Question: "What is Hasidic Judaism? What do Hasidic Jews believe?"
Answer: Hasidic (or Chasidic) Judaism is a conservative branch of Haredi Judaism, which is itself a branch of Orthodox Judaism. Thus, Hasidic Jews are Orthodox, although they differ from Orthodox Jews in some respects. The word Hasidic comes from the Hebrew word chesed, meaning “lovingkindness.” The Hasidim are literally “those who do good deeds for others.” They are known for their separated living, their devotion to a dynastic leader, their exuberant, joyful worship, and their distinctive dress. Hasidic Jews believe that prayer and acts of lovingkindness are means of reaching God. Hasidic philosophy is less ritualistic than other branches of Judaism, and it places a greater emphasis on emotion, warmth, and inclusiveness.
Hasidic Judaism arose in Poland about 1740 during a time of persecution against the Jews. Hasidism was founded by Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, also known as the Besht, short for Baal Shem Tov, meaning “Master of the Good Name.” His message was to have the consciousness of the presence of the Almighty God at all times and in all things so that even the most mundane tasks were sanctified. There was and remains a strong mystical element in Hasidic Judaism, and some Hasidic teachings come from Kabbalah.
The Hasidic community was actually excommunicated by the Talmudic scholar Vilna Gaon of Lithuania in 1777. The Hasidic community responded by excommunicating Vilna Gaon. In the meantime, the political and economic situation in Poland had changed, and the Russian tsar controlled the Hasidim. Ultimately, the Hasidim developed a great value on being “Torah True.” Many small groups rose up within Hasidic Judaism and developed unique characteristics. After World War II and the Holocaust, many Hasidic groups migrated to America or Israel. Today, the largest of these groups is based in Brooklyn, New York.
The appearance of Hasidic men particularly sets them apart. Traditionally, a married Hasidic man wears a long beard, braids of hair hanging down from his temples, a dark suit, and on the Sabbath a large fur hat called a shtreimel. The Hasidim believe that their dress proclaims that they are servants of God. It reminds non-Jews and themselves that they are part of a religious discipline that appreciates separateness.
There is probably little difference in the fundamental beliefs between Orthodox Judaism and Hasidic Judaism. There is great distinction between the two lifestyles and religious practices. The Hasidim carefully keep the Torah commandments and Talmudic instructions in all areas, even in those less suitable for modern Western society.
One area of disagreement between Hasidic Judaism and Orthodox Judaism regards the current State of Israel. The Hasidim do not believe that the nation should exist unless it is under the direct control of the Messiah. Unfortunately, they reject the idea that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11).