I first became intrigued by this the christ of Jews when I learned that Hasidics “emphasize the presence of God in all of one’s surroundings at all times.”
There is much to be admired about this passionate group of Jewish mystics. Historically and even today Hasidim are known for the exuberance of their worship. This may includes ecstatic prayer, heartfelt emotion, boundless love, singing, dancing and inevitable joy as the soul is elevated in communion with God. In fact, when the Hasidic Movement began in the 1700s, these rebellious worshipers were sometimes ridiculed by envious mainstream Jews for their emotional and ecstatic forms of worship.
Most central to Hasidism is the practice of unceasing attachment to (communion with) God. This is strived for in all activities of life, whether it be during prayer, meditation, daily work, or any mundane activity. This beautiful practice recognizes the sacred in all of one’s surroundings and activities.
The emphasis on personal, experiential communion with God is of course common to all traditions of mysticism, whether we’re speaking of yogis, Sufis, Taoists, Christian mystics, Zen Buddhists, or Jewish mystics. As might be expected, Hasidics derive many of their values and practices from Kabbalah, an older tradition of Jewish mysticism. For example, among Lubavitcher Hasidim, there is a powerful practice or prayer that is directed toward self-annihilation (or enlightenment/union with God). This concept too is common among other true mystics.
Also essential to Hasidism is the charismatic spiritual leadership of the Rebbe or Master, as distinguished from the orthodox Rabbi. The role of the rebbe evolved with the beginnings of Hasidism in the early 1700s. The founder of Hasidism, Baal Shem Tov, lived in the area of the Russian-Polish border in a time of unrest, Cossack massacres, and significant class divide even among Jews. Led by Baal Shem Tov (Besht), huge numbers of Hasidim challenged the practices of the Rabbis and Talmudic scholars who supported a repressive tax system and focused on study of the Torah, at the expense of personal and experiential communion with God. After the death of the Besht, a system of hereditary beloved rebbes, or zaddikim evolved.
There are many types, or “courts,” of Hasidism. The Lubavitch group is known for its vibrant system of “emissaries” who establish “chabad” (hah bahd’) centers in many countries and revive the roots of Jewish ideals and vitality. The late beloved Lubavitch Rebbe Schneerson believed that “ours is indeed the generation entrusted to carry out the purpose of creation itself-to bring heaven down to earth and make a dwelling place for God in the material world.”
More traditional is the Satmar court. It’s former rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum, held the now controversial view that only after the coming of the Jewish Messiah, should a Jewish state be founded in Israel. Although a moot issue at this point, this belief emphasizes the “basically non-violent” nature of Satmar Hasidim. Satmar strives to keep a distance between themselves and non-believers.
One thing about the Hasidics is very clear-they normally adhere to their ideals with profound integrity-something that is rare among religious traditions generally, with the exception of groups such as Quakers, Amish, as well as many adherents of the mystical traditions.
Some would question whether Hasidim visibly express their love with non-Jews-whether they equally honor the Sacred spirit that resides in all people. With the mystical leanings that they hold, I would expect them to find support and community among mystics of the yogic, Sufi, etc. traditions, who also are seeking union with the Divine and are working to infuse the Sacred in our earthly world. What I am told is that-although some courts of Hasidics are less demonstrative, Lubavitcher Hasidics are very clear about reaching out to all people with warmth and love. They do in fact honor the Divine spirit in all.