This past summer, I had the opportunity to learn about Hasidsim and Mitnagdim. We started out by discussing the role of the Ba'al Shem Tov (Besht) in the founding of Hasidsim. Scholars debate the nature of the role that he played in founding this movement. One opinion maintains that the Besht began teaching to a small group of followers, the "inner circle," and that then it was those of this inner circle who went out and spread the teachings of the Besht to the larger population. This serves as a contrast to the idea that the Besht went out and preached to the masses. (For more information about the Shivchei ha-Besht, a primary source concerning the Besht, see this previous post).
We then went on to discuss the founding of the Lubavitch movement, by its founder R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi. To get an example of the teachings of Habad, we looked at a small section of the Tanya, technically titled Likutei Amurim, but termed the Tanya because of the first word with which it starts. Today, the Tanya gets widely studied by Habad Hasidim.
We then moved on to study the Mitnagdim, those who for various reasons opposed the emergence of the Hasidic movement. One accusation: the Hasidim allegedly performed a type of handstand before praying! Other concerns raised included the de-emphasis on scholarly learning in favor of worship of G-d. Associated with the opposition stood the Vilna Gaon. Again, here arises the question as to the nature of his involvement in the dispute, but sources indicate that he played a role. His student, R' Hayyim of Volozhin, also disagreed with the Hasidic movement, but did so less strongly.
Prior to this, I hadn't known much about the history of the emergence of Hasidism, so I found it fascinating to learn about this part of our history, which is part of our collective heritage.
Some of the readings for the course included:
Rosman, Moshe. Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Hundert, Gershon David. Essential Papers on Hasidism. New York: New York University Press, 1991.
Scholem, Gershon. The Messianic idea in Judaism and other essays on Jewish spirituality. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.
Etkes, Immanuel. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2005.
Etkes, Immanuel. The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Rapoport-Albert, Ada. Hasidism Reappraised. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1996.