When one reads stories of the old Chasidim, from the Baal Shem Tov through the first few generations, the impression one is left with is of a movement very different from the Chasidim of today. Specifically, Chasidim today are, across the board, associated with a level of stringency equalling if not exceeding that of other movements within Torah Judaism.

Where a Chosid of old might have considered himself to have davened Shacharis by going out into a forest for heartfelt conversation with G-d (R' Zisha, according to Buber's "Tales of the Hasidim") or sobbing into the paroches for five minutes at 2PM (told by R' Shlomo z'l about a Kotzker Chosid), this kind of behavior would be unthinkable in any Chasidic community today.

Was there a focal point at which the Chasidic movement re-aligned itself with the orthodoxy from which it originally sought to break? If Chasidus was an attempt to revive Judaism and free it from the excessive legalism and stringency that dominated Ashkenazi Jewry until then, what caused it to apparently fall in to the same trap?

Having written this question, I now want to stress that I don't think immersion in stringency and legalism is a trap. Rather, it is a legitimate expression of Judaism. I'm just trying to better understand how and why Chasidus came back around to that which it seems to have originally been striving against.

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    I disagree that it's come "back around to that which it seems to have originally been striving against." Chassidus successfully changed the non-Chassidic world as well. The non-Chassidic world is no longer the same one that Chassidus originally broke from.
    – HodofHod
    Mar 14, 2012 at 16:53
  • @HodofHod I'd love to hear you expand on this in an answer.
    – yoel
    Mar 14, 2012 at 17:08
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    yoel, I wrote something up, but it ended up being 770 words (completely unintentional) long. If you're interested, I'll post it.
    – HodofHod
    Mar 14, 2012 at 18:56
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    @ShmuelBrill and vice versa. :-D
    – HodofHod
    Mar 14, 2012 at 19:03
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    chassidus never strived against halacha, chas veshalom. if you want to learn about chassidus then you should look at actual works of chassidus and not things that martin buber wrote who wasn't even observant of the most basic tenets of Judaism.
    – Dude
    Apr 29, 2018 at 2:01

4 Answers 4


Each generation of Chassidus had a different purpose. The Baal Shem Tov connected to the simple Jew, to show him or her that just because they are not learned in Torah doesn't mean that they don't have a connection to G-d. He traveled around Europe encouraging the Jewish people and waking them up from a spiritual slumber. The Maggid of Mezritch did not travel, instead he surrounded himself with an inner circle of tzaddikim to map out a spiritual plan to revive Jewish spiritual life. If the early Chassidim were not concerned with halacha but instead with a forest meditation, why would the Maggid ask the Alter Rebbe of Chabad to compile a Shulchan Aruch? Why would Rebbe Nachman, who is one of the biggest supporters of forest meditation, write that a Jew must learn Gemara and Shulchan Aruch?

IMHO the Chassidim experienced unbelievable success. Generations later those simple Jews have decedents that are Rabbis and Talmidei HaChamim. The movement has translated and printed more literature that helps one connect to G-d than ever before in history.

Most Chassidim today do not live near forests, and while Chabad and Breslov stress meditation, the rest of the Chassidim took the route of living a strict Torah life.

Most of the "Chumrahs and Stringencies" that we have today, come from those generations; they were not made up in America or Israel.

I agree that Chassidus has changed, mostly due to a mass uprooting of the Chassidic world, with millions being burned alive and the survivors moving across the world to America or Israel. Communities merged and completely absorbed each other.

Chassidus never sought to "break away from" Orthodoxy. It sought to give the non-elite a chance to live that Torah life that was locked away by the elite. The Chassidim wanted all Jews to be learned in Hashem's Torah which the Tanya quotes as being literally the "will of Hashem" and by learning it you connect to Hashem on an unbelievable level.

I agree that the spiritual vibrancy of Chassidus of old has left the movement, but IMHO you can thank the Holocaust for part of that. While WWI and the Industrial Revolution had devastating effects on European Jewry, it did not systematically destroy entire Chassidic Courts. The result of WWII is that a Satmar Chasid now was living next to Sephardim, Polish Chassidim, Litvaks and other Jews that never before had been the case. As the Rambam says in Hilchos Deos; You are product of your environment. Chassidim were now influenced by each other and other streams in Orthodox Judaism. Now 60 years later we are seeing the results of this.

Chassidus Chabad and Chassidus Breslov took some of your concerns and transformed them into what is known today as the "kiruv" movement which seeks to bring back Jewish souls to Hashem and the Torah.

