Q. Do you agree that the original Chassidim were reformers of Judaism?
A. The 20th century thinker Hayim Greenberg wrote, “Chassidism did not reform Judaism – it reformed the Jews. Chassidism did not repudiate a single one of the 613 commandments, it did not do away with even one of the strictures of the Shulchan Aruch. It did not undertake to introduce any changes into Jewish theology or ritual. It added nothing and subtracted nothing. But it introduced new spirit into that which existed and was traditionally hallowed.
“It introduced kavvanah (‘intention’) and d’vekut (‘cleaving’) into the mechanics of religious life. Chassidism’s reform consisted in providing or returning to its followers the capacity for experiencing and beholding the miracle in the everyday… Chassidism did not revise the prayer book, but to the act of praying it imparted new dimensions and a lyricism which is perhaps the sole convincing justification for praying.”
In its early form, Chassidism was not too particular or punctilious about praying on time, studying Torah or carrying out every practice to the letter. Largely in order to counteract the protests of the mit’nag’dim, “the opponents”, there was a tightening up, and today the various Chassidic groups are regarded as ultra-orthodox.