King David states in Psalms (118:22): The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone of the edifice. What King David is describing resembles very closely the history of Chasidism. From the very start, when Chasidism was still in a nascent state, they were mostly rejected and despised. The whole movement was considered illegitimate, rebellious, and unsustainable. It is one of the great miracles of history that Chasidism survived at all, let alone becoming the “Cornerstone of the Edifice.”
The entire chasidic community was excommunicated, not once, but three times by the court of the great Gaon of Vilna. (It is well known that excommunication is the most severe punishment on the post-churban Jewish calendar). Fortunately, nowadays, it is not very common that a beis din, a Jewish court of law, should order excommunication. We, therefore, have no idea what it really entails. To get some idea of the severity of excommunication, it behooves us to read the description of the third excommunication proclaimed against the chasidim in 1781:
“They must leave our community with their wives and children…and they should not be given a night’s lodging; their sh’chitah is forbidden; it is forbidden to do business with them and to intermarry with them, and to assist at their burials” (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 7).
The last excommunication that was proclaimed against the chasidim was really in response to the appearance of the first chasidic book by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonndye, a devoted protégé of the holy Baal Shem Tov. The great Gaon of Vilna and his followers saw in it great dangers to the Jewish community. As a consequence, they encouraged persecution of the chasidim “ad chormah,” until destruction. The Gaon and his followers even permitted denunciation of the chasidim to the secular authorities. This led to the arrest and jailing of some of the top echelon chasidic leaders and to the burning of their works (Otzar Yisrael).
In spite of the excommunications, the denunciations to the secular authorities, the jailing of their leaders and the book burning, Chasidism strived and spread at a great rate. History repeated itself. Just as in Egypt it says, “But as they afflicted them (the Hebrews), so they multiplied,” Chasidism spread quickly into Podolia, Galicia, Lithuania, Bukovina, Besarabia, Hungary, Congress Poland, and Old Romania. One reference (Encyclopedia L’Chasidus) lists 29 cities where the Baal Shem Tov visited in person. These visits contributed greatly to the enormous popularity of Chasidism.
Incidentally, it must be noted that the chasidim did not “stretch out the second cheek.” They responded with excommunication(s) against the misnagdim on their own. The misnagdim were also denounced to the secular authorities and their books burned.
The essential difference between misnagdim and chasidim can be summarized this way: Misnagdim serve Hashem with their mind and heart with the emphasis on the mind. Chasidim serve Hashem with their heart and mind, but the emphasis is on the heart, as Chazal say “Rachmana Liba Ba’i” – Hashem demands the heart (Sanhedrin 106b). The Entziklopedia L’Toldos Gedolei Yisrael states that according to the teachings of the holy Baal Shem Tov, serving Hashem with the heart translates into: Love for Hashem, love for the Torah, love for the Jewish people, and love for Eretz Yisrael.
Chasidism places great value on the simple, ordinary Jew, in contradistinction with the favoring of the elitist scholars by the misnagdim. For this reason, the holy Baal Shem Tov introduced basic vital requirements that even any ordinary, simple Jew could fulfill: prayer with fervor and enthusiasm, immersion in a mikvah, joy, song and dance, and honest faith in Hashem. One can serve Hashem even with corporeality, like eating and working, if it is done with sincerity and devotion.
Another original creation of the holy Baal Shem Tov was that of the “Tzadik” who later on became the Rebbe or the Admor. The Tzadik makes himself available to all callers with personal, non-religious problems. The Tzadik is the address that the whole nation turns to when in distress. Anyone can turn to the Tzadik for help, at any given time.
In the Tochachah, the Rebuke Section of the Torah (Deuteronomy 28), it says clearly that the pain, suffering, and the curses listed therein came upon Israel because they did not serve Hashem “b’simchah” – with joy, gladness, and happiness.
One may wonder if the Torah says specifically that the Tochachah came upon Israel because they did not serve Hashem b’simchah, why did not generation upon generation of Torah giants recognize the importance of serving Hashem b’simchah?
