Events are not discrete. In the organic rhythms of history, events are resonances echoed across centuries. The traumatic expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 upset the invisible balances in Jewish life and thought, simultaneously throwing Europe into confusion and revitalizing the Holy Land. The Safed Kabbalists were inspired to translate the doctrines of the Zohar into the realization of higher states of consciousness and a complete way of life. Under Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria, spiritual metaphysics gave rise to ennobling ethics which were exemplified in a rigorous asceticism. Although the teachings of the Safed school spread to Italy, France and greater Poland, and achieved remarkably widespread popularity, the way of life which reflected them was too austere to secure the same support.
During this time, the kingdom of Poland comprised much of eastern Europe and southwestern Russia, and that vast and varied territory was the home of over half the Jews living in the eighteenth century. Rural culture, feudal social structure, religious history of every kind, along with apocalyptic religious dissent, the indifference of the szlachta – Polish nobility – and the corruption of Christian and Jewish institutions alike, combined to make Jewish life oppressive. The average believer was overworked, heavily taxed and illiterate. If asceticism seemed impractical in these circumstances, the flagrant élitism of Talmudic and halakhic scholars deprived the Jewish community of alternative forms of spiritual guidance.
A second traumatic event occurred almost predictably in the centre of this vacuum. Sabbatai Zevi, a passive yet iconoclastic dreamer with occasional Messianic feelings, was born in 1625. For several decades he wandered about the Middle East on vague missions until he met Nathan of Gaza, a youth who had a vision of Zevi as the Messiah. In 1665 he acceded to Nathan's prodding and revealed himself as the Messiah. A movement, largely inspired by Nathan's boundless energy and original mind, gathered around Zevi and rapidly spread through eastern Europe. When the Turkish sultan arrested Zevi and offered him the choice of death or conversion to Islam, the "Messiah" converted and lived as a putative Muslim until his death in 1676. Jewish hopes, raised high, suddenly plummetted, and in the shattered psyche of the community, three responses emerged. In addition to the often self-righteous antagonists who could say "I told you so", there were those who had believed and were utterly disillusioned and embittered. Some read in the Messiah's conversion a hidden message of universal truth in all religions and ceased to think of themselves as exclusively Jewish. A few continued to hold that Zevi was the expected Messiah, and pockets of this fragment of the Sabbatian movement survive into the present. The manifestation of despair, strife and disharmony generated by the bizarre events surrounding Sabbatai Zevi made it evident that a new modality was needed to bring the community to an authentic recollection of its ancient and enduring foundations. The Ba'al Shem Tov was the well-spring from which the Jewish community would be rejuvenated.
Although the Ba'al Shem Tov – whose name means 'Master of the Good Name', often shortened to BeShT – founded the Hasidic movement and had devoted followers for many years, his life is inextricably enmeshed in legend. According to Hasidic tradition, his father, Eliezer, was known for his pious hospitality, offered to all in need. On one sabbath the Prophet Elijah appeared disguised as a mendicant to test Eliezer. Despite being deeply disturbed at having to break the rules governing the sabbath, Eliezer cheerfully made the beggar feel at home. When Elijah took his leave, he prophesied: "Because you did not shame a sinner, you will father a son who will become a luminary for the House of Israel." Israel ben Eliezer was born between 1698 and 1700 in Okopy, a village on the border between Podolia and Volhynia in the kingdom of Poland. The area had belonged for a time to Turkey and eventually was joined to Russia. It was a cultural and economic backwater, seething with discontent, disregarded, save for corrupt taxation, by all except local prophets, 'christs' and 'czars' who dissented from Russian Orthodoxy – Wanderers, Saviorites, Runners, Prayerless, Shore-dwellers, Khlysty (Flagellants), Dukhobors (Spirit Wrestlers), Molokans (Milk-drinkers) and Skoptsy (Self-castrated). Though Eliezer died when Israel was very young, the community took care of his education for a time.
Even as a boy, the Ba'al Shem Tov began to chart a course through life that honoured tradition and yet took its own original by-ways. He would spend several days with his village teacher studying assiduously, then disappear into the surrounding forest for a week or more, eventually to be discovered and returned to his teacher. His boundless love of nature and of rural peasant life remained throughout his life. The utter fearlessness he showed in the forests was matched by the fearlessness of his studies. He plunged into Kabbalistic philosophy, mastering the works of Isaac Luria and Hayyim Vital, Luria's chief disciple, and his profound attraction to ecstatic meditation led him to a mysterious Rabbi Adam – otherwise unknown – who gave him a secret book. As he matured, his outward life was unexceptional save for idiosyncrasies in religious practice often used to illustrate his teachings. Loving children, he was for a time a teacher's assistant in Horodenka near Brody, where his kindness became legendary. He also worked as a ritual butcher and a sexton in the synagogue.
When Rabbi Ephraim Kutover of Brody visited Horodenka, he immediately sensed the intense spiritual orientation of the Ba'al Shem Tov. He offered his daughter Hannah in marriage but died before the wedding. Her brother, Rabbi Abraham Gershon, a pious Kabbalist, opposed the marriage, but Hannah insisted on adhering to her father's arrangement. Once resigned to his father's decision, Rabbi Gershon attempted to give the Ba'al Shem Tov a formal education, but his efforts only led to familial friction. The Ba'al Shem Tov and his wife moved from Brody into the Carpathian mountains, where he began to live all week in the untamed forests and to return home only for the sabbath. Tradition holds that at this time he was taught by Ahijah the Shilonite, who had taught Elijah during the reign of Solomon. He gained knowledge of the healing properties of herbs and the inner meaning of scriptures. Although he was never ordained, people recognized him as a rabbi and came to him for medical advice. He wrote kamayot (amulets), exorcised demons and applied segulot (magical healing aids), and he exchanged letters with scholars and teachers. By 1736 he was known as the Master of the Good Name.
The Ba'al Shem Tov moved for a time to Tluste in eastern Galacia but soon settled in Medzihozh near Brody, where he began to expound his teachings. Rabbi Gershon, once hostile to him, became a close disciple and taught the Ba'al Shem Tov's only son, Zevi. Believing in the spiritual therapeutics of ritual and tradition when correctly understood and deeply immersed in the doctrines of the Kabbalah, the Ba'al Shem Tov recognized the growing irrelevance of halakhic scholarship and the dangers of untutored mystical practices. For the great mass of humanity, he rejected alike the pilpul (argumentative method) of Talmudic studies and the extreme asceticism of the Kabbalists. He drew his ideas from the vast teachings he knew and his methods from the peasants who were always dear to him. Shunning rote memory and emotional nature-worship, he especially used the anecdotal method. Every aspect of the spiritual life – and a fortiori of practical affairs – could be unveiled, understood and applied through the use of stories. So the Ba'al Shem Tov became the best story-teller in a tradition rich in story-telling from the days before Jesus.
"I have come into this world", he said, "to show man how to live by three precepts: love of God, love of Israel [the community] and love of the Torah." For the BeShT, God is Ha-Makom, the Abode, and everything is in the Abode. Thus, the Divine Presence is universal and the dichotomy between sacred and secular is false. In other words, there are no veils separating man from God in spiritual reality; such divisions are engendered by man's own acts and thoughts of self-alienation. In each human being, the soul is a reflection of the Sephiroth, and so it is possible for each person to behold the Shekhinah in all things high and low. The world mirrors the divine radiance, the glory of God. Every thought, feeling, word and deed should be experienced as sacred. Since the whole intent of the divine commandments is devekut, cleaving to God, neither knowledge nor ritual alone can effect tikkun, restoration of fragmented man to divine unity. The individual must imbue his life with a sense of devotion and undertake every action with hitlahavut, enthusiasm. Devekut and hitlahavut mean that one lives with an infectious joy at every moment.
This standpoint affected the applied teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov. Whilst he enjoined the ethical life, he did not like to hear human evil and weakness discussed. "God does not look on the evil side," he said, "so how dare I do so?" Both yetzer ha-ra and yetzer ha-tov – the evil and the good impulses – arose at the same time. If one errs, one should not reinforce the evil impulse by brooding on sin and failure, but should at once repent. Thus even one's dark proclivities can be made to serve the Divine by being sacrificed on the altar of repentance. With practice rooted in repentance, study undertaken with kavanah and hitlahavut, sincerity and enthusiasm, and prayer which is Shekhinah herself, realization will pour into one's soul like a great light. Once Zevi dreamt of his father, who appeared as a burning mountain. When later recounting the vision to the Ba'al Shem Tov, he asked why he had appeared in this form. "In this form I serve the Lord", the BeShT replied. Desire and distraction can be overcome by bittel hayesh, the negation of self. Song and dance, spontaneously taken up and engaged in with enthusiasm, could clear the mind.
The Ba'al Shem Tov's practical wisdom, his boundless love for each human being, his power to heal physically and spiritually, and his ability to give remarkable spiritual advice through stories and anecdotes, drew a great variety of people to him. They followed, furthered and elaborated his teachings and came to be known as Hasadim, Zealots. For two centuries, the BeShT's spiritual descendants were the active voice of a renewed Jewish community, and throughout the world, Hasidic groups continue to follow the ways of the Master of the Good Name. His personal peculiarities, including his love of horses, his knowledge of wine, his appreciation of female beauty and his fondness for the lolkeh, a long-stemmed pipe, contributed grist for the mills of legend, used by both friend and enemy. He remained unperturbed by the controversy which surrounded him, for he knew that those with eyes to see would know the truth and that the wilfully blind do not change, save of their own accord. On the second day of the festival of Shavuoth in 1760, the Ba'al Shem Tov gathered his family and disciples about him. As he lay dying, he joyfully explained: "I do not lament my fate. I know full well that I shall leave by one door and enter through another.... Let not the foot of pride overtake me." With this reference to Psalms 34:12, he departed the world he loved. "Once in a thousand years", Rabbi Aaron of Karlin said, "does a soul like that of the BeShT descend into the world." And Rabbi Meir Margolies summed up the view of the Hasadim: "All secrets were revealed to him."
Many stories arose concerning the Ba'al Shem Tov's ability to discern the course of events. While he lived in the village of Koshilovity, he bathed in the local stream every day. In the winter, he cut a hole in the ice and bathed daily as before. A peasant who saw him suffering the pain of nearly freezing began to spread straw on the ice so that the BeShT's feet would not stick to it. Once espying the peasant laying down straw, he came to him and asked: "What would you prefer – to become rich, to live long, or to be mayor?" The peasant said, "They all sound good." The Ba'al Shem Tov had him build a bath-house on the spot. Soon word got around that the peasant's wife had recovered from a persistent ailment by using the bath-house and bathing in the stream. Eventually, so many imitated her that the local doctors prevailed on the government to close it down. In the meantime, however, the peasant had grown very wealthy and had been chosen mayor. He bathed in the stream every day and lived until a ripe old age.
The BeShT's remarkable powers astonished many a witness. It was his custom to retire to his room after evening prayers. There he would light two candles and place the mysterious Book of Creation on his desk. Then he would admit those seeking counsel and give them guidance. One evening five men entered, each with a troubling question of his own. When they left, one of them remarked on how insightful and relevant the advice given to him had been. The second visitor told him not to talk nonsense, since the Ba'al Shem Tov had spoken to none but himself. The third man laughed and explained that the whole conversation of the evening had consisted of one intimate discussion of his own concerns. When the fourth and fifth men made similar declarations, they fell into squabbling amongst themselves. Then, suddenly, they all fell silent.
The Ba'al Shem Tov's unique way of teaching is recounted in stories of how he transformed the life of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, at first hostile to him and later a close disciple. When Jacob Joseph was still a rabbi in Szarygrod (he later came to Polonye), the BeShT drove his wagon into town. There he hailed a man leading cattle to pasture and began to tell him a story. Though the man needed to get to pasture, he was entranced, and soon others passing by found themselves equally unable to go about their affairs. The sexton failed to open the doors of the synagogue, and Rabbi Jacob Joseph had to pray alone. When he discovered the reason for the absence of his congregation, he was furious and sent for the stranger to have him beaten. The sexton found in the inn the Ba'al Shem Tov, who willingly went to the rabbi. "It does not become you to fly into a rage", he said. "Let me tell you a story." In spite of himself, the rabbi too fell under the BeShT's spell.
"Once I was driving across the countryside with three horses – a bay, a piebald and a white horse. Not one of them could neigh. Then I met a peasant who said, 'Slacken the reins!' I did so, and all three horses began to neigh. The peasant gave good advice. Do you understand?"
The rabbi bowed his head and wept. "I understand", he said.
"Then you must be uplifted", replied the Ba'al Shem Tov, but when Jacob Joseph lifted his head, he had vanished.
Rabbi Jacob Joseph had the custom of secretly fasting one entire week out of every month. He believed that the uplifting predicted by the Ba'al Shem Tov required extreme mortification of the flesh. During one of these fasts, the BeShT was on a journey when suddenly he thought: "Jacob Joseph is fasting excessively; if he continues, he will lose his mind." He rushed so quickly to the rabbi that one of his horses was injured on the way. He went straight to the rabbi's room.
"My white horse stumbled because I was in such a hurry to get here. Things cannot go on this way. Have some food brought for yourself!" When the rabbi had eaten, the Ba'al Shem Tov told him: "Your work is one of sorrow and gloom. The Shekhinah does not hover over gloom but over joy in the commandments."
During part of the following month, Rabbi Jacob Joseph stayed in the BeShT's home. One day, while he was immersed in a text, a stranger entered the room and immediately began to talk to him.
"Where are you from?"
"From Szarygrod", the rabbi answered without looking up.
"And what do you do for a living?"
"I am the rabbi there", he answered in a tone designed to make it clear that he should not be disturbed.
"And how do you make out?" the stranger persisted. "Do you fare well or are you strapped for money?"
This impertinence strained the rabbi's patience. "You are keeping me from my studies", he snapped.
"If you lose your temper," the stranger warned, "you will keep God from making his living."
"What do you mean?" asked Jacob Joseph, taken aback.
"Everyone makes his living in the place appointed for him by God. If one asks another how he makes his living, the other should answer: 'Praise be to God, I make my living thus and so.' This praise is the living of God. But you, who refuse to speak with anyone, are curtailing God's living."
Stunned, the rabbi was speechless. When he went to make a reply, the stranger had vanished. He found that he could not return to his reading, so he closed the book and went to the Ba'al Shem Tov's room.
"Well, Rabbi of Szarygrod," the BeShT said smiling, "I see that Elijah got the best of you after all." And so Jacob Joseph was uplifted.
Many of the stories about the Ba'al Shem Tov show how he used examples to teach. Once while his disciples were waiting for him at the third meal of the sabbath, they fell into a discussion of the meaning of the Talmudic passage "Gabriel came and taught Joseph seventy languages." Finding it difficult to believe that one human being could learn so many tongues, each with its countless words and idioms, they chose Rabbi Gershon to put the question to the Ba'al Shem Tov. When he joined them, Rabbi Gershon asked the question. Immediately the Ba'al Shem Tov began to teach. Nothing he said, however, seemed to have anything to do with the question, until Rabbi Jacob Joseph's face lit up and he called out "Turkish!" In a while, he called "Tartar!", then "Greek!" and so on, language after language. Eventually, the companions understood. The Ba'al Shem Tov was discoursing in a way that revealed the root character of each language.
Once on a Simhat Torah evening, the Ba'al Shem Tov danced with his congregation. At first he took the scroll of the Torah in his hands and danced with it. Then he laid the Torah aside and danced alone. One of his disciples explained: "Now our master has laid aside the visible teachings and has taken the spiritual teachings into himself."
The Ba'al Shem Tov shunned intellectual disputes but did not fear to face them if need be. Once a naturalist travelled a great distance to see him. "My studies show", he announced, "that the forces of nature required the Red Sea to part at just the time the Israelites passed through it. So much for the famous miracle!"
"But," the BeShT replied, "don't you know that nature herself is a divine creation? It was created such that just at the hour the children of Israel came to the shore, the sea had to part. That is the famous miracle." In showing how such arguments can be turned, he taught the fruitlessness of all endeavour which is off the spiritual centre.
When Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal was young, he was attracted to the BeShT, but he hesitated to become his disciple. The Ba'al Shem Tov took him on a journey. As they drove, it became evident that the Ba'al Shem Tov was on the wrong road.
"Why, Rabbi," Mikhal said, "don't you know the way?"
"It will make itself known in time", he answered and turned into another lane. But this route, too, failed to lead them to their destination.
"Rabbi," Mikhal laughed, "have you lost the way?"
"It is written", the BeShT replied, "that God 'will fulfil the desire of them that fear him'. So here he has fulfilled your desire to have a chance to laugh at me."
Mikhal was pierced to the heart, realizing that the whole incident was a parable about his own inner confusion. He at once joined the Ba'al Shem Tov with his whole soul.
By the end of his life, his disciples believed that he possessed extraordinary powers, for power comes naturally with true knowledge. It is said that once the Ba'al Shem Tov had to summon Samael, the lord of demons, on a critical matter. When he appeared, he was in a fury.
"How dare you summon me!" he shrieked. "This has happened only three times – at the Tree of Knowledge, at the golden calf, and at the hour of the destruction of Jerusalem."
Fearlessly and without disturbing his calm expression, the Ba'al Shem Tov bade his disciples to bare their foreheads. On each brow was the sign of the image in which God created man. Samael obeyed the commands given to him, but before he vanished, he said, "Permit me to stay here a little longer and to look at your foreheads."
The Ba'al Shem Tov became the exemplar of the zaddik, the righteous one who can lead a community and serve its spiritual needs. He was seen as a person imbued with the Divine Presence, who donned the garments of the common people to uplift them. He taught and lived the four principles of the Hasadim – hitlahavut (ecstasy), avoda (service), kavana (sincere intention) and shiflut (humility). Like a true zaddik, he opened doors to the Divine without claiming that he could take people through them. He made them strong without pretending to fill them with unearned truth. He taught them inward prayer. After Rabbi Gershon moved to Palestine, the Ba'al Shem Tov wrote him a letter which summed up his vision and gave evidence of his life work.