Some might disagree, but Chabad Chassidus is the foundation of the "Kiruv" Movement, which is what some might consider to be a revival of the original vision of the Baal Shem Tov.

  • This is a good answer, so maybe the second question is: does this generation need something of that "spiritual vibrancy" and how can that be reintroduced and delivered to the Jews who need it, especially those who r'l have fallen into (or grown up in) movements that are completely against our Torah?
    – yoel
    Mar 14, 2012 at 15:43
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    The printed Chassidus is what kept them alive. This was and still is not the case with other Chassidic groups who are Rebbe centered and can not survive without a physical Rebbe who gives over Oral Chassidus for that Generation. Chabad Chassidus that is printed is for all generations for all time.
    – user1292
    Mar 14, 2012 at 15:58
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    @mochinrechavim Funny you should mention that Sicha; as soon as I saw this question, I went and turned on Rabbi Paltiel's shiur on that. :-D
    – HodofHod
    Mar 14, 2012 at 16:41
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    @HodofHod It is quit a monumental Sicha as prior to it, I am not aware of any place where Chassidus is explained. Most think that Chassidus is a 5th interpretation in addition to the PARDES (simple, hint, expounded, esoteric) levels of expounding Torah. The points the Rebbe bringings in the beginning are all valid but it doesn't touch the essence of Chassidus. Modei Ani has never been the same.
    – user1292
    Mar 14, 2012 at 16:44
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    @yoel It's really fascinating. The Rebbe explains Modeh Ani first according to each of the Parde"s, then according to Chassidus. Then he explains how the Chassidic explanation illuminates the perspective of each of the explanations according to Parde"s that he already gave. It's a very unique Sicha. If you prefer to read it, it's available in Hebrew/English on HebrewBooks.
    – HodofHod
    Mar 14, 2012 at 17:16

Chassidus has already accomplished much of what it set out to do, and has caused significant changes in the "mainstream" of yesteryear, such that the non-Chassidism of today is really a product of both the "mainstream" of yesteryear, and Chassidus itself.

Warning: Serious over-simplifications below.

While it is true that Chassidus has changed quite a bit from it's origins, I disagree that Chassidus has returned to the ways and practices that it originally broke from.

As mochin rechavim's answer correctly points out, one of the main points of Chassidus was to break away from the idea that the only way to serve G-d properly was to be a Talmid Chocham, and if you weren't, you were a nothing. This was simply the metzius of how simple Jews were viewed back then. If a Jew couldn't learn Torah, then he was viewed as inferior. In addition, if a Jew didn't learn Torah, or didn't do mitzvos, he was considered completely lost to Judaism. I don't mean halachically, I mean in the public perception.

Now, as everyone knows, Torah learning is incredibly vital to Jewish life (and learning ;-)). (Toras HaChassidus itself is Torah of the deepest and most profound kind.) But this does not mean that it is the only way to connect to G-d. Chassidus taught (and teaches) that the Jew is innately connected to G-d, and is precious to G-d no matter what. This had (and has) the effect of: 1) causing the Jew to feel closer to G-d, and to therefore act in such a way, and 2) removing sadness and depression from the Jew, and replacing it with joy. (As is known, the Besht and other Chassidic masters placed much emphasis on serving G-d with joy.)

So this was one of the things that Chassidus set out to accomplish (and was incredibly successful at, I believe): to change that perceived inferiority of the simple Jew. This was necessary in two ways: 1) to change the community's perception of unlearned Jews, and 2) to change the unlearned Jew's perception of himself.

In this respect, Chassidus was incredibly successful. Look around today to see how much.

Also, Chassidus also introduced Toras Hachassidus, a new dimension in learning and understanding G-d and his Torah. This is certainly still studied today.

As far as breaking away from "the excessive legalism and stringency that dominated Ashkenazi Jewry", I'd say that Chassidus wanted something more.

Chassidus injected an idea of connection and closeness to G-d that (I believe) did not exist before. It tried to show that observing halacha by rote is, at best, half the picture. It was at least equally important to think about the One who you're learning about, or praying to, as it was to learn and pray in the first place. This is not to say that Chassidus advocated (or advocates) anything less than what halacha requires. But it tried to bring back the life into it's observance. Chassidus wanted to make Jewish practice more G-d-conscious.

I'd say that Chassidus has been successful at this, and is continuing to try to bring this into the public consciousness.

Has Chassidus moved back more into the "mainstream" from when it first started? Yes. This is a result of both Chassidus moving towards the "mainstream", but also, and perhaps more importantly, of the "mainstream" moving towards Chassidus.

