The Baal Shem Tov is a total enigma. We do know approximately when he was born (1698) and when he died (1760) and a considerable number of stories in between, but the man himself remains a complete mystery. He lived during the Age of Enlightenment, but somehow he does not seem to belong in it. Science and technology were rapidly developing during his lifetime, with society-changing inventions coming out every decade, but he lived completely oblivious to it all. He almost appears to have emerged from the Dark Ages or even from days of Biblical prophecy. One can see him wandering the countryside telling stories about beggars and horses and kings and their daughters, more easily than one can imagine him reading from a printed book.
Who was the Baal Shem Tov? He was an itinerant story teller/miracle worker whose travels took him around parts of what is now central Ukraine. The real events of his life are not nearly as important as the legends. If that causes people to doubt the authenticity of his exploits, so be it. His parables speak of a world that hovers on the edge of believability, but somehow they convey messages that are more real than what we read in the daily news. The miracles that are attributed to him don’t even seem all that miraculous. They appear like second-rate miracles – not the ‘feeding the multitudes’ or ‘splitting the sea’ variety from Biblical times. They deal with people making unaccountable appearances at just the right moment, or knowing things that couldn’t be known by normal means of knowledge. They are the everyday miracles that pervaded the lives of the simple people who inhabited the villages that he wandered among. But it is precisely their everydayness that makes them hit home with 21st century techno-dependent skeptics.
Every Baal Shem Tov story or saying has a simple meaning and a deeper meaning. In fact, it may have several layers of meaning. In a sense, they are a microcosm of the world. The world looks pretty physical on the outside, but if we look deeper we can see hidden layers. This was the core of the Baal Shem Tov’s message. Look deeper. If there is one element of his teachings that somehow says it all, it is the notion that God can be found everywhere and in every moment. This is the little understood philosophy of panentheism stripped down to its most basic form. There is nothing other than God. The following taken from one of the many ‘sources’ of Baal Shem Tov aphorisms (he has no known written works) hits this right on the head:
‘Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by God to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.’
If all you ever heard in the name of the Baal Shem Tov was this quote, you could legitimately consider yourself well informed. If this was the only piece of his philosophy that you knew and you followed it, you should consider yourself a genuine Hasid. This is the Baal Shem Tov in a nutshell. Everything is Divine Providence. What does it mean? The next sentence says more than a several volume text of Hasidic philosophy ever could. There is nothing that happens by chance. There is nothing that happens because it was programmed to happen that way from the initial conditions of the Big Bang. The laws of physics may be correct or they may not be. It really doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is that God makes everything happen.
There are a few varieties of panentheism. It means either ‘everything is within God’, or ‘God is within everything’. The first one is probably more faithful to the word, but being as the word itself didn’t exist until about 200 years ago, the second is just as valid. Are they the same thing? The former differentiates panentheism from pantheism, its better known cousin. God is not the universe or all of reality. The universe, or reality, is within God. This is an idea that goes back to the rabbis of the Midrash who called God, ‘The Place’, an odd term that sums up the first definition of panenthism.
The second definition is a little more complex. It can take many forms, depending on the religious philosophy that uses it. In one form, perhaps the more familiar, it means that God’s essence ‘emanates’, going through various stages of evolution or filters, until it ultimately becomes the reality that we sense. This idea was central to the neo-Platonist doctrine of Plotinus, a third century Greek philosopher. The Jewish mystics of the Zohar schools made it their core element. But there is a second interpretation of this idea that takes a subtler form. This second form is the central kernel of Baal Shem Tov Hasidut. It is the idea of the leaf.
There may be no difference between either of the two translations of panentheism, or in the two forms of the second definition. Regardless, the Hasidic form is incredibly powerful. It means exactly what it says. That is its incredible power. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, that isn’t a manifestation of God’s presence in the world. Everything has ultimate meaning because everything is a manifestation of God. It is the most all-inclusive answer to the big question. What is the meaning of life? Every aspect of life is equally meaningful - it’s just a matter of where one chooses to find meaning.
