"Ever since the dispute over the House of David, it has been impossible for anyone to offer insights into the Torah without someone contradicting him," said the Maggid. From the day he became the leader of the chassidim, the Maggid, too, faced opposition, conflict, and excommunication, the lot of virtually all the leaders of Chassidus in its early days.
There was opposition to Chassidus almost from its inception. We find that R. Yechezkel Landau (the Nodah BeYehudah, 1714 - 1797) and other members of the famous kloiz of Brody disapproved of the Baal Shem Tov. Indeed, Brody later became one of the first communities to impose a cherem (ban) on the Chassidic movement. But during the Baal Shem's era as leader, theirs was only a weak voice objecting to an unknown, unproved idea.
As long as Chassidus was confined to Podolia, viewed by the Jews of Lithuania and White Russia as the home of the ignorant masses, the misnaggdim (opponents) remained relatively indifferent to it. In their eyes, the Baal Shem was just another Kabbalist preacher appealing to the unlettered peasants.
As stated previously, the Baal Shem Tov's opponents thought the movement would disintegrate after his death. Thus, its phenomenal growth under the Maggid must have both disappointed and troubled them.
The jealous spirit engendered by the Sabbaterian hoax resulted, unfortunately, in the suspicion and persecution of several righteous individuals who were innocent of all wrongdoing. R. Moshe Chaim Luzatto, author of Mesilas Yesharim, was one such victim; late the leaders of Chassidism, too, fell under suspicion.
Concern for the common folk brought the leaders of Chassidus into much closer contact with its followers, eroding - if not dissolving - the class barriers erected not long before. Scholars and men who had long prided themselves on their distinguished lineage found it difficult to accept this rapid dissolution of class distinction. The suspicions of the rabbinic leadership, if not, as time has proven, founded on reality, were certainly sincere; their actions were the actions of men carefully guarding the supremacy of Torah. Among lesser men, however, one cannot discount the much less laudable motive of jealousy, and their feeling of having failed to reach the masses. With its emphasis on Chessed and the commoner, Chassidic leaders often found themselves at odds with the entrenched communal authorities; and with their increased success in attracting adherents came increased bitterness among those in power.
The Baal Shem Tov (or the Maggid, according to some accounts) developed a new technique for sharpening the shochet's knife, and would not eat meat unless he could inspect the knife used for slaughter. The tremendous growth of the Chassidic movement under the Maggid led its adherents to appoint their own rabbis and shochtim in many locales. These actions were seen as undermining the authority of non-Chassidic rabbis. Interestingly, the Baal Shem's severity in this matter arose from a fear that many shochtim of his time were loyal to either Shabbetai Tzvi or another false Messiah, Jacob Frank, and their respective heretical movements. Thus the chassidim were paradoxically suspected of Sabbaterianism and criticized for a practice initiated in order to counter and expose this subversive movement.
Another feature of Chassidus also may have troubled the Vilna Gaon: Chassidus constituted a potential threat to the unity of the Jewish people. The vast majority rejected it, but those who didn't were completely dedicated to it. The Gaon was undoubtedly disturbed by the possibility of a major fissure within his people.
Though many of the tenets of the new movement, such as piety and abstinence, were positive, he rejected its imposition on the masses as a kind of obligation - for only Torah and halachah could be so viewed. Thus, he saw in the unprecedented growth of Chassidism two dangers: a rupture might take place within Jewry, or Chassidim might begin to impose their views on everyone, even those who would reap no benefit from them.
In 1770, a member of this group came to Shklov dressed as a maggid, and requested permission to deliver a discourse. In it, the young man brazenly derided the misnaggdim, openly scoffing at several well-known, illustrious scholars and rabbis.
With his departure, the city of Shklov rose up as one, and organized opposition to the Chassidic movement was eagerly begun. When reports reached the home of the Vilna Gaon, all his fears were reinforced, and his opposition grew even stronger.
When word of the incident reached Mezritch, the Maggid summoned R. Avraham of Kalisk, intending to censure him sharply for his methods. But R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and R. Zusia of Onipol convinced their senior colleague, R. Mendel of Vitebsk, to intervene on his behalf. Consequently, R. Avraham was merely rebuked and warned to abandon his penchant for excitation and wildness.
Recognizing the stature of their adversary, many of the Chassidic leaders openly expressed their sorrow at his opposition. R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk used to voice his regret that he had not "broken down" the Gaon's door, "for if we had only entered, the matter would have ended well."
At a public debate on Chassidism that took place in the city of Shklov in 1772, R. Shneur Zalman and R. Avraham of Kalisk successfully defended their position. Unfortunately, the behavior of the uncontrollable Kalisk chassidim was uppermost in the people's minds, and no semantic victory could ease the people's seething resentment. Hostility was so high that the two Chassidic leaders were actually imprisoned in a basement, escaping miraculously before the mob could publicly shame them.
