The Hasidic movement began in the 18th century in Eastern European Jewish communities as the teachings of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (also known as the Baal Shem Tov or “Master of the Good Name”) spread like spiritual wildfire among the masses of impoverished Jews. Beginning as an attempt to open the Jewish religion more to the common people, Hasidism moved away from a focus on strict execution of rituals to the experience of the divine presence in everyday life. With an emphasis on God’s closeness to everyone, Hasidism made living a richly fulfilling Jewish religious life more accessible to the masses. It became incredibly popular.
Today there are many groups within the Hasidic movement, and all are united by a philosophy of joyful observance of God’s commandments, heartfelt prayer, and boundless love for God and the world God created. All Hasidim are Torah-observing Jews, keeping the same Orthodox laws as other observing Jews. This includes keeping kosher, observing the Jewish Sabbath, saying daily prayers, and keeping Jewish holy days.
Each Hasidic group is led by its own Rebbe. The Rebbe is is usually but not necessarily a rabbi, but is a saintly mystic who is seen to be more enlightened and have a closer relationship with God. He advises his followers on all matters and is the spiritual master of the group. Because each group follows their own Rebbe, beliefs and practices, such as style of service, customs, and style of dress, can differ from group to group. Therefore, something that is accepted by one group may be rejected by another. For example, some Hasidim believe that creating any visual representation of a creature (ie: a painting of a person) is forbidden, whereas for others it would be considered alright so long as it is not worshipped.
The modern Hasidic movement is sometimes referred to as Ultra-Orthodox, representing a shift in the practice back to the strict adherence to law and ritual that Hasidism originally rose to soften. Because of this there is now a “Neo-Hasidic” movement, stepping back from the formalities and returning to the basic principle of the closeness of God through experiencing the divine presence in everything around and inside us. These differences demonstrate the simple fact that Hasidic groups include a wide variety of individuals with different beliefs and preferences, much like other religious groups.
My Name Is Asher Lev runs at Pacific Theatre until February 25