Monday, December 18, 2006

"What Is Chassidus?"

(Picture courtesy of Pinchas)

Schneur Zalman commenting on A New Generation Of Chassidim:

I tend to agree with your stand. But frankly I do not know what Chassidus is. I do not like being a cynic, but what is the Derech HaBesht? What is Chassidus? What makes it unique? Does it have a different philosophy of Halacha?

Because I do not know even after years of reading about learning Chassidus and talking to adherents, I am not qualified to comment. In the U.S. most of what is called Chassidus should much more properly be labeled the derech of the Chasam Sofer that is a conservative reactionary religious stance ignoring reality and mitzvoth shel ben adam lechavero. Satmar, Pupa, are Chassidic? But even the other groups are essentially conservative religious sects devoid of the mystic of the Shivisi Hashem...

Chabad stresses outreach and Messianic belief, what's unique about this? Where is the Chabad in Lubavitch? How many shluchim can teach proper Chabad prayer? How many care? The Divrei Chaim's answer to my question was lernen, so in that case the Gra was a Beshtian Chasid too. I just read a wonderful book about Reb Yankele of Husyatin by R. Yehuda Brandes. There I found some definitions of what true Chassidus was. Its one of the best books I have ever read about REAL Chassidus. It should be translated for the US reader. But the key word is WAS. All Chassidic groups except for 2-3 are basically in the path of the Chasam Sofer not the path of the Besht. Perhaps Breslov offers that derech, but even in former years shanim ketikunnom, the vast majority of rebbes were not excited by Breslov either. But that proves nothing, maybe Breslov does have the Toras HaBesht? I have broken bread with groups of Satmar, Bobover, Belzer, etc. and many times they ask me a Modern Orthodox guy to tell them what Chassidus is, they simply do not know, and I agree with them - what is Chassidus?


At December 18, 2006 at 7:01:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd comment that there're groups that TRY to teach derech haBaalshemtov, and there're groups that don't even try (majority of what's called chassidim). Those who try are so small that they're not even groups - they're more individuals with some followers. Of such people that I know are for example R' Yitzchak Ginsburgh ( and R' Ariel Bar Tzaddok ( - although his derech is sefardi kaballah, he does touch on the BaalShemTov a bit, and when he does - it's really amazing stuff). Anyone knows of someone else? Please share! Mashiach told the BaalShemTov that he'll come when all of us will be like the BaalShemTov.

At December 18, 2006 at 7:20:00 AM EST, Blogger yitz said...

Mashiach told the BaalShemTov that he'll come when all of us will be like the BaalShemTov.
Moshe, where did you get that from -- what source? I remember reading that in a letter to R. Gershon Kittover, the Baal Shem's brother-in-law, Moshiach told the BST that he will come when "his wellsprings overflow outward."

The question itself begs an answer, although I don't know if this is the proper forum for it. I would say the Sefarim of the Piaseczno Rebbe [Chovos HaTalmidim, Hachsharas Avreichim, etc.] are a good place to start. But we do have to realize that Toras HaBaal Shem took on many forms, from the times of the Talmidei HaMaggid and afterwards.

At December 18, 2006 at 7:44:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yitz, after "lichsheyafutzu mainosecha chutza" the letter continues: "and they also shall be able to perform unifications and elevations as you" reffering apperently to all of us! We gotta find rebbes who'll teach us how to properly do that!
Why not use this forum to share useful information on chasiddus?
By the way, I live in your shul's building:)

At December 18, 2006 at 8:24:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I agree with part of this post. the Satmar Rebbe even said "the way of the Ba'al Shem-Tov is forgotten".

However, I must strongly disagree with your negative characterization of the Chasam Sofer z"l, who was a giant in Torah scholarship and a great builder of the kehilos of central Europe, which may have otherwise disintegrated as many western communities did under the maskilim and reformers, or those who follow his derech today; who although they may not be of your derech are in no violation or alleged perversion of halachah or other aspects of Torah.

At December 18, 2006 at 1:29:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

let's phrase the question a little differently:
How can Chasidut inform Jews, ie. what can it add to the jewish experience?

It emphasizes the importance of kavanah in mitzvah performance.

It emphasizes the goal of nurturing a connection and dialog with God, generally.

It emphasizes the importance of prayer specifically.

It emphasizes that Torah learning leads to deeper prayer.

It introduces Kabbalah into the daily life of the Jew.

