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The Simple Man’s Rebellion:
An Introduction to Chassidism

Andrea Übelhack

[This Text in German] [Send a postcard from Jewish Praha]

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The Jewish cultural festival in Prague is named after a famous book by Georg Mordechai Langer: "The Nine Gates". The book contains Chassidic tales. Georg Langer wrote these down after he had decided once and for all for a "European" life in Prague. Prior to that he had lived with Chassidim in Galicia. His epithet, "Prague Chassid", has remained.

Chassidism originated at a time when the Jews were leaving the ghettos in western and central Europe, emancipating themselves, and assimilating themselves more and more under the influence of this explanation. That is, they were giving up their religious needs and way of life more and more, and adapting themselves to the Christian surroundings. In eastern Europe this process occurred rather slowly, since equal rights for the Jewish minority in Poland and Russia were still unthinkable. Here there were bloody pogroms, but the Jewish society in eastern Europe became involved in intra-religious conflicts.

The hope of the coming of the Messiah, who would end all suffering, was a very strong feeling among the people. Classical Judaism, the Rabbis and the learned men concentrated themselves in the answer for that to be still stricter study of the holy writings and the fulfillment of the ritual laws. That placed a big rift between the learned ones and the ordinary Jewish population.

In this political and spiritual climate the Chassidic (the religious ones) movement emerged. The founder of Chassidism was Israel ben Elieser, known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), or abbreviated as Bescht, who lived from circa 1700 until 1760. The main area of activity of Chassidism at first came not only through teaching, but also through the power of the founder’s personality. He led the movement away from asceticism, which at the time was enormously popular together with mystical theories. Instead of these, Bescht created a new leadership personality, the Tzaddik, the Righteous One, a mediator between G-d and the people, who clearly changed the predominating leadership layer.

It is easily comprehensible, that the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov would soon catch on mainly with the young people in a large area of Jewish Poland. It offered an alternative to the strict orthodox form of the classical rabbinate or of the puzzling speech of the pure theoretical Kaballah, the Jewish mysticism. The Chassidim had a positive view of life; joy, dance and song were a daily occurrence. Chassidism had already spread out over a large portion of eastern Europe by the third generation. For Jewish high holidays, special charter trains had to be arranged for in Poland, to provide transportation for the Chassidim to bring them to their Tzaddik. In the later phase, "Tzaddikism" became increasingly autocratic and less charismatic.

Historians concern themselves above all with the unusually fast tempo of the growth of Chassidism and with cause of this success. Today one does not see the reason any more for the time it took in the social message of Chassidim, but rather much more in its religious message. Chassidism opened the mystical world to every individual, the narrow connection to G-d was no more the property of a small elite group, the rabbis.

Their own needs in the area of the religious life significantly separated the Chassidim from the regular Jewish society. Above all the conflict with the rabbis was the main reason that Chassidism became a meaningful social factor in Jewish life and through which the structures of the society changed. The meaning of the rabbis became considerably smaller, the Chassidic "Rebbe" had therefore the highest inner authority. From this came the very difficult debates between the rabbis and the Chassidim, about what form Jewish life in eastern Europe had taken.

With the annihilation of eastern European Jewry during the Second World War, the physical annihilation of Chassidism was threatened. Large numbers of Chassidim succeeded in fleeing before the Nazis, and the today the big majority of them live in New York and Israel. Also in Europe there are some followers of Chassidic "rebbes" to be found. Above all the Chabad-movement is experiencing a meaningful upswing. Their headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, and altogether there are over 1000 Chabad Houses all over the world.

Georg Langer was fascinated by the world of Chassidism. He found the religious fulfillment in it at first, which the worldly life in Prague could not offer him. Though he had finally decided to leave this world, which he recognized, that also the Chassidic teachings were not flawless. Langer still wanted to make the wisdom of the Chassidic Rebbe accessible to the western European public, and therefore wrote down the history. This is the story behind the book, "The Nine Gates".

aue / haGalil onLine 18-10-2000

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