Overview: Hasidic Judaism
Hasidic Judaism found its roots in Eastern Europe in the mid-18th century, at a time when Jewish people were experiencing persecution in the Polish kingdom. Seen as a radical movement, a challenge to the tradition of scholarship and the rejection of worldly pleasures of the Jewish elite, early Hasidism emphasized mysticism, emotion, faith and joy. Prayer, song and dance were parts of worship.
The movement was initially led by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known more commonly as the Baal Shem Tov, or Besht. The Baal Shem Tov, which in Hebrew means "Master of the Good Name," won widespread support among all levels of Jewish society for his ideas of inclusion through invocation of stories, folklore, sermons and fables.
"The Hasidic movement was initially a populist movement," says Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University. "It realized that the vast majority of Jewish men and women did not have the financial means or the leisure to perform text study. But Hasidic Judaism said there were other equally valid ways of drawing closer to God besides text study. One way was through the joyous worship of God."
The practice of Hasidism today looks different from when it was founded, though many of the principles of community, deep spiritualization, music and lifestyle remain the same.
"The idea of joyous prayer, singing, dancing and spiritual feelings became, within Hasidic Judaism, an alternate route to Jewish excellence," Fishman says.
Modern Hasidic Judaism has broken up into dozens of movements, each led by a central figure, or rebbe, who serves as both a spiritual and political leader. Hasidic movements are located around the world, with the Lubavitchers, in Crown Heights, N.Y., among the most prominent.
The tenets of Orthodox Judaism play a strong role in Hasidism, as religious observance, rituals and the Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, are centerpieces of Hasidic culture. Hasidic Jews believe in following the literal word of God and the 613 commandments as found in the Torah as closely as possible.
Hasidic life focuses on cultural institutions, including the school, prayer house, ritual bathhouse and the study house, and dress is traditional, with men wearing long black coats and beards while women wear scarves and modest clothing.
Everyday life is deeply religious, and Hasidic Jews engage in ongoing study and regular prayer. Hasidic Jews believe in the presence of God in all things, so almost every action throughout the day is accompanied by a prayer, including such actions as washing one's hands and eating.
Hasidism places emphasis on the intent of the prayer, as mood and feeling are central to the religious experience. As such, Hasidic worship frequently involves music and dance in a celebratory and joyous mood.
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