Cotopaxi, Colorado: Russian Jewish Colony



 Were the Colonists Hassidic?




Not the Milstein family. (Scroll down to see Haim Makovsky's answer to this question)




Just how religious were the Cotopaxi Colonists?

Very religious. Very pious.


A lot of people have begun reporting that the colonists were Hassidic.  I don’t agree.  I think they were Haskalah.  I’m probably not using the correct tense of these words, but I’ll muddle on.  It is one of many subjects I’m not well versed in.  Luckily, there is the Internet Brain.  This info is not difficult to find.


.  However, in religion, as with history, most people believe what they want to believe. 


Everything seems to say the Cotopaxi Jews were Haskalah, except recent histories stories.   I think my webpage, because of Flora Jane Satt’s thesis therein, is the only place you will find the colonists called Haskalah.


The question is not about the level of spirituality of the colonists. However, I assume that if a Jew is or is not Hassidic it is an important distinction to them.

It appears the Colonists were not Chassidic.  However, it seems everyone calls them Chassidic, probably as more of an attempt at a complement than at accurate history.   And this is akin in the gentile world to the saying "oh, he's a good Christian."  It's meant as a complement, but along the lines of "Hi, how are you?" or "Looks like it might rain today."  That is, the speaker is just making conversation.  


I suppose there is a difference between saying they were Chassidic in origin and Chassidic in practice.

But if it is saying they were Hassidic in practice, in addition to origin, there seems to be a conflict with Flora Jane Satt’s thesis, one way or the other.


 In Flora Jane Satts thesis, The Cotopaxi Colony, we read:

“The traceable nucleus of the group begins in the early 19th century with a movement among the inhabitants of the Pale known as "Haskalah"  or "Enlightenment",


which sought a middle road between the "fathers and sons", between the extremes of fanaticism espoused on the one hand by the "Hasidim",  and on the other hand by those who denied Judaism or cultural assimilation.  The disciples of modernation were known as the "Maskilim",


By mid-century the Maskilim concentrated their energy on combating the "Tzaddicks",8  the superstition-ridden, mystical obscurantists, chiefly by means of satire.”

Satt’s footnote # 8. Yiddish nickname for Hasidim, very orthodox.

 “One of the important leaders of this Haskalah movement within the Pale was an idealistic Volhynian, Isaac Baer Levinsohn, known as the "Moses Mendelsohn"  of Russia.

Clearly, the children of Jacob and Malka Milstein inherited a view of the Jewish problem quite different from their neighbors in Brest, and it was these same children who, by the 1860's and 1870's led the Maskilim of the province who favored secular education, a moderate religious position and the "back-to-the-land" dream.

[nelson note: Malka was the daughter of Rabbi Zalman of Zhitomir, while Milstein family patriarch Menashe Milstiein's wife, Ester Baer, was the niece of Isaac Baer Levinshohn who was a notable Russian-Hebrew scholar, satirist, writer and Haskalah leader  These relationships seem indicative that the colonists were Haskalah.]

As a child Saul imbibed the ideas of Haskalah enthusiastically, and as a young man he prepared to become a "Crown Riabbi" himself by attending the seminary at Zhitomir.

With the death of his father in 1861 Saul Baer Milstein became the spiritual leader and business advisor to many people in Brest Litovsk and in the small rural villages in the Pripet River Valley,

 In addition to Saul Baer's duties as head of a large business with branches in Grodno, Kiev, and Brody, he also taught classes in those secular subjects which were not offered in the "yeshivahs" of Brest Litovsk.

Saul Baer was much impressed with reports from America concerning the liberal Homestead Act, whose benefits could apply even to immigrants who had filed declaration of intention to become citizens.  Disappointed with the progress made by conciliation, cooperation and meekness advocated by Maskilism, he began to consider leaving Russia to begin a new life in America.”



nelson note: The Haskalah was one of the primary causes of the start of the Jewish Reform movement.

  Out of the Haskalah movement the Hebrew language was reborn, and the State of Israel was reborn.  Haskalah revolutionized the education of girls - This is evidenced in Nettie Milsteins' training in her father's business and her education.

The Haskalah were geared more toward individuals learning Hebrew and Torah. I think the Haskalah were closer to the truth.


The Hassid were more geared towards Kabbalah, Talmud, mysticism, miracles, traditions.  The Hassid taught that The Torah, could only be approached through the Talmud 


From Jen Lowe's IF-Then Blog  If you think it didn't happen

concerning the Jews of Brest Litovsk

that did not come to Cotopaxi

the Holocaust:

From Jen Lowe,

"....when you do genealogy and see that an entire family of 3 generations ALL died on the very same day.....
you know that it is real."

Out of the Haskalah movement, Jews survived.

I feel that God opened a window.  The Haskalah window. 

Haskalah Jews were given a new direction, a new mindset, that allowed them to think about and go to  places where they were safe from immediate Russian government oppression and also saved them from the future Holocaust.






I wrote Colony descendant Haim Makovsky about this question.