We can find the answer in the Gemara (Chulin 7a). The Gemara answers, in a similar case, “Makom hinichu lo avosav l’hisgader bo” – it was left for him to distinguish himself. Similarly it was left for the holy Baal Shem Tov to have the great merit of being the initiator of serving Hashem b’simchah in practice. The important concept of serving Hashem b’simchah was reiterated by King David in Psalms 100:2 where he proclaims “Serve Hashem b’simchah.”
In spite of the excommunications, the denunciations
to the secular authorities, the jailing of their leaders and the book burning, Chasidism strived and spread at a great rate
The misnagdim found fault with the chasidim that they deviate from the Shulchan Aruch: They don’t say K’rias Sh’ma in time, they miss the time of prayer, they require everyone to put on Rabbeinu Tam t’filin. This is against the Shulchan Aruch that reserves this privilege only to individuals who are steeped in fear of Hashem. The chasidim use unsupported excuses not to say the prayer of Tachanun. (My Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l quoted a Gemara that if Tachanun is omitted, the prayer of Sh’moneh Esrei becomes ineffective.)
The chasidim believe that the Tzadik can order and Hashem will fulfill. The chasidic stress on prayer and devotion, rather than on Torah study and intellectual endeavor, has especially upset the great Gaon of Vilna. To the Gaon, Torah study and intellectual endeavors are the main paths to Hashem. This is only a small list of the grievances of the misnagdim.
At about the time of the first and second excommunication, Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and Shneur Zalman of Lyadi tried to approach the great Gaon of Vilna, but they were unsuccessful (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 7, page 1395). There is also another version of the attempt at reconciliation, quoted in the new Even Sh’siah, page 207, and in Imrei D’vash, page 190. Accordingly, the Gaon, under the influence of Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, was prepared to travel to the Maggid to discuss reconciliation. This was the signal that the chasidic leaders were waiting anxiously for a long time.
The plan unraveled, unfortunately, under very unpleasant circumstances. See the last two references for details. And the feud continued unabated. For example, the Noda BiYehudah took sides in the conflict. He altered a passage in Hosheia 14:10 from “the r’sha’im will stumble in them” to “the chasidim will stumble in them.” This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Observing the Torah landscape of previous generations, we are awed by their brilliance and erudition. Take Rashi and the Baalei HaTosafos, for example. All of Shas and all of the midrashim were open-book to them. Similarly, the sharpness and the depth of the Chachmei S’farad, Chachmei Italia, and Chachmei Ashkenaz are mindboggling. These g’dolim were steeped in Torah and Halachah. No other Torah scholars could even come close to them.
On the other hand, looking at the same countries (France, Italy, Spain, and Germany) in the last 100 years, we see total Torah wasteland. No yeshivos, no chadarim, and no Torah institutions. Very painful and gnawing questions are staring us in the face:
- What happened to all that Torah, the life’s work of their ancestors?
- Where were the descendants of Rashi and the Baalei HaTosafos?
- Where were the descendants of the Rambam, the Ramban, and Rabbeinu Gershon?
- Where were the descendants of the Rashba, the Ritva, and the other Rishonim?
The scene looked like the Jewish community has undergone a spiritual holocaust.
The holy Baal Shem Tov, in his heaven-sent wisdom, foresaw the calamity. He realized that the status quo is unsustainable, and something novel, if not drastic, had to be done to prevent further deterioration of the Torah and mitzvos that will endanger the existence of am Yisrael.
The holy Baal Shem Tov considered the exclusion of the “ameratzim,” the uneducated in Torah, from being part and parcel of am Yisroel – as the greatest obstacle to stop the slide to oblivion. After all, by excluding the ameratzim, we are disenfranchising 80-90% of Judaism.
To correct this problem, the holy Baal Shem Tov preached that the ameratzim, the “poshute Yidden,” are loved by Hashem more than the elitist scholars. Not only Torah is important for Hashem, but also prayer. And if prayer comes from a pure heart, it can accomplish more than the prayer of the lomdim, the Torah learners. Prayer, if it comes from the heart, even if it is with grammatical errors, can accomplish more than the prayer of the Torah elite (Encyclopedia L’Chasidus).
