Has Hasidism has been essential to the continuation of Judaism?
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Tom Walker 13N 16th December 2009 Religious Education 'Hasidism has been essential to the continuation of Judaism' (20) I believe that Hasidism has indeed been essential to the continuation of Judaism. The Hasidic movement arose in the early eighteenth century as a result of persecution and arguably too much academic study of the Torah. Its founder, the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) was not a scholar, however. He was a simple villager who lived in the 1700's. According to Lavinia and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, "Hasidism was primarily a response to the dry intellectualism of much Talmudic study." Judaism became a much more practical religion for Jews who were previously unable to practice their faith due to persecution by Cossacks and Russians due to many of them working for the Polish nobility. Hasidism was also a lot more accessible for Jews who were less well-educated and could not read Hebrew. It was focused on the personal and spiritual aspect of worship, as Lavinia and Dan Cohn-Sherbok put it, "worship became part of the religious experience of everyday Jews."
Instead of focusing on strict observance of the 613 mitzvot, Hasidism focused on joyful observance of God's commandments. Hasidic Jews would dance and sing whilst worshipping God. This essential feature of Hasidism is called 'hitlahavut' or joy, according to Kotzer Rebbe "Joyfulness is the outcome of holiness". Hasidic Jews came to the conclusion that if one cannot be joyous in their keeping of the mitzvot then there's no point to keeping them. Following a description of a serious, very strict-looking Hasidic Jew, Rabbi Lionel Blue says "But wait till you see him in the synagogue, dancing and waving the scroll!" All these ideas involved less focus on scholarly study and more on developing a Hasidic Jew's relationship with God even through everyday mundane tasks. This is called 'kedusha' or 'knowing God in all your ways'. They do this through practicing kavannah where a Jew concentrates on God. There is an old Hasidic tale which tells of a Jew who went to visit an important religious man and learned the importance of kavannah by watching him do the dishes.
He was a working-class man it could be argued that his interpretations should not really be taken into consideration as he was no scholar. Even though many of his teachings had been around for some time (in the Zohar) before he began his own movement, I do believe he stood as an inspirational figure that revolutionized the Jewish faith and probably served to breathe new life into Judaism after many years of crushing persecution. Hasidism has strong links to Kabbalistic Judaism which is often thought of as more of a cult today. However traditionally it could be reasonably argued that it was a very spiritual movement; in modern day Judaism it is not even really considered as Judaism. This is due in part for its extortionate prices on religious texts and religious items, an obvious cash-in, made evident by its use of celebrities such as Madonna as a marketing ploy. However considering that modern day Hasidism also very different than when it first began, this argument might be considered invalid. Having considered these points of view, I still believe Hasidism was essential for the continuation of Judaism simply because it breathed new life into the religion at a very difficult point in Jewish history.
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