Zvhil - Mezbuz Beis Medrash  זוועהיל - מעזבוז בית מדרש
Congregation Bnai Jacob of Boston and Newton 
מבצר התורה והחסידות שיסודו והנהגתו ע"י אדמו"רי בית זוועהיל  מעזבוז זי"ע ונושא את שמם הקדוש
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From The Rebbe

Reprinted from:
[The Jewish Advocate]
Established 1902
April 8-14, 1994 Boston, Mass.


Chasidic Jewry: Defying Stereotypes

Everybody has seen Chasidic Jews, those men with the long beards, dark suits and braided hair hanging down from their temples. By most Jews, Chasidim are regarded as something of an enigma --ultra-orthodox, deep thinkers who have little use for the less strict forms of the religion, zealots who are interested in little else but religion.

In reality, that stereotype could not be farther from the truth.


Founded in 1700s

The BeShT, as the Baal Shem Tov is known in religious circles, was born in Poland in the 1700's, during a time when Eastern Europe was aggravated by war and poverty. He quickly became a religious leader and developed a following, which grew quickly. His religious philosophy, of great appeal to the masses, was simple, according to the history books.

First, the Baal Shem Tov taught that since G-d was everywhere and in all things, he could be served through all things, even through the pleasures of life. The Baal Shem Tov taught that G-d should be served with joy; every moment of life, even normal living, can be filled with joy, which itself is a service to G-d.

Second, the Baal Shem Tov taught the principle of Dveikus, which means communion with, or clinging to, G-d. In other words, deep, meditative prayer. Chasidism placed a greater emphasis than before on movement during prayer and song, (including Nigunnim, or wordless chants or tunes).

The Baal Shem Tov placed a strong emphasis on Jewish mysticism and drew heavily from the Kaballah. The rabbis, the scholars of the movement, came to be known as Tzaddikim, whose task it was to teach people to worship, to pass on the knowledge contained in the Torah for nothing more than its own sake. The Tzaddik, the Rebbe, was considered, and still is considered, to have inherited a "great and holy" soul from his ancestors.

The Chasidic rabbi, or rebbe, in contrast to other scholars and rabbis who tended to remain more aloof from their congregants, embraced his followers. The approach was one of inclusion, not exclusion. The Tzaddik preached with warmth and feeling, and storytelling was a major feature.

As the movement grew, the Baal Shem Tov's influence spread. Eventually, the Baal Shem Tov became known as something of a healer, and he traveled throughout Eastern Europe, in the words of one history book, "spreading cures and his message."

The early descendants and disciples of the Baal Shem Tov moved from the BeShT's home in Mezbuz to other areas of Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland, becoming known as the Rebbe of that town (e.g., Tchernobl, Satmar, Lubavitch, and others) and beginning the Chasidic family dynasties and courts, many of which remain to this day. Some of these dynasties started with disciples of the Baal Shem Tov who disseminated his teachings, while other Chasidic dynasties originated with the actual descendants of the Baal Shem Tov who carried on after his death.

But the Baal Shem Tov's teachings were not welcomed by all. Those who apposed the movement were known as the Misnagdim (literally, opponents). The Misnagdim opposed what they saw as laxity and innovation in the manner and atmosphere of worship and ritual. They also looked askance at the "ignorant" masses who blindly followed their rebbe, to whom they looked for all guidance and advice.

The Baal Shem Tov died about 1760, but the Chasidic movement, because of its appeal to the masses continued to grow. Why? Perhaps because the Chasidic philosophy was significantly less ritualistic than other branches of Judaism. There was a greater focus on feeling, warmth and inclusion.

For example, in reaction to formal religious practice where every detail of the law might be fulfilled in action while thought was elsewhere, the Baal Shem Tov taught that along with outward appearance, there was a necessity of Kavonoh - concentration, intent or inner devotion - which must be a part of every action and every Mitzvah.

In short, the Baal Shem Tov taught that a deep-seeded belief in G-d, and deep feelings, should be as important as strict adherence to ritual. 


Traditions still exist

Today, Chasidism is still a significant Jewish movement, and it still retains its vitality. People of all kinds and backgrounds - educated and uneducated, observant and non- or newly-observant, professionals and laborers - have been attracted to the Chasidic way.

Its traditions have evolved - some adherents to the movement grow long, braided sideburns and wear the traditional long, black coat while others are clean-shaven and dress in a contemporary fashion - but are still closely tied to the past. And those traditions sometimes differ significantly from other Jewish groups, including the Orthodox movement.

For example, Chasidic Jews believe that death results in the soul reaching a higher level. They mourn the death of a loved one but they welcome the yahrzeit with joy.

The Chasidic shul also differs significantly from the "ordinary" synagogue. The Chasidic Jew didn't simply come to his synagogue to pray. It was a home, a Shtibl, a place where he found satisfaction both spiritually and physically, where he shook off the problems of the outside world and focused on becoming a part of the rebbe, the Tzaddik, on whom he relied and whose truth was never questioned or doubted.

The Chasidic synagogue evolved into something more than a holy place. It was a place to rejoice with singing and dancing and joy. But above all the Chasidic synagogue was a reflection of the rebbe. It was his home and he welcomed everyone.

Chasidism grew in the late 1700's because of its inclusiveness, scholars have written. It still exists today, they say, because it holds tradition dear and because of its warm and inviting atmosphere. Its beliefs and philosophies are passed on from generation to generation.

 

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