Although there is the famous claim that the Baal Shem Tov (1698 – 1760) was the founder of the chassidic movement, the basic idea of the movement consisted much much earlier. Already during Temple times, Kavanot, different ways of spirituality and closeness to G – d were a very common practise. Many centuries later, Jewish Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe concentrated on its leaders. A common Jew hardly knew anything about his religion but relied on the Rabbis. He prayed, kept kosher and the holidays but only a very few people studied Judaism in depths. The result was that Jewish spirituality got separated from the ordinary Jewish population. The Jewish leaders, on the other hand, treated their religion and the Torah study as an intellectual matter rather than involving their feelings.
In the 17th century, the Baal Shem Tov revealed his mission and especially attracted ordinary Jews by letting them know that every one of us has a certain way and potential in order to connect to the Creator. Kavanah, feelings, emotions rather than only intellectual studies. However, the Baal Shem Tov did neither neglect nor reject higher Jewish studies such as Talmud or Halachot.
Signature of the BESHT
The first group of Chassidim were the students of the Baal Shem Tov and slowly, slowly, Chassidism spread all over Eastern Europe. White Russia had its Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Alter Rebbe of the later Lubavitcher movement). Poland had its Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhansk and his student the Seer (Chozeh) of Lublin.
Seen at the National Jewish Library Exhibition in Jerusalem
Photo: Miriam Woelke
From Lublin and the Chozeh over the Pryzsucha Movement – each chassidic community led a different internal lifestyle. Ideologies, spiritual orientations and identities were not always the same. The most famous example may be Rabbi Shneur Zalman who put many of his own interpretations into the teachings of the Maggid of Mezritch or the dispute between Lublin and Rabbi Simcha Bunim. When you look at the massive amount of chassidic literature being today, you may faint. Huge volumes of literature and in order to get a tiny idea, you already need a few years of study. In order to understand Chassidim and Chassidism it is essential to study chassidic writings.
Until today, many chassidic groups are proud of their direct line to the Baal Shem Tov. Just look at Rabbi Nahum of Chernobyl, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, the Maggid or Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz. Only very few groups do not have a direct line such as, for instance, Toldot Aharon.
Nevertheless, all chassidic groups have in common that their ideology is based on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Furthermore, all of those groups follow the ZADDIK concept. Some more and some less. As we know from history, Rabbi Elimelech and the Seer of Lublin were those who enthusiastically stressed the Zaddik Concept whereas Rabbi Simcha Bunim saw the Zaddik’s task from a very different perspective.