Hasidism, a Brief Introduction

The ancient Rabbis taught, “God desires the heart.” They themselves, however, seem to have preferred the head. Judaism has struggled through the ages to find a balance between heartfelt yearning for God and the intellectual mastery of God’s Word. Generally speaking, it was the head that won out. Yet, when things got too heady, the pendulum would swing in favor of the heart. The eighteenth-century Jewish revivalist movement called Hasidism was one of these heart swings.

The founder of Hasidism was Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), who came to be called the Besht, an acronym for Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name. Baale Shem (plural) were wonder workers, and the title “Baal Shem” tells us how they worked their wonders. “Baal” means “master,” and “Shem,” “name,” refers to the Tetragrammaton, the fourletter Hebrew Name of God: Yud, Hay, Vav, Hay, or YHVH. Since early medieval times, Judaism celebrated Rabbis who had become masters of the Name-that is, scholar-mystics who could write the Name of God in amulets used to deepen one’s spiritual life. Over time, and especially in Eastern Europe, the use of amulets became big business and attracted not only the saintly and pious but the charismatic con artist as well. Baale Shem wandered the countryside selling amulets to promote healing, conception, easy childbirth, and good fortune. To distinguish between quacks and authentic healers, people began to speak of Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name, where the Hebrew tov, “good,” let you know you were dealing with a healer of the highest integrity.

Orphaned as a child and raised as a ward of Okup, his native village in the Carpathian Mountains, Israel ben Eliezer was thought to be an ignoramus. In fact, he was a largely self-taught mystic skilled at keeping his learning a secret. Working as a school attendant, Israel would accompany the children to and from cheder (school), teaching them through melody and dance the joy of living in God’s Presence.

The town eventually married him off to the sister of Rabbi Abraham Gershon of Kutow, who lived in the town of Brody. Reb Abraham was opposed to the marriage, having hoped his sister would find a scholar for a husband. After the wedding, Israel and his bride moved into Reb Abraham’s house. It was then that the rabbi discovered the true nature of his new brother-in-law and became his disciple.

Before revealing himself as a teacher, Israel had been known as a healer, a Baal Shem. Given the efficacy of his amulets and quality of his person, he was known as the Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht, and this name stayed with him long after his healing work shifted from amulets to Hasidism.

A circle of disciples slowly formed around the Besht. Called the chavurah kaddisha, “holy company,” this group of sages began to develop a highly sophisticated understanding of Judaism based not on the intellectual mastery of scholars but on the devout piety of the laity. The goal of the chavurah kaddisha was d’veikus, union with God.

The concept of d’veikus (“clinging” or “cleaving”) is found in the Torah, where the verb davak signifies an extraordinary intimacy with the Divine: “To love YHVH your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…” (Deuteronomy 30:20). To achieve d’veikus is to realize that God is your life. While later Hasidic masters spoke of d’veikus as a union with God requiring the dissolution of the self, this was not the original understanding. God is your life, but your life is still yours; that is, Torah speaks of d’veikus as an experience of feeling the fullness of God present in your self without actually erasing your sense of self.

The Besht, in contrast to the Rabbis and their focus on scholarship and study, taught that d’veikus was the ultimate goal of the religious life. More radically, he taught that d’veikus was not reserved for the rare mystic who had mastered the esoteric lore and Torah commentaries of the Kabbalah but was a state of mind that even the least educated could achieve, providing they would surrender themselves to the joy of serving God through the mitzvos (commandments) of Judaism.

The Baal Shem Tov did not reveal a systematic philosophy to his students. He taught instead by means of original aphorisms and proverbs. These his disciples wrote down, interpreted, and developed into a system of thought and practice that came to be called Hasidism, from the Hebrew hesed, “compassion.”

A Hasid (plural, Hasidim) was a lover of God and godliness. Holy companies of Hasidim gathered around charismatic mystics called rebbes (masters; singular rebbe, pronounced reh-beh) or tzaddikim (saints; singular tzaddik). The role of the rebbe was to model the passionate love of God and godliness that was d’veikus and to mentor the Hasid in achieving it. Over time, the rebbe’s role grew from mentor to intermediary. While the Baal Shem Tov taught that d’veikus was achievable by anyone, later teachers made it clear that the level of saintliness needed to achieve union with God was so high that only the tzaddikim could reach it. Their disciples could come close by drawing close to their rebbe. Focus shifted from God to the rebbe, and Hasidism began a slow decline.

The essential message and practice of early Hasidism are simple. The message: “M’lo kol ha-aretz k’vodo, the whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3). The practice: “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid, I place God before me always” (Psalm 16:8). Understand these and you understand Hasidism.

Despite originating in the Hebrew Bible, the message that the whole earth is filled with God — at least as the Hasidim understood it — led to the charge that Hasidism is Jewish pantheism, teaching that “all is God.” This is incorrect. Pantheism identifies creation with the Creator: God and nature are synonymous. Hasidism teaches a philosophy rightly called panentheism: all is in God. This is a crucial difference. Where the world is God in pantheism, the world is only part of God in panentheism. That is, while God fills all the world, the world does not fill all of God. God embraces and transcends creation.

