Hassidism was founded in the eighteenth century by Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer of Medzhibozh – better known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, or “Besht” – in the wake of the Khmelnitsky Massacres and Sabbateanism. Preaching the fundamental value of emotional religious fervor, appreciation of Godliness in the mundane, and the profundity of simple piety, Hassidism quickly took European Jewry by storm, attracting thousands of followers even as it became the subject of significant controversy. As Hassidic philosophy and its modes of practice came under fire from many great eighteenth-century rabbinic figures, the division between Hassidim and Mitnagdim (anti-Hassidic Jews) shook the European Jewish community to its core.
In the modern day and age, Hassidism thrives as one of the most vibrant strands of Orthodox Jewry. The teachings, values, and holistic spirituality of Hassidic doctrine have had far-reaching influence in the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. Hassidim make up a significant component of the Jewish population throughout the world, and an increasing number of students on Yeshiva University campuses identify as either Hassidic or neo-Hassidic.
It is the belief of the editors of Kol Hamevaser that the tools and resources of the academy can serve as both an enriching complement to traditional Torah learning and a gateway to enhanced depth of avodat Hashem (service of God). The goal of this issue of Kol Hamevaser is to explore the history and philosophy of Hassidism from a perspective that is at once academic and anchored in an underlying adherence to Halakhic Judaism. In this volume, the reader will find articles exploring the approaches of Hassidic masters to topics of parshanut (Torah commentary), aggada (homiletics), and mahshavah (Jewish philosophy): Leah Klahr discusses the esoteric notion of tzimtzum (Divine contraction); Yisrael Ben Porat presents a Hassidic perspective on Hazal’s conception of Keri’at Yam Suf (the Splitting of the Reed Sea); Tzvi Benoff contemplates Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s approach to Rashi’s use of Targum Onqelos in light of expanded historical evidence; and Judy Leserman probes the spiritual value of music from the standpoint of Habad Hassidut. Additionally, the reader will also find articles touching on the influence of Hassidic themes and teachings upon the contemporary broader Jewish milieu, as in Yehuda Fogel’s study of the late Elie Wiesel as a storyteller and Netanel Paley’s reflection on the current state of spirituality at Yeshiva University.
It is the sincere hope of our writers and editors that this issue of Kol Hamevaser will enhance the reader’s general knowledge and appreciation of this important topic in Jewish thought, and will serve as both a catalyst and an entryway to the further pursuit of its study.