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05 March 2014 @ 06:25 pm
History of Hasidism Class  
In the past month, softlykarou and I have been going to a night class at our synagogue about the history of hasidism, or at least how it developed and how it spread so quickly afterwards even though its members were under a ban of excommunication, back when we did stuff like that.

I didn't actually like the Petrovsky-Shtern's lecturing style very much, though it wasn't bad or anything. I've had classes where the professor told us to read a series of webpages to prepare for class and then the actual class was just a restatement of those pages, and this wasn't nearly that terrible. It just rubbed me the wrong way, I guess.

There were some really interesting points raised. Like, how opponents of the Baal Shem Tov often claimed that he thought he was the messiah, but in the single extant piece of writing we have from him, he says:
Because of the great joy that I saw among them, I decided to ascend with them. Due to the great danger involved in ascending to the supernal universes, I asked my master to come with me, as I had never before ascended to such a high level. I ascended from level to level until I entered the chamber of the Mashiach, where the Mashiach learns Torah with all the sages and tzadikim and also with the Seven Shepherds.
Obviously, if the Baal Shem Tov is talking with the messiah in a dream, then he doesn't think he's the messiah.

One thing I hadn't realized was just how much influence chasidism had on modern Judaism. Like, originally the sermons were given by people called maggidim, whereas the office of rabbi was primarily a judicial position, whose adherents spent their time adjudicating cases and answering questions of halakhah. In surviving rabbinical contracts, it's stipulated that the rabbi give two sermons a year, one on Shabbat ha-Gadol before Passover and one on Shabbat Shuva before Yom Kippur. Among the chasidim, though, the tzaddikim acted as both an arbitrator of the law and as the one who gave the sermons, which is basically where the rabbis sit today.

Another point is the blending of sacred and secular. Every act can be holy, which is why there are prayers for nearly everything including using the bathroom, but the idea that ordinary acts can bring one closer to G-d is a very hasidic idea. Back in the day, the primary way to get closer to G-d was to study Talmud, which was limited to male students of yeshivot. So that immediately opens things up to women, the illiterate, people who don't have time or ability to study Talmud, and so on, which is part of why hasidism went from a small movement among ascetics who fasted from Shabbat to Shabbat and lived apart from the community to a group focused on finding G-d through experiencing joy that swept across all of Eastern Europe in a single generation.

Petrovsky-Shtern also threw out an idea at the end of the final class that I thought was very interesting, but he didn't have time to explain it in detail. Basically, he argued that modern hasidism could only have arisen after it spread to Russia from Poland because a lot of its characteristics are very similar to that of the Russian aristocracy. Dynastic succession of rebbes, for example--in Poland, the king was elected--or the way that the entourages of the leaders were very similar to the Tsar's entourage.

I probably wouldn't do it again if I had the chance--see above about the lecturing style--but I would read his books. He just came out with The Golden Age Shtetl, which sounds like exactly the sort of book I like. Yet another one to put on top of the giant pile.
 
 
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