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The Ba'al Shem Tov and the Chasidic Revolution

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The Ba’al Shem Tov initiated a revolution in Judaism: a spiritual renewal movement that breathed new life into the worship of God. It can be said that we, all of us, constitute the tenth generation of Chasidut. The notion that we are the tenth generation invites us to transcend the boundaries between the different Chasidic streams and return to the source of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spirit.

It is said that in the era when Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov was born, the exile’s hardships were so severe that the entire Jewish people seemed to be in a state of stupor. Decrees, persecutions, and pogroms weakened the Jewish people, making their lives difficult, painful, and poverty-stricken. If these were only physical afflictions, it would be bearable; but the hardships of exile penetrated deep into the hearts of the Jews, manifesting as a spiritual exile—a disconnect between intellect and emotion and soul. People still studied Torah and performed mitzvot (commandments), but the service of God largely became a matter of “by rote”[1]—a routine habit dictated by the mind but lacking inner vitality and emotion. This internal disconnect between the intellect and the heart was reflected outwardly and manifested in Jewish society as well. A social gap was created between the learned scholars who felt superior to the simple Jews, alienated from them, and disparaged them. They saw the simple Jews as those who could not enter the gates of Torah.

Yet, even in a state of stupor, the famous verse from the Song of Songs “I am asleep, but my heart is awake”[2] holds true: The soul’s root is not asleep but merely imprisoned, waiting to be discovered and set free. And how do you awaken someone from their stupor? A known remedy is to whisper their first name in their ear, directly touching their essence. This is why the soul of the Baal Shem Tov, whose first name was Yisrael, was sent down from heaven; his very birth was akin to whispering the name “Israel” into the people’s ear, to awaken them from their stupor.

From the Forest to the City

The Baal Shem Tov’s figure is shrouded in mystery. Much of the biographical information we have about him comes from stories, both numerous and varied, and even contradictory versions. However, their purpose is not to provide us with an accurate historical report about the man but to paint a portrait of his spirit and personality—and truth be told, it is hard to find a uniform consistency between biography, spirit, and achievements for any individual. The third Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek, once said about the stories of the Baal Shem Tov that whoever believes them is a fool, but whoever does not believe them is a heretic. One way to restate this saying is that one should believe that all the stories could have actually happened. There is no need to accept every detail of the stories as historical fact, but their inner content—the lines they add to the portrait of that wondrous soul who walked among us—should be appreciated.

Most stories agree on the following details:

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov was born on the 18th of Elul in the Jewish calendar year 5558 (1698) in present-day Ukraine. By the age of five, he was orphaned from both his father and mother, and his upbringing was entrusted to the people of his town. One day, when he was seven, young Yisrael wandered in the forest and met a mysterious wanderer who adopted him. This man turned out to be none other than one of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim (righteous ones) of that generation, who recognized the special soul of young Yisrael and sought to nurture it. The tzaddik included Yisrael in the secret group of hidden tzaddikim who appeared to be simple laborers but were in fact deeply pious scholars whose study and prayers secretly contributed to the world’s repair. Young Yisrael grew up among them, ascending in holiness until at eighteen, he was appointed as their leader. In this role, he carried out his first revolutionary act: he instructed the tzaddikim to emerge from their seclusion in the forests and start living in the Jewish villages and towns.[3] His intention was to change the tzaddik’s way of life from secluded and personal, acting for the common good only in secret, to a way of life dedicated to open contribution to others.

The next significant event in the life of the Ba’al Shem Tov, it is told, occurred on his twenty-sixth birthday (a significant birthday, since 26 is the gematria value of God’s essential Name, Havayah). On this day, he was visited in a vision by the prophet Achiyah (Ahijah) the Shilonite (who split the Kingdom of Israel into two during the reign of King Solomon[4]) and was instructed to go to a certain cave in the Carpathian Mountains, where he would be taught the secrets of the Torah. For ten years, Rabbi Yisrael visited the cave daily and learned the secrets of Kabbalah, until on his 36th birthday his spiritual teacher told him that he must cease being a hidden tzaddik and reveal himself to the public. Rabbi Yisrael then wandered between towns, this time without hiding his virtues and powers. He became known for his ability to heal the sick, provide blessings and amulets, and infuse everyone he met with a spirit of joy and devotion previously unknown throughout Judaism. He earned the moniker the Ba’al Shem Tov, which means “master of the good name,” i.e. someone who holds the name of the Holy Blessed One, as it were, and can draw goodness and blessing from it.

His unique personality attracted many disciples. The simple Jews immediately recognized the special qualities of his spirit and clung to him. Scholars approached him with greater suspicion, seeking to determine whether he was a true man of Torah or, God forbid, a charlatan; but as soon as they recognized his character, those who met him could not help but feel that a “new face” had arrived in the world. Anyone into whose world the Ba’al Shem Tov entered immediately felt how a new radiance suddenly shone at the edges of their lives, how a new expansion filled their soul, how their old Torah pages started fluttering excitedly from the new wind blowing through them.[5]

The Inner Dimension of the Torah

What was the new spirit that the Ba’al Shem Tov brought? It was nothing but the inner dimension of the ancient Torah that has rested on the study tables in the houses of study for thousands of years. When the Ba’al Shem Tov saw that the soul of people was buried and covered, he understood that the time had come to reveal its equivalent within the Torah—the soul of the Torah, Kabbalah. Only the esoteric wisdom of the Torah had the power to bring the Jewish soul back to life. In Kabbalah’s potent language and profound world of imagery, the Ba’al Shem Tov realized, lie hidden the keys to the locked chambers of the heart, and a way must be found to bring them to its gates.

For example, he taught from the books of Kabbalah that the Holy Blessed One is Or Ein Sof, “Endless Light”—an eternal existence that fills everything and is present everywhere. Every Jew is raised on the Talmudic saying that “since the Temple was destroyed, God has in His world only the four cubits of Halacha [Jewish law]”[6]; but the Ba’al Shem Tov explained that when we move from a diasporic consciousness to a redemptive consciousness, we feel how the Holy Blessed One is present everywhere, in every person, and in every event. Whenever we are confronted with something new, we must ask: What is the Divine secret hidden here? How is this thing meant to assist in the rectification of my soul, or to help me in rectifying others? It doesn’t mean that everything is good; there are definitely dark and evil things in reality; but their darkness is not absolute or final, and if we delve deeper, we will see that even in them hides a spark of holiness that can be redeemed and elevated.

Another example: Kabbalah deals with “Worlds,” “sefirot,” (Divine emanations) and “partzufim” (Divine archetypes)—metaphysical figures and forces that structure reality, and through which the Creator governs His creation. The Baal Shem Tov showed that these abstract models are present in the soul of each and every one and thus can serve as a means to understand and to rectify ourselves. While the Kabbalists’ concern was to make “soul ascents”—to spiritually ascend to the higher worlds and gaze upon them—the Ba’al Shem Tov’s goal was to bring these worlds down to us, to show that they are reflected within us. In this way, the theoretical knowledge of Kabbalah becomes a practical tool for understanding our inner world. Incidentally, understanding Kabbalah in this manner allows us to grasp its abstract concepts through their analogy to the aspects and processes of the human psyche, ultimately leading to a deeper understanding of Kabbalah itself.[7]

Beyond the Letter of the Law

The relationship between Kabbalah and Chasidut is also reflected in the word “Chasidut” itself, which is based on “loving-kindness” (chesed), in Hebrew. Loving-kindness is the force of love and dedication to others. Thus, the word “Chasidut” complements the word “Kabbalah,” one of whose meanings is “to receive.” But just as we saw in the previous article that the word Kabbalah has a deeper meaning, so too does the word Chasidut.

The traditional definition of a chasid is someone who acts “beyond the letter of the law,” that is, does good beyond what is required. What does this mean in the context of the Chasidic movement? Well, it can be said that Chasidut goes “beyond the letter of the law” of Kabbalah. The Kabbalistic models, as subtle and profound as they may be, are just a system of laws if not “lived” from within. A chasid is not satisfied with intellectual contemplation of these structures but seeks to experience them, to enter, so to speak, into the Kabbalistic law. The Hebrew phrase for “beyond the letter of the law” (לְפָנִים מִשּׁוּרַת הַדִּין) can also be read as meaning, “inside the letter of the law” (לִפְנִים מִשּׁוּרַת הַדִּין).

For this reason, just as Kabbalah is defined as the “soul of the Torah,” Chasidut is defined as the “soul of Kabbalah.” It exposes the living spirit breathing within the seemingly technical models of Kabbalah. Entering the inner dimension of Kabbalah infuses it within us, turning it into what is described as “the living words of God” (דִּבְרֵי אֱלֹקים חַיִּים)—a Torah of the psyche that pulsates within us.

The Ba’al Shem Tov showed his students that his wisdom “is not in heaven” but is revealed within the verses of the Torah and the commentators. All we need to do is slightly shift the traditional lenses of reading. He taught, for example, that the word mitzvah, which means “commandment” (מִצְוָה) should not only be read as deriving from the verb letzavot, meaning, “to command” (לְצַוּוֹת) or “to give orders,” but can also as understood as coming from the word meaning “together” (צַוְתָּא), pronounced tzavta, thus implying that its purpose is to elevate the individual and connect him together with God through the performance of the commandment.

Other examples: he taught that God’s call to Abraham, “Go forth”[8] (לֶךְ לְךָ), is not just a call to go on his path, but also a call to “go to yourself,” to your hidden essence. He taught that the famous saying from the sages, “Know what is above you”[9] (דַּע מַה לְּמַעְלָה מִמְּךָ) is not only a directive meant to give man some perspective regarding his position under God, but can also be read as saying, “Know [that] what is above, [comes from] you.” In other words, everything that happens above and seems to just overpower you, is all essentially from you, a reflection of your inner reality.[10]

Ailments of the Heart

Another important principle in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings was that the rectification of the soul cannot remain only in the intellectual and conscious level of a person, but must also penetrate the unconscious layers. Almost two centuries before Freud, the Ba’al Shem Tov distinguished between a person’s “conscious heart ailments,” which he could directly heal, and those of which he was unaware and could not heal without first bringing them to consciousness.[11]

The rectification of unconscious defects is essential for truly internalizing the study of Torah. As long as Torah study doesn’t penetrate the heart’s interior, one cannot achieve a true rectification of his traits. He might be a great scholar and possess immense knowledge, and even develop traits of humility and righteousness, but inside, he may be filled with pride over how “sanctified” he believes himself to be. This is how the Ba’al Shem Tov interpreted the repetition of the root “to conceal” (סתר) in the verse “And I will surely conceal [הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר] My face on that day”[12]: There are times when we are hidden from God, i.e. distant from Him, but this fact is in and of itself is hidden from our eyes—despite our distance, we are sure that we are actually close to Him. Spiritual double-blindness.

The Ba’al Shem Tov encountered this phenomenon frequently in his life. In those days, “moral preachers” would wander through towns, standing on the pulpits of synagogues and delivering reprimands, pouring fire and brimstone on their listeners and bringing them to tears. The Ba’al Shem Tov recognized that this method of admonition does not open a person’s heart but rather contracts it out of fear. He also noticed the falsehood in the speaker’s soul, who, in his arrogance, pretended to be perfectly rectified himself. The Ba’al Shem Tov would expose the preachers’ own concealed soul defects, showing them they had no right to preach and perhaps even needed to learn from the simple people they admonished. Thus, he managed to instill humility in the scholars and also to develop a completely different method of outreach, teaching merit and highlighting the good.

Indeed, one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s central educational methods was to send his learned students to observe the way of life and customs of the simple folk, and to learn from their unassuming lowliness and innocence. The Ba’al Shem Tov recognized that just as the scholars tend to be filled with unconscious pride, so too the simple and uneducated people tend to be naturally humble to the extent that their spiritual stature exceeded that of the greatest rabbis. The Ba’al Shem Tov was known for his love for these simple Jews, who, although they had little Torah knowledge, possessed greater wisdom—their self-awareness was rectified. (What is less known, but no less important, is that after the Ba’al Shem Tov sent his students to learn from these simple Jews, he would send the simple Jews to learn from his student, because ultimately, the best combination is that of innocence and wisdom together.)

After the Ba’al Shem Tov

The Ba’al Shem Tov returned his soul to his Creator on the holiday of Shavu’ot 5520 (1760) in the town of Mezhibuzh in Ukraine, where he is buried. He was 62 at the time of his passing, and it is told that his last words were the verse from Psalms: “Let not the foot of pride come against me.”[13]

However, the departure of the Ba’al Shem Tov only marked the beginning of the flourishing of Chasidut. Students gathered from all neighboring lands to the study hall of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s student and main successor, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, known as “the Maggid of Mezritch.” There they soaked in the unique spirit of Chasidut and cultivated it. After the Maggid’s departure, each of his senior students was sent to a different region in the lands of Ukraine, Russia, and Poland, and established his own Chasidic court. Each of the students developed the doctrine of Chasidut in his own way and added a hue according to his character and soul’s root. Among the Maggid’s prominent students were Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad; Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and his brother, Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli (known as "the Holy Brothers"); Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev; Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, known as "the Seer of Lublin"; Rabbi Aharon the Great of Karlin; and many more. Another notable stream in Chasidut sprang from one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s descendants, namely Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Each Hasidic branch has its own character and emphasis, but all of them express the spirit of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

The spirit of the Ba’al Shem Tov also made its mark outside the official Chasidic streams and is noticeable today in Jewish culture as a whole. The recognition that Jewish Divine service is joyful, characterized by much singing and dancing, is a clear mark of Chasidut’s influence on the character of Judaism. The understanding that alongside the observance of halachic commandments, one must do “inner work” also inspired movements outside of Chasidut. Another example is the Ba’al Shem Tov’s approach that one should judge every Jew favorably, even if their actions are externally not “kosher,” which spread beyond the realms of Chasidut (such as to the teachings of Rav Kook).

Chasidut was a revolution that did not break the vessel of tradition but rather filled it with new light, consciousness, and experience. This balance between innovation and conservatism is what has allowed Chasidut to continue and exist to this day and God-willing will enable it to move into the future while other revolutions have dissipated and passed from the world.

The Second Chasidic Revolution

Among Chabad chasidim, there is a tradition of counting the generations of Chasidut, which includes the Ba’al Shem Tov, his student the Maggid of Mezritch, and the seven Chabad Rebbes (up to and including the Lubavitcher Rebbe)—a total of nine generations. According to this count, it can be said that we, all of us, constitute the tenth generation of Chasidut. The number ten is rife with meaning: it symbolizes the completion of a cycle and the beginning of a new one. The notion that we are the tenth generation invites us to transcend the boundaries between the different Chasidic streams and return to the source of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spirit.

Indeed, in recent generations, there has been a revival and renewed interest in the teachings, spirit, and customs of Chasidut. In particular, there has been a significant renewal around Chabad and Breslov, attracting many returnees to faith from all segments of the population.

This spiritual renewal is connected to a long-held dream of the Baal Shem Tov. One of his great desires was to make aliyah (“ascent”) to the Land of Israel and to bring the Chasidic revolution there as well. Many stories tell of how the Ba’al Shem Tov set out to fulfill this dream and began a journey to the Land of Israel, but, unfortunately, his journey was interrupted, and he was forced to return.

The renewal of Chasidut is an opportunity to return to the original vision of the Ba’al Shem Tov and to bring about a second Chasidic revolution—a spiritual revival of Judaism, this time in a manner more connected to the body and nature. After thousands of years of exile, a great many Jews have returned to our physical home, but spiritually, we are still in exile, wandering among the fragments of cultures not our own. Our new existence in the land is a call to return to Judaism in a new, full, and richer environment, encompassing the life of the body, the emotions, and creativity, and covering both the individual and the community together. Returning to the Land of Israel can also mean returning to our inner land, to the soil of our souls, from which we have been exiled for so long.

In a wonderful verse Jeremiah says to his people: “How long will you waver, O faithless daughter? For God has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encircles a man.”[14] This verse predicts that a time will come when God will not need to chase after His people, but the Congregation of Israel—always likened to His wife—will court (encircle) Him. This awakening to seek God spontaneously, not out of coercion, is called “repentance out of love,” and constitutes the beating heart of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s vision, fulfilling his mission to awaken the people of Israel from their stupor. The expression “a woman encircles a man” (נְקֵבָה תְּסוֹבֵב גָּבֶר) has the exact value as the words, “Land of Israel” (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל)! Repentance out of love is deeply connected to the vision of the Jewish people dwelling in their land.

The Ba’al Shem Tov fulfilled the dreams of many by guiding them to their spiritual home; perhaps the time has come for us to fulfill his?

Click here for the other fascinating chapters in this series

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

[1]. Isaiah 29:13.

[2] . Song of Songs 5:2.

[3]. In Hebrew the words for “forest” (יָעַר) and “town” (עִיר) are permutations of one another. The Ba’al Shem Tov was instructing the hidden tzaddikim to reassemble their dedication to God around dedication to His people.

[4]. 1 Kings 11:29-39.

[5]. In the same spirit, chasidim interpret the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th (chai) of Elul: The birth of the Ba’al Shem Tov was meant to infuse vitality (chayut) into the service of repentance embodied in the month of Elul.

[6]. Berachot 8a.

[7]. An example of translating Kabbalistic terms into the language of the psyche can be seen in the coining of the term “the inner dimensions of the sefirot” (see Tanya ch. 3 and our Sod HaShem LiYeri’av, pp. 31ff.).

[8]. Genesis 12:1.

[9]. Avot 2:1.

[10]. Maggid of Mezritch’s Or Torah §280.

[11]. Keter Shem Tov §25.

[12]. Deuteronomy 31:18.

[13]. Psalms 36:12.

[14]. Jeremiah 31:21.

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