Membership, Community, Diversity

What are Hasidic Jews?

Some of the biblical prophets emphasized the notion of God’s unconditional, absolutely faithful love, chesed in Hebrew. They taught that God would continue to seek out sinners and bring them back. Out of that emphasis grew an important theme in Jewish spirituality, a focus on the transforming power of divine compassion. Learning and moral righteousness were still worthy goals, of course, but not to such a degree that they should raise divisions that amounted to religious class distinctions in the community. Most important was the quest for individual salvation sought within the community. A major movement organized around these emphases was begun in Eastern Europe by Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1700-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name, that is that of God). He was a highly charismatic man with a reputation for working wonders, especially healing. He de-emphasized Talmudic scholarship in favor of devotional intensity. After his death the Hasidic movement became more formally organized as a closed society around a charismatic leader called a tzaddik (literally, “righteous one”). As the community grew, subgroups developed and carried the spirit of the tradition abroad, most notably to Israel and New York. The Chabad branch moved more toward scholarship and education while other groups stayed focused on emotional involvement in devotion. Hasidic groups have often been “excommunicated,” even though none have formally broken away.


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