Chasidim and Old Order Amish: A Comparison
The two groups to be examined are the Chasidim and the Old Order Amish. We will begin with a brief look at the history of each group.
The Chasidim, or Hasidim, as more commonly known, are a cult within the tradition of Judaism. The word “Hasid” derives from the Hebrew word for “pious”. Hasidism dates back to the early eighteenth century and originated in central and Eastern Europe. Its founder was a man named Israel ben Eliezer (c.1700-1760). He is otherwise known as the Baal Shem Tov. In Hebrew “Baal Shem” means, “master of the [good] name”. It is a title given to men who are endowed with mystical powers. According to Hasidic belief, Adonai (God) chooses these men.
The Baal Shem Tov taught a new way of practicing Judaism that was strikingly different than what was considered acceptable at that time. It was his contention that God was everywhere and in all things—including man. There was no need for rigorous study of Torah (the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses). A man’s education—or lack thereof, is unimportant. Accordingly, an honest prayer from an unlearned Jew is just as powerful than a prayer made by a talmid chachem (an expert in Talmud). The Besht insisted that unity with God was possible through spontaneous prayer, ecstatic emotion, song, and dance. Jews were to embrace their raw emotions, release their passions—and not to suppress them as they might interfere with the analytic study of Judaism. This new way of worship was unlike anything that had been previously seen in Judaism. It appealed to great numbers of Jews, namely the uneducated masses.
The rise of popularity of Hasidism was also aided by its timing. As Leo Rosten writes about the Baal Shem Tov in his book The Joys of Yiddish, “He brought the excitement of hope into the lives of Polish Jewry, who had been decimated during a decade of savage Cossack progroms.” Despite the renewed enthusiasm it engendered, it also found strong opposition, namely from the misnagdim. For the misnagdim, study figures as the supreme religious act. This is not so for the Hasidim. The teachings of the Besht place an emphasis on the doing of mitzvahs. The literal translation of this Hebrew word is “commandment” but when used commonly “mitzvah” refers to any virtuous deed. The Talmud-studying community considered the Baal Shem Tov outrageous and heretical. However, this did not appear to bother the Besht over-much as he “…derided the learned Talmudists, branding them sterile pedants who “through sheer study of the Law have no time to think about God.”” Despite the opposition the Hasidim grew to include approximately 10,000 Jews.
After the death of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760, Rabbi Dov Baer took over as the leader of the Hasidim. It was during his leadership that the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov were organized into a set doctrine. Hasidim membership grew during this period, causing Jewish authorities to grow concerned and subsequently to impose a ban on Hasidim. Nevertheless, Hasidism continued to thrive in Europe until the rise of the third Reich. It was after the devastation of the Holocaust that the Hasidim immigrated to the United States. The decision to leave Europe for America did not come easily, “Many Hasidim feared that the religious and political freedoms of the United States would finish the job that Hitler could not finish in the ovens of Auschwitz.” .
Like the Hasidim, the Amish descended from a larger religion. In their case, the Amish stem from the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were a sixteenth century religious group. Anabaptist beliefs included adult baptism and worship held in the home and not at a church. These are beliefs that the present-day Amish hold. The Anabaptists suffered a split as a result of disagreements over basic religious practices. Menno Simons, a Dutch Anabaptist, founded one of the splits. His followers were known as the Mennonites. This group faced heavy persecution and eventually fled to Switzerland. It is from the Mennonites that the Amish descend; Jakob Amman, a Mennonite preacher, founded his own branch which came to be known as the Amish.
Jakob Amman’s main reason for starting his own sect had to do with the practice of Meindung. The Meindung is the practice of shunning members who do not conform. Absolutely all contact is stopped, to the extreme that even the non-conforming member’s spouse must have no further contact with him or her. Amman felt that the Meindung was not being upheld—this is what precipitated his leaving the Mennonite movement and creating his own group, a movement in which the Meindung played a most important role. “…it would be no exaggeration to say that the Meindung is the heart of the Amish system of social control.”
Despite the fact that they owe their very existence to Jakob Amman, Old Order Amish do not admire the personality qualities he is said to have had, qualities which made him such a powerful leader. “The Old Order Amish are devout believers in humility, brotherly love….they are suspicious of those with leadership aspirations.”