I'd compare this to the Rambam's dictum: When you want to change a flaw, move to the opposite extreme. Then, once you've become accustomed to that, you will be able to move toward the middle.

Also, as mochin recahvim said, every generation needs something else, and this is what this generation needs. What was necessary for yesteryear's generation may no longer be necessary for our's. So while Toras HaChassidus and the fundamentals of it's practice and theology (for example "Chassid Sorfon") remain unchanged, some of the externals have changed.

This ended up a lot longer than I had originally intended, but what I've mentioned is really only a snippet of the larger effect of Chassidus.

For more information on this, I suggest listening or reading the beginning of "Inyana Shel Toras HaChassidus, available as an audio lecture (thanks @mochin rechavim) or Hebrew/English PDF. This is geared towards Toras HaChassidus (specifically as taught by Chabad), but starts from the Baal Shem Tov.

For a more general history of the time, and the effects that Chassidus hoped to have (and had), as well as the fundamentals (rather than the externals) of Chassidus, I very strongly suggest Rabbi Yossi Paltiel's Shiurim here. (Again, it's from the perspective of Chabad, but he goes through all the history.)

  • Thanks, I think the Rambam you bring sums up the ultimate answer to my question very nicely. I'll look at R' Paltiel's shiurim. I guess my question originally spurs from wishing we had a R' Levi Yitzchok, a R' Zisha, etc. in today's day and age. I think we need it desperately.
    – yoel
    Mar 14, 2012 at 19:32
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    The Chabad Rebbeim have said (and I'm sure many others) that by learning a tzaddik's Torah, you keep them alive. Nevertheless, we definitely need Moshiach now!
    – HodofHod
    Mar 14, 2012 at 19:35
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    @yoel Rabbi Paltiel's shiurim are very in depth, he starts the first couple with all the history of the world that the Besht was born into. I'm listening to it for the third time now. (It's 12 hours in total).
    – HodofHod
    Mar 14, 2012 at 19:36
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    @yoel , HodofHod : the first part is a gemara in Bechorot 31b אמר ר' יוחנן משום ר' שמעון בן יוחי כל תלמיד חכם שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיו בעולם הזה שפתותיו דובבות בקבר
    – Double AA
    Mar 14, 2012 at 20:01
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    @Avi After the Maggid, Chassidus shifted to central areas in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Hungary. Once those communities were established some of them developed into dynasties which had 6 or more generations of Rebbeim living in one city. IE: Lubavitch, Ger, Belz, Bobov. Other Rebbeim moved city to city ie: Satmar came from Litzensk to Lubin to Sighet to Satmar. I am not sure what a "loose collection of people" means but most Chassidic courts worked around many Chassidim living with the Rebbe and the rest traveling to visit on Yom Tovim. Some groups being larger than others.
    – user1292
    Mar 14, 2012 at 20:51

You seem to be confusing Buber's neo-Chassidism and Carlebach's kiruv-Chassidism with actual Chassidism. Both of these authors had an agenda of advertising a secularized version of chassidism to their followers. Original Chassidism was more about adding on to existing Jewish practice by providing commoners with something that they could connect outside of simple Torah study. They had the same, if not greater emphasis on practical observance, with the main differences being in the extent of their focus on prayer and the centrality of mystical 'rebbes' who were (/are) believed to be miracle workers and spiritual mediums.


Mainly personal experience - readings and lectures over the years and such, but for quick reference here are some relevant wikipedia articles:



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    Hello ShinTav, welcome to Judaism.SE and thank you for your added perspective! Your answer could be improved by explaining what (if anything) happened to this Chassidus. I'm glad to see you've registered your account, and I hope to see you around!
    – HodofHod
    Mar 19, 2012 at 4:27
  • Those were the examples I had readily at hand, but I'm basing myself on the stories that circulate about the tzadikim and their works. Look at Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Degel Machane Efraim, Siach Sarfei Kodesh... That said, I've rethought my question and I think it ought to be better framed in the context of attitude during observance, cf. R' Levi Yitzchok's "matzo zu!"
    – yoel
    Mar 19, 2012 at 4:51
  • I would further modify (or even re-ask, if I thought it would produce answers different from this question) to ask "why do tzadikim today not conduct themselves like those of the early Chasidim?"
    – yoel
    Mar 19, 2012 at 6:45
  • To clarify, I think if you look historically that much of early Chassidus has been retained until today. Chassidic tales are renowned for being folk tales with little grounding in actual fact. This is especially true of the neo-Chassidic take, as discussed in the wikipedia article on Buber. If you want examples of the extreme devotion typical of early groups, here's some more wiki pages en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karlin-Stolin - Yell their prayers instead of the traditional service en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amshinov_(Hasidic_dynasty) - The rebbe takes an extremely long time to daven Mar 19, 2012 at 23:03


I hope this good question you asked leads you to strive for originality and being real with HaShem.

