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The Chassidic movement started in the 1700's (Common Era) in Eastern Europe in response to a void felt by many average observant Jews of the day. The founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (referred to as the "Besht," an acronym of his name) was a great scholar and mystic, devoted to both the revealed, outer aspect, and hidden, inner aspect of Torah. He and his followers, without veering from a commitment to Torah, created a way of Jewish life that emphasized the ability of all Jews to grow closer to G-d via everything that we do, say, and think. In contrast to the somewhat intellectual style of the mainstream Jewish leaders of his day and their emphasis on the primacy of Torah study, the Besht emphasized a constant focus on attachment to G-d and Torah no matter what one is involved with.
After the Besht died in 1760, the leadership of the second generation of the movement passed to Dov Baer of Mezhirech. From his court students went forth who were successful in attracting many scholars to Chassidism and sending them to the master at Mezhirech to absorb his teaching. By the 1830s the main surge of the spread of Chassidism was over. By this time, it had become the way of life of the majority of Jews in the Ukraine, Galicia, and central Poland, and had sizable groups of followers in Belorussia-Lithuania and Hungary. With the great waves of emigration to the West from 1881, Chassidism was carried into Western Europe and especially to the United States.
Early on, there was a schism between the Chassidic and non-Chassidic (i.e. Misnagdim, lit. 'opponents') Jewish movements, primarily over real or imagined issues of halachic observance. The opposition was based on concern that the Chassidim were neglecting the laws regarding appropriate times for prayer, and perhaps concern about the exuberance of Chassidic worship, or a concern that it might be an offshoot of false messiahs Shabbtai Zvi or Jacob Frank. Within a generation or two the rift was closed. Since then, many Chassidic practices have influenced the Misnagdim, while the Misnagdim, in turn, moderated some of the extremes of early Chassidism. Nevertheless, the dispute between particular groups of Chassidim and Misnagdim continues to this day, especially in Israel, and occasionally on soc.culture.jewish.
In the period leading up to World War II, various chassidic sects entered the political life of modern states. However, after 1950 the expansion of Chassidism stopped. The ideas of the Enlightenment, national and socialist ideals, and the Zionist movements shook the traditional Jewish way of life. Chassidism opposed any change in the way of life and sheltered itself from new forces in Judaism.
During the Holocaust the chassidic centers of Eastern Europe were destroyed. The masses of Chassidim perished and, together with them, most of the chassidic leaders. Many who survived who survived moved to Israel or America, and established new chassidic centers. In parallel, the philosophy of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the works of writers such as Peretz helped to mold a new generation of Chassidism, which had a considerable influence on modern Jewish culture and youth. Although some sects have remained self-segregated, many sects have become part of everyday modern life. Since the 1970s, Chassidism have maintained a period of expansion and development.
Today, Chassidim are differentiated from other Orthodox Jews by their devotion to a dynastic leader (referred to as a "Rebbe"), their wearing of distinctive clothing, and a greater than average study of the inner aspects of Torah.
There are perhaps a dozen major Chassidic movements today, the best known of which (with perhaps 100,000 followers) is the Lubavitch group headquartered in Brooklyn NY. Other groups include the Bobov, Bostoner, Belzer, Gerer, Satmar, Vizhnitz, Breslov, Puppa, Bianer, Munkacz, and Rimnitz. In Israel, the major Chassidic groups after the Lubavitch group are: Gor (-Gerer), Viznitz, and Bealz (=Belzer).
Additional information may be found in the Chasidism Reading List, available at http://www.scjfaq.org/rl/joc-index.html.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>