Hasidut ‎

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			Once upon a time there was a man named Yisrael (Israel) who lived in the region of the ‎western Ukraine. He was born into a poor and simple but extremely pious family. We ‎don’t know much about his childhood and early adulthood, but we have enough legends to ‎more than make up for our lack of knowledge. In fact, when it comes to Hasidut, legends are ‎more important than facts. This is not meant as a criticism. Throughout human history legend ‎has played a much greater role in shaping human destiny than hard facts, because people are ‎moved by legend, whereas they are at best interested in facts. Hasidut epitomizes this fact of ‎life. ‎
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But we digress. Yisrael somehow learned, not just‏ ‏the normal stuff that every Jewish boy and ‎man learned, but some other stuff that hardly anybody knew. He learned how to be a Baal ‎Shem (master of the Name (of God)), or in non-Jewish terms, a miracle worker. But he wasn’t ‎even just any old miracle worker – there were always an assortment of them wandering the ‎countryside – he was the miracle worker. Consequently, he became known as the Baal Shem ‎Tov (the good master of the Name, or master of the good Name, or Besht, the initials of that ‎phrase). Exactly what was different about him has never been clarified. But the fact that he ‎was different is enough. ‎
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He became famous for his miracles, but if that were all he was famous for, he never would ‎have earned the reputation and the following that he accrued. His real greatness lay not in his ‎miracles but in his simplicity. He tried, and to a great degree succeeded, in erasing or ‎redefining, the almost 2000 years of increasing sophistication and complication that began ‎with the early rabbis of the late second temple era, and had effectively painted Judaism into ‎an extremely intellectual corner. Either one was a Torah scholar, or one was an am ha’aretz – ‎an ignoramus. Judaism was a rabbis’ game. They controlled it from start to finish. They set the ‎rules; they interpreted the rules; and they reinterpreted the rules. Everybody else followed as ‎best they could or as best they cared to. It didn’t really matter if it was Halacha or Talmud, ‎philosophy or mysticism - the rabbis ran the show and they made things as complicated as ‎they liked. ‎
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The Baal Shem Tov changed all that. As far as we know, he singlehandedly, and with no ‎apparent plan of doing so, introduced an entirely new way of life to the impoverished, non-‎scholarly Jews of Eastern Europe. Baal Shem Tov Judaism, or Hasidut (piety) as it came to be ‎known, was about finding God in everyday life, both in nature and beyond nature. Modern ‎theologians call this mode of belief the confusing term ‘panentheism’ – God is within ‎everything, and/or everything is within God. It entails searching for God everywhere and ‎within every situation, allowing nothing to be devoid of God’s presence. It was a simple and ‎unifying idea, an idea that really had been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. The ‎input of the Baal Shem Tov was to take this simple idea and translate it from theory to ‎practice. ‎
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Why, you may ask, didn’t anybody do this before the Baal Shem Tov? Perhaps they did. ‎Perhaps this was religious life in Biblical times. Perhaps during the days of the Talmud ‎also, this was the way the average Jew lived. More likely, maybe it was the way a small ‎percentage of Jews in communities all over the known world have lived. The people who ‎lived this way were not necessarily the great scholars or the community leaders. They may ‎have been the simple people who had no access to godliness other than through this simple ‎method. Philosophy was not an option for them. Neither were the esoteric ways of mysticism. ‎Certainly mastery of the Talmud was not a possibility. They didn’t necessarily have the minds ‎or the wherewithal for these cerebral or spiritually lofty pursuits. So what else was there ‎besides the simplistic devotion of a simple servant of God? ‎
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As far as we know, the Baal Shem Tov never wrote any of his teachings down. But a ‎considerable number of them were recorded by his disciples. How many of them were his ‎actual teachings and how many were elaborations on some vague hint or some nuance in a ‎story is anybody’s guess. It really doesn’t matter. The significant thing is the teachings ‎themselves, not the person who taught them. Many of them were recorded by an important ‎disciple named Yaakov Yosef of Polonye. His book, called Toldos Yaakov Yosef (loosely ‎translated as ‘Events’ recorded by Yaakov Yosef), records hundreds of teachings of the Baal ‎Shem Tov, some as aphorisms, some as short talks, and some as stories. Many of the stories ‎recounted in ‘the Toldos’, as it is popularly known, are about horses and buggies, paupers and ‎kings. They concern God revealed and God disguised. The stories, more than anything, were ‎what made the Baal Shem Tov a larger-than-life personality, whose reputation was far more ‎important than his history. ‎
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Among his disciples were prominent rabbis who had to leave prestigious positions because ‎they joined in with what was slowly being recognized as a movement that challenged rabbinic ‎authority. They probably weren’t called Hasidim (the pious) during the Baal ‎Shem Tov’s lifetime (he died in 1760), but they were shortly after. The above mentioned ‎Yaakov Yosef and his book Toldos were at the center of the growing controversy. He had a ‎prestigious rabbinic post before joining the movement. His introduction into the movement ‎through some vague tale involving the Baal Shem Tov epitomized the threatening ‎nature of Hasidut. Here was a major scholar of both Talmud and mysticism, a rabbinic leader, ‎joining an unknown miracle worker who had no rabbinic credentials. The stories in ‎the Toldos did nothing to cool off the rabbinic authorities. On the contrary, they fanned the ‎flames, as rabbinic leaders saw the Hasidim in their true colors – miracle workers, story tellers, ‎eccentrics. The battleground was set. ‎