Below is his answer. 




"So, I think that they came from a Mitnaged background with an exposure to Haskala."



Nelson and Jennifer, Shalom,

I do not have first hand reliable information about the

Milstein-Shames traditions. What I can try to do is guess if the

terminology used by Satt and others is arbitrary or not. My gut feeling is that it is not accurate.

Hassidism is often used to describe a religiously observant Jew.

Most Hassidim are religiously observant, but many, many religiously observant are not Hassidim.

Over the centuries of being in the Diaspora, Jews have sought ways to survive in a gentile surrounding. Most of the time, they lived in separate communities or neighborhoods.

Persecution and other challenges brought rise to movements which attempted to provide "the answer" to Jewish survival.

There were false Messiahs as well as a legitimate break off movement-the Hassidim. This group promoted emphasizing external expression of Jewish life: Dress, Prayer, Music, Mysticism, Community attachment to a charismatic leader-The Rebbe.

This group was strongly criticized by the traditional, orthodox stream called the Mitnagdim. Their base is/was serious Torah study and strong emphasis on Jewish law—much less on the spiritual aspect.

Both of these are/were strictly orthodox but very strongly disagreed as to how Judaism should be expressed. They were rivals to extent that some would not talk to the others let alone live in the same areas or marry each other.

Another 19th century movement promoted the end to separation from the general society. It promoted secular education and led to the lessening of the practice of Jewish law and eventually assimilation. This was the Haskala movement.

To those who are not fully integrated into Jewish life, the term Hassid is often used to describe a strictly observant Jew, especially if he dresses differently from his surroundings. They would not know how to distinguish between a Hassid and a Mitnagid, hence a misnomer.

Likewise the Haskala term has been used too lightly or broadly. Many 19th century Jews found ways to combine secular education with Jewish education. Likewise many Jews learned how to enter the general, gentile business world without seriously compromising their religious practice. Nevertheless, many traditional Jews called them "Haskala" Jews. 


I believe that the term we use today for what Flora Jane Satts was describing is Hareidi.  This could be applied to both rival and exclusive groups: the Mitnagdim and the Hassidim. Both of these are/were strictly orthodox but very strongly disagreed as to how Judaism should be expressed. They were rivals to extent that some would not talk to the others let alone live in the same areas or marry each other.

If they had been Hassidic, I think we would have heard about it with the name of some kind of Hassidic allegiance: (Lubavitch, Belz, Satmar, Breslev, etc. etc.)But I never heard of such an allegiance.

So, I think that they came from a Mitnaged background with an exposure to Haskala.

Haim's response included the following references to wikipedia (I've highlighted certain portions):



 Hasidim and Mitnagdim

Main articles: Hasidic Judaism and Mitnagdim

Note: While the name "Hasidim" has gained popular and positive approval, the name "Mitnagdim" has fallen out of popular usage and may even be regarded as offensive by some.

The arrival of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov ("Master [of the] Good Name"), on the scene of Jewish history in Eastern Europe would herald the commencement of a sea change in what is known today as Haredi Judaism. Even though he did not write books, he succeeded in gaining powerful disciples to his teachings that were based on the earlier expositions of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) known as the Ari who had based much of his Kabbalistic teachings on the Zohar. The Baal Shem Tov came at a time when the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe were reeling in bewilderment and disappointment engendered by the two notorious Jewish false messiahs Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791) in particular.

The Baal Shem Tov witnessed Frank's public apostasy (shmad in Hebrew) to Christianity, which compounded Zevi's earlier apostasy to Islam. The Baal Shem Tov was thus determined to encourage his influential disciples to launch a spiritual revolution in Jewish life in order to reinvogorate the Jewish masses' connections with Torah Judaism and to vigorously motivate them to bind themselves to the joyous observance of the commandments, worship, Torah study, and sincere belief in God, so that the lures of Christianity and Islam, and the appeal of the rising secular Enlightenment, to the Jewish masses would be weakened and halted. To a large degree Israel succeeded in Eastern Europe.

Already during his lifetime, and gaining momentum following his death, the Baal Shem Tov's disciples spread out to teach his mystical creeds all over Eastern Europe. Thus was born Hasidic Judaism (Hasidism). Some of the main movements were in: Russia which saw the rise of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement; Poland which had the Gerrer Hasidim; Galicia had Bobov; Hungary had Satmar Hasidim; and Ukraine had the Breslovers, and many others that grew rapidly gaining literally millions of adherents, until it became the dominant brand of Judaism in Eastern Europe in the century following the Baal Shem Tov's death. The Jewish masses flocked to this new inspired brand of mystical Judaism, and retained their connections to their Jewish heritage and way of life.

Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, the Vilna Gaon, leader of the Mitnagdim.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi founder of Chabad-Lubavitch.

Only when this new religious movement reached Lithuania did it meet its stiffest resistance among the Lithuanian Jews (also known as Litvaks). It was Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman (~1720-1797), known as the Vilna Gaon ("Genius [of] Vilna"), and those who followed his classic stringent Talmudic and Halakhic scholasticism, who put up the fiercest resistance to the Hasidim ("Righteous [ones]"). They were called Mitnagdim, meaning "[those who are] oppose/d [to the Hasidim]".

