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HOME . What's New? . STORIES . ARTICLES . RESOURCES

A Brief Introduction

to Hasidic Stories

The Hasidic movement (according to a commonly held belief) was a response to a crisis of despair among the Jews of eighteenth-century Eastern Europe.

In the physical world, Jews were subject to increasing restrictions and harrassment. In the spiritual world, the only approved way to be close to G-d was to spend long years studying G-d's law. But the poorer the Jews became, the fewer could devote themselves to a scholarly life.

All hope of satisfaction in either world was denied them. What were they to do? The Hasidic movement gave an answer: the way to be close to G-d was to be filled with G-d's spirit, the spirit of joy. Music and dance were signs of joy and ways to nurture joy. And stories were a way to teach that did not just bring the theory to the educated, but brought the experience to all.

As the movement matured, stories of earlier holy men ("tzaddiks") were told to perpetuate their teachings -- or, more accurately, the experience of their teaching and their way of being human.

Some of the tales, more like Christian saints' legends than any other genre of literature, recount the tzaddik's abilities to see far, travel quickly, read minds, and produce miracles.

Others repeat a tzaddik's interpretation of a biblical or talmudic text. Still other Hasidic tales resemble the tales of the Zen masters. They describe--without recourse to the supernatural--the ways that a tzaddik could surprise an unbeliever or mis-guided disciple into contact with his own deepest self. In so doing, they present male role-models who act decisively and--whatever the appearance of roughness or violence--aim their actions not at the bodies and property of others, but at their spirit and emotions.

A version of this introduction appeared in Chosen Tales, edited by Peninnah Schram.

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