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.
Thats 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 the 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 tzaddiks version is so much more believable.
Here is the tzaddik's version, as he told it in the Baal Shem Tov's words:
On my sixteenth birthday, the eighteenth of Elul 5474 , 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.