The Hasidic movement did not emerge in the same way as other religious movements; that is, from the school of a higher religious strata and leading intellectuals. This movement evolved from teachers, or preachers, traveling between groups consisting of small and poor Jewish communities. There is no evidence that such activity involved any attempt to set the poor against the rich, but attempts were made to encourage everyone to achieve a higher level of participation in religious practices.

To definitely describe Hasidic theology and ethics is very difficult because of two reasons. First, it is difficult to place any one teaching within a give time period; for example, teachings that are said to have come from the early eighteenth century may later be discovered within earlier times. The second difficulty is that many of the teachings are subjective. Each teacher seemed to have developed his own theological ethics. Therefore, it is difficult to categorized the Hasidic literature in general, which results in its description being composed of a few general statements being preceded by qualifying statements.

Hasidism reliance on Kabbalistic terminology is almost entirely based on the Lurianic Kabbalah. In many formulations, however, Hasidism seemed to prefer the simpler symbolisms of the Zohar (the principle Kabbalistic work that was written in northern Spain in the late 13th century) to that of Hayyim Vital (1543-1620), the disciple of Luria who wrote the main body of the Lurianic teachings.

In Hasidism there is a downplaying of the description of the divine catastrophe (referred to as “the breaking of the divine vessels”) within the divine world, which originated evil. According to the Lurianic teaching the divine light from the godhead was withdrawn or withheld from the cosmic space in which the world was to evolve, which was an act of self-contradiction on the behave of God. Hasidism claims that this action was did because the cosmic space where the world was to evolve could not withstand the full brilliancy of the divine light so God withheld some of it; this was a merciful on God’s part the Hasidic literature teaches.

The Hasidic redemptive message is more personal rather than general, national, or cosmic, which is a slight departure from the Lurianic teaching. Although not all Hasidic teachers hold to this teaching, some favor a more inclusive redemptive teaching. And, others who pre-date Hasidism have held to a personal redemptive belief. Here it can be seen that teachings can be very subjective.

In the approach to God Hasidic literature tends to put more emphasis on direct, emotional worship rather than contact with God through the constant study of the Torah and Talmud, and the diligent observant of particulars of the performance of the misvot. This does not mean that Hasidim do not read the Torah and Talmud, or disregard the misvot, as many of their opponents claim, but Hasidism emphasizes the mystical contact with God that comes through prayer, earning a livelihood, and other physical activities.

Among Hasidic teachers there are many precedents and exceptions given for this attitude. Still it appears that on the whole Hasidism perceived a wider range of worship as acceptable and commendable than did their detractors, and that the mystical aspect of daily religious life is more prominent among the Hasidim. This attitude has led to the prevailing conception that Hasidism is oriented toward the needs of the simple believers, the uneducated, a perhaps the ignorant; an inaccurate conception that came about during the late 19th and 20th centuries because of erroneous stories.

Also on the question of overcoming evil Hasidism and the Lurianic teaching differ. Hasidic teachers, more than the non-Hasidim, contributed to the development of the conception that the way to fight evil is within one’s soul. This differs from the Lurianic theology that describes a common source for good and evil, claiming they both emanate from the godhead; but, according to Luria, evil cannot exist unless it is in close contact with good and derives its substance from it. In order to overcome evil the righteous must separated good from evil, thus making the latter’s existence impossible. However, there are other theories on overcoming evil such as the one espoused by the Shabbatean teachers, which claims evil can be overcome by correcting it. Dov Ber of Mezhirich and other Hasidic teachers insisted evil could be overcame by absorbing it uplifting it and making it again part of goodness, believing that the spiritual stature of “corrected” or “repentant” evil is higher than the elements that were always good. In early Hasidic theology this theory was presented as teachings accessible to everybody and offered to all righteous Jews; later it was emerged with the doctrine of¬†tsaddig.

The doctrine of tsaddig was not constituted by Hasidism since it predates the theology and is believed by non-Hasidim. However, as will be explained, Hasidism presented the doctrine in a different form. Hasidism made the tsaddig into a quasi-messianic figure. Instead of the tsaddig being a national messianic figure, as he was previously believed to be, the tsaddig now resided within each community. He became the messianic figure in each community, and there were many.

The¬†tsaddig¬†was a man without evil, but he assumed the evils of those within his community. He was considered to be a “righteous man” and the intermediary between those within his community and God. The power of the¬†tsaddig, according to Hasidic teaching, was limited to the boundaries of the community in which he lived. His chief responsibility was for the redemption of every soul within his community. But, his people sought his help in securing earthly things as well; such as earning a livelihood, prevention and cure of illnesses, and that they would have children. In return, for his help, the people provided the¬†tsaddig¬†and his family with the things they needed for their daily living.

The Hasidisn literature concerning the doctrine of the isaddig has composed the hagiographical literature that describes religious heroes. One example of such epics was the legends of the Besht that was collected in the 19th century and entitled Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Besht), following and earlier version Shivhei ha-Ari, which was about Isaac Luria. Other such stories concern heroes fighting for Sufi principles against those opposing them.

Within one hundred years after this founding about half of world Jewry belonged to the Hasidic movement. The Nazis murdered millions of the Hasidim, but the religious movement continued growing. Hasidim can still live in. A.G.H.

Sources: 2, 122; 74, Hasidism: An Overview, 6, 203-211.