The Tisch: The end of hassidism?

A cursory glance reveals that the fascination with hassidic lore continues to animate many of our contemporary communities.

While the legacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov and Hassidism lives on in our day, there were some thinkers who surmised that the innovations of Hassidism were timebound, rather than eternal values. They felt that the message and contribution of Hassidism was to last for a limited time and then fade. It would not be surprising to hear mitnagdim, the staunch opponents to Hassidism, say the movement had passed its prime. But remarkably, this idea came from the midst of the hassidic camp and in fact was voiced by those who served in prominent leadership roles within the hassidic community.
In a letter penned at the end of 1866, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Schneersohn (1830-1900), the newly appointed rebbe of Kapust (Kopys, today in Belarus), wrote: “From the days of the revelation to this world of our master the Ba’al Shem Tov... until this time... it has been 150 years that the river has flowed out of Eden and entered the garden... and now it has ceased. And we must live as uncultivated aftergrowths; woe to us that in our day it has ceased... How can we live in the redoubled darkness in the final throes of the messianic era...?” Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Kapust lamented that the inspiration of the Ba’al Shem Tov – the river that flowed from Eden – no longer was a lifegiving source. He wrote these words to the Kapust Hassidim after the demise of his father, Rabbi Yehuda Leib (1811-1866), the founding rebbe in Kapust. This heartbreak came only months after the passing of Rabbi Yehuda Leib’s father, the Tzemah Tzedek, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1789-1866). As Rabbi Shlomo Zalman accepted the mantle of leadership of the Kapust Hassidim in the wake of these tragedies, it must have appeared to him that indeed the hassidic life-force was no more.
A CONTEMPORARY but slightly different tradition is reported in the name of the Galician hassidic master, Rabbi Haim Halberstam of Sanz (1793–1876), known by the title of his work, Divrei Haim (“The Words of Haim”). He too asserted that no religious innovation could last longer than 150 years; even that of the Ba’al Shem Tov.
Once, when he was in Tarnow for Shabbat, surrounded by hundreds of loyal hassidim, he declared: “The time has come to return the crown to its former place,” and he continued with the following parable: “There was once a person who had a new garment. After a year or two the color of the garment had faded, so the person gave the garment to the tailor and asked him to turn it inside out so that it would look like a new garment. A year or two later the garment was once again faded.
The owner of the garment said to himself: ‘What am I to do? Since both the inside and the outside are faded, I may as well turn it back to the original way it was made.’” RABBI HAIM of Sanz unpacked the parable: “Thus it is [with Hassidism] – the Ba’al Shem Tov saw that in his day the path of Torah and fear of heaven had deteriorated; there was an assortment of obstacles and stumbling blocks along the path, such as conceit, self-interest and insincerity. Therefore, [the Ba’al Shem Tov] paved the path of Hassidism, with service [of God] and piety. Now that this path, too, has deteriorated, it would be better to return to the original path of Torah and fear of heaven.”
A third such statement is attributed to Rabbi Shalom Rokeah of Belz (1781-1855), known as the Sar Shalom (Prince of Peace). The Sar Shalom reportedly declared before his death that he was the last of the hassidic masters who was permitted to perform miracles and act as the Ba’al Shem Tov had acted.
Despite the claims that the glow of the inspiration from the early hassidic masters has dimmed, that the cloak of Hassidism was in tatters, that the miraculous powers of the Ba’al Shem Tov were no more, common experience would seem to defy this analysis. Indeed, one might say the opposite is true: A cursory glance reveals that the fascination with hassidic lore, the melody of hassidic song and the interest in hassidic ideas continue to animate many of our contemporary communities.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.