7/10/2005

On the Origins of Chasidut

This is a bit of a history lesson, though it should be obvious that it’s also current events.

As is well, known, the Rabbinic establishment, especially in Lithuania, but in plently of other places as well, were vehemently opposed to Chasidism during its rise, and the leading lights of the generation went so far as to excommunicate the early Chasidim. Why? What was the problem?

The most common answers are that the opposition was ideological. While there were definitely ideological differences, to suggest that as the reason for the fierce opposition is naïve.

The issue was power. For hundreds of years, money and Rabbinic power had been concentrated into the hands of an elite group of families who controlled the ‘Va’ad Arba Aratzot’, the recognized organ of Jewish semi-autonomy in Poland/Lithuania. In other words, the Rabbis and their allies (generally relatives) in the Jewish elite had REAL power, real control over all communal institutions, purse strings, access to the government, and access to good education for their children – the vehicle by which they could perpetuate the whole thing. Exceptions notwithstanding, we all know what happens to those in power over the long haul (read Jacob Katz’s Teadition and Crisis for more on this).

Chasidut’s major ‘crime’ was in creating an alternative power base. They created new institutions, new outlets for Jewish money, and new allegiances. It was a major contributor to the erosion of Rabbinic power (to the point that real Rabbinic power became so non-existent, that they had to create the false power known as ‘Da’as Torah’; remember, as long as the Pope was also a King, he had no need for a Doctrine of Infallibility).

Truth is, the opponents were right! Chasidut WAS a threat! It DID erode the Rabbinic power base! Ultimately, though, the flaw lay with a system that had become too inviting for corruption. The people voted with their feet. And the rest is history.

Does history repeat itself?

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