It is this final choice that narrows things down a bit. Simply saying that God is found in everything can have a watering down effect. If it’s all God, then maybe God isn’t all that great to begin with. Panentheism, as wonderful and as universal as it is (it remains the only religious belief system that has any chance of unifying the many religions of the world), suffers from this ‘sameness’ problem. Where do we find God if God is everywhere? The easy answer of ‘everywhere’ only mocks the question, and will probably leave the questioner a little frustrated. Human beings need distinction in order to understand and to appreciate. If it’s all the same then it’s all rather bland.
This is where the Baal Shem Tov’s idea shows its true colors. One must focus on the leaf. Focusing on everything is like focusing on nothing. A leaf will do. That leaf blowing around is all one needs to see the hand of God. It doesn’t have to be a leaf. It could be a worm or a sunset or a star or a smart phone. In any one of those things, or in any one of the zillion other things in reality, God’s presence pervades. Wherever you are, whenever you want, you can feel God’s presence. It’s always there. It is.
God’s presence, of course, is not limited to things. It is also found in thoughts and emotions. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov took his doctrine all the way to include even the domain of evil. Prior to Hasidut, evil was seen by Judaism in many ways. They almost all shared the notion that it had to be somehow removed from God. The Baal Shem Tov said that whatever form evil took was really only an extremely camouflaged form of God. Even evil thoughts in the mind of a human being are somehow another manifestation of godliness. Obviously, this is an enormous amount to swallow and it probably introduces more questions than it answers. He never said it was easy. It is probably best to look for God in blowing leaves or in sunsets. If one tries to look for God in the inner recesses of their mind, they may discover a god they don’t really want to worship. However, if one likes to live on the edge, this is another alleyway that God hangs out in. It’s the seedier side of God, but it is still God. ‘God is everywhere’ means that God is everywhere, even where we don’t really want God to be.
This one is as practical as it gets. Start with the following easy exercise: Go anywhere, anytime, and look at anything. Now imagine that thing as being infused with God’s presence. If only life would be so simple. It really isn’t all that easy to do this spontaneously. It does require some advance prep. For starters, in order to really make this work, you have to eliminate the distractions. Of course, the distractions are also filled with God’s presence and all that, but when you are trying to actually feel this in flesh and blood you have to start somewhere. Start with turning off the cell phone. Next, commit yourself to not doing anything else for the next 10 minutes. With that out of the way, the next step is to drop all preconceived notions about God – all the atheism and skepticism, all the images and wishes, and just let God be. With the images gone there may be a vacuum. Where’s God?
It may work best to focus on something natural, like a flower. It takes a good deal of training to pull this off with man-made objects. But flowers or trees or the sky can be great vessels. They must be stripped of their outer trappings. It will be difficult, but the inner core of every natural object or scene is always waiting to be discovered. It is simply a little leap of faith to perceive it not as a flower but as a vessel of energy. This energy is life. Going down another level, even life is made of simpler stuff. It is reality charged up. It is ‘being’ with an agenda. Being is its core. One more level down and we’re feeling being. What makes it be? It is puzzling. This is the vacuum. The vacuum is God.
It can work with anything really, but most people find they want to stick with nature. Feeling God in thoughts and emotions is an entirely different experience, and not without its risks. It is important to recognize that God is in you, but you are not God. When dabbling with God inside the mind the difference is not so obvious. The key here is a pre-Hasidic concept called hitbatlut, or nullification of the self. The greatest block between us and God is the ego. This was a classic Baal Shem Tov warning. To find God in one’s thoughts requires eliminating the ego from the thoughts. Without this step God’s presence is almost impossible to feel. If successful, the experience of feeling God right inside the mind is nothing short of exhilarating. This is Hasidut as it was meant to be. The Baal Shem Tov would be proud.
Food for Thought
Many Jews today say that Baal Shem Tov Judaism is the royal road to avoiding the meaninglessness of the technologically driven modern world. For those who have tried it and succeeded, it is heaven on earth. How does one actually manage to transform this simple idea into a way of life?
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