What Is German Hasidism?

Hasidism, also written Chasidism, (from Hebrew hasid, pious man), a Jewish religious movement of the 12th-13th centuries in Germany which combined austerity with overtones of mysticism. Hasidism is a subgroup of Haredi ( ultra-orthodox) Judaism, notable for its religious and social conservatism, as well as social isolation. Its members closely follow both Orthodox Jewish practices–with the movements unique emphasis–and Eastern European Jewish traditions.

Hasidism had already grown from a minor sect into the mainline denomination of Judaism by the first third of the nineteenth century, comprising most of the Jews in Ukraine, Galicia, and Central Poland, and major Jewish communities in Belarus, Lithuania, and Hungary. Unlike Judaism in German lands, Hasidism did not develop under the Christian glare, and had no need to be apologetic about its positions. From the middle of the 19th century, the spreading Jewish Enlightenment and secularization stopped Hasidism from growing in the Jewish population.

In eighteenth-century Germany, the Haskalah movement argued for modernization, introducing the modern denominations and institutions of secular Jewish culture. The founding era of Hasidism coincided with the emergence of a number of religious revival movements around the world, including the First Great Awakening in New England, Pietism in Germany, Wahhabism in Arabia, and Russian Old Believers, who opposed established churches. The fact that all parts of the mainstream Jewish community, including Misnagdim, accepted Hasidisms existence and recognized Hasidism as a religious movement, reflecting legal, though differing, behavioral and religious lifestyle norms, contributed to the continued expansion of Hasidism. The acceptance of Hasidism within the majority of East European Jewish communities, as well as its new status as a mass, multigenerational movement, led to the establishment of institutionalized societal mechanisms.

Hasidism was therefore not just a religious and social movement, but a COMPETITOR with the other religious and social movements which were shaking Eastern European Jewry during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This Kabbalistic conception is also not exclusive to Hasidism, appearing often in other Jewish groups. In the popular discourse, at least, Hasid came to refer to those who followed the movements religious master. According to Moshe Yiddi, the Hasidic doctrine may be interpreted as a new setting for older texts, including medieval philosophies of Castile and the kabbalist literature of the 13th century, the mystic works of Rabbi Loh of Prague (1525-1609) (Maharaleh), and Renaissance kabbalah. Hasidism may not be understood as reacting or responding but as synthesizing various mystical elements and paradigms that were present in earlier types of Jewish mysticism.

But as Shaul Magids fascinating new book Hasidism Incarnate shows, the deep religious structures of [Christianity and Judaism as a unique tradition] may not always be as different as this first glance might suggest. Hasidism Incarnate contends that most contemporary Western Judaism developed as a reaction against Christianity, and in defense of Judaism as a unique tradition. Shaul Magid contends that Hasidic movements in Eastern Europe represent an alternative to modernity, one that opens up a new window into Jewish theological history. Typically Polish, hasidic branches like the Ger, or Alexander, that favored the marriage of Hasidic piety with the tradition of deeper political participation in Jewish communal affairs, nevertheless attracted thousands of followers and admirers, but even this success was not able to stop the wave of secularization, socialism, and Zionism, including Religious Zionism, which was washing over a great many Jewish young people throughout Eastern Europe.

The social and ideological underpinnings from which leaders of both the Hasidism and opposition to Hasidism emerged were the circles of Pietists and Kabbalists known as the Hasidim. Tradition attributes authorship of Sefer Hasidim to Judah the Pious (d. 1217), one of the main figures associated with the circle or movement of German-Jewish pietists (Haside Ashkenaz), which was marked by its distinctive mix of ethical and mystical concerns. The circle or movement of German-Jewish pietists (Haside Ashkenaz), which was marked by its distinctive mix of ethical and mystical concerns. Judah is remembered as the founder of Ashkenazi Hasidism, the school of mystical thought which flourished in the Rhineland during the 13th century–not to be confused with the Hasidism which developed during the 13th century–not to be confused with Hasidism which developed during the 13th century. From books associated with him, we know much about the religious philosophies of German Hasidism, or pietism; what is unclear is just how big the community of disciples who followed its guidelines.

Rabbi Elijah of Vilnius, one of the greatest authorities of this generation, a hasidi and kabbalist in an older style, was deeply suspicious of the emphasis of Hasidism on mysticism, as opposed to the secular study of the Talmud, threats to the establishment of communal authority, similarities with the Sabbatean movement, and other details, which Rabbi Elijah of Vilnius considered to be an infraction. The original Hebrew is given in bold, and Yiddish is given in Roman lettering. The differences between Hasidic and standard Yiddish versions are due to dialectal variations.

The distinction between Yiddish use and Pennsylvania Dutch among the Hasidim and the Amish is that Yiddish is used as a medium of instruction at Hasidic parochial schools. In teaching religious subjects, the main emphasis of the Hasidic boys education, pupils learn holy texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, but they discuss their contents in Yiddish. Although Yiddish continues to be spoken today by non-Hasidic Jews, many of whom self-identify as Yiddishists, strong advocates for Yiddish language and culture, the Hasidim greatly outnumber these more secular speakers.

One might, as with some Orthodox kabbalists, fake it has not happened, try to return qabbalah from the marketplace into the privacy of mystical, semi-monastic cells, o/and here is the path taken by Hasidim transform the doctrines of the Kabbalah, using them to inspire a revitalization movement meant for the Jewish people in general.

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