Dealing with Desire: The Transformation of Hasidic Asceticism

Max L. Edwards, Macalester College

Document Type Honors Project On-Campus Access Only


Hasidic Judaism emerged as a Jewish revivalist movement in early eighteenth century Eastern Europe. Hasidism’s founder, the Ba’al Shem Tov (Besht), sought to redefine spiritual attainment by developing a unique attitude toward food, sexuality, and the body. Unlike the Kabbalists that came before him, the Besht did not regard material elements as impediments to the divine. Rather, he believed they were useful in expanding relationships between God and man. As the movement grew, however, the ascetic focus of many Hasidim began to shift from practices centered on worship through corporeality to practices based in the annihilation of the self. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leaders of the movement developed more radical ascetic conceptions of the body, essentially reversing previous Beshtian teachings. This paper explores the practices and teachings that transformed the movement from one based in joy and ecstatic worship to one based in self-denial.


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