More specifically it invests mitzvah observance with the deeper levels of meaning as found in remez drash and sod. (in addition to the pshat)

It generally frowns on living by rote.

It often centralizes the role of a rav/tzaddik/mashpia in a Jew's avodah.

It also puts ahavat yisrael (and identifying with the klal) at the forefront of Jewish observance.

personally, i think of Kabbalah as the underlying science of the world, and Chasidut as the Jewish answer to post-modernism.

one more elucidation:
just as there are 5 levels of the soul, the highest completely uniting all the rest, so too, are there 5 levels of the world, the highest a complete unification of all the lower, similarly these 5 levels are reflected and represented in Torah as well: pshat, remez, drash, sod, and Chasidut--the level that ties the lower levels together and completes them.

I also think that Chasidut has more to offer mainstream judaism, especially those who study secular studies and are involved in a scientific and intellectual world because it adds so much to a person's perspective--so many new points of view, a lot of awareness of the things society takes for granted.
read the sources, don't look to chasidim of the present day. read the sources, develop questions and then go and meet with the (present day) rebbes and ask those questions.

tanya is necesary imho.
all of the rest are also great, some of the more popular:
netivot shalom
sfat emet
noam elimelech
aish kodesh
sichot haran (likkutei moharan is not necesarily a good place to start, imho)
maor eynayim

i'm sure there are lots of others i haven't had the pleasure of really getting into yet.

At December 18, 2006 at 1:33:00 PM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...


You wrote, "read the sources, don't look to chasidim of the present day. read the sources, develop questions and then go and meet with the (present day) rebbes and ask those questions."

I thought this was an excellent point. Have you learned Degel Machaneh Ephraim?

At December 18, 2006 at 8:50:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a daily reader and admirer of this blogsite, although I have rarely commented. I could not bypass, however the comment about the Chasam Sofer and his derech. True, it is conservative. I am not sure what "reactionary religious stance ignoring reality" means. I take complete exception to the statement "ignoring...mitzvos ben odom l'chavero". This cannot have been said by someone familiar with the Chasam Sofer or his derech. Re: Chasidus: Anyone knowledgable about the Chasam Sofer knows he and the Yismach Moshe had mutual admiration for each other. The same relationship existed between the Divrei Chaim of Sanz and the Chasam Sofer.
For a better understanding of the life, times, etc. of the Chasam Sofer please read the "Chut Hameshulash".
From a reader brought up in his derech.

At December 19, 2006 at 6:20:00 AM EST, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Simcha: Thank you for finally commenting. I sometimes try to present differing viewpoints such as this posting that I do not necessarily agree with in order to generate further discussion.

Avakesh: Intersting point.

At December 19, 2006 at 6:48:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It just came to me while listening to the radio (Jewish station). I heard an interview with Reb Yankel Miller, the famous (Chassidishe) badchan. And the following came to me:

To the writer who wanted to know what Chassidus IS; I say it is "Hiddur Mitzvah" and "B'Simcha". As the story goes, Chassidus came about to "enliven" a Yiddishkeit that was estranging segments of Am Yisrael, while "exclusivity" was overwhelming the other segment of Am Yisrael.

Chassidus came to infuse ALL Am Yisrael with an "active Love for Hashem". There doesn't need to be any deep lumdus analysis about it. Just look around us. What does Am Yisrael need now, beside Moshiach? They need to be "in love" with the Abishteh, just like the emotion of a little 7
month old child who sees her first Chanukah licht and says for the first time, dada, dada!

At December 19, 2006 at 7:43:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...


good observation, it's funny though, my own relationship with chassidut is so far removed from that. Being a sepharadi with whom the torah of Chassidut resonates strongly, I never felt a commonality with Chassidim more than with Judaism as a whole.

In my mind I don't even associate Chassidut with a group of people..rather with a derech of totally-immersive union of torah and avodah (and Am Yisrael).

At December 19, 2006 at 7:48:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(sorry for the double post, but i had another related thought)
I think my position is even more extreme than I previously stated: chassidut is something so personal for me that it is totally opposed to 'group belonging.'

it's mine, it's my ...precious ;)

it identifies so strongly with me, I can't imagine it could (really) be that to anyone else, and I wouldn't want to make it so. Just as my wife is kadosh to me.

it's kind of shocking to discover such strong feelings in myself that I wasn't consciously aware of before.

