Europe in the 18th century saw the rise of a new, influential movement in Judaism. It rose out of a situation in which Talmud learning became not only the pinnacle of Jewish study but also a measure of Jewish masculinity. A great man in the Jewish communities of that era was a man who was a virtuoso at Talmud study. This was also a measure of the holiness of a man: only a scholar could aspire to holiness.
While every young Jewish boy learned a little bit in cheder [basic religious school,] only a few moved on to yeshiva learning, and even fewer would excel at it. For many poorer boys, unless they were highly talented and their talent came to the attention of someone influential, they were locked out of any aspiration to holiness as it was defined at the time.
According to the Virtual Jewish Library:
Although contemporary Jews often use the word “Hasid” as a synonym for ultra-Orthodox, Hasidism, a religious movement that arose in eighteenth century Eastern Europe, was originally regarded as revolutionary and religiously liberal.
Hasidism was a movement that grew up to challenge the notion of holiness that held up scholarship as the only avenue to holiness. It focused on the emotional side of Judaism and on a mystical, emotional reaching towards God. Its founder, Israel Ben Eliezer, also know as the Ba’al Shem Tov [Master of the Good Name] was a healer and a leader who taught that God was all around us, and that the proper way to respond to the presence of God is joy. Much of his teaching took the form of stories.
I have just lately discovered a wonderful resource online for Hasidic stories. HasidicStories.com offers many stories as well as articles that provide a context in which to understand the stories. It includes stories from a number of teachers, including the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev and others. The website makes for some delightful reading and points towards other resources as well.
(In case you are wondering, the scholarly Jews who opposed Hasidism in the early days were known as Mitnagdim or “Opponents.” Later, the two groups reunited. For more about that, I recommend the article in the Virtual Jewish Library. Today, many students from all movements of Judaism study old Hasidic stories for insights into Torah.)
Image: The synagogue of the Ba’al Shem Tov in Medzhibozh, Ukraine. Public Domain.