The Hasidim and the Old Order Amish are alike in that both groups formed in Europe and then migrated to America. What needs to be further examined then, is the Revitalization movement that each experienced and how it the migration to America played a role in certain aspects of it.
The first and second substages of the Revitalization movement deal with the code by which the group lives. The first substage of the Revitalization movement is the formulation of a code. For both the Hasidim and the Old Order Amish, this took place previous to their arrival in America. As previously mentioned, for the Hasidim, their dogma was formalized in the period during which Rabbi Dov Baer led the movement. Jakob Amman was responsible for formulating the code by which the Amish would live. Granted, Old Order Amish do not live in accordance to forceful leadership. Nevertheless, they do practice the Meindung and thus live by the code set down by Amman. The second substage has to do with the communication of the code to make converts. In this respect the Hasidim and the Amish are again similar in that neither group seeks out converts. Instead, the group creates its own members by having children and passing their beliefs down to the next generation. However, this method is not without its setbacks.
One such setback is inbreeding. An example of this can be found among the Lancaster Amish of PA. This population of Amish descends from approximately two hundred Amish who arrived in Pennsylvania during the early 1700’s. This small number of possible mates created a relatively small gene pool. Genetic mutations—which are present in every ethnic group—began to surface as a result of intermarriage. Among the genetic disorders manifested by these Amish is mental retardation and dwarfism.
The third substage of Revitalization is the organization of converts into disciples and followers. This too occurred in Europe for both groups. Also, it occurred when the each movement was relatively new—to emphasize once again—neither the Hasidim nor the Amish are today known for attempting to convert non-believers.
The fourth substage of Revitalization is the adaptation of each movement to hostile conditions. Both groups have succeeded at this. One way of adapting has been to flee the hostile environment if possible. The Mennonites from which the Amish descended fled to Switzerland when persecuted. The most hostile conditions faced by the Hasidim have to be those of Europe during Hitler’s reign. For the most part, the Hasidim who survived the Holocaust fled the region. Both groups have also been successful at adapting to the conditions found in America. Given, the conditions are not hostile by definition. However, the most vulnerable members of the group, the children, may experience hostility. One way that this possible hostility is avoided is by the insistence by both groups that their children attend their schools. Not only does this ensure that the code of the movement is taught and that undesirable subjects be omitted, it also serves as one additional buffer between the group and a potentially hostile outside world.
The last two substages of Revitalization are the cultural transformation of the society and the routinization of the movement. These also took place in Europe for both the Old Order Amish and the Hasidim.
Once achieved, the substages lead to the New Steady State, in which “Individuals may achieve a “resynthesis of values and beliefs,” while long-term changes continue under the guidance of the new value structure. (cf. Wallace 1970: 191-197)”. This best describes the experiences of both groups in the America. Both groups have prospered here and their populations are increasing—both the Amish and the Hasidim average seven children borne to a household. These groups are feeling long-term changes. One long-term change the Hasidim are experiencing is caused by the growth of their population. It concerns the Rebbe. The Rebbe is the leader of the hasidic group. A man becomes Rebbe by inheriting the position from his father or by being appointed Rebbe. The relationship of the sect with their Rebbe is of extreme importance as he is thought to be in direct communication with God. “[The Rebbe] is often the subject of veneration that gives rise to stories of mystical abilities” The relationship between a Rebbe and his followers is direct and personal. Because of the growing population, more Rebbes will have to be appointed in order for the Hasidim to not feel cheated out of a personal relationship with their leader. This will bring about a diffusion of hasidic sects; “Diffusion would, in all probability, foster some change in the Hasidic way of life”.
Leo Rosten. The Joys of Yiddish. (New York: Pocket Books, 1970), p.24.
Leo Rosten. The Joys of Yiddish. (New York: Pocket Books, 1970). p. 24.
William M. Kephart and William W. Zellner. Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Lifestyles. “The Hasidim”. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 171.
William M. Kephart and William W.Zellner. Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Lifestyles. “The Old Order Amish”. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 6.
William M. Kephart and William W. Zellner. Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Lifestyles. “The Old Order Amish”. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 6.
Philip K. Bock. Rethinking Psychological Anthropology. (Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc, 1999), p. 235.
Leo Rosten. The Joys of Yiddish. (New York: Pocket Books, 1970), p. 307.
William M. Kephart and William W. Zellner. Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Lifestyles. “The Hasidim”. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 196.