At December 19, 2006 at 1:21:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I respectfully reply to the fine comments here.
Firstly Chassiduth must be in poor shape if it can be defined only what it is in repsect to other derachim. Please remember there was a time when all Jews had no party labels. There were just Jews , so what did Chassiduth contribute to the Pashute Yid as my father would call him Der Shul Yid, or der Yid fun ganz yohr..
To state that in order to understand Chassidic thought , you need to study rav Kuk, Mussar , TIDE etc intensively is a bit imaginative and implies a lot of time available.If you do that when does one have the opportunity to study Chassiduth ?
I did not mean to insult the Chasam Sofer, I understand his contributions to Hungarian orthodoxy. Nevertheless his chief contribution in terms of Hashkofa were : insurlarity(including the rejection of all Jews except for those belonging to the Autonomous Orthodox community, thus this derech even rejected thousands of ngarian Shomre Tore who belonged to Status Quo communities) and rejection of much of modernity, at least that's what his supposed followers have labeled the derech of the Chasam Sofer. It certainly is not Chassiduth (and despite folklore and legends the CS was not a Chasid and hade little relatioship with the institution of Chassidiuth) and those Oberlander kehillos like Pressburg, Shiffsshule in Vienna , Debrecen , Pest etc etc were far removed from the Chassidic lifestyle in many ways.(see the comments on the Orthodox Kehillo in Grosswardain when the Vishnitzer rebbe Rabbi Israel Hager, arrived there after World War1).
In addition their shita of hisbadlus was not the policy of all Lithuanian rabbonim and neither of the Polish and Ukranian gedolim.Rememebr the Chafetz Chaim, Reb Chaim Brisker, Reb Chaim Ozer, the Netziv, Reb Yitzchiok Elchonon all rejected the shitah of the Chasam Sofer.Certainly the Chassidic rebbes in Russia and Poland rejected the shitah too.
Of course the shita is one thing ,pesonality is another.Thus the C.S, his followers and children were Zaddikim .
But again the C.S. and the dynasty were sharp fighters for frumkayt and I have only derech eretz for them.History may prove their shita saved Orthodoxy, more than Chassiduth.

At December 19, 2006 at 9:53:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After seeing this further bad-mouthing of the Chasam Sofer, and even implying that Orthodox Judaism in general is to be viewed negatively; even claiming that Chasidism is not to be considered Orthodox (in what way? and what would you suggest instead?!), I can understand the opinion of those who say that one should not use the Internet. A Simple Jew, I cannot understand why you're giving this slanderer of religious Jews an open forum here.

At December 20, 2006 at 2:28:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking back on my message maybe I over-reacted. I don't think however shneur1's attacks on the Chasam Sofer and on all of today's Chasidim are appropriate. The claim that the disciples of the Chasam Sofer and Chasisidm in general due to this are especially lacking in bein-adam-l'chaveiro (G-d forbid) really bothers me, as I live in Williamsburg and have experienced the amount of chanachas orchim they do for both within their community and outsiders who visit their shuls, even a Lubavitch friend of mine who was living here, and the amount of worthy tzedakah organizations they have founded, and the amount of yeshivos they have which bring up children into a derech of Torah u'Mitzvos.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, upon hearing one of his followers criticizing the Satmar Rebbe, said "why are you criticizing him? He doesn't depart one bit from the Shulchan Aruch!" That's the point of view we should have for all Rebbeim, and towards all Jews in particular.

At December 20, 2006 at 11:30:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Lubavitcher Rebbe zatzal in "The Essence of Chassidus," writes that Toras HaBaal Shem Tov is actually a revelation of the pnimiyus, or innermost essence of being. Thus, it applies to both the "great and small," learned and unlearned.

As far as the specific practices emphasized by the Baal Shem Tov, go, each group seems to have at least some of them: outreach, chesed, neginah, brotherhood, hisrachakus from secularism and chokhmos chitzoniyos, and even mystical contemplation (although this has, alas, fallen by the wayside in many groups with the exceptions of Breslov and maybe Toldos Aharon).

I am amazed that this question is so perplexing to most Jews today. Maybe -- and I dread to say it -- this is because Chassidus / Toras HaBaal Shem Tov has actually been played out. We are now in the very painful zone of uncertainty, waiting for the next gilui: when the one who answered the Baal Shem Tov's question "eimasai kaasi mar?" brings us all to the next level, b'rachamim!


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