Shiur #10: Chassidut – Good News or a Threat

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

All-out war


We will now begin a new chapter in our examination of the teachings of the Vilna Gaon. We will leave the world of Torah scholarship, shrouded in vibrant and refreshing intellectual serenity, and enter a tempest of conflicting world views and opinions. We will see saints and savants, divided into opposing camps, ready to give their lives for the sake of heaven, in order to guide their people down what in their eyes was undoubtedly the correct road. The contradictory paths, each one followed with certainty by its proponents, led to inevitable controversy.


Two lions – the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the Besht) - lived and greatly influenced their environs during the eighteenth century. The Baal Shem Tov was born around 1700 and died in 1760. The Vilna Gaon was born in 1720 and died in 1797. They did not know each other nor did they have any personal contact during their lifetimes. Only after the death of its founder, did the spiritual-cultural-social movement that issued forth from Mezibuz and Mezeritch begin to stir up opposition. It was at this stage that the Gra entered the thick of things in an attempt to suppress the spread of the phenomenon which came to be known as Chassidut.


In Iyar 5532 (1772) the Vilna community published a manifesto against the devotees of the new movement. The manifesto was issued in the name of the community's leaders and sages, headed by the local rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel ben Avigdor, and the Gra. After listing the sins and deviations of the Chassidim, the authors ask the leaders of every community "to destroy and eradicate and pronounce against them bans and excommunication and curses… Thus they will be uprooted from all places, never to be remembered or to rise in people's hearts. Wherever a trace of them is to be found, that trace must be uprooted so that it not take root in the land…."


About a month later the Brody community[1] issued a proclamation on the same subject. The people of Brody spelled out in practical detail the general call that went out from Vilna "to uproot them in all places":


Anyone who from this day forward goes out in white clothing… will be stripped in the middle of the street, and become subject to public scorn and derision…


If a guest arrives in our community who refuses to eat meat slaughtered by the regular slaughterers, or practices some new custom, or prays following the Sephardi rite or the siddur of theAri z"l, his host must inform the community leader of the month so that he may cast out and expel that man from the city…


The reference here is to some of the early customs of the Chassidim, wearing white clothing and special slaughter,[2] alongside Chassidic customs regarding the liturgy, which are evident still today. In both proclamations we are witness to an extreme response, sharpness and intolerance.


Reading these first bans proclaimed against the Chassidim raises questions. First, why do the Mitnagdim, the opponents of the Chassidim, stir to action only twelve years after the Baal Shem Tov's death? Second, what exactly aroused their anger? And third, why is the opposition so extreme and violent ("to destroy and eradicate" … "to expel from the city")?


The Beginning of the Spread of Chassidut


The first question requires of us to address the issue of the expansion of the movement. Did Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, who is considered the father of the movement, aspire to organize a mass movement, or did he see himself as a spiritual guide with limited influence over the members of his community and those with whom he comes into contact? It is not self-evident that this question can be answered with any degree of confidence. Much has been written about the Baal Shem Tov and the story of his life, but still the first biography about him, Shivchei ha-Besht, was only first published in the year 5575 (1815), a whole generation after the death of its subject. Such a gap is likely to blur the precision of memory, and a reliable answer to our question must be based on sources that are chronologically closer to the life of the Besht.


Even such sources, however, do not allow for an unequivocal answer. For example, there is a direct quote from the words of the Baal Shem Tov himself, sung to this day by Chabad Chassidim. The words are taken from a letter that the Besht wrote to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon of Kitov.[3] The Besht speaks there of a mystical elevation of his soul that he experienced, in the course of which he met the Messiah and asked him when he will come? The Messiah answered: "When your wellsprings will burst forth to the farthest extremes." The Chassidim understand from this that the spreading of Chassidic teachings is the key to redemption. If this is true, we can attribute to the Baal Shem Tov a high self-awareness of the need to widely disseminate his spiritual teachings.      However, when we examine the body of the letter, this impression becomes significantly tempered. So it says:


I asked the Messiah: When will you come? And he answered me: Hereby you will know, when your teachings will become known and revealed in the world, and your wellsprings will burst forth to the furthest extreme, that which I taught you and you comprehended, and they too will be able to engage in unifications and elevations as you can, and then all the husks will be removed, and it will be a time of favor and salvation. And I wondered about this, and I was greatly distressed about the great length of time: When can this be? But what I learned when I was there is three charms and three holy names. They are easily learned and explained. And I thought: It is possible that with this people my age will also be able to reach a level like mine.