Throughout this period, people slandered the Chassidic movement, telling the Vilna Gaon gross exaggerations and outright lies. For example, reliable sources swore to him that the chassidim ate meat and drank wine on Tishah B'Av. They neglected to mention, however, that Tishah B'Av of the year under discussion coincided with Shabbos (when one is obligated to eat meat and drink wine).
Shortly thereafter, copies of the cherem were circulated in the main communities of Lithuania, including Brisk, Horodna, Minsk, Pinsk, Shklov, and Slutzk. A letter was sent to the Galician community of Brody which was quick to follow with a cherem of its own, on 20 Sivan 1772, market day in Brody, a time when the city was certain to be full of visitors from surrounding areas. It had also been designated as a fast day for Polish Jewry, in memory of those killed in the pogroms of 1648-1649. Selichos were even recited. The mood of the people must have been somber indeed.
The cherem itself was similar to that of Vilna, though this one stressed the deviations from established customs and the acceptance of Kabbalistic practices, and severely proscribed any change in the standard Ashkenazi liturgy and customs.
That summer saw the publication of the virulently anti-Chassidic pamphlet Zemir Aritzim VeChorvos Tzurim (Song of the Ruthless and the Sharp Knives of the Flint) in Aleksenik, near Brody. This small booklet consisted of the decrees against chassidim proclaimed in Brody and nearby Leshnov, as well as letters from Vilna castigating the new movement.
The events that followed were related by R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi: "One Shabbos I was with the Rebbe, along with nine disciples: R. Shmelke and his brother, R. Pinchas; R. Nachum of Chernobyl; R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, then the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court in Pinsk; R. Zev Wolf of Zhitomir; the brothers R. Elimelech and R. Zusia; R. Leib; and R. Shlomo of Karlin. I was the youngest among them....
"That Friday, a letter arrived from Pinsk for R. Levi Yitzchak. In it he was informed of how the misnaggdim were subjecting his household and all the chassidim there to unbearable harassment. The entire chevraya was greatly distressed.
"At the Shabbos meal that evening, R. Levi Yitzchak arose and read the letter before the Rebbe, but he acted as if he heard nothing. The rabbanim (Rabbis), reread the letter the next day at lunch, but again, astonishingly, the Maggid did not react. They assumed that the Rebbe had left it up to them to act without him.
"They met after Shabbos to formulate a plan. Their only strategy was to impose a counter-ban on those who had issued the cherem improperly, for such is the appropriate halachic response. They were especially concerned about R. Avigdor....
"They found themselves one short of a minyan. At first, they didn't want to involve me, for I was young and opinionated, and since the Rebbe had not joined them, they thought I would not, either.
"But they trapped me. R. Shmelke asked me if such a thing was permissible according to the Torah. When I answered affirmatively, he said, 'He who reads the letter should deliver it' [Bava Metzia 83b]. They added me to their minyan, and we did what we did.
"At three o'clock in the morning, we all lay down to rest. Everyone else fell asleep. But since I knew the Rebbe realized what we had done, I waited to see what would happen. Suddenly I heard the Maggid's crutches hit the floor. I feigned sleep, but my ears were wide open. I peeked through my half-closed eyelids and saw the Maggid approaching slowly, with a lit candle in his hand.
"He looked at me and cried in astonishment, 'Master of the Universe! This small Jew will be the Rebbe of all White Russia!" The rustling woke the others, and they hurriedly washed their hands and stood at attention.
"'My children, what have you done?!" the Rebbe demanded.
"'We could no longer bear the intense suffering,' we answered.
"'It was not for naught, that I refrained from participating in this matter,' the Maggid continued, 'for I knew it was fraught with danger. But now it is lost: You have already lost your heads. But you have gained something, too: From now on, whenever there is a conflict between chassidim and misnaggdim, the chassidim will prevail.'"
By and large both sides acted for the sake of Heaven. The founders of Chassidus never planned on creating a "new religion"; they merely re-emphasized that which the generations had lost. But given the historical background, as well as the rumors, innuendo, and strange reports revolving around the movement, the Gaon of Vilna had no choice but to oppose it: To him it was clearly a battle for the sake of Torah and its sanctity. Reflecting this, Chassidic leaders have always treated his name with the utmost respect and reverence.
As the years have passed and the fires dampened, God's providence can clearly be seen in the conflict - a conflict that ultimately strengthened the Chassidic movement. Many Chassidic leaders themselves have pointed out that the Gaon's disapproval ensured that the primacy of halachah and Torah study never be questioned among chassidim. Moreover, the suffering of the early chassidim purified them and their beliefs, and forced them to clearly delineate the tenets of the movement. Finally, suffering and persecution, as they always do, forged a cohesive, strong whole, changing a "sect" into a way of life for thousands upon thousands.