the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century, influenced by Napoleon and the French Revolution, concentrated their efforts on cultural, social, and civic integration into the emerging societies of England, France, and Germany, which held out to Jews the promise of equality.

    Like rebellions against orthodoxy everywhere, Hasidism slowly settled down, creating its own social structures (notably, dynastic succession among a growing number of competing rebbes), and accommodating itself to routine. The circle of followers who gathered around a rebbe came to be known as a hoyf, (Yiddish for courtyard, translated as court). A system of dynastic succession evolved, with a son or son-in-law of each rebbe inheriting court leadership. As the number of competing hoyfs multiplied, courts were established in towns and villages scattered across Eastern and Central Europe.

    The courts often developed into completely self sufficient social institutions. Centered around the rebbe's house and the bedmedresh (the house of study and prayer) each court had its own artisans, storekeepers, and religious functionaries, and evolved its own oral and musical traditions.

    At the same time, the movement began developing thinkers and philosophers, who wrote a number of works on ethics and on mysticism. Hasidism elaborated a rich and distinctive cultural life, creating not only new customs, but new musical forms, passionate dances, and Hasidism's greatest contribution to world culture, their famous legends and tales. The special often elliptical flavor and mystical character of Hasidic tales have caught the imagination of many non-Hasidic writers, including Martin Buber, Y.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Eli Wiesel. These modern writers imitated, filtered, and rewrote tales from Hasidic written lore and continuing oral tradition, making them more accessible to outsiders.

    Hasidism began a slow but steady decline in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. New religious and social movements--secular education, labor movements, Zionism, socialism, and immigration to the New World--as well as a resurgent, non-Hasidic Orthodoxy centered in Lithuania, drew away the children of the Hasidim. In the eigthteenth century, Hasidism had been seen as a radical threat to Orthodoxy; by the beginning of the twentieth it had become a bastion of tradition and Orthodoxy itself, seen by non-observant "modern" Jews as outdated fanaticism.

    On the eve of World War II, despite its diminished attraction, Hasidism continued to hold the allegiance of significant segments of Eastern European Jewry. Rebbes continued to exert considerable influence among hundreds of thousands of followers.

    One of the first acts of the invading Nazis in Poland, Lithuania, and elsewhere was to seek out all Jewish religious leaders. The Rabbi of Ger, leader of the largest Hasidic group in Poland, was the object of a massive German manhunt. He and a handful of other rebbes managed to escape to Palestine or the United States -- often with the help of Zionist or other underground Jewish groups, who were otherwise spurned by Hasidic leaders. All the major Hasidic centers of Eastern Europe were destroyed in the Holocaust. The masses of Hasidim perished, and together with them, almost all Hasidic leaders.

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