The words of the Baal Shem Tov indicate that we are not dealing here with the dissemination of popular teachings among the masses of Israel, but rather with the training of an elite group whose members will be able to reach the rank of the Besht himself, and to awaken the redemption with their mystical powers.


Whatever the Baal Shem Tov' intention was, during his lifetime Chassidut was not yet a large scale movement capable of arousing the masses and of being seen as a threat to the existing systems. This stage was reached in the wake of the activity of the Besht's heir to the leadership, the Maggid, Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch, who brought together a group of charismatic and dedicated students. These students were sent by him to Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe. They spread the spiritual principles that they received from their teacher across Poland, and even reached Lithuania.


The political reality of those years promoted the absorption of the new ideas. The Council of Four Lands, that had united Polish Jewry under one internal governmental organization, was already subject to a long process of disintegration, a process that came to an end in 1764. A parallel process took place in the general political arena. The unification of Poland unraveled, and during the second half of the eighteenth century the country was several times divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia. So it happened that the Jews too became divided up into different countries. The withering of the organizational frameworks weakened the establishment and undermined the existing order. This paved the way for the entry of harbingers of change.


These processes ripened and continued to grow stronger during the decade following the death of the Baal Shem Tov, to the extent that they could ignite an open controversy. The spread of the Chassidic movement led to the severe ban issued by the Vilna community leaders. It is important to note that the eruption of the conflict in 5532 (1772) does not in any way indicate a climax, but only the first act. The processes noted above had only begun to agitate the climate on the Jewish streets, e.g., in the study halls and in the synagogues. Chassidut continued to spread, and wherever it reached it stirred up adoration alongside opposition.


Chassidim in the Eyes of the Mitnagdim: Religious Arrogance


We turn now to the beginning of the ban pronounced by the Vilna community, and we wish to examine how the Chassidic movement was perceived by those who opposed it. Later we will have to describe the phenomena from the perspective of the Chassidim, so that we can better understand what was at the heart of the controversy:


Our brethren, the children of Israel, surely you know about those newcomers whom our forefathers could not have imagined. They joined together to form a sect of suspicious people… and they display their voices like torches, and form their own societies, and their ways are  different from the rest of Israel, with respect to the rite of prayer. They are wise in their own eyes, and miracle workers. And all who sit before them, even an ignoramus who cannot read the Shema, as soon as they adhere to them acquire worlds in a moment… And they conduct themselves with madness and say that their minds are wandering through all the worlds…


The members of the movement are called "a sect of suspicious people," chashudim, a play on the word Chassidim. This passage opens with a particularly severe accusation: The members of the movement are "newcomers whom our forefathers could not have imagined." Their very innovation attests to the fact that they have deviated from the tradition that had been accepted for generations. The pretension to innovate in the realm of religious service is seen as a challenge to tradition, which brings the proponents of these novel practices under suspicion of being heretics, even though this is not stated explicitly.


The members of the sect are accused of separatist organization, which distances them from the community and the conventional ways of worship. In their synagogues they follow a non-standard rite of prayer.


They are additionally accused of pretense of special piety and sanctity. The members of the sect claim that they are wise men and miracle workers – people who have the power to overcome the laws of nature. The jeering tone of the proclamation clearly implies that the true spiritual level of "the suspected" is very far from such capabilities. Those behind the proclamation claim that according to the Chassidim, even an ignoramus who cannot read the Shema acquires supernal worlds simply by joining the sect. The Chassidim accompany their prayers with strange ("mad") melodies, and when they are asked about it, their answer is that their thoughts are wandering among the heavenly spheres. It is as if they are saying that those who pray and observe the mitzvot in the conventional manner are inferior to them.