The Vilna Gaon, who was himself steeped in both Talmudic and Kabbalistic wisdom, analyzed the theological underpinnings of this new "Hasidism" and in his view, concluded that it was deeply flawed since it had elements of what may be roughly termed as panentheism and perhaps even outright pantheism, dangerous aspirations for bringing the Jewish Messiah that could easily be twisted in unpredictable directions for Jewry as had previously happened with the Zevi and Frank religious "revival" fiascos, and an array of complex rejections of their religious ideology. The Vilna Gaon's views were later formulated by his chief disciple Rabbi Chaim Volozhin (1741-1821) in his work Nefesh HaChaim. The new Hasidic leaders countered with their own religious counter-arguments, some of which can be found in the Tanya of Chabad-Lubavitch. Much of the debate remains obscure.

However, regardless of the unpopularity of the move, the Vilna Gaon and the scholars of the Beth din ("[Jewish] religious court") of Vilna went so far as to place at least one severe cherem upon the Hasidim, officially "excommunicating" them from Judaism, which they in turn copied and did likewise to the mitnagdim. The Vilna Gaon's strongest opposition was to the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) and to the founder of Breslov Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810). Physical fights broke out in Vilna with each side trying to gain the favor of the Russian authorities and declaring the other side to be beyond the pale of Judaism.

The bitterness and animosity between the two camps ran deep, and basically whoever joined one wing, did not attend or pray in the same synagogues as the other wing, nor have the same Torah teachers, and they would generally not marry into each other's families, which is still more or less the rule today where there is a high degree of internal communal structure.

Little of the split between Hasidim and Mitnagdim remains within the modern Haredi world. When confronted by mutual threats, such as from the secular Jews of the haskalah, or by the onslaught of Communism and the Holocaust, or faced by secular Zionists, Hasidim and Mitnagdim do work together. When the outside world does not threaten them, their battle of ideas resumes as an intellectual debate. Each group has its own unique method of yeshiva study and communal life, no matter where they establish themselves. They tend to live in different neighborhoods that are still within commuting distance, although even these differences are quickly disappearing.

In modern-day Israel Hasidim support the Agudat Israel party in the Knesset (Israel's parliament) and the non-Hasidic Mitnagdim support the Degel HaTorah party. Degel HaTorah is led by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv in Jerusalem. Agudat Israel and Degel Torah have formed a political alliance. There is also another large community that follows the rabbinical teachings of the Edah Charedis. These include the Satmar Hasidim and the perushim communities which do not support any groups that participate in the Israeli government or in Israeli including elections.

Orthodox versus Reform (and Conservative), East versus West

Main article: Relationships between Jewish religious movements

From the time of the French Revolution of 1789, and the growth of Liberalism, added to the political and personal freedoms granted by Napoleon to the Jews of Europe, many Jews chose to abandon the foreboding and isolating ghettos and enter into general society. This influenced the internal conflicts about religion, culture, and politics of the Jews to this day.

Some Jews in Western Europe, and many Jews in America, joined the religiously liberal new Reform Judaism movement, which drew inspiration from the writings of modernist thinkers like Moses Mendelson. They coined the name "Orthodox" to describe those who opposed the "Reform". They were criticized by the Orthodox Judaism rabbis such as Samson Raphael Hirsch in Germany, and condemned, particularly by those known today as followers of Haredi Judaism, based mainly in Eastern Europe. (Later on, in 1880s America, Conservative Judaism split from the Reform movement.)

There was thus also created a cultural schism between the more westernised English, German and French-speaking Western European Jews and their more religiously observant Yiddish speaking Eastern European brethren whom they denigratingly labelled Ost Yidden ("Eastern Jews"). These schisms and the debates surrounding them, continue with much ferocity in all Jewish communities today as the Reform and Orthodox movements continue to confront each other over a wide range of religious, social, political and ethnic issues. (Today, the largest Jewish communities are in Israel and in the United States, and the geographical separation has resulted in cultural differences, such as a tendency to identify as hiloni and haredi in Israel, as opposed to, say, Reform and Orthodox in the United States.)

 Kabbalah Centre, Messianic Judaism, etc.

The Kabbalah Centre and Messianic Judaism may represent emerging schisms, along with other syncretic movements such as Jewitchery.[citation needed]

See also





Haskalah (Hebrew: השכלה; "enlightenment," "education" from sekhel "intellect", "mind"), the Jewish Enlightenment, was a movement among European Jews in the late 18th century that advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language, and Jewish history. Haskalah in this sense marked the beginning of the wider engagement of European Jews with the secular world, ultimately resulting in the first Jewish political movements and the struggle for Jewish emancipation. The division of Ashkenazi Jewry into religious movements or denominations, especially in North America and anglophone countries, began historically as a reaction to Haskalah.

In a more restricted sense, haskalah can also denote the study of Biblical Hebrew and of the poetical, scientific, and critical parts of Hebrew literature. The term is sometimes used to describe modern critical study of Jewish religious books, such as the Mishnah and Talmud, when used to differentiate these modern modes of study from the methods used by Orthodox Jews.



The movement

As long as the Jews lived in segregated communities, and as long as all social intercourse with their Gentile neighbors were limited, the rabbi was the most influential member of the Jewish community. In addition to being a religious scholar and "clergy", a rabbi also acted as a civil judge in all cases in which both parties were Jews. Rabbis sometimes had other important administrative powers, together with the community elders. The rabbinate was the highest aim of many Jewish boys, and the study of the Talmud was the means of obtaining that coveted position, or one of many other important communal distinctions. Haskalah followers advocated "coming out of ghetto," not just physically but also mentally and spiritually in order to assimilate amongst Gentile nations.

The example of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), a Prussian Jew, served to lead this movement, which was also shaped by Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn (1754–1835) and Joseph Perl (1773–1839). Mendelssohn's extraordinary success as a popular philosopher and man of letters revealed hitherto unsuspected possibilities of integration and acceptance of Jews among non-Jews. Mendelssohn also provided methods for Jews to enter the general society of Germany. A good knowledge of the German language was necessary to secure entrance into cultured German circles, and an excellent means of acquiring it was provided by Mendelssohn in his German translation of the Torah. This work became a bridge over which ambitious young Jews could pass to the great world of secular knowledge. The Biur, or grammatical commentary, prepared under Mendelssohn's supervision, was designed to counteract the influence of traditional rabbinical methods of exegesis. Together with the translation, it became, as it were, the primer of Haskalah. Haskalah did not stay restricted to Germany, however, and the movement quickly spread throughout Europe (Map of the spread of Haskalah). Adherents of the haskalah movement were called maskilim (משכילים).

Language played a key role in the haskalah movement, as Mendelssohn and others called for a revival in Hebrew and a reduction in the use of Yiddish. The result was an outpouring of new, secular literature, as well as critical studies of religious texts. Julius Fürst along with other German-Jewish scholars compiled Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries and grammars. Jews also began to study and communicate in the languages of the countries in which they settled, providing another gateway for integration.


Even as emancipation eased integration into wider society and assimilation prospered,the haskalah also resulted in the creation of secular Jewish culture, with an emphasis on Jewish history and Jewish identity, rather than religion. This resulted in the engagement of Jews in a variety of competing ways within the countries where they lived; these included the struggle for Jewish emancipation, involvement in new Jewish political movements, and later, in the face of continued persecutions in late nineteenth century Europe, the development of a Jewish Nationalism. One source describes these effects as, “The emancipation of the Jews brought forth two opposed movements: the cultural assimilation, begun by Moses Mendelssohn, and Zionism, founded by Theodore Herzl in 1896.”[1]

One facet of haskalah was a widespread cultural adaptation, as those Jews who participated in the enlightenment began in varying degrees to participate in the cultural practices of the surrounding Gentile population. Connected with this was the birth of the Reform movement, whose founders such as Israel Jacobson and Leopold Zunz rejected the continuing observance of those aspects of Jewish law which they classified as ritual, as opposed to moral or ethical. Even within orthodoxy the Haskalah was felt through the appearance of the Mussar Movement in Lithuania and Torah im Derech Eretz in Germany. Enlightened Jews sided with Gentile governments in plans to increase secular education amongst the Jewish masses, bringing them into acute conflict with the orthodox who believed this threatened Jewish life.

Chasidic Judaism or Chasidism, from the Hebrew: חסידות , Chassidus, meaning "pioty," or "pious ones") is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality and joy as the fundamental aspects of the Jewish faith. The majority of Hasidic Jews are ultra-orthodox.[1]

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, (1698–1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, is seen as the founding figure of Chasidic Judaism. The movement originated in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (present day Ukraine) in the 18th century in an era of persecution for the Jews. While European Jews had turned inward to Talmud study, many felt that most expressions of Jewish life had become too "academic" and that they no longer had any emphasis on spirituality or joy. The Ba'al Shem Tov set out to change the situation. In its initial stages the Hasidim were met with fierce opposition from the Misnagdim — literally meaning "the opponents", the most notable of whom was the Vilna Gaon, leader of the Lithuanian Jews. Nevertheless, Hasidic thought and lifestyle soon spread from Poland and Russia, to Hungary and Romania.

As compared with other Jewish movements, Hasidic Judaism tends to focus on the role of the Rebbe as a spiritual leader. Each dynasty follows its own principles; thus Hasidic Judaism is not one movement, but a collection of separate individual groups with some commonality. There are approximately 30 larger Hasidic groups, and several hundred minor Hasidic groups exist. Though there is no one version of Hasidism, individual Hasidic groups often share with each other fundamental philosophy, worship styles, dress, songs, etc.

