Neo-Hasidism is an approach by non-Hasidic Jews to spiritually enhance their practice of Judaism by drawing upon the teachings and practices of various Hasidic groups — especially Chabad, Breslov, the Piaseczno Rebbe, and the Slonimer Rebbe — but without having to conform to a particular Hasidic group’s entire ideology and norms, nor to Orthodox Judaism.
Neo-Hasidism’s Recent Growth
Over the past dozen or so years there has been an uptick in the number of Jewish spiritual seekers turning to Hasidic texts and practices for spiritual enhancement. Some of these are active members of a denominational movement, while others are unaffiliated. Additionally, it is not uncommon for the younger generation of Conservative and Reform rabbis to study a Hasidic text one-on-one with the local Chabad rabbi every week.
Neo-Hasidism is especially growing in the modern Orthodox world. One example of this is a few years ago Yeshiva University hired Moshe Rabbi Weinberg, who is looked upon as a neo-Hasidic Rebbe figure, to be one of its spiritual mentors for its students. Sometimes modern Orthodox Jews use the term “neo-Chassidus” to differentiate themselves from non-Orthodox neo-Hasidism.
A Brief History of the Original Hasidism
Before delving more into some of the basic teachings and practices of Hasidism, it is beneficial to review some basic history of the original Hasidic movement. Hasidism began in the early 1700s with the Baal Shem Tov as a response, in part, to the idea that had risen over the previous few hundred years in which the Talmud scholar was seen as the ideal Jew and the other 99% were inferior Jews, and the economic context was living in poverty. This milieu fit with the greater Medieval European dichotomy of rich Nobles and poor peasants.
The Baal Shem Tov was counter cultural in teaching that God loves every Jew no matter their level of Talmudic scholarship or piety, and he advocated the importance of praying with concentration and in doing the mitzvot with joy. The Baal Shem Tov also took deep Kabalistic, or mystical, teachings and taught these in a “digested form” to the masses of which such wisdom became known as Hasidut. The Baal Shem Tov’s primary disciple was the Maggid of Mezeritch, and the Maggid’s students became the first generation of Hasidic Rebbe’s. Each Rebbe perpetuated the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings in their own style and further revealed Hasidut.
The Beginnings of Neo-Hasidism
Hillel Zeitlin (1871–1942) and Martin Buber (1878-1965) are credited as the originators of neo-Hasidism since they were the first to present Hasidism to the Jewish populous through their writings. Neo-Hasidism emerged in the United States with the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1950’s), with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s outreach efforts, and more formally with the founding of Havurat Shalom (1968) by Rabbis Art Green and Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, as well as the latter creating the Jewish Renewal movement. Though, the Jewish Renewal movement progressed into mixing in Eastern spiritual practices.
Of paramount importance in neo-Hasidism is the study of Hasidic texts. Hasidic texts discuss topics such as how and why the world was created, the mission of the Jewish people, how Free Choice and Divine Providence can occur simultaneously, how to reduce one’s ego, as well as mystical insights on concepts such as Tzedakah and Teshuvah (repentance), as well as on selected prayers, selected episodes in the Torah, selected Jewish laws, and selected aspects of each of the Jewish holidays and festivals. The more one internalizes Hasidic teachings the more s/he develops an intoxication of Divinity and a Divine worldview which are catalysts for being joyful.
(For an example of a Hasidic teaching about Passover, see: Joel Hoffman, “Pesach Cleaning and Spirituality,” Times of Israel Blog, March 31, 2017.)
- The Jewish Soul
An important theological teaching of Hasidism, which is taken from Jewish Mysticism, is that everything has a soul–-humans, animals, trees and even rocks—which is called an Animal Soul. A Jew, however, also has a “Jewish Soul.” The former wants the body to excessively consume food and drink, engage in uninhibited sex, and spend its free-time in mindless entertainment. (Akin to much of American society today.) The Jewish Soul, however, wants the body to engage in activities which are Godly. How to tame one’s Animal Soul and activate one’s Jewish Soul–which includes contemplating and developing one’s Love and Fear of God and contributes to refining one’s character—are discussed at length in Tanya, the manifesto of the Chabad approach of Hasidut.
