In the battle that lasted from the end of the 18th century through the early 20th century, the Chasidim beat the Misnagdim.
Need proof of the victory? Just look at the fact that non-Chasidim are identified, to this day, as Misnagdim [meaning “the opposition”] rather than the mainstream. Chasidim were the ones who broke away from the mainstream, but Misnagdim were equally identified as a sect.
Chasidim won that war because our society prefers its heroes to be populist, and sees Chasidim as populists. We want our role models to be down-to-earth, reachable, and definitely not elitist, and the narrative popularized by early Chasidim was that the Misnagdim were coldly intellectual elitists, committed to a communal structure that honored scholarship over simple piety, and snobbish in the extreme toward the ignorant peasant class.
This comes to mind tonight because I am preparing a source sheet for a shiur and I am using a citation from the arch-Misnaged, one of the men at the heart of the late-18th century battle between Chasidim and Misnagdim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. That citation makes it clear that the classic depiction of the Misnaged as aloof intellectual elitist is simply treif.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner, as he was also called, was certainly an intellectual. A halachic genius and a mystic, founder of the famed Volozhin yeshiva, he was the chief student of the Gaon of Vilna. He was certainly a misnaged; one of the goals of his book Nefesh haChaim was to demolish the philosophical arguments of the Chasidim, and he minced no words in pursuit of this goal.
But don’t let the revisionists fool you; Misnagdim were decidedly not the aloof, elitist, enemies-of-the-masses that were described by their foes. Here is the testimony of Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin regarding his father, Rav Chaim:
והיה רגיל להוכיח אותי על שראה שאינני משתתף בצערא דאחרינא. וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם. לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות.He regularly rebuked me, because he saw that I did not participate in the pain of others. And these were his constant words to me: This is the entire person. One is not created for himself, but to benefit others with the full extent of his powers.
Is this the ‘constant’ message of a cold intellectual elitist? I think not.