Throughout the 18th century, various pietistic movements developed that appealed to the needs of the Jewish masses for a more devotional and joyous approach to their religion. The most successful of these was Hasidism, which may have developed partly in reaction to the scientific rationalism of the day — influenced not only by the Jewish rationalist philosopher Spinoza but also by Sir Isaac Newton and his mechanical model of the universe. The movement was pioneered in 1735 by Israel ben Eliezer, known familiarly as the Ba’al Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name,” c. 1700-60) or by the acronym Besht. Not strictly rabbinic, the Besht was more in the tradition of the ba’al shem, a kind of wandering holy man who worked outside the mainstream, like the Hindu sadhu or Taoist feng shui, and who sometimes employed white magic, made charms and amulets, and exorcised evil spirits from the possessed. The Ba’al Shem Tov was an ecstatic mystic whose devotional approach fed the people’s need for an emotional, love-based religion. But his teaching that love and doing good works was more important than following the letter of the Law offended many orthodox Talmudists, known as Mitnagdim, or “Opponents.” In particular, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, better known as the Vilna Gaon (“Genius of Vilna,” 1720-97), the unofficial spiritual leader of Lithuanian and Russian Jewry, opposed the movement and had Hasidism banned. Still it continued to spread rapidly all over Poland and Lithuania, across Eastern Europe and around the world, until almost half of all Jewry was Hasidic. But as the liberalization of Jewish law toward the end of the 18th century was perceived as a threat by both the Hasidim and Mitnagdim, the two groups closed ranks. Hasidism merged with the rabbinic mainstream and stands today as a bastion of Orthodox Judaism, a somewhat closed society with a slightly antiquated style of dress.
Then as now, however, Hasidic communities employed music and dance, often leading to ecstatic states similar to those sought by Sufi dervishes or Christian Pentecostals. The Ba’al Shem also developed a kind of spontaneous prayer based on divine possession, and promoted a direct communion between the faithful and God, sidestepping the priestly or rabbinic class. In its place he restored and transformed the ancient concept of the zaddik (pl. zaddikim, “righteous”)–a superior man or saint, not necessarily a rabbi, who could intercede for the people with God. This charismatic figure, sometimes called a rebbe, dispensed wisdom and, like the ba’al shems of old, created amulets and talismans to ward off evil spirits and grant wishes. Under his successor, Dov Baer of Mezrich (1710-72), the zaddik became central to Hasidism.
Like great mystics before them, the Hasidim found God in the most mundane activities and practiced “physical worship,” praising God not through prayer and asceticism but in profane activities such as eating, sleeping, and making love. The goal was the same as it was for the Kabbalists: devekut, or mystical union, and the Besht taught that any act performed with devekut in mind would lead to ecstasy.