In the general Judaism of today, it is forbidden to have your own opinion unless you're considered one of the "gedolei hador". Spiritual expression is prohibited, and everyone is expected to dryly recite prayers with little or no emotional involvement. Everyone says you have to pray with a minyan, even if they pray at 10,000 words per second - this is preferred to them over praying alone, for example, at the pace of your heart and with full intention and emotional involvement in your prayer - as it is supposed to be.

Most of modern Judaism has lost aspects of Torah, such as halakhoth regarding qorbanoth, Melakhim, war, and have lost a whole aspect through some of these things about what it is to be a Jew. Sometimes, Jews resort to eastern mysticism for their spiritual needs. Expression of spirituality is a taboo, everything must be in the lines.

In some part, Judaism has become a dead system. Perhaps this was foreseen by the successor of Besh"t, Rabi Nahman of Breslev. However, many of my fellow adherents of his hasiduth make him out to be some hippy peacenik. Everyone is under the assumption that a good Jew is one that sits all day with his head in a book, his wife may even work to support him entirely. Her parents may even support their family with some finances as well. In order to get married in the first place, though, he must talk to the Rav. He must wear a nice jacket, a nice hat, he must come from a prestigious family (or else he's scum). It would even help to know how his parents stacked their dishes in the cupboard, and what kind of tablecloth they used. If an Arab from the neighboring city comes up to attack him, he would be defenseless; he would get killed and everything of his would be plundered.

The way it used to be is that Jews were warriors and had personal, spiritual relationships with HaShem. Hitbodedut and spiritual expression was more common. Wives were bought and attained by the man, not the other way around. Original Hasiduth was a big strive in that direction, to return to that originality. And this was brought on by HaShem. Moshe returned throughout generations, inhabiting different leaders, ending with Rabi Nahman until Mashiah comes.

It would be highly advisable for every Jew to do actual teshuva and return to HaShem on every level they are able to, in light of the world conflict about to come.

(My comments are not merely opinion, but based on personal experience both in life and from the mesora I've received).

  • Interesting, I had never heard that Rabi Nachman was considered to be an ispashtusa d'Moshe (let alone the last one), do you have a source for this?
    – HodofHod
    Mar 15, 2012 at 13:39
  • Also, what's your source for "Jews were warriors and had personal, spiritual relationships with HaShem. Hitbodedut and spiritual expression was more common"? I assume you mean pre-Churban?
    – HodofHod
    Mar 15, 2012 at 13:47
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    @HodofHod there's no explicit written source, but it's a Breslev tradition that does have basis. The more explicit source, alluded to in the hakdama to Likutey Moharan, is that Rabbenu is a gilgul of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. In Breslev we see it as a progressive revelation of Torah, Moshe Rabenu, Rashbi, Arizal, Besht, Rebbe Nachman, and Rebbe Nachman said that his fire - his teachings - are the last stage of revelation until Moshiach comes. That said, I don't want to lend any credence to this answer which contradicts the very first lesson in L"M (along with a number of halachos).
    – yoel
    Mar 15, 2012 at 14:46
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    HaYom Yom 21 Adar2 The Tzemach Tzedek said "My grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, is the Moshe Rabeinu of Chassidus Chabad. Our sages say that the Torah was given to Moshe but he acted generously (sharing it with Israel)1. The G-dly "constant fire" related to the teachings of Chabad Chassidus was given by the Maggid to the Alter Rebbe who acted generously and gave it to anyone who occupies himself with the study of Chassidus. I am absolutely certain that whoever teaches another and arouses in him that G-dly "constant fire" is assured of his reward, that this merit of his will never be extinguished.
    – user1292
    Mar 15, 2012 at 17:53
  • Yoel, My Rav and his brother, who share the same sentiment as I do, were known by and lived with Rav Yisroel Ber Odesser who claimed my Rav's brother KNOWS Liqutei Moharan. Note, they're not like some of the crazy NaNahim who take some things too far. My Rav also lived with and spent most of the time with Rav Yitzhak Qaduri z"l before his passing. I know several Rabanim who share my same sentiments as expressed. Because I realized them correct via my relationship with HaShem through hitbodedut, and through logic and being honest with myself, I adopted their views.
    – Aman
    Mar 16, 2012 at 9:11

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