Everyone agrees that around the middle of the eighteenth century, a movement began in Eastern Europe that had a far-reaching, even revolutionary, impact on Jewish practice and thought. What exactly that movement was (and is) all about, remains rather fuzzy. That’s not hard to understand, since the movement itself is by nature enigmatic.
Perhaps the most common description of the Chassidic movement frames it as a kind of social upheaval. Until this time, there was a pecking order in the Jewish world—scholars on top, the simple Jew at the bottom, and the illiterate boor only nominally Jewish. In the minds of many, a great soul and a great mind were practically synonymous. Then the Baal Shem Tov came and uplifted the status of the common man and woman, celebrating the heartfelt earnestness of a simple Jew, declaring that this raised him higher than the cold, intellectual, and often self-infatuated scholar.
Certainly there is truth to this vignette—in fact, letters of the period demonstrate that the principal opposition to this movement was over just this issue: scholars felt their status was being diminished, and that the common people would no longer pay the respect due to the learned man of Torah. Yet it is far from sufficient, because the Baal Shem Tov and his students were themselves erudite scholars who greatly valued study of Torah, both its esoteric and legalistic aspects. Some of the greatest contributions of that era to Talmudic and halachic scholarship are from these men.It is often said that Chassidut replaced fear and trembling with love and joy.
Another common description is that the Chassidic movement taught Jews to serve G‑d with love and joy rather than fear and trembling, to sing and dance rather than cry and fast. What concerns G‑d the most, the Baal Shem Tov would preach, is that you serve Him with your heart. Love G‑d, even if you don’t always understand His ways; love His Torah, even if you can barely read the words; and most of all, love one another, even if that “other” doesn’t measure up to the expectations of G‑d and His Torah. And celebrate all of the above.
Yet, taken alone, this is also misleading. For the chassidim were also known for their meticulousness in the details of Jewish ritual and practice, for extending themselves much further than the strict requirements of halachah, in consonance with the Talmudic dictum, “Who is a chassid? One who goes beyond the letter of the law.”
Still another narrative describes the Chassidic movement as an outcome of the esoteric teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, “the Arizal,” the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist of Tzfat, whose ideas captured the imagination of much of the scholarly Jewish world. The Arizal’s teachings provided a comprehensive theology of Jewish practice that felt far more native to the Jewish soul than the apologetics of the philosophers. The Baal Shem Tov and his students were all deeply immersed in these teachings.
Yet still insufficient. The teachings of the chassidic masters are not exclusively esoteric and kabbalistic. Kabbalah speaks in abstractions comprehensible only to the most elevated soul. Chassidut can do that as well, but it also speaks in down-to-earth, pragmatic terms for the everyman in his everyday world. Chassidut is not a conglomeration of ideas, but one simple essence with many facets.
Obviously, the Chassidic movement as it embodies the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is not a conglomeration of ideas, but one simple concept that shows itself in many facets. That idea is so deep, so essential, that we find ourselves incapable of iterating it directly with words. But perhaps, as the junction of two lines define a point, with some metaphor and explanation we can locate the essence-point of Chassidut.
Life at the core
Let’s start with a metaphor of the human psyche, which also has many facets. A person thinks, feels, speaks, does—and often all these things appear disparate, as though they come from multiple personalities within him. And they do, for a person is comprised of many conflicting forces battling within.
Yet, hiding behind all that a person does throughout his life, there is a common theme, a thrust in a certain direction, an essence struggling to emerge. If he would find that essence and recognize it, all his life could be brought into harmony. He would be recharged, filled with life. Every aspect of his life, his deeds, his words, his thoughts and his emotions would glow brightly, having been wired in to their core, an endless reservoir of energy, and harmonized with every other aspect of his psyche.
So too, the Jewish People—a people as diverse as one could imagine any people to be in temperaments, sentiments, and above all, opinions. And yet, we comprise together a single people, as a single body, with a single essence breathing within.
Torah, as well, has many layers and facets. There are the stories of the scriptures; the laws and rituals prescribed by them; the homiletical interpretations of the sages; the deeper, esoteric meanings known only to the initiated—yet all this is one Torah, single and united.
There is a tradition that lends significance to the Baal Shem Tov’s name. You see, the Baal Shem Tov wasn’t born with that name—it simply means “Master of a Good Name,” and was a common title for miracle-workers in those days. He was Israel, son of Eliezer and Sarah. We, too, are Israel, each one of us, at our very core. When a person falls into a coma, tradition tells us, you may whisper his name into his ear to wake him. Why? Because the name of a person touches his essence, and the essence is always awake. At the time when Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov arrived on the scene, it was time for the Jewish People to be revived. Israel Baal Shem Tov’s teaching was G‑d’s way of whispering the name of the Jewish people into their ear.
To put it another way: When we were given a gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we were handed a big backpack to take on our hike through history. Over the centuries, we did just that, discovering within this Torah all the guidance and resources we needed for our many sojournings. But then there came a time when the journey had become too wearisome, when the Torah appeared to be weighing us down rather than carrying us through.
It was a time when we stood at a threshold. The violent pillaging of the Cossack revolt had disrupted the infrastructure of the major Jewish settlements. Already, the Jews of Western Europe had begun to assimilate, and the winds of secularization were blowing eastward. It was only a matter of time before Jewish practice and belief would come face to face with its most inexorable challenge, the skeptical, free-thinking, socially mobile world of modernity.There came a time when we had to reach to the essence-core.
At this point, we needed not just another strategy, not just another secret of the Torah revealed to us. We needed a charge of light from its very core. Our souls had to make contact and bond with the very soul of this Torah that we carried.
This explains what I would say is the signature motif of chassidic teachings. If it is an authentic teaching, and it has been presented in a lucid form, then it resonates as no other teaching does. You absorb it not as “received tradition,” but as one who hears the song singing within his own soul. Through Chassidut, no longer are the Torah and the Jew two separate beings, one instructing and one being instructed, one commanding and the other commanded. Chassidut is life; as the body and soul fuse to become a single living being, so the Jew bonds with these teachings as though they were his own soul—and is carried by them through the most stalwart challenges, as an indefatigable soul carries the body through fire and ice.
Here, too, a significant detail of the Baal Shem Tov’s life comes into play: He was born on the eighteenth day of the final month of the year, the month of Elul. Elul is the month when the Jewish soul begins to shine, in preparation for the “Days of Awe” at the beginning of the coming year. Eighteen, in Jewish numerology, stands for life.
Light from the future
There is yet one more reason why the teachings of Chassidut had to be revealed at that time.
The history of our world, the Talmud tells us, has six millennia, corresponding to the six days of the Creation. The seventh day transcends time, and must be preceded by the days of Moshiach, when “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as water covers the ocean floor.”
The Baal Shem Tov moved to Medzhibuzh, where he began spreading his teachings, in the year 1740. On the Jewish calendar, that is the year 5500. Lining up the millennia with the days of Creation, that would be high noon on the eve of Shabbat. At that time, the light of the Moshiach already began to shine.In the last quarter of the sixth millennium, the light of the Moshiach began to shine.
Today, the teachings of Chassidut have embedded themselves inextricably within most of religious Jewish thought. Not a single major religious thinker since that time has not been deeply influenced by them. At Chabad.org, we attempt to present these teachings both in the form in which they were taught by their original masters, as well as in the language of the contemporary mind. The bonding, the living, the application into real life—that we leave up to you.
“On Rosh Hashanah of the year 5507 (1747),” wrote the Baal Shem Tov in a letter to his brother-in-law, “I ascended higher and higher . . . until I entered the chamber of the Moshiach. I asked of him, ‘When, master, will you come?’
“He replied, ‘In the time when your teaching will become public and revealed in the world, and your wellsprings will burst forth to the farthest extremes.’”