Definition: Hasidism
A type of Jewish mysticism characterized by an ascetic lifestyle, strict observance of the commandments, and loud ecstatic forms of worship and prayer. Hasidism emphasizes prayer as a means of communicating with God as opposed to study of the Torah..

Hasidic Judaism arose in 12th-century Germany as a movement emphasizing asceticism and mystical experience born out of love and humility before God. Hasidic Judaism is different from other branches (or denominations) of Judaism today such as Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Reform Judaism.

The modern Hasidic movement was founded in Poland in the 18th century by Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name") or "the Besht" (an acronym for Baal Shem Tov). The founding of the Hasidic movement was a hallmark event in the history of Judaism.

Heavily influenced by the Kabbalah movement, Hasidism emphasized personal experiences of God over religious education and ritual. The primary distinction between modern Hasidism and its earlier incarnation is modern Hasidism's rejection of asceticism and emphasis on the holiness of everyday life.

Hasidic Judaism: focus and conflict

As the Besht himself put it: I came into this world to point a new way, to prevail upon men to live by the light of these three things: love of God, love of Israel, and love of Torah. And there is no need to perform mortifications of the flesh. {Recorded by his grandson, Rabbi Baruch of Medzhibozh} The Besht's focus on the needs of the common people and his conviction that everyday activities hold as much religious value as rituals found a welcome audience.

Though it is conservative in many ways, Hasidism clashed heavily with mainstream Judaism when it first emerged. Rabbinical opponents of the Hasidic movement, known as mitnagdim (opponents), accused the Besht and his followers of being licentious and indifferent to tradition.

Hasidic Jews center on a leader called a rebbe or tzaddik, who may or may not be a rabbi. The rebbe is considered especially enlightened and close to God and is looked to for guidance in all aspects of life, from Torah interpretation to choosing a spouse to buying a home. A rebbe's advice is considered absolutely authoritative.

More Information - A Life Apart: Hasidism in America - PBS

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