How to obtain happiness, or joyfulness, is a major theme in Hasidic texts. In short, the answer lies in a person: (a) recognizing and appreciating everything s/he has and that is comes from God; (b) knowing that one’s purpose as a Jew is to do God’s will which is fulfilled through mitzvot, and in doing so, this helps bring the world closer to perfection; and (c) keeping in mind that God runs the world at the micro-level, therefore, every seemingly bad thing that happens to a person s/he not only handle, but is actually for their benefit. Thus, one should always be happy!
It literally takes years of study to understand the theological underpinnings of these teachings, as well as count-less hours of reflection and practice to integrate them towards growing more and more joyful. The more the effort, the more the joyful.
(For more on how to obtain happiness, see: Joel Hoffman, “Judaism’s Recipe for Happiness,” Times of Israel Blog, May 6, 2018.)
- Serving God via the Mundane
Hasidism teaches that every moment is an opportunity for serving God, and our actions, no matter how mundane, contributes either positively or negatively to the universe. For example, when the copy machine at work jams on a person s/he could walk away or s/he could un-jam the copy machine. By doing the later, this further refines the person and brings more of what the Kabbalists call Godly “light” into the world.
(For more on the concept of serving God via the mundane, see: Joel Hoffman, “Why Do the 10 Commandments Begin With an Egyptian Word,” Times of Israel Blog, May 13, 2014.)
Praying like a Hasid
How Hasidim pray was one of the major distinctions between Hasidism and the rest of the Jewish community. Today when it comes to praying, a rabbi’s/cantor’s voice, guitar-playing, and the melodies contribute to facilitating an “emotional-based” spirituality. In fact, “Carlebach-style” prayer services have become a standard practice of neo-Hasidism.
Every Hasid, however, knows that through prayer one can reach even a higher level of spirituality than an emotional-based spirituality. A higher-level “cognitive-based” spirituality requires preparation prior to praying and having the proper mindfulness when praying. Therefore, Hasidism teaches that before praying in the morning one should study a Hasidic text on the immanence of God, Divine providence, the purpose of prayer, etc., and then to contemplate on the material studied when praying. By doing so, over time one’s prayer experiences become more transformative.
Rebbe Nachman’s Outpouring of the Soul was compiled for the purpose of getting in the right frame of mind before praying, and, almost every Chabad House has a class on a Hasidic text the hour before morning prayer services begin.
A popular Hasidic practice is a Farbrengen – which is a “get together” in which wordless melodies called niggun’im (niggun, singular) are chanted and Hasidic teachings and stories are shared. Who doesn’t enjoy a good Hasidic story! Farbrengen’s usually occur on special days in the Hasidic calendar, and its purpose is to inspire one to be a better Jew.
A Hasidic practice that was taught by Rabbi Nachman is Hitbodedut. Hitbodedut entails an individual going into the woods alone and having a deeply-personal conversation with God in their native language. The formality of the synagogue and prayer book are not there, it’s just you and God. The original Breslover Hasidim used to do this every day for an hour, while today the norm is once a week, and many neo-Hasidim engage in variants of this practice. For example, every chance I get I ride my mountain bike on the trails in the woods near my house, and whenever I do I stop and daven Mincha among the trees. When davenning Mincha when I reach the Shema Kolaynu blessing in which one can add their own prayers, I engage in a Hitbodedut conversation with God. I only do so for about five minutes, but it is a spiritually uplifting experience.
Additionally, there are literally thousands of Hasidic customs that enhance the performance of mitzvot. A couple of these include using an oil Chanukah menorah and using shemurah matzah for the Passover seders.
The Next Step
If one wants to infuse their life with more spirituality s/he may find exploring Hasidic teachings and practices to be worthwhile, but in doing so this does not mean one needs to grow payot (sidecurls), nor wear a shtreimel, nor become Orthodox. A recommended first couple of next steps are to read a good introductory book on Hasidism such as Rabbi Menachem M. Shneerson’s On the Essence of Chasidus, and to experience a couple of Shabbat meals at a Chabad’s rabbi’s house. From this one will have a base from which to, as the saying goes, “grow in Hasidus.”