In this lecture, Louis Jacobs analyses the doctrine of messianism in hasidic thought. He notes that since hasidism was anchored within traditional Judaism, it certainly did not forsake the expectation that a messiah would arise and deliver Israel, but rather, that the movement switched the emphasis which many Jews placed on messianism and directed it instead on personal spiritual development.
Jacobs starts with the most crucial primary source on hasidism and messianism, the ‘Letter of the Besht’, purportedly written by the Ba’al Shem Tov and later published by Jacob Joseph of Polnoye. The letter narrates a spiritual ascent experienced by the Ba’al Shem Tov which allows him to hold a discussion with the Messiah.
He then goes through several other hasidic stories and discusses the academic literature on the topic in order to demonstrate that each hasidic group modified in a subtle way the doctrine of the messiah, shifting the emphasis in other directions, such as the doctrine of the Tzaddik. While the hasidic rebbe gradually gained importance in hasidic thought as the individual who would welcome the messiah, very few actually claimed to be the messiah.