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After the death of the Baal Shem Tov the leadership of the movement passed by unofficial ‎consensus to an influential disciple named Dov Ber, better known as the Maggid (orator) ‎of Mezritch, a town in the western Ukraine. Unlike the Baal Shem Tov who traveled the ‎countryside telling stories to the common people, the Maggid set up shop in one place and ‎primarily taught a select group of elite students. In teaching this group, the Maggid had to ‎systemize the scattered stories of the Baal Shem Tov and the jewels of mystical insight that ‎surrounded them into a workable theory of Judaism. He succeeded in creating not only one, ‎but many such systems, through the teachings of his disciples. He trained them to be ‎independent leaders in their own right, not mere copiers of his methods. It was this elite ‎group, the second and third generations of the movement, who became the first Hasidim. ‎
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The Maggid instructed them to spread the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings all over Eastern ‎Europe. Some went to Poland, others to various parts of the Ukraine. One, Shneur Zalman, ‎went into the intellectual center of the rabbinic world, Lithuania. He started what ultimately ‎became the most famous of the Hasidic subgroups, Chabad (an acronym ‎for Chachmah, Binah, Da’at – wisdom, understanding, knowledge). His system, taught ‎primarily through his major work known as the Tanya, intellectualized the Hasidic way of life ‎and gave it more solid Talmudic and mystical foundations. Largely through the Tanya, ‎Lurianic Kabbalah became the theoretical basis for much of Hasidic thought. But by moving ‎into the rabbinic stronghold of Lithuania, and by intellectualizing the movement, he further ‎ignited the growing controversy with the rabbinic world. ‎
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This controversy, which flared mainly between the years 1770 and 1810, revolved around ‎certain key figures in the Hasidic movement and the towering Lithuanian scholar, Eliyahu of ‎Vilna. We shall hear more about him in the section on the Yeshiva movement. For now, it ‎suffices to say that he represented the ‘Mitnagdim’ – the opponents, of the Hasidic ‎movement. This group sought to stem the raging tide of Jews throughout Poland and Ukraine ‎who were latching onto a renegade movement that seemed to smack ‎of Sabbatean messianism. This was 100 years after Shabbtai Zvi, and the effect of that ‎disaster was still being felt in Judaism. The debate between the two schools of thought was ‎partly intellectual, partly halachic, but mostly social. It was really about who and what would ‎steer the mindset of the common Eastern European Jew. Would it be the dry and largely ‎inaccessible Talmudic rabbis, or would it be the popular, mystical, miracle-working, Hasidim? ‎Or would both become secondary to the outside forces of the enlightenment? ‎
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By the time the controversy began to die down, about two thirds of Eastern European Jews ‎were solidly entrenched within the Hasidic movement. The rabbinic world was still ‎immensely powerful, but the common people had chosen Hasidut. To a great extent, this was ‎due to the teachings of a disciple of the Maggid named Elimelech of Lizhensk. More than any ‎other Hasidic leader, he brought into Hasidut the central doctrine of the Tzadik, the ‎Righteous Man, who serves as an intermediary of sorts between God and the Hasidim. This ‎was the basis for the famous ‘Hasidic Court’ in which the leader, the Rebbe, is held in such ‎esteem by his flock that he is looked upon almost as a unique soul brought to earth for ‎purpose of leading his group. The institution of the Hasidic dynasty arose from this system. ‎
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Not all Hasidic leaders accepted this transition. Some insisted that their followers still had to ‎find God on their own, and that the Rebbe was only a guide. Among these was the ‎famous Rebbe Nahman of Breslov. He was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, a ‎connection that perhaps led him to a path that he believed was more in line with the original ‎goal of Hasidut. His stress was on the spiritual elevation of the individual Jew, no matter ‎what their background or capabilities. His was a back-to-basics Hasidut, focusing on joy in ‎everyday life and never giving up hope, in spite of the numerous emotional and spiritual ‎challenges in life. He died relatively young and his Hasidim were left without a Rebbe. ‎Though this vacuum was never to be filled, Breslov Hasidut survived. It is currently one of ‎the most vibrant and innovative branches of Hasidut in the Jewish world. ‎
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All this is a far cry from the simple search for godliness of the Baal Shem Tov. Indeed, there ‎are those who say that beginning with the dynasties, Hasidut lost a good deal of its original ‎flavor. From that point onward, it would no longer focus on the immediacy of God, but on ‎the reverence of the Rebbe. It was the worship of the Holy Man, the one who had his own ‎special path to God. ‎
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Is this what the Baal Shem Tov had in mind when he wandered the countryside? Would he ‎be satisfied with the movement that he inadvertently created, or would he be disappointed? ‎To contemporary Hasidim there is only one answer – this is the way it turned out so this is ‎what was intended. Is this panentheism, or is it just another version of modern Judaism in ‎which God hovers on the edges but never really enters into the picture? Would the Baal Shem ‎Tov recognize in these people his spiritual heirs, or would he feel out of place, as he did in the ‎rabbinic world of his time? Would he, or would he not, find meaning in ‎contemporary Hasidut? ‎


		


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