Hasidim - History and Cultural Relations

The Hasidic movement began in the middle of the eighteenth century in Galicia on the Polish-Romanian border and in the Volhynia region of the Ukraine. It was founded by Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer (1700-1760) who became known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name). The movement emerged as a populist reaction against what its followers considered the elite, remote, and formal character of rabbinic leaders. In contrast to the mechanical and rigid forms of worship, the Baal Shem Tov preached piety of heart and service of God through the emotions. To serve God, the duty of every Jew, was not confined exclusively to the study of Talmud but embraced every aspect of daily life. The Baal Shem Tov's ministry stressed the joyful affirmation of life and counseled against asceticism and self-affliction. It was only after his death, however, that the systematic dissemination of Hasidism began. The movement evolved into a number of dynastic courts, comprising a rebbe and his followers. As the rebbe's power was inherited by his sons, in succeeding generations the number of rebbeim (plural of rebbe ) multiplied and dynastic courts were established in villages and towns throughout Eastern and Central Europe.

In essence, Hasidic institutions are only comparatively autonomous and are connected with, and affected by, those in the larger Jewish community and surrounding society. The very presence of the non-Hasidic Jewish population contributes to the development of the Hasidic community by offering financial support for its various institutions. It also provides the Hasidim with a market for their products, including kosher baked goods, kosher meat, and religious articles. The precise nature of the relationship is influenced by the particular sect's views of the threats posed by such contacts. The differing cases of the Lubavitcher and Satmarer illustrate this point. Although the differences between them are few—their appearance and religious practice are nearly identical and both strictly observe Jewish laws—their styles and outlooks in crucial ways are vastly different. The Satmar group is an insular community that seeks no publicity and shuns outsiders. It also staunchly opposes the State of Israel on the ground that the Jewish state cannot rightly come into existence until the arrival of the Messiah. In contrast, under Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, this sect has altered the Hasidic pattern by looking outward. They have sent vans ( "mitzveh tanks") into Manhattan and the suburbs, offering, to Jews only, religious books and items and a place to pray. They have also recruited many young Jews at colleges in New York and California, offering intellectual programs, drug clinics, and outreach houses. Aimed at intensifying less observant Jews' identification with Orthodox Judaism, the Lubavitch sect is unique in its involvement with the wider Jewish community. Their outreach activities, however, have offended the more extremist Hasidic sects whose relations with outsiders, both Jewish and Gentile, are governed pragmatically. They are viewed by the larger Jewish community as ultra-Orthodox and fanatical as a result of their zealous observance of the Code of Jewish Law. While acknowledging that contact with the outside world cannot be avoided completely, they believe it can be controlled.

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