Hasidism, from the Hebrew word hasid, meaning “pious”; a movement within JUDAISM. Hasidism began in the 18th century as a rejection of a rigid legalism and intellectualism in favor of an emotional, heartfelt religion. Today it is most often thought of as an ultraconservative form of Judaism that clings tightly to the ways of the past.

Hasidism began with a wandering healer and teacher in eastern Europe known as the BAAL SHEM TOV, the “Master of the Good Name” (c. 1700–60). Like most wandering healers and teachers at the time, he addressed not the elite of the community but the poor and the uneducated. His teachings emphasized a kind of mystical communion with GOD that could and should be found in any sphere of life.When the Baal Shem Tov died, his mantle was taken up by his followers, especially Dov Ber (d. 1772). Dov Ber turned his house into a court, similar to those of the minor nobility. People would fl ock to hear him hold court, that is, to preach and teach. His disciples formed courts or “houses” of their own. Each of them became the center of a community. The leadership of the communities soon became hereditary. Fathers would pass it down to their sons or occasionally their sons-inlaw. Thus, a distinctive feature of Hasidism was born: the special relationship of the community to its leader.

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The Hasidic leader is known as a tzaddik, a “righteous one.” As Hasidic Jews see it, a tzaddik has no SIN of his own. Instead, he takes upon himself the EVIL done by his community and transforms it into good. Thus, the tzaddik stands between the community and God. He is the sole authority in the community over private as well as public matters. It is inspiring just to be in his presence.
Hasidic teachings and practices vary from one community to another. Hasidism arose, however, as a movement that played down the form of Judaism customary in eastern Europe at the time. This form emphasized studying TORAH and TALMUD and meticulously acting on what one had studied, God’s instructions. In Hasidism, by contrast, one strove to experience an intimate communion with God. This attitude still characterizes most Hasidic groups.

During the 20th century, many Hasidic communities moved from eastern Europe to either America or Israel. In 1941 the most infl uential Hasidic community set up its headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. It is often called the Lubavitch community, after the town in Belarus (an independent nation formerly in the Soviet Union) where it was fi rst located. Its technical name is Habad Hasidism. The Lubavitch community emphasizes study more than most Hasidic communities do. It has also taken a leading role in promoting Jewish traditionalism. But in doing so, it has not hesitated to make use of the most modern technology. From 1950 until his death in 1994 Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn led the Lubavitch community. At the time of his death his followers were speculating that he might be the promised MESSIAH.

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Hasidism has consistently opposed changing the Jewish way of life to fit Gentile ways. In particular, Hasidic Jews have been very critical of Reform Judaism. They have also opposed ZIONISM. They have seen this latter movement, which led to the founding of the state of Israel, as an attempt to force God to usher in the Messianic age. Some Hasidic Jews have gone so far as to claim that the HOLOCAUST was God’s punishment for the sins of Reform Judaism and Zionism.