What is a chassid?
A fairly accurate rule of thumb is that if your question can be answered with one answer, then you haven’t asked much of a question. A truly significant question will always provoke numerous, different, and even contrasting answers. Here are some of the answers that appear in the writings and teachings of the chassidic masters to address the question of “what is a chassid”:
1) A chassid is pious. This definition actually predates the modern chassidic movement by many centuries: according to the Talmud, a “chassid” is a person who fulfills his or her duties toward G‑d and fellow “beyond the line of the law”—beyond what is commanded and obligatory.
2) A chassid is selfless. A chassid is a person who will forgo his own needs for the sake of another’s. In fact, a chassid will go so far as to sacrifice her own spiritual betterment for the sake of a fellow’s material benefit (though the distinction has gotten a bit complicated after Chassidism’s founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, declared that “the physical life of a Jew is a spiritual thing”).
3) A chassid is a mystic. A chassid doesn’t just study Kabbalah—she also understands it. Chassidic teaching takes the deepest secrets of Torah—concepts and narratives that, through the ages, were revealed to only a select few sages in every generation—and makes them accessible and comprehensible to every individual, and applicable in every individual’s life.
4) A chassid is alive. A chassid does everything with vitality, joy and passion.
5) A chassid is a revolutionary. A chassid never accepts the status quo. The fact that something is a certain way doesn’t mean that it should remain that way; in fact, it probably means that it’s here to be improved, transformed, reinvented. This includes the chassid’s own self. The chassid is a person who wakes up each morning and says to himself: I feel this way? Then perhaps I must change the way I feel. The world thinks this way? Then we must change the world’s thinking. A chassid believes that it’s not enough to behave a certain way and do certain things; rather, a person’s task in life is to recreate himself and remake the world.
What is the common denominator of all the above descriptions of the chassid? That a chassid is someone who relates to the soul of a thing rather than to its body, to its inner essence rather than its external manifestations.
Thus a chassid is a pious person—one who goes “beyond the line of the law” in his duties toward G‑d and man.
There are “external” reasons to do the right thing. Violating the laws of society can land one in prison, while a moral and virtuous life earns the respect and support of one’s family and community. Violating G‑d’s laws can incur divine wrath and retribution, and fulfilling G‑d’s commandments will certainly bring much reward in this world and the next. But as long as we’re talking carrots and sticks, we’re looking at life from the outside in. We are saying: what are the external factors and circumstances that are telling me to do this?
And when we look at life from the outside in, we do what we must do. No more. Whether we act out of fear of punishment or desire for reward or in quest of “fulfillment,” we do whatever it takes to avoid being punished or get rewarded or achieve fulfillment, no more.
The chassid, however, lives life from the inside. When a chassid does a mitzvah—when a chassid prays, or lights Chanukah candles, or does a favor for a fellow—the chassid does it because that is what, who and why he is. And when you do something because it’s what, who and why you are, you do it in the best, most beautiful, most complete and most absolute way. You do it perfectly; you do it more than perfectly.
Thus the chassid is full of life, joy and passion.
When you do something because you must, you do it because you must. But when you do something from the inside, you do it joyously. Your excitement fills the room and infects everyone within a five-mile radius. The very deed glows with life.
Thus a chassid is selfless. Because if every soul is “literally a part of G‑d above,” what is the “self”? Simply one expression of the common essence we all share.
Looking from the outside in, one sees millions and billions of distinct “selves,” each with its own needs and wants, wills and wiles. Hence difference. Hence conflict. Hence selfishness.
Looking from the inside out, we are all one. Helping you is as “selfish” as helping myself.
Thus the chassid is a mystic. “Secrets” are a product of an external perspective. When you stand outside of something and look at it from the outside in, there are revealed parts and hidden parts, accessible areas and arcane areas. A piece of knowledge may be “literary,” “legal,” “philosophical,” “inspirational,” “metaphorical,” “scientific,” “theological,” or any of the other handles the mind contrives to get a handle on a truth. Some aspects are “logical,” others less so; some aspects are “practical,” others less so. But when you’re looking from the inside, all these parts, areas, dimensions, aspects and forms are just the various expressions of the all-embracing core truth.
The chassid reaches for the essence of Torah. The chassid looks at Torah from the inside out. For the chassid, there are no secrets. No truth is too arcane to be granted admittance to the mind, no truth too spiritual to be applied in daily life.
A chassid is someone who relates to the soul of a thing rather than to its body, to its inner essence rather than its external manifestations.
Thus a chassid is a revolutionary.
Looking from the outside in, “reality” is the way things are. Looking from the inside out, reality is the way things are supposed to be.
Because G‑d, after all, created this world. Created it for a purpose. And G‑d said: This is what I made, and this is what I want you to make of what I made. When you look at yourself, when you look at your world, what you’re seeing is not My inner intent for creation—just the raw materials I laid out for you to work with. Look deeper and you’ll see the potential I put inside—the purpose for which I created it.
So a chassid is not intimidated by the way things are. Because the chassid knows that that’s just the surface, the husk, the outer skin. So the chassid puts on his x-ray goggles, rolls up his sleeves, and gets to work.