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Chasidism

[from Hebrew, chasid = pious] - A religious movement begun in the eighteenth century whose aim was a Jewish religious renewal. It originated in the region of Podole, and was influenced by mysticism (whose main center was the city of Safed in Galilee) and Polish-Jewish folk traditions, as well as some elements of Slavic folk culture. Chasidism's founder and first leader was Baal Shem Tov of Miedzyboz. Chasidism did not constitute a uniform doctrine, however, and the teachings and practices of the various tzaddikim differed. Compared to Orthodox Judaism (Mitnagdim), Chasidism had a strong emotional element; pantheistic tendencies and ecstatic practices are also important to the movement, and are apparent in Chasidic prayers, song and dance. Chasidism also rejected institutionalized forms of religion (especially in the movement's early days), and emphasized spontaneity, shaping a new folk faith based on the authority of the tzaddikim.

The various Chasidic groups share the following in common: the institution of the tzaddik, an ecstatic religiosity, and the blurring of borders between the sacred and profane in everyday life. This was based on a belief that the world is penetrated by "holy sparks" [Hebrew, nitsotsot] of divine substance, and that man's purpose, especially the Jews', was to liberate those sparks from the shell of evil so that they might be reunited with their source. God should be worshipped with joy; in order to be joyful, however, everyday needs must be met, and temptations overcome. Activities such as eating or working, though related to the material world, serve God, if they are carried out with the proper attitude [Hebrew, kavana], with fear and love. This same condition held for pious deeds and the fulfillment of religious laws (mitzvah). Prayer does not reach God if not said with enthusiasm [Hebrew, hitlahavut], which in Chasidic rituals is expressed with energetic movements of the entire body, as well as clapping and shouting during services. The mission entrusted to Jews, the liberation of the "holy sparks", was to hasten the coming of the Messiah, the ultimate goal of the Earth's history.
After heated debate with the Mitnagdim in the mid-nineteenth century, the Chasidim established loose communities, centered on various tzaddikim, and Chasidic and Orthodox customs began resembling each other. Chasidism put more and more emphasis on studying the Scriptures (which at first had been the domain of the Mitnagdim), and Orthodoxy accepted some elements of Chasidism. In nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chasidic groups were active in many towns and villages in Galicia, the Kingdom of Poland, Podole and Wolyn (Volhynia), as well as in Hungary and Romania; in Lithuania there were few such centers, such as those in Karlin and Lady. In Western Europe, Chasidism did not wield much influence, particularly in light of the successes of Reformed Judaism and emancipation. Currently, the largest Chasidic communities are found in the United States and Israel.
(A.C./CM)

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