Hassidism: Religious optimism against religious extremism

The present generation needs to believe optimistically that the growing strength of religious extremists must fail.

A growing body of medical evidence indicates that people who are optimistic and trusting, have stronger immune systems and recover more rapidly and fully from major trauma, than those who are skeptical and distrustful. Painful experiences are natural and normal.

They usually leave us with an unconscious fear that they will reoccur. This anxiety weakens our resolve to recover when we face new traumas. Even worse, we hesitate to live and love as fully as we should, so that we suffer loss even if nothing bad ever reoccurs.

Religious insights that derive from powerful spiritual experiences can help us overcome these anxieties by directing our attention to new and different ways of seeing things. People who change their perspective and become more hopeful prior to negative situations will diminish their negative effects; and may even avoid experiencing them.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber asserted more than a half century ago that, “the purpose of all great religions and religious movements is to engender a life of elation and fervor which no (later negative) experience can dampen and stifle.” In this light I offer a sample of Hassidic insights that can inspire both hope and faith.

One of the most important teachings of Hassidic Rabbis was not to worry about the future or sacrifice present joy because you fear it will not last very long. After all, most things people worry about never occur.

The Baal Shem Tov’s (1700-1760) great grandson Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772 –1810) taught his disciples “The whole world is one long narrow bridge, so it is essential not to let yourself become fearful.” and “You are wherever your thoughts are. Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.”

He also said: “Always remember that joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.”

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov also taught, “Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.”

Most late Medieval rabbis thought of the Yetzer HaRa exclusively in terms of a negative force. Hassidic rabbis, who placed great emphasis on the virtue of joy in one’s religious life, had a much more balanced view of the Yetzer HaRa than their Orthodox opponents.

The Baal Shem Tov taught: “Turn from evil and do good (Psalms 34:15) means; Turn evil into good, because evil is the raw (untamed) material of good”; and his disciple Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch said: “In every evil there is good”.

And Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye said: “The deeds of evil people are the starting point of the deeds of the righteous.”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said: “There are times when the Yetzer HaRa grabs people through their tears.”

Rabbi Moshe Sadlkov said: “One who is wise learns from everyone; even from the Yetzer HaRa Impulse”

Rabbi David of Lelov said: “The Yetzer HaRa often can drive people to do good deeds; but as their zeal grows these people find they have destroyed all in their path.”

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said: “The Yetzer HaRa looms large among (Yeshivah) sages to induce them to invent whole new sets of restrictions.”

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin taught: The Evil Urge sometimes appears as a penitent and saint, teaching piety, repentance and self-denial. This is still against God’s will…the Evil Urge will tell one to practice self-denial. If you think about it you will discover that the main motivation is just to make a show of piety.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said: “Instead of adding severity to Jewish law. it would be better to add awe of God to doing Mitsvot.”

The Kotzker also said “A Hasid fears God. A Mitnaged fears the Shukhan Arukh.”

In today’s world of fanaticism and extremism in the name of God, the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav ,the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, should be continually repeated by all teachers of true religious devotion, “Never insist that everything go exactly your way, even in matters spiritual.” Even saints can be overly righteous and thus have their shortcomings as the following narrative shows.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin died in a most tragic manner. A Cossack shot him in the leg while he was saying the Shabbat morning prayers. His disciple Rabbi Asher wanted the bullet removed right away (as Jewish law allows) but Rabbi Shlomo refused. He said he would wait until after Shabbat was over, arguing: ‘should we forget God the creator of the universe for such a small thing?’

After Shabbat was over they went to a doctor, but by then the leg was infected. The infection spread and five days later Rabbi Shlomo died. He was 56. Perhaps with him in mind Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchov said: “When the Evil Urge tries to tempt people to sin, it tempts them to become super righteous.”

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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