This is the subject of a piece written by Art Green in this week’s Jewish Forward. In his article, he describes how early Hasidic thinking was about love of G-d and infusing Judaism with spirit. As with any grass-roots movement, however, events occurred making it main stream, the teachings allowed for the eventuality of change and perceived loss of innocence. Hasidism became dynastic, as each court saw familial successors and Hasidism became another vehicle to stave off Enlightenment in Eastern Europe. To make matters worse for Green, post Holocaust Hasidism was highly insular, though this stemmed from a need to regroup and regrow. Green calls for a return to a “pure” Hasidic thought.
The challenge he presents is both real and naive at the same time. For many in the Modern Orthodox community, the study of hasidic thought is a means of infusing life with spirit, yet we, like Green, try to gloss over the realities of what Hasidism is about. It is about the rebbe/tzaddiq, which is described hagiographically even in the early Baal Shem Tov stories. It is about fighting modernity, for to stave off monotony, we need to constantly be finding spirit in Judaism and not outside. Hasidism is not necessarily compatible with a secular lifestyle. Its early thinking can’t be removed from the people, who were all halachically centered.
Of course, at the same time, never judge a religion by the people who practice it.