The Beginnings of Beshtian Hasidism in Poland

Article excerpt

Polish Hasidism emerged in Poland in the second half of the seventeenth century on a wave of messianic hopes. Its ideology was elitist par excellence. It could be pursued only by a chosen few who focused in their life on Hasidic ideas. After several splits and transformations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth it eventually developed into a mass movement in the late eighteenth century with unique characteristics unimaginable in any other historical or geographical context. The pivotal moment in the shaping of ascetic Polish Hasidism was the messianic campaign of the year 5500 (1740). The messianic fever lasted several years, and the pilgrimages and discussions caused many Hasidim to abandon the ascetic paradigm, which had been understood as the road to holiness and salvation. This gave rise to new, anti-ascetic trends in Hasidism, from which there emerged the Hasidism known as Beshtian Hasidism.

Hasidism, which emerged in Poland in the second half of the seventeenth century, was related to a wave of messianic hopes, and after several splits and transformations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth evolved in the mid-eighteenth century into Beshtian Hasidism, alive to this very day. Notwithstanding random groups of seventeenth-century Hasids who were active in non-Polish Ashkenazi areas, such as German and Czech lands, Beshtian Hasidism, differing from earlier Hasidic movements, was born in Poland. All its major metamorphoses also occurred there, and it was in Poland that it eventually developed into a mass movement in the late eighteenth century with unique characteristics and tones which were unimaginable in any other historical or geographical context.

For a long time a widespread assumption, derived from early Hasidic hagiography, has had it that Baal Shem ??? was the actual founder of Hasidism, which was thought of as a popular, folk movement from its very beginning. Those scholars who supported this view were undoubtedly inspired by the personality of Baal Shem ??? himself, a plebeian mystic, healer and miracle worker.1 Even Gershom Scholem affirmed that "Hasidism was founded shortly before the middle of the eighteenth century by the famous saint and mystic Israel Baal Shem."2 It seems implausible that he could have been a religious authority in the Kabbalist elite circles. As a common wandering healer and enchanter he was thought to attract mainly ordinary and uneducated folk. Highlighting the folk mien of Hasidism helped to explain its rapid expansion, all the more so as in the late eighteenth century it in fact acquired many features of a mass folk movement. Yet the premises of such an image of Hasidism are hardly satisfactory, while the image itself, thus ideologically tinted, misses some crucial elements and inspirations of the emerging Hasidism.3

This picture was questioned for the first time by Gershom Scholem's student, Joseph Weiss, in the essay Some Notes on the Social Background of Early Hasidism, which was published posthumously and after the death of his master Gershom Scholem in 1985, in a collection of his works, Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism:* "For too long research has been concentrated mainly on the legendary biography, or occasionally also on the personality, of Israel Baal Shem (1700-1760), often called in both scholarly and popular literature the founder of Hasidism."5 And he added: "Research could be focused more on the historical and sociological setting of scattered small marginal groups of religious enthusiasts that existed within the Eastern European Jewish communities during the first half of the eighteen century."6 His call made no impression on scholars.

Early Hasidism and Its Development

The earliest groups of Hasidim emerged in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late seventeenth century in the wake of Shabbatai Zevi's rise. The following decades were marked by the growth of the Hasidic movement, which was in fact elitist though increasingly appreciated and supported among the Jews. …