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The Truth About the Baal Shem Tov

The Truth About the Baal Shem Tov

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There are many myths and legends about the Baal Shem Tov. Even the most fantastic ones, they say, are true — because even if the didn't actually happen, the Baal Shem Tov was capable of making them happen.

But there's at least one myth that's not true. And it's probably also the most popular. It's the Modern Jewish Legend of the Baal Shem Tov.

To appreciate the Modern Jewish Legend of the Baal Shem Tov, you must first appreciate the Modern Jewish Legend of Judaism. Judaism, you see, is very nice. It's all about humanitarianism, ethics and the family.

So then, the Baal Shem Tov fits in very nicely. He told nice stories, and made people feel good about themselves by telling them that it wasn't really important as long as you're sincere and happy and nice to other people. (What exactly is not important is not clear. Something we forgot about a long time ago—but the main thing is that it's not important.)

Years ago, as a music composition major at the University of BC, I stood in a concert hall lobby at intermission, reverberating with awe in the wake of a powerful rendition of Beethoven's Violin Concerto starring soloist Yehudi Menuhin. I overheard two sweet old ladies discussing the performance. They said it was "very nice." I felt sick.

The whole legend, as I said before, is very nice. After all, who could have anything against humanitarianism, ethics, family and being nice? Certainly not any good modern American. You might want to call this Politically Correct Judaism—fully equipped with a Politically Correct Baal Shem Tov.

Let's get this straight: There has been nothing more disastrous to Judaism than political correctness. The two approaches stand at mutually exclusive extremes. Political Correctness means not shaking the boat and keeping the peace. Judaism that makes peace with the world the way it stands now is not Judaism. And it has no chance of survival any longer than the waves of accepted social correctness will survive before crashing against the shore.

A case in point — and perhaps the most painful one: There was a time when mysticism was considered irrational, bizarre, archaic and certainly not for the respectable, modern gentleman to be caught dead in. "Emancipated" and "Enlightened" Jews, therefore, denounced the Kabbalah. They called the Zohar the "Book of Lies." They created a myth that the Kabbalah was the creation of a lunatic fringe and was entirely grown from alien roots. They even went so far as to claim that Jews had never believed in mystical union with the Ein Sof, reincarnation, life after death, meditation, etc., etc..

The Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidic movement was a big thorn in the side of these politically correct Jews. Too mystical. Too far off the edge. And much too popular.

At first they tried to deny the Baal Shem Tov had ever existed. When that turned out about as believable as denying the existence of George Washington, they resorted to creating a new mythology that entirely distorted everything Chassidic masters had ever taught.

That's how the Baal Shem Tov ended up being nice. A folksy, theological kind of Robin Hood.

Just how benign was this niceness? You need look no farther than our own generation. When we went to our parents and to our rabbis seeking out the spirituality for which our souls so much thirsted, we got the equivalent of a blank stare. Jews don't believe in that stuff, we were told. And if they did, sorry, there's nothing we can tell you about it. Just about ethics and humanitarianism. Nothing about souls.

So the most spiritual young Jews ended up on the other side of the planet searching for what their grandparents had rejected years before, and what their great-grandparents had basked in: nourishment for the soul—a.k.a. Mysticism.

Enough ranting and raving. Here are the raw facts:

Kabbalah is as central to Judaism as the sun is to the solar system, as a heart is to a body, as Human Liberty is to America.

Judaism begins with the most mystical of experiences at Mount Sinai, where we "saw the sounds and heard the sights", and ends with mystical union of all of Creation with its Creator. Everything in between is driven by the drive to absorb the first mystical revelation in order to achieve the final one.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were mystics (go ahead, tell me that someone who speaks with angels is not a mystic), who practiced meditation in isolation in the pastures and received divine revelations thereby. Moses was a mystic. The Prophets—mystics. The sages of the Talmud were mystics, as is clear from many of the tales told therein. Since the time of Nachmanides, almost every classic Jewish scholar has openly espoused the teachings of the Kabbalah.

Every classic attempt to explain Judaism in depth has resorted to mystical terms. Every such attempt over the last 600 or so years has resorted to the language of Kabbalah.

Amongst Sephardic and Oriental Jewry the Zohar is at least as popular as the Psalms. Chassidism is entirely an outgrowth of the Kabbalah of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria). The great Lithuanian mitnagdim ("opposers" of Chassidism) were masters of Kabbalah and justified their opposition to the Chassidim and their dedication to scholarship in terms of Kabbalah. Even the romantic/rational orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch relies heavily upon the mysticism of Rabbi Chaim Atar (the "Ohr HaChayim") and others.

The great masters of Halachah (Torah law), particularly Rav Yosef Karo who wrote the Shulchan Aruch and Rav Moshe Isserles who adapted it for Ashkenazim, also wrote books of Kabbalah. It was the Vilna Gaon who wrote, "A rabbi who attempts to make a halachic decision without an understanding of the Kabbalah will come to err."

As Adin Steinsaltz recently put it, Kabbalah is the official theology of Judaism. Furthermore, any attempts to explain Judaism in any other terms are bound to fall flat on their face. Halachah is the body, Kabbalah is the soul. Just as you cannot explain the body without taking into account the inner psyche that fills it, so you cannot begin to explain the meaning and purpose of Halachah without a knowledge of Kabbalah.

Now, back to the Baal Shem Tov: To say that the Baal Shem Tov was a simple peasant boy who began a popular folk movement is somewhat akin to saying that American Democracy was the product of some Daniel Boone types who were fed up with high-falooten British sophisticates.

The Baal Shem Tov was a student of the Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the "Holy Ari"--as were so many of his contemporary scholars. It amazes me how so many authors could have imagined even for a moment that the teacher of so many great scholars—such as Rabbis Yaakov Yoseph of Polnoye, Dov Ber of Mezritch, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev and others—could have been any less a scholar himself.

He was involved from his early youth with a society of "hidden tzaddikim" who were scholars of Talmud and Kabbalah and traveled about incognito in an effort to resurrect the Jewish life of Eastern Europe that was still licking its wounds from the tragic pogroms of 1648-49.

Most of what the Baal Shem Tov taught can be traced back to ideas of the Ari, especially as presented in the classic Shnei Luchot HaBrit. These works were extremely popular in those days. What the Besht added was the sort of leap of intellect that typifies supreme genius—the genius that disregards accepted conventions and normative world concepts. What Albert Einstein was to physics and Beethoven was to music—and much, much more—was the Baal Shem Tov to the human soul.

There were other mystics before the Besht who dealt with the simple folk. But to them life was a dichotomy: Their study of the mystic works was of one world, their dealings with simple folk in another—a world affected by their mysticism, but very, very distant from it.

The Baal Shem Tov came and said, "These are not two worlds. They are intimately connected. The Kabbalah of the Ari has as much to do with the saintly ascetic as it has with the simple innkeeper or potato farmer who serves G‑d with all his heart. As a matter of fact, in the simple, the ultimate simplicity of the Infinite Light shines best."

Here is the inside story as passed down from rebbe to rebbe until it was told to us by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch. This is what you call "getting it from a reliable source." After all, who are you going to believe, a pompous German-Jewish historian who conjures up history to fit to his procrustean bed of 19th century world-concept—or a brilliant tzaddik who would never let a word of untruth pass his lips and tells you he is reciting verbatim as a previous tzaddik told him? Aside from which, the tzaddik's version is so much more believable.

Here is the tzaddik's version, as he told it in the Baal Shem Tov's words:1

On my sixteenth birthday, the eighteenth of Elul 5474 [1714], I was in a small village. The innkeeper was a Jew of quintessential simplicity. He knew his prayers only with difficulty—he had no idea what the words meant. But he had a great awe of heaven and for everything that would occur to him he would comment, "Blessed be He, and may He be blessed for ever and ever." The innkeeper's wife and partner had a different saying: "Blessed be His Holy Name."

On that day, I went to meditate in solitude in the pasture, as had been taught by the sages before us, that on one's birthday one should meditate alone for a period of time. In my meditations I recited Psalms and concentrated on the yichudim of the divine names.

["Yichudim" are a form of kabbalistic meditation based on different permutations and combinations of the divine names and attributes of G‑d —trans.].

As I was immersed in this, I had lost awareness of my surroundings. Suddenly, I beheld Elijah the Prophet—and a smile was drawn over his lips. I was very amazed that I should merit a revelation of Elijah the Prophet while alone. When I was with the tzaddik Rabbi Meir, and also with others of the hidden tzaddikim I had the fortune to see Elijah the Prophet. But to be privileged to this while alone—this was the very first time and I was very amazed. Understandably, I was unable to interpret the smile on Elijah's face.

And this is what he said to me:

"Behold, you are struggling with great effort to focus your mind upon the divine names that extend from the verses of psalms that David, King of Israel composed. But Aaron Shlomo the innkeeper and Zlota his wife are so ignorant of the yichudim of divine names that extend from "Blessed be He, and may He be blessed for ever and ever" that the innkeeper recites and "Blessed be His Holy Name" that she recites—yet these yichudim make a storm throughout all the worlds far beyond the yichudim of Divine Names that the great tzaddikim can create."

Then, Elijah the Prophet told me about the pleasure G‑d takes, so to speak, from the praise and thanksgiving of the men, women and children who praise Him—especially when the praise and thanks comes from simple people, and most specifically when it is ongoing, continual praise—for then they are continuously bonded with G‑d, blessed be He, with pure faith and sincerity of heart.

From that time on I took upon myself a path in the service of G‑d to bring men, women and children to say words of praise to G‑d. I would always ask them about their health, the health of their children, about their material welfare—and they would answer me with different words of praise for the Holy One, blessed be He—each one in his or her own way.

For several years I did this myself, and at one of the gatherings of the hidden tzaddikim they all accepted this path...

From finding the most mystical in the most simple of people, the Baal Shem Tov went on to find the most divine sparks in the most mundane, the essence of the One G‑d everywhere and in every event.

When the truth of his wellsprings shall spread forth, without distortion, then the Age of Moshiach has arrived, may it be sooner than we all think.

Footnotes
1.
Sefer Hasichot 5703, pp. 167-168
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Paul Freedman September 9, 2013

baal shem tov's dream It is unlikely that the major faiths would still be here if believers did not continue to experience G-d's reflected glory mamash Reply

Rachael bat Avraham Texas September 9, 2013

I have read all these. Let me share a quick story with you all Please. I am a heart transplant of 2002 after my heart transplant surgery I was placed in the ICU. I woke up and was so grateful to G~d and the Methodists of Houston Doctors.Dr. G. Torre and Dr. Noon were my Doctors.
I went back to sleep and fell into the deepest sleep ever. Just as the Baal Shem Tov dreamed about his ascended into heaven my dream was the very same as his. I never told anyone because it was such an awesome dream! Who would believe me? I had No or any knowledge of all this. My family were heavy duty Christians, but I was Not! I only believed as Jewish people did. I went into Judaism finding the most important part of my life where I should have been and converted to Judaism. It was around my tenth anniversary that I had this dream and I was so shocked because I read this story by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. This was my Dream! I was reading about my dream and that this Baal Shem Tov also dreamed this! KBH! Reply

Mr. Jorge Munuzuri January 6, 2012

the Age of Moshiach I like very much the last words: When the truth of his wellsprings... because it is said that they were said when the Besht asked Moshiach "When the Master [Moshiach] will come?"
Moshiach responded: when your wellsprings [the teachings of chassidism]... etc. Reply

Aharon Dovid August 21, 2010

Rabbi Freeman, I'm impressed. I really am. It was a wonderful illuminating story about many things. Reading your comments about political correctness, how it has harmed Judaism, and the two Modern Jewish Legends were great.

You have written other pieces that I have read here at Chabad.org that gave me the impression you actually were politically correct in some ways. Rabbi, you are a man with much depth and many dimensions. Reply

Anonymous Falls Church, USA May 23, 2010

Paul Freedman June, imo it is very difficult to have a natural and easy going confidence and faith in the True God, not just in our heads and our hearts but in our day to day actions.

That is why self-confidence without pride and a striving for open-handed joy and faith was a central principle of the Besh"t (really, no "bull"). "Simple" unconflicted worship not idol and idle worship. Easy to say and think but hard to put into action. Easier to think lofty thoughts but be filled with conflict and feelings of abandonment. Then we are like bulls being led around by our nose rings by the Adversary. Reply

June Green Lynnville, TN May 21, 2010

BAL Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for explaining Bal worship. I suppose, given your explanation, there is a lot of it going on, even today. Reply

Anonymous Falls Church, VA May 21, 2010

June this just means master June, this has nothing to do with Baal worship. The grammatical roots of "Master" in Hebrew are B and A and L. The Bible uses these letters to designate the false good who is a False Ruler who pretends to be a god but isn't. BAL. But there is nothing wrong or pagan about the word itself which can mean master or husband.

In the same way the word B A L as baal is not about bulls. The pun does not work across English into Hebrew... It is not even about gods since there is not an actual god being worshipped. Baal is only a pretend god, like a prank. Not a true master, the god is only pulling your leg. Reply

June Green Lynnville, TN May 21, 2010

Baal When people worshipped the Baals, what were the Baals? Was it another name for Bulls? Is/Was there a meaning to the word Baal that would describe to the culture and meaning of attached to Baal worship? What was Baal and what was Baal worship? Reply

Paul Freedman Falls Church, VA May 21, 2010

Master Baal means master. It is a good word. And the Baal Shem Tov was Master of the Good Name. He was recognized for this by his gentile neighbors and inscribed in the book of records and deeds they kept of the community. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario May 21, 2010

Re: Baal Baal can be translated as master or owner. "Master of a Good Name." Reply

june Green Lynnville, TN May 19, 2010

Baal What does the word Baal mean? Reply

Paul Freedman Falls Church, VA May 4, 2010

The records of the Besht are actually quite accura The "entourage" of the Besht and the social milieu all check out with archival deeds from the feudal estate encompassing the Jewish community.

It could also be that the Besht and the chevrei (holy society) were not above having a laugh at the expense of the hoity toity if it served a purpose.

As to what came after, half of everything we come across today from the high and mighty, the world leaders, the great men of respect seems to be a fairy tale. Reply

Josef I Friedman Hillsborough, NJ April 19, 2010

Who was the Pompous Gernam Jerish Historian? Isn't it considered normal behavior to give the name and/or reference the book/article of someone you discuss?

Would "a brilliant tzaddik who would never let a word of untruth pass his lips" tell a Nazi where Jews were hiding? Probably not, prehaps he might even tell a white lie or two if he thought the truth might confuse the simple people.

Why don't we read anything here on the changes to Lurianic Kabbalah made in response to Sabbatai Zevi? Ignoring him is like teaching the history of America without mentioning the civil war.

R. Karo was an interesting guy, when Molcho died at the stake in 1532, Karo was filled with a longing to be "consumed on the altar as a holy burnt offering."

There is a famoius letter the Besht wrote to his brother, where he ascended to the 6th heaven and talked with the Messiah. It is only with great difficulty that I can acheive the 3rd, but as they say "practice practice practice". Reply

Anonymous cardiff, uk via chabad.org.uk January 3, 2010

Spirituality A wonderful article, full of truth, we must all strive. Reply

Anonymous winnipeg, canada October 9, 2009

simple Thank you for this story/history. What always appeals to me in such stories is what the simple people bring to the plate in terms of their piety. Because they are illiterate, it is enough for them to say the Hebrew alphabet during prayer. G-d is doubly impressed by their effort and shuffles the letters perfectly. Reply

Paul Freedman Falls Church, VA May 11, 2009

but I see where you are going with that otoh Adoni Anonymous -- I can see where you are giong with the distnction between the participation of Eini Sof versus Or Ain Sof within the tzimtzum given the Besht's supposed panentheism--however the question might be better put, as refers to lo k'pshuto, not where is E"S byachus to tzimtzum but where is tzimtzum in its relationship backwards--but this is cloudy, even for Lurianic kaballah, as although we can posit an axial geometric limit of E'S as standing by and in and of Itself--the teachers I have encountered always present the development of E"S through O"E"S as a continuum, in which each stage has its prior basis in its dialectical twin--twins are conjoined and not opposites--they long to be face-to-face; in this sense, tzimtzum itself is not *primarily* a catastrophic failure of the o"n and is itself a promise that the Kings of Edom are restored & etc. may this occur speedily in our times & etc. -- but it will occur through our own action in this world right NOW Reply

Paul Freedman Falls Church, VA May 11, 2009

The Besht's method is well known Shivrei Ha Besht has proven highly accurate--he was not a pedant; his letter concerning Moshiach is widely publiished if not 5 or ten minutes he says 1 or 2 sentences, refer also to his encounter with the Maggid in which he directly communicated with the spiirits of the departed--yes, methods were elucidated in pragmatic principles that came from prfound meditation on the tora of kabbalah--I was not referring to doctrinal emphases on locating the essence of the En sof, that is where it extends -- my understanding is that traditional Lurianic teachiings would not locate the ontological reshimot of the Olam Ein Sof A"K solely within the Or Makiif--my understandings is that the reshimot remain axially after the fall of the primordial kings as the foundation of the worlds and the parzufiim--but the internalization of the essence is more important than priviledging the analytical unfolding in all details--everyone should study--"American Jewess of color etc" --what? ain li musag Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel May 11, 2009

keep it simple? Paul Freedman,

Your view of the B'esht sounds highly Romantic, but do you have any SOURCE that he was NOT a "dogmatic Lurianic literalist pilpulist???" You seem, also, to think that there is something WRONG w/such a designation, too. BTW, when you LITERALIST, are you referring to the notion some hold that the En Sof is within the tzimtzum & not merely the Or En Sof? OR do you mean it in the sense of he closely followed Lurianic doctrine. How many times a DAY do people of the "love your fellow Jew" persuasion violate halakha because they never invested their time in "turning those pages" because they THOUGHT that they knew the rules of engagement in love? Do you have a SOURCE for your claim that the B'esht could have brought mashiach after 10+ minutes of oral teachings???
Where do you have a source for your "just keep it simple" approach???
You so remind me of a scene I witnessed at a recent wedding just outside of Jerusalem.
You so remind me of a scene I witnessed at a recent wedding just outside of Jerusalem. One of those "lovers of fellow Jews" approaches a fellow wedding guest who was an AMERICAN Jewess of colour. In his unlettered wisdom he said in a booming voice, very audible to many people in the wedding hall, "you have the most Jewish face here in the room tonight!!!" His voice was warm & genuine, but she was very hurt that out of all of the possible greetings, he focused on the one that would make her different than everyone else...an OUTSIDER.
Of course, if he'd flipped some pages then MAYBE that would have made up for what he lacked in common sense, but instead he sounded like Lenny Bruce's satire "How to Relax Your Coloured Friends at a Party." Despite "love upsetting the balance," love has a protocol & violating that protocol turns an intend love into an unintended hurt. Reply

Paul Freedman Falls Church, VA May 11, 2009

not true--you misunderstand what he was and did unfortunately this is just another myth--the myth of the Besht as some kind of dogmatic Lurianic literalist pilpulist--not true. This may be where Chabad ran aground, chasing its own dialectic mystical tail until it vanished into the self-concealed/revealed blah blah blah mystical ourobouos but the tales of the besht reveal one hundred percent what he was up to--practice not "scholarship"--the noncomplex but tortuously difficult path of love of G-d and joy rather than the arid complexity but easy-to-do (nu, who needs to live, just go to a library and study study study--turn those pages) mastery of texts and yichudiim--when he said he could bring the messiah if he only had ten or so minutes to communicate his teaching b al peh--he wasn't fooling.

Get back to where you are anyways.

Keep it simple. Reply

Ari Edson thronhill, On March 25, 2009

The simple Jew is not aware of the concepts that Chabad is about. So
how does the simple Jew fit into Chabad? Reply

Learn about the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century mystic who permanently changed the Jewish landscape.
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