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How the Chassidic Revolution Shook Society

How the Chassidic Revolution Shook Society


Every so often the plates of society shift so fiercely that a volcanic transformation takes place. Take, for example, the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The changes to agriculture and manufacturing were so profound that eventually every aspect of life was influenced in some way. Around the same time another great revolution was unfolding: the 18th-century “Chassidic Revolution.” The very fabric of Jewish society was forever altered by its powerful impression.

A culture of emotional comatoseness and lethargy plagued Jewish livingOne man is responsible for this revolution: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760). He was supported by a group of fellow clandestine Kabbalists who carried down a tradition from the great Kabbalist, the Arizal. The group urged the Baal Shem Tov to go public as a global mentor.

Unlike other revolutions, the Chassidic Revolution did not introduce new beliefs. It only re-emphasized some basic tenets of Jewish faith and philosophy that had taken a back burner due to extreme suffering and anti-Semitism. A culture of emotional comatoseness and lethargy plagued Jewish living, until the Baal Shem Tov inspired a mass “re-Jew-venation.”

Of the basic tenets that he reintroduced, the most well known, perhaps, is the emphasis on joy. Later, one of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples expressed his master’s sentiment by saying, “Although depression is not a sin per se, it leads to the worst of sins.” Sing, dance, smile—do what it takes to put yourself in a place of joy!

Many of Rabbi Israel’s contemporaries were taken aback by his radical emphasis on happiness. They felt joy to be appropriate only after spiritual accomplishments. But if one was lacking—and aren’t we all lacking?—then joy might breed complacency. Nonetheless, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov maintained his commitment to its importance and its Jewishness.

In the latter part of the Book of Deuteronomy G‑d rebukes His people, saying as follows:

Because you did not serve G‑d, your G‑d, with joy and gladness of heart when you had an abundance of everything—you will serve your enemies whom G‑d will send against you . . . (Deuteronomy 28:47–48)

What is G‑d’s critique? Not that He wasn’t being served, but that He wasn't served with joy. It was a somber and listless service. Evidently G‑d did not only expect the joy that is an outgrowth of accomplishment, but the joy that is the beginning, the end and the very backbone of our contribution to G‑d’s world.

One fallacy that breeds depression is the sense that we need an external reason to be happyIn a country where almost 20 million of us suffer from depressive disorders, where the joke is that we’d all benefit from a little Prozac diluted in our city waters, happiness is a serious problem. Like any serious problem, its roots are incredibly complex, but perhaps one fallacy that breeds depression is the sense that we need an external reason to be happy. And even when we have a good reason to be happy, it too can quickly melt away into status quo and no longer give us that euphoric high.

Chassidic masters say that it’s imperative to have self-generated happiness. It’s our only shot at overcoming the constant struggles that we face in life. Personally, if I’m to have any chance of dealing with my children proactively and patiently, I need to feel upbeat. If I’m down, it’s a lost cause. Joy is the only emotional environment that is conducive to growth.

There have been many recent studies about the effect of positivity on the brain. Positive people were shown to have a broader scope of visual attention, and were more creative. Scientists at Cornell University experimented with physicians and found that when patients gave their physicians a small gift, they were better at integrating case information and less likely to become fixated on their initial ideas.

The commitment to live life with joy was given great emphasis during the Chassidic Revolution. And, like any of G‑d’s directives, it oftentimes takes tremendous commitment and self-discipline.

In 1988 the Rebbe said that the way to bring about the final global transformation and redemption is to increase in joy, with the intent of bringing the complete redemption. Just by being happy, we have power to break through our personal barriers and the barriers of exile.

Simply put—be happy. It will benefit you. It will benefit the world.

Based on Tanya, chapter 26, and the Rebbe’s talk on Shabbat Parshat Ki Teitzei 5748.

Mrs Rochel Holzkenner is a mother of four children and the co-director of Chabad of Las Olas, Fla., serving the community of young professionals. She is a high-school teacher and a freelance writer—and a frequent contributor to She lectures extensively on topics of Kabbalah and feminism, and their application to everyday life.
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Dr. Elyas F. Isaacs, Ph.D, New York, New York September 4, 2012

The Brain And Praying The brain is a remarkable organ. It collects, assesses, & evaluates data, information, &knowledge coming into it continuously. Then, with provocative bursts of energy, of biophysical activity, it passes into whatever state -- emotional serendipity or torpor -- that the driving sociopsychometric, the balance of the surrounding milieu, elicits.
Praying is the collected inspirational wisdom & the theologically, historic link to the Lord & Divine bliss which is thereby accounted & pondered to thus effect & also evoke a mental state, be it joyous harmonic ecstasy or the opposite.
Today's medical technologies allow us to see inside the brain with real time digitized image scans showing inner brain activity with its biophysical & thermodynamic processes completely visible to the human eye.
So, it is completely transparent with the celebration & love inherent with Chassidism & focus on individual Chassidut that as stated, joy & bliss follows naturally and directly outward into the world. Reply

Judy Miami Beach, FL September 3, 2012

:) Such a simple message..."be happy"...but so life changing Easier for some, but so worth working on for all. Beautifully said. Yasher koach.. Reply

R Narz Saskatoon September 2, 2012

Democratization too There is another good thing about it; that is, at the time it came about, Judaism was sliipping into a thing for the affluent only; the poor were very much left out. This was inclusive, inviting anyone and everyone to participate. Reply

Andrew Start Hull, UK August 27, 2010

How the Chassidic Revolution Shook Society Thank you and well said Rochel,

I am reading Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim and therein is a story that tells of how the joy of the Baal Shem Tov's disciples brought about what his prayers could not and lifted up his spirit also.

The Baal Shem was downcast in spirit because his prayers could not bring the moon into view and therefore he could not bless the moon and yet the joyful dancing (and I think singing) of his faithful disciples brought about what his own prayers had not been able to do.

For the sake of Heaven, may we enter His gates with joy and thanksgiving ... Reply

Zev NY,NY, NY/USA August 26, 2010

To THE CHASSIDIC REVOLUTION With all due respect I don't think the author was faulting those with the proven medical condition known as clinical depression.

I think this article is directed to those everyday people who are not in a deep, dark pit of unhappiness, but are people who mistakenly believe that they should be down and unethusiastic about life unless there is some external thing to be happy and excited about.

True joy must come from being at peace with oneself. Real joy comes from within. Reply

Anonymous w August 24, 2010

powerful message You know, if i could remember to say the Modeh Ani and after reciting it say " i'm am going to will myself to be happy ", and then in fact develop a positive perspective to the day, life would be grand. I think that i just need a year or two to get over some hurdles. But then if i remember that a happy mind is a better mind, a sense of urgency pops up. Thanks for the message. I'll try to remember to work at it. It would be pretty cool if this web site had a happy voice to give wake up calls. My telephone number is ... Reply

Anonymous Manchester, U.K August 24, 2010

tHE CHASSIDIC REVOLUTION This is a great explanation for those of us who want to know what is special about this "brand" of Judaism. It focuses on very positive elements of the religion but unfortunately it does not recognize that true clinical depression is often due to an imbalance of hormones or chemicals in the body and seems to suggest that the individual is always at fault for not "snapping themselves out of it." We need to have compassion and provide support within the community for people who fall into this spiraling pit of darkness. Sometimes recovery cannot occur without the intervention of medication; homeopathic or conventional and therapy. Positive thinking is very much part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy so there is a link there. Reply

Mariam Bahawalpur, Pakistan August 24, 2010

Rejoice Great ! I am blessed through this article.
To be happy is to be grateful to The Almighty. Reply

Learn about the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century mystic who permanently changed the Jewish landscape.
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