Chassidism That Has Changed the Jewry

The emergence of Chassidism (hasid means pious in Hebrew) should be considered one of the key developments in the history of Eastern European Jews in the 18th century, as this inner movement of the Ashkenazim has profoundly and irreversibly changed the traditional life of Jews in Eastern Europe.

A step towards humans

The name of the Chassidism is related to Israel ben Eliezer (1700–1760), the legendary founder of the movement who lived in Podolia (he is also known as Baal Shem Tov (Hebrew for master of the good name) or by his acronym, Besht). He started preaching in 1730s and soon became famous, his first followers gathering around him. Chassids, who treasured mystical ideals and based their views on Kabbalah (the mediaeval Jewish mysticism), criticised asceticism that was deep rooted in Judaism, stood for individual responsibility for every action and started changing the sequence and form of religious rituals. As the movement was gaining popularity, it became an object of criticism for prominent figures of the orthodox rabbinic Judaism (Chassids used to call them Mitnageds, meaning opponents). Meanwhile, the most orthodox part of Jews considered Chassidism a heresy. They denounced Chassids for insufficient concentration on the studies of the Talmud, for disregard of the theological elite and disavowal of the church law, for changes in liturgy (for instance, Chassids, differently from Orthodox Litvaks, attach phylacteries (Hebrew: tefillins) to the left hand), and for moral decline. The views of Chassids and Mitnageds were particularly different as far as the studies of the Torah were concerned. The former tended to underline the importance of prayer, while the latter considered the studies of the holy texts the utmost means of praising god.

In social aspects, Chassids were turning their attention away from well-educated religious authorities and pundits of holy books who devote all of their mind and time to the studies of the Torah to ordinary Jews immersed in their daily chores.

Chassidism made the boundary between the sacred and the mundane transparent, while the formal serving to God was downgraded to the level lower than that of serving to humans and being human.

Attempts to choke up the new current

Traditional Jewish communities considered the views and behaviour of Chassids as a threat to themselves and to their religious ideals. In 1772, after all other measures of influence against the new movement have been tried, the followers of Chassidism were twice – in Vilnius and in Brody – separated from the Jewish society by imposing a cherem on them. This marked the apogee of the anti-Chassid activity by orthodox rabbis with Elijah, the Gaon of Vilnius, taking active part in it. Chassids have been dissociated from Judaism and contacts with them in everyday environment have been restricted. It is said that Elijah the Gaon execrated Chassids to such an extent that he, surrounded by followers in the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, read in 1781 a letter condemning Chassids and addressed to Jews in the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth, Austria, Russia and Hungary. It was under his instruction that the first Chassid book, Toldot Jakob Josef (Hebrew: Jacob Joseph’s Book) was publicly burned in the courtyard of that synagogue in 1782. At the end of the 18th century, in the atmosphere of partitions of the PLC, the situation inside the Jewish community became extremely complicated with Chassids and Mitnageds starting to put fingers on each other before the authorities of the Russian Empire in order to blame the opposite side with all kinds of misdeeds, true and imagined.

Even though Mitnageds proved quite radical in their actions, they failed to stop or even slow the spread of the movement which turned into a massive phenomenon as soon as in the early 19th century.

Chassids constitute a dominating group in today’s Judaism.

Vilnius, the bastion of orthodoxy

The new movement was most active in Podolia and Volhynia in the early stage and developed in the background of the three partitions of the PLC. It is seen as a distinctive phenomenon, because even swiftly changing geopolitical situation and redrawn state borders were unable to stop it from spreading. Chassidism was quickly gaining popularity in Russian and Austrian empires as well as in Poland and the GDL after the first partition of the PLC.

In the context of history of the GDL and Lithuanian Jews, Chassidism is associated with a one more outstanding phenomenon, the consolidation of Vilnius as the centre of the Orthodox Judaism.

Speaking of Vilnius as of the citadel of the orthodox rabbinic Judaism, it is common to assume that the expansion of Chassidism stopped at Vilnius because the city was a home to the Jews and their religious authority who were strictly anti-Chassid. It is thought that intense anti-movement actions prevented it from spreading from today’s Belarus where groups of Chassids were particularly active, especially in the eastern part of the territory, around Vitebsk, Mogilev, and Minsk. The theory says that the majority of ethnic Lithuania remained orthodox and traditional as far as the Jewish community is concerned, which appeared to be strong enough to stand against new and seemingly unacceptable influences. It is true that the Orthodox Judaism was a dominating trend, but Chassidism, although it had very few followers in the beginning (the movement’s stronger centres were Lyubavichi in present-day Belarus, Karlin and Stolin in present-day Poland), was gradually attracting more supporters, while in many towns and cities two communities – Chassids and Mitnageds – eventually emerged, each with its own synagogue. Even in the Vilnius of the early 19th century, several years after the death of the Gaon of Vilnius, Chassids were able to take, although temporarily, the main official posts in the kahal of that community.

The formation of the Litvak Judaism

In the context of history of Jews of the GDL, the Chassidism was a multifaceted phenomenon. Jews split into two groups, Chassids and Mitnageds, after the opposition to the movement gained strength with many Jews facing changes in their lifestyle and attitudes to religion. At the same time the orthodox Litvak Judaism, a phenomenon of the Jewish culture in Lithuania, was taking shape. The reaction towards Chassidism within the orthodox elites was also prompting positive changes. Chaim of Volozhin (1749–1821), the disciple of Gaon of Vilnius, has formulated a new concept of Torah studies thus reviving the understanding of studies of religious texts as the most important activity that determines personal relationship with faith and God. Those ideas were actively propagated in the yeshiva he established in Volozhin in 1802, the institution meant to reduce the impact of Chassidism and to form the intellectual and authoritative rabbinic elite in the first place. The modern historiography considers the movement as the product of the Ashkenazi environment which, on the one hand, has rejected messianic groups (such as Sabbatianism and Frankism) and, on the other hand, did not agree with the Haskalah, or the Jewish Enlightenment, that was promising no less radical changes to the Jewish society.

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė