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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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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