Imagining A Jew

The Chasidim & The Mitnagedim

The Chasidic traditions begin to assert themselves in the early 19th century, in part because of the Gra (see below), who strongly opposed them but was entirely powerless to overcome them. The chasidic traditions of Breslev and Gur remain current. Kotzk informed Gur and the Kotzker’s sayings are collected, but there is no distinct Kotzker dynasty as such today.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. He was a tzadiq while still a youth. He was among the true mystics of the Hasidim; his Hasidic stories are classics which tell simple morals to simple folk but also teach spiritual truths to mystical adepts. He stressed the power of a tzadiq.

The power of a tzadiq is central to his teachings – a tzadiq restores lost souls, sets people on the right path of prayer, study or spirituality, and sets an example of what religious life is about. Rebbe Nahman famously announced “Every tzadiq needs an opponent”, and set out to be the official opposition to other rebbes. Some appreciated this gesture, others became ill-disposed to him. Bresolv is one of perhaps four Hasidic traditions of the 2nd generation (early 19th century) still around. The majority of modern Hasidic movements date from the 3rd generation (mid 19th century).

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was din if the Baal Shem Tov was chesed. Baal Shem Tov had a plebian worldview and sought anyone who sought him. Many are the stories about his involvement with the poorest Jewish peasants. The Kotzker sought an elite and was the precursor to wealthy and dynastic rebbes. The Baal Shem Tov’s musar was gentle, joyful, ecstatic. The Kotzker was a harsh and demanding mohi’akh.

When his hazan’s house burned down he said “You lingered to long on the retributions in the Mahzor”, meaning he should have kept the Yom Kippur service shorter. Once he came upon two Hasidim in his bes medrish arguing about how the yetzer hara chased them. He said “Don’t worry about the yetzer hara chasing you.” They thought this a compliment until he continued “The yetzer need not chase you – you’re too busy chasing it!” The Kotzker’s path demanded what was unattainable. He told his hasidim to dance with increased fervour on Simhat Torah but nothing they did satisfied him. Finally he yelled “Dance! Dance as if you were dancing on the precipice!”

Rabbi Eliahu Ben Shlomo Zalman of Vilna

Rabbi Eliahu Ben Shlomo Zalman of Vilna, (also called Ha’Gra: The Gaon Rebbe Eliahu) was Lithuania’s unchallenged Rabbinic authority of the eighteenth-century. Today he is the spiritual forefather for much of the non-Chasidic yeshiva world. He was a Talmud and Qabbala master, and was educated also in astronomy, mathematics and music. His system of Talmudic study focused on trying to find the true meaning intended by the sages in the text. The Gra was fiercly opposed to the Hasidim.. He carefully studied reports that the Hasidim were lax in halakha and subsituted emotion for intellect in their Torah studies.

These reports were vigorously denied by the Hasidim; Gra wavered until he learned that the Hasidim had substituted the nusach tefila common in Ashkenaz for the nusah used by the mystics in Israel. He thereafter authorised their excommunication.

Sfat Emet

Sfat Emet, Rebbe Yehudah Leib Alter was the 2nd Rebbe of the Gerer Hasidim. R. Yehuda became rebbe reluctantly. He served as Av Bet Din of the community but studied also in Kotzk to honour the advice of his grandfather, the first Rebbe of Ger, who said “Buy truth, never sell it”.

The Sfat Emet was an ascetic who slept and ate little. He came to regret his misuse of food, which caused physical problems in his middle age. The Sfat Emet waited almost five years before becoming rebbe. His major work, Sfat Emet, is a compilation of midrash, agada, and Hasidic insights on Torah. Sfat Emet is a major contribution of chasidut to general Jewish scholarship.

We’ll look at “normative” Orthodox approaches in the next section.