I believe that Hasidism has indeed been essential to the continuation of Judaism. The Hasidic movement arose in the early eighteenth century as a result of persecution and arguably too much academic study of the Torah. Its founder, the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) was not a scholar, however. He was a simple villager who lived in the 1700’s. According to Lavinia and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, “Hasidism was primarily a response to the dry intellectualism of much Talmudic study.” Judaism became a much more practical religion for Jews who were previously unable to practice their faith due to persecution by Cossacks and Russians due to many of them working for the Polish nobility. Hasidism was also a lot more accessible for Jews who were less well-educated and could not read Hebrew. It was focused on the personal and spiritual aspect of worship, as Lavinia and Dan Cohn-Sherbok put it, “worship became part of the religious experience of everyday Jews.”
Hasidism began to emerge after many Jews began to question their own relationship with God after centuries of hardship and persecution throughout Europe notably in Germany in the 12th century and Spain in the 13th century. Many felt that Jews needed to regain their intimacy with God and sought to reconnect through new means other than reading the Torah. In the 12th century Judah ha Hasid wrote the ‘Hymn to Glory’ which expresses the feeling that one cannot ever know God, yet Jews have an urgent need for intimacy with him. Due to this need for intimacy with God the Hymn to Glory proved very influential and in the 13th century Moses de Leon (1240-1305) wrote the Zohar, in which he developed these ideas further. The Zohar became the holy book for the Kabbalah movement which is a mystical approach towards keeping the mitzvot, which influenced the Baal Shem Tov many years later.
The Kabbalistic ideas which were taken by Hasidism included Devekut or the idea of ‘cleaving’ to God (Deut. 11:22 ‘love the Lord your God and cleave unto him.”) This is very similar to the way which modern-day Hasidic Jews attempt to gain ‘yihud’ or unification with God by being aware of the presence of God at all times. They remember that the only thing that worried the Baal Shem Tov (or Besht) was the lack of Shekinah (God’s presence). One legend about the Baal Shem Tov describes him remaining completely calm on a chariot that was about to crash, because he knew God was present.
Another idea taken from Kabbalah was Tikkun Olam (in Hebrew: repairing/perfecting the world’) Many Jews try to do this today through good deeds and Tzedekah (charity). Tikkun Olam paved the way for the idea of Simcha-Shel-Mitzvah or ‘the joy of keeping God’s commandments,’ which, in early Hasidism was one of the most defining features. Instead of focusing on strict observance of the 613 mitzvot, Hasidism focused on joyful observance of God’s commandments. Hasidic Jews would dance and sing whilst worshipping God. This essential feature of Hasidism is called ‘hitlahavut’ or joy, according to Kotzer Rebbe “Joyfulness is the outcome of holiness”. Hasidic Jews came to the conclusion that if one cannot be joyous in their keeping of the mitzvot then there’s no point to keeping them. Following a description of a serious, very strict-looking Hasidic Jew, Rabbi Lionel Blue says “But wait till you see him in the synagogue, dancing and waving the scroll!”
All these ideas involved less focus on scholarly study and more on developing a Hasidic Jew’s relationship with God even through everyday mundane tasks. This is called ‘kedusha’ or ‘knowing God in all your ways’. They do this through practicing kavannah where a Jew concentrates on God. There is an old Hasidic tale which tells of a Jew who went to visit an important religious man and learned the importance of kavannah by watching him do the dishes. All these ideas are not impractical or particularly difficult to apply to a Jew’s everyday life, making Judaism a lot more practical, preventing Judaism dying out when there was a lot of pressure on and persecution of the Jewish people.
The Baal Shem Tov (also known by the acronym ‘The Besht’) was particularly fond of a Talmudic statement, “God desires the heart”, which he interpreted as meaning that for God, a pure religious spirit mattered more than knowledge of the Talmud. His successors were known as rebbe or Tazddik they were spiritual, charismatic leaders who were often considered healers or some kind of link through which people could go through to God. This belief was particularly controversial. Hasidism’s opponents, the ‘Mitnagdim’, accused the rebbes of enriching their own lives at the expense of their followers. They also disapproved of their lack of set prayer times and visibly unorthodox approach to worship.
As time passed, the Hasidism and Mitnagdim recognized their differences were increasingly inconsequential, particularly after both groups found themselves facing a common enemy: the 19th century Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment. During the 19th century, Hasidism began increasing emphasis on Talmud study- originally Hasidic teachings rejected the Talmud altogether! As the movement expanded, it put less emphasis on meditation and communing with God and more on traditional Jewish learning. As a result, Hasidism is no longer considered revolutionary; in fact they are the conservative stalwarts of Orthodox Judaism. The fact that Hasidism has done an almost complete U-turn in its practice of worship could be used as an argument that it was unnecessary movement in the first place.
Many people would argue that Hasidism was not essential towards the continuation of Judaism since it divided the religion and so reduced its numbers and strength. Others might argue that the Besht was not educated in the traditional Jewish way; he did not study the Talmud. He was a working-class man it could be argued that his interpretations should not really be taken into consideration as he was no scholar. Even though many of his teachings had been around for some time (in the Zohar) before he began his own movement, I do believe he stood as an inspirational figure that revolutionized the Jewish faith and probably served to breathe new life into Judaism after many years of crushing persecution.
Hasidism has strong links to Kabbalistic Judaism which is often thought of as more of a cult today. However traditionally it could be reasonably argued that it was a very spiritual movement; in modern day Judaism it is not even really considered as Judaism. This is due in part for its extortionate prices on religious texts and religious items, an obvious cash-in, made evident by its use of celebrities such as Madonna as a marketing ploy. However considering that modern day Hasidism also very different than when it first began, this argument might be considered invalid.
Having considered these points of view, I still believe Hasidism was essential for the continuation of Judaism simply because it breathed new life into the religion at a very difficult point in Jewish history.