What is nonetheless quite radical in this teaching is the intimacy of God and creation. The early Rabbis, led by Rabbi Akiva (Genesis Rabbah 1:14), spoke of creation ex nihilo: God created the world out of nothing. “Before the world was created, the Holy One, Blessed be He, with His Name alone existed” (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 10). How God did this is problematic, and much of Jewish theological speculation tries to explain just what creation out of nothing means.

Centuries later, the kabbalists, Jewish mystics, understood God to be Ayn, the No-thing that creates all things. For them, creation from nothing meant creation from No-thing, creation from God. God emanates creation the way the sun emanates rays of sunlight. Successive generations of kabbalists created more and more complex creation theories, culminating in the cosmology of Isaac Luria, the sixteenth-century Safed kabbalist known as the Ari, an acronym for “the Holy Rabbi Isaac.”

Luria introduced the idea of tzimtzum, contraction. He taught that because God is Ayn Sof, the Unending Infinite, if there is to be a  finite creation then God must first make room for finity. This God does through an act of self-contraction. God contracts from the center (imagine a bagel) and in that center hole creation happens.

According to Luria, God’s act of tzimtzum was followed by a process of divine emanation: God pours Divine Light into vessels meant to contain it within the newly created emptiness at the center of God. The process failed, however. The vessels shattered, and most of the light returned to God. Some sparks of light became trapped in the shards of the broken vessels. God is now “in exile” from God.

One can see how this myth of an exiled God spoke so powerfully to the Jews, who themselves were in exile for sixteen hundred years, and who had just experienced a massive expulsion from Spain in 1492. Add to this Luria’s teaching of tikkun, repair — that the reason for the Jewish exile was to bring about the end of God’s exile by returning the lost sparks of Divine Light to their source — and the popularity of Lurianic theosophy is ensured. The Jew is God’s chosen custodian, who, by scrupulously adhering to the mystical intentions of the commandments revealed by Luria and his disciples, engages the world in such a manner as to reclaim and return the lost sparks of God to their Source. Because these sparks are exiled throughout the earth, so the Jew must be exiled throughout the world. Exile is not a punishment for misdeeds but a necessary assignment promoting the process of tikkun, which will find completion in the future.

This essentially hopeful cosmology became normative after Luria’s death in 1572. It also became very complicated. Although the means to tikkun was adherence to the mitzvos, each mitzvah had to be done with the proper kavvanah, or intention. Mastering the kavvanot (plural) became the province of a new elite, the scholar/mystic.

Hasidism never denied Luria’s theology; it simply recast it in a radically new way. What for the kabbalist was a cosmological fact became for the Hasid a psychological truth. Can it be, asked Hasidism, that the Infinite can become finite? Of course not; the Infinite includes the finite and is not in opposition to it. Yet, if Ayn Sof, the Unbounded, sets boundaries — which is what Luria implies in the teaching of tzimtzum, divine contraction — that is precisely what happens. God cannot be God and be bounded. So is Luria wrong? No, not wrong, simply a bit off: What Luria said took place in God actually takes place in the human mind.

Our experience of God and creation is inherently dualistic: We see self and other, God and creation, good and evil, and all the myriad dyads that make up our view of reality. We project that dualism onto God, speaking in terms of contraction and expansion, brokenness and repair, exile and redemption. But that is all it is: a projection. God is Ayn Sof, without end, and is therefore an unbroken nonduality. D’veikus, union with God, is not something to be achieved but a given to be realized. The goal is not to effect d’veikus but to realize it, to experience da’at d’veikus, an awareness of God’s nonduality present in, with, and as all things.

Lurianic Kabbalah became a complicated system of doing and thus fell wider the control of a master class of advanced doers. Early Hasidism reclaimed d’veikus for the masses by teaching that it wasn’t something you had to do but something you simply had to acknowledge. You didn’t have to master hundreds of kavvanot, you had to master only one: an intense desire for God. If your heart is broken in its yearning for God, you will break through the very idea of brokenness and see that God was, is, and always will be whole.

Although the Hasidim themselves do not use this analogy, the relationship of a wave to the ocean aptly captures the situation Hasidism says we are in. Imagine yourself a self-conscious wave on the ocean. You look around you and see other waves. These differ from you in size, shape, and distance. Your sense of self is at least partly derived from comparing yourself with these other waves. And as you do you notice that some waves, those farther in front, crash against the rocks and disappear.

You look to see what happens to them, and it soon becomes clear to you that they no longer exist. More than that, you can see that their fate will soon be yours. To escape this meaningless destruction, you begin to imagine a way out. Perhaps there is another ocean after this one. Perhaps you will return to this ocean in another form. And on and on. What you never do is realize that you are the ocean, and the ocean is unaffected by the rise and fall of waves. The problem is not with the ocean and its waving, but with your misunderstanding of the nature of who and what you are. All that is required of you is to realize your true nature. You are the ocean in extension. When you crash against the rocks, your particular form disappears, but your true self, your oceanic self, stays the same. The problem is where you choose to focus your attention. Focus on yourself as a wave, and you are increasingly frantic and worried. Focus on yourself as the ocean, and you find tranquility and peace of mind. Lurianic Kabbalah tried to explain how the ocean waves; Hasidism tries to wake the wave up to being the ocean. Awakening to your true nature is what it is to “place God before you always.” Everywhere you look you see God, not as an abstract spirit but as the True Being of all beings.

Published on June 7, 2010 at 12:16 am  Leave a Comment  

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