Our sages tells us that “Torah can be acquired with joy, Hashem can be approached with joy, and the final redemption will come with joy” (Tikunei Zohar, tikun 21). To further correct the problem, the holy Baal Shem Tov instituted simchah – joy, gladness, and happiness – as the prime factor in chasidic existence and the essential element of divine worship. He also abolished “sigufim” (self-affliction) as a way to serve Hashem. Sigufim cause depression and sadness, the holy Baal Shem Tov claimed. Joy of life, gladness, and happiness became the hallmark, the most brilliant star in the firmament of Chasidism.
The chasidic way of life affected also the misnagdim, and they “noshed” from it by adopting chasidic minhagim (customs and conduct). For example: When we came to Kew Gardens in 1968, there was hardly a black hat or a black suit in our shul. On Shabbos, most people, especially former Chofetz Chaim talmidim, donned light suits, and white straw hats summertime. Nowadays, we see exactly the opposite. On Shabbos, one cannot find a light suit or a white straw hat for a “r’fuah.” Incidentally, nowadays, even on weekdays, 95 percent of the people dress in black. This phenomenon is now widespread.
Even yeshivos of the misnagdim were influenced by chasidic minhagim. If one looks at pre-World War II photos of Lithuanian yeshivos, i.e. Slabodka, Mir, and Baranowitch, not a single black hat or black suit is to be found. Nowadays, one can’t find, even in the most Litvishe yeshivos, light-colored suits or hats.
The color of their attire was not the only thing that the misnagdim adopted. Less observable changes occurred: prayer with song and with more fervor, as well as the elevation of simchah to a higher level. Another observable minhag the misnagdim noshed from the chasidim is not to shave their beards and pei’os. This minhag (perhaps halachah) is now widespread among the misnagdim.
Recalling the atmosphere in post World War II Europe, it boggles the mind that survivors of the historically-unique ravages of the Holocaust, shadows and skeletal remains of humans, were able to survive, recover, continue their life, and create.
- Who was it that breathed life into these skeletons?
- Who was it that breathed hope into these human shadows?
- Who was it that nurtured them with love, devotion, and utmost friendship?
- Who healed their broken spirits? And maybe, the most important of all:
- Who restored their faith in Hashem? The answer is waiting anxiously to be disclosed:
As before, Chasidism came to the rescue: The Klausenberger Rebbe, the Weitzener Rav, and the Krasner Rav in Germany; the Vizhnitzer Rebbe and the Seret-Vizhnitzer Rebbe in Transnistria; the Bobover Rebbe in Hungary; the Bluzhever Rebbe, and many more. These were the angels of life who saved the Holocaust survivors and generation upon generation of the future. Ad ki yavo Shiloh.
Acharon, acharon chaviv. The enormous help provided by Agudath Israel to the Holocaust survivors cannot be forgotten. The Menahel of the Agudah, the Burshtiner Rebbe, HaRav Eichenstein zt”l, was very influential to provide entry papers (to the US) for the Klausenberger Rebbe, the Bobover Rebbe, and the Sigeter Rav, among many other survivors.
A great number of Holocaust survivors were attracted to the many chasidic “courts” headed by chasidic Rebbes where they found solace, warmth, and friendship. Belz, Satmar, Bobov, Ger, Lubavitch, Vizhnitz, Klausenberg, Square come to mind.
Data gathered from the recent past and from the present (the plethora of Admorim and their courts here and in Israel) indicate that the Judaic pendulum is shifting towards Chasidism. This reinforces my utmost conviction that Chasidism is the wave of the future. Consequently, if any of us meets a chasid, dressed in his regalia with shtreimel or kolpik, bekeshe or kaftan, gartel and white stockings, we should hug him and kiss him. He and his co-religionists are our salvation.
By Bezalel Fixler
Bezalel Fixler is a Holocaust survivor and a musmach of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. His articles, in Yiddish and in English, appeared in Dos Yiddishe Vort, The Morgen Jurnal, The Algemeiner Jurnal, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached by emailing Bfixler6@gmail.com.