Poland, where the bulk of Eastern European Jewry had established itself since the 13th century, two branches of Rabbinic Judaism had emerged: those who opposed the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and those who supported it. This schism became particularly acute after the Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century. Leanings to mystical doctrines and sectarianism showed themselves prominently among the Jews of the south-eastern provinces of Poland, while in the Lithuanian provinces, anti-kabbalist orthodox leaders held sway. In part, this division in modes of thought reflected social differences between the northern (Lithuanian) Jews and the southern Jews of Ukraine. In Lithuania the Jewish masses mainly lived in densely-populated towns where anti-kabbalistic rabbinical academic culture (in the yeshivos) flourished, while in Ukraine the Jews tended to live scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers where the influence of the kabbalists prevailed.

Pessimism in the south became more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising (1648–1654) under Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648–1660), which ruined the Jewry of Ukraine, but did not much affect that of Lithuania. The general population of Ukraine itself declined and economic chaos reigned, especially due to these events and the subsequent Turkish Invasion which left this region depopulated and barren. After the Polish magnates regained control of southern Ukraine in the last decade of the 17th century, an economic renaissance ensued. The magnates began a massive rebuilding and repopulation effort while being generally welcoming and benevolent towards the Jews. A type of frontier environment ensued where new people and new ideas were encouraged. The state of the Jews of what would later become southern Russia created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread in the area from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century.

Besides these influences, deeply-seated causes produced among many Jews a discontent with Rabbinism and a gravitation toward mysticism. Rabbinism, which in Poland had become transformed into a system of religious formalism, no longer provided a satisfactory religious experience to many Jews. Although traditional Judaism had adopted some features of Kabbalah, it adapted them to fit its own system: it added to its own ritualism the asceticism of the "practical kabbalists" just across the border in the Ottoman Empire, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practices, suitable for individuals and hermits, did not suit the bulk of the Jews.

17th century destructions and false Messianism brought disillusionment to the Jews of Eastern Europe. Preachers and Talmudic scholars felt aloof from the unlettered masses

Mystical individuals arose, outside the Rabbinic establishment, called Nistarim or Baal Shem ("Masters of the Name" of God, used for practical kabbalistic intervention and miracles), who sought to offer the downtrodden masses spiritual and physical encouragement, and practical healing. The image of these charismatic figures, often wandering among the people, became shaped by the Kabbalistic legend of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim (36 hidden righteous people who sustain the world). From these circles of spiritual inspiration, the early Hasidic movement arose, led by Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, in 18th Century Podolia (now Ukraine). He attracted to his cause the preceding followers of the ways of the Nistorim, who saw in his teachings a new direction in reviving and consoling the masses.

At the time in Jewish Eastern Europe were also public preachers ("Maggidim"), who would visit the shuls (synagogues) of the shtetls (towns and villages). During their Sabbath sermons, they would sometimes seek to encourage Jewish observance with ethical promises and warnings of Heaven and Hell. In their addresses, they also supported the communal Rabbi in helping to teach those who could not learn the spiritual and practical life of Jewish learning, and offered personal examples of Jewish conduct. The Baal Shem Tov opposed their use of ethical admonishments of punishment, which lacked love and inner spiritual values. Under the Hasidic movement, ideas of reward and punishment were avoided, and were replaced by the spiritual life of dveikus (cleaving) to God in all daily conduct. The Baal Shem Tov, and Hasidism, also opposed the earlier mystical and ethical ascetic paths of fasting and self-mortification, seeking to serve God by infusing physical activities with new spiritual inspiration.

Hasidism branched out into two main divisions: (1) in Ukraine and in Galicia (Central Europe) and (2) in Litta (Greater Lithuania from the time when it encompassed Belarus). Three disciples of Dov Ber of Mezritch (Elimelech of Lizhensk, Levi Yitzchak of Berdychev, and Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl), besides the grandson of the Besht, Boruch of Tulchin (later R' Boruch of Mezhbizh), directed the first of these divisions. Elimelech of Lizhensk fully developed the belief in Tzaddikism as a fundamental doctrine of Hasidism. In his book No'am Elimelekh he conveys the idea of the Tzadik ("righteous one") as the mediator between God and the common people, and suggests that through him God sends to the faithful earthly blessings in the three traditional categories: health and life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Hasidim support the Tzaddik by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonos"), in order to enable the holy man to become completely absorbed in the contemplation of God. Lithuanian Hasidim followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Habad Hasidism, and Rabbi Aharon of Karlin. The intellectual Habad method of Schneur Zalman, developed the mind, in contrast to general Hasidism, as the fundamental route to Hasidic spirituality. This articulation can therefore fully incorporate the other dimensions of Judaism, such as Jewish Philosophy and Rabbinic Judaism. The Maggid directed Schneur Zalman to spread Hasidism in Belarus, as his intellectual articulation could appeal to the Rabbinic opposition in Vilna. Consequently, it posed more of a threat to the Mitnagdim, and Schneur Zalman was arrested and imprisoned in Saint Petersburg by the Tzarist government on false charges, instigated by some of the Jewish opposition. Habad tradition sees the reason for the imprisonment as caused from Heavenly opposition to his new, broader, intellectual dissemination of Hasidic thought, and his exoneration as vindication from Heaven to begin the full dissemination of Hasidus.

