The teachings of the Besht, the Maggid, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman continue to evoke heated controversy, both among adherents and opponents of Hasidism and among scholars trying to analyze the movement and its significance. Because it remains a major force in Jewish life, it is not readily amenable to objective examination. Even outstanding scholars have allowed personal bias to cloud their approach and tendentious judgments to vitiate their conclusions. Standard critical and philological criteria have been ignored in favor of superficial study, plausible assumptions, and an essentially visceral theory relating early Hasidism to late Sabbatianism.
The past two decades or so have seen some improvement in this situation. Israeli scholars such as M. Piekarz, Z. Gries, and A. Rubenstein have begun to lay the foundation for a sound analytical approach. Long-accepted assumptions and conclusions advanced by Dubnow, Scholem, Tishby, Weiss, and Schatz have finally been questioned or repudiated. One can no longer confidently maintain, with Dubnow, that the Hasidic movement resulted from a widening of the gap between the intelligentsia and the masses; that eighteenth-century Polish Jewry felt unusually oppressed by its communal leaders; that it suffered from an unusually benighted cultural milieu and longed to break out of its constricting halakhic and cultural confines. One can no longer maintain, with Tishby, Scholem, and Weiss, that Hasidism was an offshoot of Sabbatianism. One can no longer affirm, with Weiss, the existence of non-Beshtian Hasidic groups on the periphery of early Hasidism; of a marked tendency in the Besht's teachings toward pantheism, religious anarchy, and antirabbinic values; or of an