A friend of mine recently sent me an article about a rabbi in England who was arrested after a week long binge of cocaine and hedonism (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/
The Chassidic movement of the Baal Shem Tov began as a revivalist movement about three hundred years ago with a conscious goal. The false messianism of Shabtai Tvi, the pograms of Tach v'Tat, and the European Enlightenment had left the Jewish world in shambles. Education was very possibly at an all time low. With all the best intentions the rabbis of the day forbade the studying of kabbalah because Shabtai Tzvi's movement validated itself on the basis of heretical interpretations of certain passages in the Zohar and the teachings of Isaac Luria. All of these factors combined to create an atmosphere of rampant poverty, both materially and spiritually. The rabbis conglomerated their power to keep Judaism alive in the face of its oppressors, and advocated an approach of the most limited observance and unflinching obediance for the peasant class. The vicious cycle begun, the fate of the simple folk to live in ignorance was all but sealed when the Baal Shem Tov arrived. The true mark of genius is that the paradigm shift it engenders appears after the fact as having been totally common sensical from the outset. Thus, to describe his message is difficult, because it was neither radical nor conservative, novel nor traditional. Like a sculptor chiselling away at a stone to reveal a new form the Baal Shem Tov did not innovate in the true sense of the word. His message, that the spirit of the law and the letter of the law are inextricably bound and that one cannot exist nor substitute for the other is the fundament of all of Judaism. That God communicates with man, and that his chosen method for doing so is through the Torah, and that through its proper observance man can achieve a contact with the Divine even unto the level of prophecy – that is the message of Abraham and Moses, David and Maimonides.
There was another time in Jewish history when similar problems threatened the Jewish people. Foreign occupation, ecclesiasticism, and false messianism. It is a time we don't like to think too much about, perhaps because it's problems are similar to our own. One solution which presented itself at the time was the total abrogation of the Torah. The Christian movement claimed that the spirit of the law was in contradistinction to the letter of the law, and at that point it ceased completely to be Jewish. Confronted with a Jewish world that looked much like the one leading up to the destruction of the Temple, the Baal Shem Tov offered a solution that the proper observance of the Torah requires more than the routine performance of empty rites. He offered this solution, however, only after recognizing that there was a problem.
A rabbi in England hooked on drugs, so-called Chasidim in Jerusalem throwing stones at their fellow Jews on Shabbos, and Jewish family men sitting in Federal prison for embezzlement – how have things come to this? Does it mean that the Torah is a lie and its exemplars hypocrites? How can it be that less than five hundred years after the redaction of the Shulchan Aruch we can ease our consciences by living in a manner which is externally flawless and yet completely out of touch with the sentiment that Yosef Caro took for granted we would have when studying and trying to live by his work? I hear many people joke that Chabad is the closest religion to Judaism. A joke being like a frog (when you dissect it you kill it) notwithstanding, I can assume that what they are driving at is with its departure from many of the popular customs of European and American Jewry and its strong Messianic leanings Chabad looks like something new. But the truth is often said in jest and they have a point. Chabad recognizes that there is a problem with rote and feelingless observance. As spiritual heirs of the Baal Shem Tov our solution to that problem is recognizing that the letter of the law needs the spirit of the law and vice versa—the beginning is wedged in the end and the end in the beginning—and that this is not something close to Judaism, that this is Judaism.