The Jewish cultural festival in Prague is
named after a famous book by Georg Mordechai Langer: "The Nine Gates". The book
contains Chassidic tales. Georg Langer wrote these down after he had decided
once and for all for a "European" life in Prague. Prior to that he had lived
with Chassidim in Galicia. His epithet, "Prague Chassid", has remained.
Chassidism originated at a time when the
Jews were leaving the ghettos in western and central Europe, emancipating
themselves, and assimilating themselves more and more under the influence of
this explanation. That is, they were giving up their religious needs and way of
life more and more, and adapting themselves to the Christian surroundings. In
eastern Europe this process occurred rather slowly, since equal rights for the
Jewish minority in Poland and Russia were still unthinkable. Here there were
bloody pogroms, but the Jewish society in eastern Europe became involved in
The hope of the coming of the Messiah,
who would end all suffering, was a very strong feeling among the people.
Classical Judaism, the Rabbis and the learned men concentrated themselves in the
answer for that to be still stricter study of the holy writings and the
fulfillment of the ritual laws. That placed a big rift between the learned ones
and the ordinary Jewish population.
In this political and spiritual climate
the Chassidic (the religious ones) movement emerged. The founder of Chassidism
was Israel ben Elieser, known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), or
abbreviated as Bescht, who lived from circa 1700 until 1760. The main area of
activity of Chassidism at first came not only through teaching, but also through
the power of the founder’s personality. He led the movement away from
asceticism, which at the time was enormously popular together with mystical
theories. Instead of these, Bescht created a new leadership personality, the
Tzaddik, the Righteous One, a mediator between G-d and the people, who clearly
changed the predominating leadership layer.
It is easily comprehensible, that the
teaching of the Baal Shem Tov would soon catch on mainly with the young people
in a large area of Jewish Poland. It offered an alternative to the strict
orthodox form of the classical rabbinate or of the puzzling speech of the pure
theoretical Kaballah, the Jewish mysticism. The Chassidim had a positive view of
life; joy, dance and song were a daily occurrence. Chassidism had already spread
out over a large portion of eastern Europe by the third generation. For Jewish
high holidays, special charter trains had to be arranged for in Poland, to
provide transportation for the Chassidim to bring them to their Tzaddik. In the
later phase, "Tzaddikism" became increasingly autocratic and less charismatic.
Historians concern themselves above all
with the unusually fast tempo of the growth of Chassidism and with cause of this
success. Today one does not see the reason any more for the time it took in the
social message of Chassidim, but rather much more in its religious message.
Chassidism opened the mystical world to every individual, the narrow connection
to G-d was no more the property of a small elite group, the rabbis.
Their own needs in the area of the
religious life significantly separated the Chassidim from the regular Jewish
society. Above all the conflict with the rabbis was the main reason that
Chassidism became a meaningful social factor in Jewish life and through which
the structures of the society changed. The meaning of the rabbis became
considerably smaller, the Chassidic "Rebbe" had therefore the highest inner
authority. From this came the very difficult debates between the rabbis and the
Chassidim, about what form Jewish life in eastern Europe had taken.
With the annihilation of eastern European
Jewry during the Second World War, the physical annihilation of Chassidism was
threatened. Large numbers of Chassidim succeeded in fleeing before the Nazis,
and the today the big majority of them live in New York and Israel. Also in
Europe there are some followers of Chassidic "rebbes" to be found. Above all the
Chabad-movement is experiencing a meaningful upswing. Their headquarters is in
Brooklyn, New York, and altogether there are over 1000 Chabad Houses all over
Georg Langer was fascinated by the world
of Chassidism. He found the religious fulfillment in it at first, which the
worldly life in Prague could not offer him. Though he had finally decided to
leave this world, which he recognized, that also the Chassidic teachings were
not flawless. Langer still wanted to make the wisdom of the Chassidic Rebbe
accessible to the western European public, and therefore wrote down the history.
This is the story behind the book, "The Nine Gates".
aue / haGalil