Rabbis Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacs and Meir Shapiro of Lublin in Marienbad (Now Mariánské Lázně, Czech Republic), 1923

Hasidic boys in Łódź in the 1910s

Subsequent influential and famous Hasidic thinkers and leaders include Nachman of Breslov, in Ukraine, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk in Poland, and Yisroel Friedman of Ruzhyn in Russia. Nachman of Breslov is seen as the most imaginatively creative Hasidic thinker, while Menachem Mendel of Kotzk overturned the traditional view of the Tzaddik, in pursuit of truthful introspection and integrity. The spiritual meaning of Tzaddikic grandeur reached its fullest form in the regal majesty of the court of Yisroel Friedman. In the 19th Century flourishing of Hasidism, leadership succession usually became dynastic, rather than inherited by the greatest or most charismatic student. Each Hasidic court established itself in the scattered shtetls across Eastern Europe, and adopted their names, often in Yiddish form, for their approach to Hasidic thought and life. Where the Hasidic approach of a group was profound or influential, the spiritual vitality of their leadership remained charismatic or great, such as in the Polish dynasty of Ger (derived from Menachem Mendel of Kotzk), or the Belarusian dynasty of Lubavitch (the intellectual branch of Hasidism founded by Schneur Zalman of Liadi). In these examples, often their leaders combined Hasidic spirituality with traditional Rabbinic greatness of scholarship in Talmud. This synthesis helped dissolve much of the early opposition to Hasidism by the Rabbinic civilization of Lithuanian Jewish Orthodoxy.


Main article: Misnagdim

The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), head of Lithuanian centred opposition to Hasidism. In 1777 and 1781 he was involved in placing Hasidism under Cherem

In 1774 Schneur Zalman of Liadi and Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, Hasidic leaders of White Russia, tried to meet the Vilna Gaon but were not received

Early on, a serious schism evolved between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. Those European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement dubbed themselves misnagdim (literally, "opponents"). Critics of Hasidic Judaism:

Some other important differences between hasidim and misnagdim included:

On a more prosaic level, other misnagdim regarded hasidim as pursuing a less scholarly approach to Judaism, and opposed the movement for this reason. At one point Hasidic Jews were put in cherem (a Jewish form of communal excommunication); after years of bitter acrimony, a rapprochement occurred between Hasidic Jews and their opponents within Orthodox Judaism. The reconciliation took place in response to the perceived even greater threat of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. Despite this, the distinctions between the various sects of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews remain.

In the Soviet Union

Misnagdim or mitnagdim is a Hebrew word (מתנגדים) meaning "opponents". It is the plural of misnaged or mitnaged. Most prominent among the misnagdim was Rabbi Elijah (Eliyahu) ben Shlomo Zalman (1720 - 1797), commonly known as the Vilna Gaon or GRA. The term "misnagdim" gained a common usage among European Jews as the term that referred to Ashkenazi religious Jews who opposed the rise and spread of early Hasidic Judaism, particularly as embodied by Hasidism's founder, Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (1698 -1760), who was known as the Baal Shem Tov or BESHT.

Rabbi Chaim Volozhin was the chief follower and disciple of the Vilna Gaon and founded a yeshiva in Volozhin - often referred to as the "Mother of the Yeshivas" - to which most Litvish ("Lithuanian") yeshivas can be traced.

A large group of Mitnagdim and their families, numbering over 500, were inspired by the Vilna Gaon to settle in Palestine between 1809 and 1812. They are known as Perushim.




The rapid spread of Hasidism in the second half of the eighteenth century greatly troubled many traditional rabbis; many saw it as a potentially dangerous enemy. They felt that it was another manifestation of the recent false-messiah movement of Sabbatai Zevi (1626 - 1676) that had led many Jews astray from mainstream Judaism.

Hasidism's founder was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov {"master of a good name" usually applied to a saintly Jew who was also a wonder-worker), or simply "the Besht"; he taught that man's relationship with God depended on immediate religious experience, in addition to knowledge and observance of the details of the Torah and Talmud.

Much of Judaism was still fearful of the pseudo-messianic movements of the Sabbateans and the Frankists (followers of the false messiah Jacob Frank (1726 -1791). Many rabbis suspected Hasidism of an intimate connection with these movements.

The characteristically "Lithuanian" approach to Judaism was marked by a concentration on highly intellectual Talmud study. Lithuania became the heartland of the traditionalist opposition to Hasidism, to the extent that in popular perception "Lithuanian" and "misnaged" became virtually interchangeable terms. In fact, however, a sizable minority of Lithuanian Jews belong(ed) to Hasidic groups, including Chabad, Slonim, Karlin (Pinsk) and Koidanov.

