Let My People Know

"As one of its first principles, Chasidism emphasized its strenuous opposition to both the theory and practice of asceticism"


A unique method was developed, in the past, to rid oneself of the evil in the soul—the method of suppressing to the utmost all negative drives by fighting them with every possible means and hoping thereby to destroy every lust and vice. 

Physical self-castigation, such as fasts and flagellations, was not meant simply as self-punishment (for the purpose of penance or for other reasons) but also as a way of suppressing the sensual and, thereby, removing every evil urge and desire.

As one of its first principles, Chasidism emphasized its strenuous opposition to both the theory and practice of asceticism and denounced this experience of self-renunciation and the "contempt" for the sensual, which the earlier ascetics developed. 

It strove to exalt and not destroy all things, including the material world, asserting that the reason for asceticism's failure to attain its goal was that the attempt to suppress drives does not result in their cessation, but leads to their taking root in deeper levels of the soul.

Chasidism followed a different course—the path of sublimation—by assuming (and this is a cardinal principle in its ethics) that the difference between good and evil is not a qualitative one, but a difference of object. 

The basic inclinations of man—good and evil—are identical. 

But man can change the direction of his inclinations, and by reorienting them toward the good, attain to saintliness. 

Since the difference between good and evil lies in direction it is quite obvious that Chasidism should conclude that the more profoundly an individual experiences his various desires, the greater his opportunity (after redirecting these drives) of becoming a saintly individual.

Various solutions to many involved problems in the process of sublimation were elaborated and suggested, but once again, as in other areas, Chasidism never presented a comprehensive system, only basic principles and incomplete outlines, which it never fully explained. 

Nevertheless, one of the ways of "mending the soul" (tikun hanefesh), often quoted in Chasidic literature, is the oral confession before a teacher; that is, the Chasid goes to his rabbi and lays before him all of his problems and cares. 

This oral confession is considered one of the highest rungs in the healing and amelioration of an ailing soul (with no reference to the advice or instruction received from the rabbi, this being an entirely separate matter). 

The similarity to the practice of psychoanalysis is striking. 

It is essential to note that this oral confession is in no way considered a religious rite, and is basically not a confession of sins. 

This is a down-to-earth, very practical outpouring of the soul, a self-analysis of various problems of the soul, in the presence of the rabbi, who guides and directs the self-analysis.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From “Chasidism and Psychoanalysis,” in The Strife of the Spirit, p. 189, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz