Perhaps in an ideal world each person would find his own path to God; alas the need for a teacher and a guide was real.
The appeal of Hassidism for many is the democratic message expounded by the early masters of the movement: Everyone can commune with the Almighty and there are a myriad of paths of divine service.
The acknowledgement of the democratic nature of divine service, however, was not necessarily coupled with a nonhierarchical society. Very soon after the advent of the movement, the hassidic masters realized that for many a God-fearing person the road to the Almighty was not paved. Perhaps in an ideal world each person would find his own path to God; alas the need for a teacher and a guide was real. Thus developed the doctrine of the tzaddik, the hassidic master who served as the inspiration and facilitator for the average person’s desire to connect to God. This doctrine, perforce, introduced a clear hierarchical structure to the hassidic court, which quickly became the hassidic norm.
To be sure, the hierarchical structure still had room to recognize the worth and individuality of each hassid. The plurality of paths to God, however, was not infinite. Some modes were considered beyond the pale.
In this vein, a story is told of Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850), who offered his own examination of one aspect of the tension between a “flat” world and a hierarchical society: “We are commanded, ‘Love your peers as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18); how could the Torah instruct us to love each peer equally? It is human nature to feel closer to some and more distant from others. Moreover, it is entirely reasonable that the hassid will love the hassidic master, that guide and teacher who helps the disciple reach spiritual heights, more than other Jews. Could one really feel the same love for woodchoppers as for the leaders who give their entire soul for the benefit of the people?”
Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin explained: “In truth the commandment is to love the entirety of Israel as yourself. People do not love their entire selves equally: There are some parts of our body, some parts of our being, which are more important to us than others. A person’s eyes, for instance, are carefully guarded. Without eyes we live in a world of darkness, so in dangerous situations protective glasses are worn or the eyes are shielded. Other parts of the body, such as the hands and feet, are also dear to us and we also carefully look after them, but they are incomparable to the eyes. Each limb has its value relative to the other limbs. There is a clear hierarchy of importance in our minds.
“Then there are those parts of our body which are of little import; the hair and the nails, for instance. As long as they are attached to our body we would not like someone to come over and pluck our hair from our heads. It would be excruciatingly painful were someone to tear out a nail. Conversely, there are times that people act on their own to rid themselves of these parts of the body: We cut our hair and we trim our nails when we feel that they are too long.
“The entirety of Israel is made up of its constituents: There are some parts of the nation that are vital to our existence and we naturally love them more.” For Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin these were the holy masters of Hassidism.
“There are other parts of the Jewish people that we also guard carefully. Even though we know that we could in theory live without them, we do not want to lose them.” In the eyes of Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin these were the householders, the stalwarts of the community, the hassidic disciples.
“And then there are those parts of the people, whom we care for as long as they are attached to us. To be sure, it would hurt us if they were harmed, even though we know that they are not integral to our being. At times, regrettably, it may even be beneficial to trim them if they try to overtake the rest of the body.
“In this way,” concluded Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, “we are instructed to love the entirety of Israel as we love ourselves.”