I received the following question and thought it might be something others have wondered about as well. I know the answer is more complicated than can be properly treated over a short Facebook message, but I think it is a start.

Question: Hi! I have a question about the different sects of chassidut… These sects of chassidut that nowadays throw rocks at women when they wear bright colors etc…how did they become like that if originally the Baal Shem tov’s stance was all about love and kindness?

Answer: Hi! And thanks for reaching out! It’s a great question. First off, it is difficult to say with absolute certainty that the “rock throwers” are specifically from the Chassidic camp. (Many of the “extremists” in the Meah She’arim area are not Chassidim at all but rather Yerushalmi, some originally descendant from the Perushim – Jews from Lithuania who settled there before the Chassidim arrived en mass in the holy land.) Regarding those Chassidim who are indeed known to be “kanoyim” against the Israeli State etc. – oftentimes, their actions are caricatures of the approach of their Rebbes, who had the spiritual maturity and piety to feel strongly about the inaction or sinful behavior of other Jews without this impinging one iota on their overflowing love and kindness toward each and every Jew. On the contrary, much of this rhetoric poured forth from a broken heart bursting with love for Hashem and intense recognition of the holiness packed into the Jewish soul to the point of being unable to sit idly by as their brothers and sisters suffered spiritually without even knowing it. Naturally, their Chassidim were often unable to perpetuate these opinions with the requisite nuance, to the point that the yetzer hara “garbed himself in mitzvos” and compelled them to use these opinions as an outlet for the basest human drives in ways the original tzaddikim would never have dreamed.

In addition, while it is of course impossible to generalize, I think it is accurate to say that much of Chassidus today is a far cry from the Baal Shem’s original vision. While certain influences remained and even strengthened over the years (largely for better, though sometimes for worse), the consciousness of Chassidic thought has become somewhat obscured due to the influence of the Yeshiva system/curriculum on Chassidic schools which has resulted in the almost total non-existence of the actual study of Chassidus in depth. (This was something the Lubavitcher Rebbe zy”a often bemoaned.) Chabad and Breslov are still very strong in the actual study of Chassidus, which is part of the reason these particular schools of thought have such influence today. Unlike many other Chassidusin today, these are primarily movements not of culture, but of ideas. And those ideas are absolutely imperative to embodying the ideals of the Baal Shem Tov’s vision. When you put the lack of actual study of Chassidic philosophy together with an extremist and convoluted engagement with the pained sentiments of true tzaddikim whose zealous cries were saturated with the deepest love, you get Chassidim acting (with perhaps the best of intentions!) in a manner that is entirely antithetical to the basic and primary messages of Chassidus. This is all obviously very unfortunate and sad.

However, this having all been said, I think it is appropriate to apply here a foundational teaching of the Baal Shem. The Baal Shem Tov taught: If a Jew perceives a blemish in the behavior of another Jew, it is a message from heaven that he or she suffers from a bit of this problem as well. So when we notice the incongruence between the ideals and actions of these chassidim, the Baal Shem himself would have us immediately look inward and ask: “What about me? Are my actions always in total alignment with my ideals? How can I improve?” Then, when we work on ourselves, this will be”H spill over into the lives of others – to elevate, to uplift, and to inspire.

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R’ Yaakov Klein is the founder of the Lost Princess Initiative, an author, musician, and lecturer devoted to sharing the inner light of Torah through his books, music, and lectures.

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