The passage expresses the typical sensitivities of the Mitnagdim. The authors of the proclamation and their followers protest against what they perceive as the Chassidim's devaluation of the idea of sanctity. This depiction indicates that the pretentious conduct of the Chassidim is a mass phenomenon. It is not only the key leaders, the miracle workers, who wander about in the supernal worlds; the community of Chassidim at large follow all these strange practices, and for the same reasons. It is as if they are saying that the way to connect to the Creator is not through Torah and mitzvot, laboring in the service of God and toiling toward moral improvement, but rather through strange acts that border on magic, that are in the reach of every individual. The Mitnagdim see this approach as one of spiritual arrogance. Let us recall in this context the words of the people of Brody that the wearing of white has become a common practice among those who are far from being worthy of it.


Let us illustrated the powerful opposition that the Chassidic movement could stir up, by way of a slight deviation from our historical context. The following was related by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook in the name of his father, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook.[4] One of the greatest "heretics" from the Enlightenment period in Russia, Micha Joseph Berdichevsky, once explained to Rabbi Kook why he had left religious Judaism. As a boy, he once accompanied his grandfather, who was a great Torah scholar, on a visit to a Chassidic Rebbe with whom he was connected. That Rebbe was, as is known among Chassidim, a yenuka, a young lad who had succeeded his father, the former Rebbe, when he himself lacked experience, was a novice in learning, and his sole merit lay in his lineage. Berdichevsky could not tolerate his grandfather's self-effacement before the young Admor. He was particularly incensed by the fact that the Rebbe questioned his grandfather about his level of piety. If this is the Jewish religion, he decided, he would have no part of it.


It is clear from Berdichevsky's writings that his abandonment of Judaism did not stem solely from this experience. Indeed, Berdichevsky later studied in the glorious - and Lithuanian – yeshiva in Volozhin, where he was presented with other models for a life of Torah and mitzvot, which he could have adopted had he wanted to do so. Nevertheless, this personal anecdote reflects a phenomenon that was repugnant in the eyes of the Mitnagdim: the subordination of great rabbis to charismatic leaders, who gloried in the image of sanctity that was not backed by substantive content.


From the perspective of the Mitnagdim, the Chassidic movement introduced a paradoxical social system, which only intensified the lie upon which the entire edifice stood. On the one hand, the Chassidim sanctified the institution of Tzaddik, the central figure who was linked to the heavenly worlds by virtue of his spiritual merits, and who conducted himself with exceptional holy trappings, which "you and I" cannot understand. On the other hand, that Tzaddik did not set himself apart from the general public (as did, for example, the Vilna Gaon), but rather he led separatist public institutions – a synagogue and study hall – where everyone, even the basest ignoramus, was invited to imitate the strange and unique practices of the Admor, with the understanding that these practices are the secret to spiritual transcendence.


Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda (there) presents the example of Rabbi Leib Eiger, the gifted Chassidic grandson of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, who would recite his prayers very late. On Yom Kippur, the morning service started late in the afternoon, because half of the day was devoted to preparations for prayer. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda said that in principle, it would be possible to understand such conduct with respect to a great man like Rabbi Leib Eiger himself. The trouble was that he also encouraged all of his followers to adopt this practice. Ordinary people would imitate the Tzaddik and claim that they cannot recite the morning service at the proper time, because they are not yet ready. The person on the outside, who is not a member of the "sect," cannot believe that such practices are appropriate for the average person. The commonness of Chassidic Torah testifies to its worthlessness like a thousand witnesses. If this is what the Tzaddik preaches to his followers, apparently he too is a charlatan. On the other hand, if he is a Tzaddik, it is no wonder that "the entire congregation is holy."


What are these strange practices and the "madness" mentioned in the proclamation? Details appear later in the proclamation, the spirit of which is clear despite the difficult formulations:


And especially when they stand in their false prayers… making strange sounds… beating themselves like the prophets of the Ba'al… tops down and bottoms up.


We are not dealing here with the deviations with which we are familiar today among certain groups of Chassidim, such as a change in the rite, or praying after the proscribed time for the service has come and gone. This proclamation mentions strange sounds and movements, similar to the biblical description of Ba'al worship.


It is evident that the external appearance of the Chassidic movement in those days is different from the religious-social phenomenon with which we are familiar today. In those early days, it was common to integrate into the Chassidic prayer service exceptionally enthusiastic shouting and movements, such as jumping, and even dancing. The climax was reached by those Chassidim who introduced real acrobatic movements into the synagogue: "Tops down and bottoms up," as the Vilna leaders formulated it. It is no wonder that the Mitnagdim saw here unrestrained commotion that shares nothing with the true service of God.


