Hasidism, an eastern European movement of religious pietism (the word hasidut means piety), has played a key role in Jewish life for the last 250 years. Starting in the mid-18th century, it infused the Jewish religion with new values by democratizing access to the divine and created a new social structure around wonder-working rabbis (rebbes or zaddikim). It also excited intense opposition, first among the Polish-Lithuanian rabbinical elite, which, in turn, devised new cultural values in order to refute Hasidism. In the 19th century, it became the target of sustained attacks by the new movement of Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah), which also developed its ideology at least partly in contradistinction to Hasidism. Despite these opponents, Hasidism gradually became the most influential religious movement among eastern European Jews by the mid-19th century. However, its power was eroded by the forces of modernization, urbanization, and emigration and it was dealt a near-death blow by the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the remnants of the movement reconstituted themselves, particularly in the new state of Israel and North America to the point where Hasidism has now once again become a force to be reckoned with in Jewish religious life.
The scholarly study of Hasidism only began in the 1890s, once the bitter polemical battles between the Hasidim and their opponents had waned. Simon Dubnow, the dean of east European Jewish historians, was the first to systematically collect Hasidic sources. His 1931 history of Hasidism (Dubnow 1931) focuses on social and institutional dimensions of the movement from the early 18th century through the early 19th century. Samuel Horodezky was another early scholar of Hasidism who was inclined to romanticize the movement so his work should be read with this in mind (Horodezky 1922). Scholem 1941 and Scholem 2008 pioneered the study of Hasidic thought as a late manifestation of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah). Scholem’s student, Joseph Weiss, became a leading scholar of the movement in his own right. A collection of his writings on Hasidism can be found in Weiss 1997. Specifically, Weiss contrasts Bratslav Hasidism with Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism in order to contest the notion that Hasidism can be reduced to one essence. Idel 1995, representing the generation of scholarship after Scholem, takes issue with some of Scholem’s conclusions. Baumgarten 2006 provides a history covering both institutions and thought. Jacobs 1972 treats the important subject of prayer, one of Hasidism’s most innovative features. Piekarz 1999 is a longitudinal study of different forms of Hasidic leadership.
Baumgarten, Jean. La naissance du hasidisme: Mystique, rituel et société. Paris: Albin Michel, 2006.
A one-volume survey of Hasidic history and thought, covering the 18th through the 19th centuries, by a French scholar of Yiddish literature and Ashkenazi culture.
Dubnow, Simon. Toldot ha-Hasidut. Tel Aviv: Devir, 1931.
Dubnow (b. 1860–d. 1941), the dean of east European Jewish historians, began his studies of Hasidism in the 1890s using Russian government sources as well as the texts and tales of the Hasidim themselves. The first and only attempt to write a comprehensive history of early Hasidism.
Horodezky, Samuel. Ha-Hasidut ve-ha-Hasidism. 4 vols. Berlin: Devir 1922.
Hasidic history and thought in the 18th century with a selection of Hasidic texts from the same period by an early student and enthusiast for the movement who often romanticized his subject.
Idel, Moshe. Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
A contemporary Israeli scholar of Jewish mysticism, Idel challenges the popular notion of Lurianic Kabbalah as the primary intellectual influence on Hasidism. Instead, his heavily theoretical text proposes that the 18th-century mystical movement owes far more to Cordoverian and other Kabbalistic systems.
Jacobs, Louis. Hasidic Prayer. London: Routledge, 1972.
Hasidism made prayer more important than study and it emphasized how, through prayer, the average Jew might achieve devekut or communion with God. This volume examines the different characteristics of prayer as well as the Hasidic prayer book and prayer house.
Piekarz, Mendel. Ha-Hanhagah ha-Hasidit: Samkhut ve-Emunat Tsaddikim be-Aspaklariyat Sifruta she ha-Hasidut. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1999.
A sweeping survey in Hebrew of the doctrine of Zaddikism (spiritual leadership) from the inception of Hasidism through the Holocaust.
Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken, 1941.
Scholem (b. 1897–d. 1981) was the founder of the scholarly study of Jewish mysticism. The last chapter of his pathbreaking lectures on the Kabbalah deals with the doctrines of Hasidism. A classic text.
Scholem, Gershom. Ha-Shlav ha-Aharon: Mehkere ha-Hasidut shel Gershom Scholem. Edited by David Assaf and Esther Liebes. Tel Aviv: Om Oved, 2008.
The editors have gathered all of Scholem’s studies of Hasidism, which appeared in a variety of scholarly journals. An indispensable collection that supplements the foundational chapter in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (see Scholem 1941).
Weiss, Joseph. Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism. Edited by D. Goldstein. London: Valentine Mitchell, 1997.
A student of Gershom Scholem examines the social origins of Hasidism, questions of piety and prayer devekut, passivity, and the role of the zaddik. Weiss contrasts Bratslav Hasidism with Habad in order to contest the notion that Hasidism can be reduced to one essence.
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