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Mitnagdim

Mitnagdim (also: misnagdim) is a Hebrew word meaning "opponents"; this term was used to refer to European religious Jews who opposed Hasidic Judaism. Today the term mitnagdim is used to refer to religious Orthodox Jews who are not Hasidic; they are not necessarily opposed to Hasidic Judaism.

Origins

The rapid spread of Hasidic Judaism in the second half of the eighteenth century greatly troubled many traditional Jewish rabbis; many saw it as a potentially dangerous enemy.

The doctrine of the movement's founder, Israel ben Eliezer (the Besht), was that man's relationship with God depended on immediate religious experience, and less so on knowledge and observance of the details of the Torah and Talmud.

The Orthodox Judaism of its day could not reconcile itself to the modifications in the customary arrangement of Jewish prayerbook and laws and customs. The Hasidic dogma of the necessity of maintaining a cheerful disposition, and the peculiar manner of awakening religious exaltation at the meetings of the sectarians as, for instance, by the excessive use of spirituous liquors inspired the somewhat more ascetic rabbis with the belief that the new teachings induced moral laxity or coarse epicureanism.

Much of Judaism was still feaful of the pseudo-messianic movements of Sabbatai Zevi, who inspired the Shabbethaians, and of Jacob Frank, who inspired the Frankists. Many rabbis, incorrectly as it turned out, suspected Hasidism of an intimate connection with these movements.

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 Wilna, with the approval of Rabbi ben Solomon, arrested the local leaders of the sect, and excommunicated its adherents. Letters were sent from Wilna 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, government of Grodno, 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.

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, Rabbi Zalman, attempted to allay the anger of the Mitnaggedim and of Elijah Gaon.

On the death of the latter in 1797 the exasperation of the Mitnaggedim became so great that they resolved to 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 Wilna and other places. Hasidic Rabbi Zalman was arrested at his court in Liozna and brought to St. Petersburg (1798). There he was kept in the fortress and was examined by a secret commission, but he and the other leaders were soon released by order of Paul I. The Hasidim remained, however, under "strong suspicion." Two years later Zalman was again transported to St. Petersburg, through the further denunciation of his antagonists, particularly of Abigdor, formerly rabbi of Pinsk. Immediately after the accession to the throne of Alexander I., however, Zalman was released, and was given liberty to proclaim his religious teachings, which from the standpoint of the government were found to be harmless (1801). Thereafter Zalman openly led the White-Russian or Chabad Hasidim until his death, toward the end of 1812. He had fled from the government of Moghilef to that of Poltava, in consequence of the French invasion.

The struggle of rabbinism 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 Mitnaggedim. In the south-western region the Hasidim almost completely crowded out the Mitnaggedim.

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 an accomplished fact. Gradually the Mitnaggedim and the Hasidim began to intermarry, which practise had formerly been strictly forbidden. Today, Hasidic Judaism is seen as a mainstream part of Orthodox Judaism in specific, and of Judaism in general.

See also: Hasidic Judaism