Overview in Historical Context
The new interpretations of Judaism initiated by the Baal Shem Tov, and developed by his successors, took ideas from across Jewish tradition, and gave them new life and meaning. It especially built upon the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, and presented it in a way that was accessible for the first time by all Jews. Until then the Jewish mystical tradition had only been understandable and reserved for a scholarly elite. The innovative spirituality of Hasidism, sought to leave aside the advanced and subtle metaphysical focus of Kabbalah on the Heavenly Spiritual Worlds, to apply the Kabbalistic theology to the everyday life and Jewish observance of man. The common folk could feel the spiritual warmth within these new teachings, as they were now related to inner human psychological experience. The creative and insightful new teachings, offered the whole community a description of Divine immanence present in all of Creation, and an experience of Divine love and meaningful purpose behind every occurrence of daily life. With this mystical revival, every person could feel valuable, and Jewish spirituality accessible. This was especially important to the Jewish societies of 18th Century Eastern Europe, who had been crushed by persecutions and disillusionment. Outside of the flourishing centre of Talmudic Rabbinic Judaism in Lithuania, in the regions of the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Russia, the ability to access Talmudic learning had declined. Rabbinic Judaism valued such learning as the main path to spirituality, so the outlying communities were disenfranchised from the consolations of Jewish life.
The Baal Shem Tov, and his successors, offered the masses a new approach to Judaism, that valued sincerity and emotional fervour, in addition to advanced learning. This was conveyed through inner mystical interpretations of Scripture and Rabbinic texts, sometimes conveyed by imaginative parables, as well as hagiographic tales about the Hasidic Masters, and new dimensions to melody (Nigun) and customs (Minhag). The soulful warmth of this new level of Torah captured the hearts of the masses, while the deep ideas underlying it also attracted great scholars. The Hasidic movement became one of the most successful revival movement in Jewish history. Its spirituality ensured the allegiance of many followers to Jewish life, through the social, political, and intellectual upheavals of early modern history, and has also had an appeal to non-Orthodox Jewish movements until today (especially through the influence of late 19th Century and 20th Century Neo-Hasidism). The charismatic stories told about the Hasidic Masters, the emotional contributions it brought to Judaism, and the creative originality of some of its teachings, have become well known in the wider Jewish world. Theologians such as Martin Buber and writers such as Elie Wiesel have publicised the charismatic and lyrical dimensions of Hasidism, while Jewish historians influenced by the early Haskalah (Enlightenment movement) helped mould the common depiction of Hasidism as a movement that mainly encouraged emotional exuberance and joy, within the framework of traditional Rabbinic Jewish study and observance. However, its outside admirers, as well as its detractors, have often not been as familiar with the philosophical depth and significance of its ideas, in the history of Jewish thought. In the academic world this trend has been changed, beginning with the scholarly work of Gershom Scholem, though some of the figures in this field give secular interpretations of Jewish mysticism and Hasidism, that can differ with philosophical views from inside the movement. The two dimensions to Hasidism of emotional warmth and intellectual depth, are united in their origins, as the movement began on both levels. The Baal Shem Tov taught by means of parables and short, heartwarming Torah explanations that encapsulated profound interpretations of Jewish mysticism. The unlearned, downtrodden masses were captivated by this new soul and life breathed into Judaism, while the select group of great disciples around the Baal Shem Tov, could appreciate the scholarly and philosophical significance of these new ideas. The anecdotal stories about the legendary figures of Hasidism, offered a vivid bridge between the intellectual ideas, and the spiritual, emotional enthusiasm they inspired. Implicit in Hasidic tales are the new doctrines of Hasidism, as the new interpretations of Torah taught by its leaders, were also lived in all facets of their life and leadership, and their new paths to serving God. This gave birth to new Jewish practices in the lives of their followers that also reflected the new teachings of the movement.
Each school of Hasidic thought adopted different approaches and interpretations of Hasidism. Some put primary emphasis on the new practices and customs ("Darkei Hasidus"-the Ways of Hasidus) that encouraged emotional enthusiasm, and attached the followers to the holy influence of their leaders, and some put their main emphasis on scholarly learning of the Hasidic teachings of their leaders ("Limmud Hasidus"-the Learning of Hasidus). Some groups have seen the Hasidic way as an added warmth to a more mainstream Jewish observance (like "icing on the cake" of Talmudic learning), while others have placed the learning of the writings of their school, on a more comparable level to learning the exoteric parts of Judaism. These differences are reflected in different styles of Hasidic thought, that were shaped by original and innovative thinkers. Some articulated more emotional or poetic descriptions of Hasidic mysticism, that inspire practical encouragement in Jewish observance, or sensitise the hearts of their followers to transcendent spirituality. Some charismatic leaders in Hasidic history personified particular qualities, and centred their teachings around practical outcomes of this. Others gave a more intellectual analysis of Hasidic thought, aiming their followers to be able to more deeply internalise spiritual awareness and feeling, each person at their level of understanding.
This diversity mirrors the historic development of Hasidism. From late Medieval times, Central and Eastern European Kabbalistic figures called Baal Shem encouraged the influence of Jewish mysticism, through groups of Nistarim (Hidden mystics). With the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760), centred around Podolia (Ukraine), the new ideas of Hasidism were conveyed initially in emotional forms. After his death, his great disciples appointed Dov Ber of Mezeritch (1700?–1772) (The Maggid of Mezeritch) to succeed him. Under the leadership of the Maggid, the new movement was consolidated, and the teachings explained and developed. The Baal Shem Tov was a leader for the people, travelling around with his saintly followers, bringing encouragement and comfort to the simple masses. Dov Ber, whose ill health prevented him from travel, devoted his main focus to developing around himself a close circle of great, scholarly followers (called the "Hevra Kaddisha"-Holy Society) who were to become the individual leaders of the next generation, appointed different territories across Jewish Eastern Europe to spread Hasidism to. They formed different interpretations of Hasidic thought, from profound insight in mystical psychology, to philosophical intellectual articulations. Many of the Hasidic leaders of the third generation, occupy revered places in Hasidic history, or influenced subsequent schools of thought. Among them are Elimelech of Lizhensk, who fully developed the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik (mystical leader) that gave birth to many Polish Rebbes, and his charismatic brother Meshulam Zushya of Anipoli. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev became the renowned defender of the people before the Heavenly Court, while Shneur Zalman of Liadi initiated the Habad school of intellectual Hasidism. Subsequent Hasidic leaders include Nachman of Breslav, the most imaginative and poetic Hasidic mystic, and the ascetic seeker of psychological integrity Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Dynastic succession of leadership developed (Hasidic dynasties), where in some courts, such as Yisroel Friedman of Ruzhyn, the Rebbe would conduct himself with regal majesty.
The encounter of Judaism in the different Jewish communities of Europe with modern thought, led to different philosophical interpretations of Judaism today. It has been said that the three figures of the Baal Shem Tov (Hasidic spirituality), the Vilna Gaon (Lithuanian Jewish Orthodox scholarship), and Moses Mendelssohn (the founding influence on the secularising Haskalah movement), have each influenced the range of Jewish responses today, through inspiration or counter-reaction. Initial schisms could lead to beneficial synthesis. The division between Hasidic and Mitnagdic Orthodoxy characterised Eastern European Judaism, but from the mid-19th century onwards they became reconciled in response to the Haskalah. The early rejection of Jewish mysticism by the reformers of Haskalah, led to a renewed interest in the 20th century from academia (begun by Gershom Scholem) and Jewish Renewal (Neo Hasidic) movements.
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