Chassidic Prayer as Seen from the Inside


Innovations in the framework of the prayer service, unusual movements and shouting, were perceived by the Mitnagdim as signs of unfounded arrogance. The Mitnagdim were familiar with these phenomena as outside observers, without being familiar with the thinking behind them. It is obvious that the Chassidim themselves, who encouraged and spread these practices, had a religious world view that saw in them great benefit and even necessity. It stands to reason that when one understands the ideological basis, the verdict is likely to be less decisive.


Let us examine a letter written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad and one of the great disciples of the Maggid of Mezeritch. The letter was intended to strengthen a certain Chassid against the attacks of Mitnagdim with regard to prayer. The author refers to the prohibition imposed by the Rabbis in the Mitnagdim camp on Chassidic prayer, and the attempt on the part of those who imposed a ban to force members of the movement to pray in a fixed standing position without moving the body:[5]


Now they have passed a law, assembling together to issue a persecutory decree regarding prayer, to pray like them quickly, and without any movement and without raising the voice, like heavenly angels, who have reached the highest level, there being none higher, as it is written: "When they stood still, they let down their wings" (Yechezkel 1:24). And this too only among the highest group that are called Seraphim, and not among the other groups, as it is stated: "And the Ofanim and the great Chayyot, with a noise of great rushing"…. And also with strange movements as is explained in the piyyutim based on Pirkei Heikhalot. Therefore there is no proof form the early righteous men who were greater than the ministering angels. But we are orphans of orphans, can one imagine trying to be like them? This accusation is nothing but evil of the heart and a blatant lie.


Rabbi Shneuer Zalman is certain that all the religious arrogance related to this matter is to be found in the other camp, that of the Mitnagdim. Quiet prayer recited without any noise or movement – this is precisely the prayer of the angels. And not just any angels, but angels of the highest level. Most of the angels actually pray with "a noise of great rushing." The Mitnagdim are correct when they say that the ancient practice was to pray in a fixed standing position and in silence, but those men of old were in fact similar in their spiritual level to angels, if not above them. It is precisely the pretension to imitate the prayer of the heavenly beings that is false arrogance. If you are looking for service performed out of humility, you must choose body movements and loud shouting which characterize Chassidic prayer.


Thus, the Chassidim are aware of the fact that their form of prayer is an innovation, but this innovation is necessary once the notion of "the decline of the generations" is accepted. It is the Mitnagdim who refuse to understand that in our lowly situation today we must adjust the form of prayer and service to the prevailing spiritual level.


Yet another factual detail is sounded here, one that relates to the difference between the two patterns of prayer. In the eyes of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, the prayers of the Mitnagdim are recited "quickly." Chassidic prayer is characterized not only by its form, but also by the time devoted to it. Between the lines we hear the argument that not only do the Mitnagdim pray incorrectly; they do not pray enough. According to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, this is connected to a most fundamental question – the rightful place of prayer in the service of God. And that will be covered in next week's shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Brody is located in Galicia (Poland), and not in Lithuania, the center of opposition to Hassidut. The backing received from Vilna encouraged the leaders of the community in Brody to fight against the new practices.

[2] The Hassidim adopted the practice of slaughtering animals only with polished knives. The halakhic significance of this practice is not clear, but in any event, the determination on the part of the Brody community that animals slaughtered with such knives are not kosher is clearly excessive. As for white garments, ths was a known practice among the kabbalists. In Brody there was a well known "kloiz" in which some of the most important kabbalists of the generation studied, and these authorities would dress in white. The Hassidim turned this into a popular custom, and thus detracted from the standing of the kabbalistic elite. This is the background for including the issue of clothing in the ban.

[3] The letter appears in Porat Yosef, by the Besht's disciple, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonne, and it is considered reliable. The position that the Besht was not intent on generating a mass movement has been espoused by Moshe Rosman, who has written an influential study on the topic (Founder of Hassidim,Portland 2013).

[5] This is taken from Iggerot Ba'al ha-Tanya, 21.