Hassidism: Democratizing the mystical experience

While the flames of the dispute between the hassidim and the mitnagdim may have died down, the issue of democratization of Jewish mysticism continues to animate contemporary discourse.

Allowing everyone to participate in Jewish esoteric tradition is one of the roots of Hassidism (photo credit: REUTERS)
Allowing everyone to participate in Jewish esoteric tradition is one of the roots of Hassidism
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 One of the most contentious issues in the formative era of the hassidic movement – that is, the late 18th century – was the question of prayer rites. In 1772, Jewish communities in Eastern Europe issued harsh proclamations against the nascent Hassidism.
The first recorded proclamation was issued in Vilna on 8 Iyar 5532 (May 11, 1772). Five weeks later the Jewish community of Brody issued its own harsh proclamation dated 20 Sivan 5532 (June 21, 1772). Later that year, the two proclamations, together with another six anti-hassidic documents, were published in Oleksinie, less than 40 km. from Brody. These 1772 documents consistently condemn changes in prayer practices that were allegedly adopted by the hassidim.
In 1970, Mordecai Wilensky republished these documents, together with many others from the controversy between the hassidim and their opponents, the mitnagdim, from the years 1772 to 1815.
Thus these rare documents from those turbulent times are available to contemporary readers.
The Brody proclamation – written in a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish – is particularly interesting because at first it seems to contradict itself on the issue of prayer rites.
This contradiction may hold an important key to understanding the opposition to early Hassidism, so it is worthwhile trying to understand what irked the writers of the proclamation and what exactly they were denouncing.
In no uncertain terms the Brody proclamation invokes unforgiving bans of excommunication and ostracism for those who dare organize their own prayer quora rather than praying together with the community.
Not only were these rogue prayer services spatially disengaging from communal structures, they were also changing the prayer rites. Instead of using the standard rite of Occidental Jewry – Nusah Ashkenaz – these separatists were using prayer rites inspired by the teachings of the famed Safed kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the “Ari,” 1534-1572). This new rite would become known variously as Nusah Ari or Nusah Ha’arizal after the figure who inspired the rite; or Nusah Sepharad because of its similarity to the prayer rites of Sephardic Jews, who included kabbalistic elements in their prayers.
This change in Eastern Europe was a breach of both time-honored practice and contemporary communal mores. The Brody community – like other communities of the time – felt that such conduct was traitorous and slanderous, and should not be tolerated.
While the Brody proclamation is clear in its condemnation of these prayer practices and warns against joining the ranks of these rogues, the proclamation surprisingly recognizes and even lauds a cohort of men in Brody who seemed to have adopted exactly the practices that were being condemned.
Immediately after denouncing the separatists, the proclamation continues: “Except for the individuals who are called by God, who pray in the first shtibl [room] that is at the side of the kloyz [a communal structure designated for study by mature male scholars] of our community.” Those individuals who prayed in the shtibl were lauded as being grounded in Torah study and well-versed in Jewish esoteric tradition.
They were permitted not only to conduct their own prayer quorum but even to depart from Nusah Ashkenaz and pray according to the kabbalistically inspired rite of the Ari. Their conduct had the tacit approval of the great scholars of previous generations and the official sanction of the community.
Why were Brody residents so troubled by people who were doing what was officially sanctioned in the room adjacent to the kloyz? Surely they should have lauded anyone who desired to join this lofty coterie of paragons.
It would appear that the primary concern of the Brody Jewish leadership was neither the separate prayer quorum nor the particular prayer rite. In fact, they sponsored that very conduct. Thus the primary concern was not which siddur (prayer book) was being used.
Rather, they were troubled by the identity of the people adopting these practices. In the eyes of the Brody leadership, it was fine to pray separately and according to the kabbalistic rite – provided you were of the appropriate spiritual pedigree. While the proclamation mentions a minimum age requirement of 30 years, there are no details of official application and acceptance procedures for membership in that cohort.
It is apparent, however, that admittance was not open to all. The coterie who prayed in the shtibl next to the kloyz was a most exclusive club. The Brody proclamation suggests that nascent Hassidism troubled mitnagdim because of its willingness and desire to turn private kabbalistic conduct into public practice; because it wanted to democratize the mystical experience, allowing everyone to participate in Jewish esoteric tradition. This is one of the roots of Hassidism.
While the flames of the dispute between the hassidim and the mitnagdim may have died down, the issue of democratization of Jewish mysticism – and in some circles more generally, Jewish learning – continues to animate contemporary discourse.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow with the Inter-University Academic Partnership in Russian and Eastern European Studies.