Baal Shem Tov – Panentheism ‎

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			‎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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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.’ ‎
‎ ‎
Analysis ‎
‎ ‎
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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Practical ‎
‎ ‎
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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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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