Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), p. 27.
The early hasidic masters claim that the Besht taught a new way in the service of God—one in which the asceticism prominent in the Lurianic Kabbalah was abandoned in favor of avodah begashmiut, (worship through corporeality). The basic argument says that the ascetic way is perilous in that it can easily lead to spiritual pride if successfully pursued, and, if unsuccessful—as it is virtually bound to be among these “inferior generations” —can result in total despair of ever leading a disciplined religious life. Moreover, the duty of the hasid is to release the holy sparks inherent in food and drink and all material things so that the ascetic flees the spiritual battlefield in which, “nowadays,” the real struggle is to take place.
A typical hasidic observation in this connection is that by R. Barukh of Medziborz (1757-1810), the grandson of the Besht, that the latter introduced a new way, without mortification of the flesh, in which the three essentials are love of God, love of Israel, and love of the Torah. The two wives—one beloved, the other hated (Deuteronomy 21: 15-17)—are two different ways of worship. The beloved wife represents the ascetic way, which the common people love and admire for its heroic qualities. The hated wife represents engagement in worldly things in order to elevate the holy sparks.
The common people dislike this tzaddik who follows this way because he seems to be no better than they are. Yet, in reality, it is through this way that the tzaddik acquires a “double portion” of spiritual grace. This idea is repeated in many a hasidic text and was one of the reasons why the mitnaggedim ridiculed the new movement, which, for them, simply panders to worldly appetites and ambitions. Undeterred, the hasidim introduced such institutions as the tish—the sacred meal blessed by the participation of the tzaddik. The hasidim thought of their way as a more rigorous form of self-discipline. As it was frequently put, it is more difficult to eat and drink for the sake of Heaven than not to eat or drink at all.
Yet there is not total rejection of asceticism in hasidic doctrine. The moralistic ideal of sanctification of the licit, for instance, to abstain from food for which one has a longing, was generally followed so that it can fairly be said that although the hasidim were not normally ascetics, they did have a puritanical attitude toward worldly pleasures, especially in sexual matters. Nor is it true that none of the hasidic masters were ascetics. R. Elimelekh of Lejask, R. Nahman of Bratzlav, and others lived a life of severe self-torment. As late as the twentieth century, R. Aaron of Belz could say that one who serves God through eating serves Him only when eating, but one who serves God by fasting serves Him all the time.
Shimon Menahem Mendel of Garvatshov, Sefer Baal Shem Tov, vol. 2, Mishpatim, end, pp. 68-70.