Opposition of the Vilna Gaon

Elijah ben Solomon Zalman

The first attacks on Hasidic Judaism came during the times of the founder of Hasidic thought. Two bans of excommunication against Hasidic Jews first appeared in 1772, accompanied by the public ripping up of several early Hasidic pamphlets. Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon, galvanized opposition to Hasidic Judaism. He believed that the claims of miracles and visions made by Hasidic Jews were lies and delusions. A key point of opposition was that the Vilna Gaon maintained that greatness in Torah and observance must come through natural human efforts at Torah study without relying on any external "miracles" and "wonders", whereas the Ba'al Shem Tov was more focused on bringing encouragement and raising the morale of the Jewish people, especially following the Chmelnitzki pogroms (1648 -1654) and the aftermath of disillusionment in the Jewish masses following the millennial excitement heightened by the failed messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. Opponents of Hasidim held that Hasidim viewed their rebbes in an idolatrous fashion.

 Hasidism's changes and challenges

Most of the changes made by the Hasidim were the product of the Hasidic approach to Kabbalah, particularly as expressed by Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534 - 1572), known as "the ARI" and his disciples, particularly Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543 - 1620). Both misnagdim and chassidim were greatly influenced by the ARI, but the legalistic misnagdim feared in chassidism what they perceived as disturbing parallels to the Sabatean movement. An example of such an idea was the concept that the entire universe is completely nullified to God. Depending on how this idea was preached and interpreted, it could give rise to pantheism and certainly to panentheism, universally acknowledged as a heresy, or lead to immoral behavior, since elements of Kabbalah can be misconstrued to de-emphasize ritual by rote and glorifies sexual metaphors as a deeper means of grasping some inner hidden notions in the Torah based on the Jews' intimate relationship with God.

The stress of prayer over study, and the Hasidic reinterpretation of Torah l'shma (Torah study for its own sake), was seen as a rejection of the traditional Jewish views.

Hasidim did not follow the traditional Ashkenazi prayer rite, and instead used a rite which is a combination of Ashkenazi and Sephardi rites (Nusach Sefard), based upon Kabbalistic concepts from Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed. This was seen as a rejection of the traditional Ashkenazi liturgy and, due to the resulting need for separate synagogues, a breach of communal unity.

Hasidic Jews also added some stringencies to traditional Jewish halakha on kashrut, the laws of keeping kosher. They made certain changes in how livestock were slaughtered and in who was considered a reliable mashgiach (supervisor of kashrut). The end result was that they essentially considered some kosher food as less stringent. This was seen as a change of traditional Judaism, an over stringency of halakha (Jewish law), and, again, a breach of communal unity.

 Struggles and persecutions

A bitter struggle soon arose between traditional observant Jews and the newer Hasidim. At the head of the Orthodox party stood Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon. In 1772, when the first secret circles of Hasidim appeared in Lithuania, the rabbinic kahal ("council") of Vilna, with the approval of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, arrested the local leaders of the sect, and excommunicated its adherents. Letters were sent from Vilna to the rabbis of other communities calling upon them to make war upon the "godless sect."

In many places persecutions were instituted against the Hasidim. The appearance in 1780 of the first works of Hasidic literature created alarm among the Orthodox. At the council of rabbis held in the village of Zelva, Trakai Voivodeship, in 1781, it was resolved to uproot Hasidism. In the official letters issued by the council, the faithful were ordered to expel the Hasidim from every Jewish community, to regard them as members of another faith, to hold no social intercourse with them, not to intermarry with them, and not to bury their dead.

Shneur Zalman of Liadi

Hasidism in the south of eastern Europe had established itself so firmly in the various communities that it had no fear of persecution. The main sufferers were the northern Hasidim. Their leader, Hasidic Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 -1812), the founder of Chabad Hasidism, attempted to allay the anger of the Mitnagdim and of Elijah Gaon.

On the death of the latter in 1797 the exasperation of the Mitnagdim became so great that they resolved to libel and denounce the leaders of the Hasidim to the Russian government as dangerous agitators and teachers of heresy. In consequence twenty-two Hasidic Jews were arrested in Vilna and other places. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was arrested at his court in Liozna and brought to St. Petersburg (1798). Chabad Hasidim still celebrate the day of his liberation from prison and they still regard the mitnagdim with great contempt for what they deem as the betrayal of their first rebbe.

The struggle of misnagdim with Hasidism in Lithuania and White Russia led to the formation of the latter sect in those regions into separate religious organizations; these existing in many towns alongside of those of the Mitnagdim. In the south-western region the Hasidim almost completely crowded out the Mitnagdim. Lithuania remained strongly Mitnagdic. Another group of non-Hasidic Jews were the Oberlander Jews of Hungary and Slovakia, who were not always considered to be misnagdim.

Winding down the battles

By the mid-1800s most of non-Hasidic Judaism had discontinued its struggle with Hasidism and had reconciled itself to the establishment of the latter as a fact.

See also

Modern origins

For several centuries before the emancipation of European Jewry, most of Europe's Jews were forced to live in closed communities, where both the culture and their religious observances were preserved. This occurred both because of internal pressure within the communities and because of the outside world's refusal to accept them otherwise. In the overwhelmingly Christian society of the time, the only way for Jews to gain social acceptance was to convert, thereby abandoning all ties with one's own family and community. Few avenues existed, especially in the ghetto, for individuals to negotiate between the dominant culture and the community, because this was handled by the larger community as a whole.

This situation began to change with the Age of Enlightenment and calls by some European liberals to include the Jewish population in the emerging empires and nation states, as well as with Jewry's own Haskalah. These adherents held that acceptance by the non-Jewish world necessitated the reformation of Jews themselves, and the modification of those practices deemed inconsistent with this goal. In the words of a popular aphorism coined by Yehuda Leib Gordon, a person should be "a Jew in the home, and a mentsh (good person/man) in the street." For some Jews, the meticulous and rigorous Judaism practiced in the ghetto interfered with these new outside opportunities. This group argued that Judaism itself had to "reform" in keeping with the social changes taking place around them. They were the forerunners of the Reform movement in Judaism. This group overwhelmingly assimilated into the surrounding culture.[citation needed]

Other Jews argued that the division between Jew and gentile had actually protected the Jews' religious and social culture; abandoning such divisions, they argued, would lead to the eventual abandonment of Jewish religion through assimilation. This latter group insisted that the appropriate response to the Enlightenment was to maintain strict adherence to traditional Jewish law and custom to prevent the dissolution of authentic Judaism and ensure the survival of the Jewish people.

Hasidic boys in Poland, circa World War I.

Even as the debate raged, the rate of integration and assimilation grew proportionately to the degree of acceptance of the Jewish population by the host societies.[citation needed] In other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, acceptance (and integration) was much slower in coming. This was especially true in the Pale of Settlement, a region along Russia's western border including most of modern Belorus and Ukraine, to which Jewish settlement in Russia was confined. Although Jews here did not win the same official acceptance as they did in Western and Central Europe, the same enlightened spirit of change pervaded the air, albeit in a local variant. Since it was impossible to gain acceptance by the dominant culture, many Jews either emigrated or turned to a number of different movements that they expected would offer hope for a better future. The predominant movements gaining support were socialism and communism, with other significant assimilationist alternatives including the cultural autonomists the Bund. There was also later support for the non-assimilationist, nationalist Zionists. These movements were not neutral on the topic of the Jewish religion: by and large, they entailed a complete, not infrequently contemptuous, rejection of traditional religious and cultural norms.

Those who opposed these changes reacted in a variety of ways.

In Germany, the usual approach was to accept the tools of modern scholarship and apply them in defence of Orthodoxy, so as to defeat the Reformers at their own game. One proponent of this approach was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who coined the slogan Torah Im Derech Eretz (Torah with civilization) and led a secession from German Jewish communal organizations to form a strictly Orthodox movement with its own network of synagogues and schools, known as Adath Israel. His movement still has followers, and their standard of observance is very strict, but because of their acceptance of secular learning they are not normally classified as Haredim. Some Galician scholars, such as Zvi Hirsch Chayes, followed a somewhat similar approach.

A closer precursor to today's Haredi Judaism was the Chasam Sofer, Chief Rabbi of Pressburg (now Bratislava, Slovakia). In response to those who stated that Judaism could change or evolve, Rabbi Sofer applied the term chadash asur min ha-Torah (חדש אסור מן התורה), "The 'new' is forbidden by the Torah," in order to have textual support for his movement, the term originally referring to new (winter) wheat that had not been sanctified through the wave offering culminating in the Counting of the Omer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Chasam Sofer held that any movement expressing the need to "modernize" Judaism, or expressing the dubiety of the verbal revelation of the Written and Oral Torah, were outside the pale of authentic Judaism. In his view the fundamental beliefs and tenets of Judaism should not, and could not, be altered. This became the defining idea behind the opponents of Reform and in some form, it has influenced the Orthodox response to other innovations.

In Eastern Europe there was little in the way of organised Reform Judaism, but the advocates of modernity came under the umbrella either of the Haskalah or of political movements such as Bundism or Zionism. The traditionalist opposition was generally associated either with the various Hasidic groups or with the growing network of yeshivas among the Lithuanian Jews, some of which (e.g. the Volozhin yeshiva) even closed rather than comply with the Russian Government's demand for secular studies to be incorporated into the curriculum.

In Germany the opponents of Reform rallied to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and his Adath Israel. In Poland Jews true to traditional values gathered under the banner of Agudas Shlumei Emunei Yisroel.[16] The decisive event came in 1912 with the foundation of the Agudas Israel movement, which became a potent political force and even obtained seats in the Polish sejm (parliament). This movement contained representatives of several of the streams of traditionalism already mentioned. The traditionalists of Eastern Europe, who fought against the new movements emerging in the Jewish community, were the forebears of the contemporary Haredim.







Go back!

Copyright © 2001-2012 Nelson Moore. All Rights Reserved.