Waddya Know ? A Questionnaire for the History of Hasidism

The Baal Shem Tov… we think. It appears that it is actually a different guy: Rabbi Falk, the Baal Shem of London.

True/False

Hasidism emphasizes the negation of the material world.
Hasidism was a messianic movement.
Hassidism was antimessianic.
Hasidism regarded prayer as “higher” than study.
Hasidism considered prayer and study as equally holy.
Christians considered the tombs of tzaddikim as sites of veneration and visited them.
The Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov) recycles stories from the Shivhei ha’Ari.

Multiple Choice:

The Besht (Baal Shem Tov)….
a. was an unschooled radical who opposed the social structure of his time.
b. was a paid functionary with a plum residential post.
c. intended to found a movement.
d. became popular because he offered comfort to a traumatized people.

The Besht (Baal Shem Tov)….
a. paid no taxes; he was granted a domicile and supported by the local religious b. establishment.
c. was a rebel against the religious perspectives that surrounded him.
d. was a true “man of the people”.

Hasidism became a movement….
a. because the Besht and his followers worked consciously to create one, spreading out across Poland, Lithuania, Galicia, etc..
b. composed of poor and unlettered Jews.
c. in part as a result of the opposition of Jewish Enlightenment thinkers.

Answers
True/False questions: Every one is true.   Hasidism has a lot of bandwith; ideas we might think as polar opposites  show up in varied sources. Multiple Choice: b, a, c

This semester, my ALEPH seminary students are answering these kinds of questions in our course on the history of Hasidism. We are busy dissolving a good bit of mythology, working instead with the messy reconstructions of history.

No, the Baal Shem Tov had no idea and no intention of founding a movement. He worked as a local practical kabbalist and hung out with other scholarly and semi-scholarly men who were interested in Kabbalah. The men he fraternized with were, in large part, exploring mystical ideas we can trace to mystics of 16th century Safed and the early pietistic elite who succeeded them.

No, the Besht was hardly revolutionary or engaged in a battle with “establishment religion.” His sources of learning were also theirs. Many scholarly Jews studied Kabbalah – including the Vilna Gaon who so opposed the Hasidim. Rabbinic leaders across Eastern Europe were sympathetic with Hasidic pietists who preceded the Besht, men whose ideas and practices he often borrowed.

The Besht was a faith healer, hired as such by the religious establishment in Meshbizh. He was given a house (#93) to live in and, as a paid functionary, he didn’t have to pay taxes. It is likely that his work included the writing of amulets (a longstanding part of Jewish practice that dates back to Second Temple times), incantations (also an established practice), and conducting exorcisms (ditto).

In some respects, finding the Besht is a little like looking for the historical Jesus. The Besht did not leave treatises or books for us to ponder. His letters have been redacted and “produced” by later followers. Te stories we read in the Shivhei ha-Besht are part of a well-known genre of hagiography, one particularly popular in Christian circles and adopted in Jewish ones.

Hagiographies originated as accounts of saints or ecclesiastic leaders, accounts that were, by the nature of the writing, packed with holy deeds and miracles. Jews adopted the genre and populated their pages with figures like the Ari and, later, the Baal Shem Tov. Christianity had its saints; Judaism had its tzadikim.

Hagiography is  history. The former is about building legends. The latter is about dissolving them.

Are we, then, to discard such legends and myths? Should the “real” history, such as we know it, lead us to dismiss the hagiographies we are heir to? The beauty of the stories we read is that their beauty never fails to move us, after all. That’s why they were written; that’s why we read them.

But we learn history for good reason, too. It is important to place the Besht in his own time – as far as we are able. History is a messy, complicated thing. Discovering how those opposed to Hasidism actually played helped (re)create it as a “movement” helps us understand where, how, and why Hasidism spread in the first place. Knowing how rooted in tradition Beshtian Hasidism was can illuminate a great deal about Hasidic community in our own time.

And this, too, is important. If the Besht is not who his followers made him out to be, what is it that they needed him to be, and why? That is, in a real sense, a spiritual question as well as a historical one.

Just as importantly: Who do we need the Besht to be, and why?

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Jewish Renewal, II

Maybe a bunch of Jews are longing for sweet and crazy-joyful celebration of who they are and what they do (and what God might have to do with all that). Or perhaps lots of people just find red boots fascinating. Another possibility? Jewish Renewal readers are out there just waiting to see something more about their own movement available on the world-wide web.

My posting on Jewish Renewal’s red boots produced more reader comments and more subscriptions to this blog than any other I’ve written – including the one on male lactation in the Talmud.

I mused about this some as I heard my Inbox bing and bing and bing again with comments and subscriptions and suchlike. Clearly, I had hardly begun nourishing the longing out there for Stuff on Jewish Renewal. I like to cook, after all, and I know that a good meal includes more than the main course.

My favorite dessert is dark chocolate mousse. I make it frequently. So, for a little textual dessert…

Jewish Renewal is an evening of Shefa Gold chants. One verse becomes the rich exploration of soul, of the Holy Breath that sustains our lives. Rabbi Shefa’s melodies and harmonies become mantras to live by; their beautiful repetition engraves them on the heart. Her Torah commentaries stretch the spirit. In them, she gives her readers the right to honor their own knowledge, their inner Torah, and to see it revealed in texts written thousands of years ago.

Jewish Renewal celebrates spontaneity, an in-the-moment approach to prayer as well as attention and intention to our deep roots and history.  Spontaneity: At Temple Or Olam’s Shabbat services I will happily sing in rhyme about the folks walking through the door, the children dancing in our midst, or matriarch Ruth Kingberg’s loving hugs.  Whatever is happening is a happening thing.

Here are the deep roots of Jewish tradition: We know that our relationships and friendships are about godding the world toward a meshiachzeit we long for, a time of real and lasting peace.

I like to sing about that, too, and my liturgy gives me age-old ways to do just that.

Jewish Renewal is the way our mashpi’ahs (spiritual directors) begin reflecting, considering, and even crafting healing rituals when they identify yearning for shleimut, wholeness. It is the way Rabbi Burt Jacobson brings us to Baal Shem Tov text study by beginning with meditation. It is the way we soak ourselves in the richness of tradition and Torah, the liturgical year and the practice of Shabbat.

It is the kippot on my congregation’s welcome table at every service.

I began making kippot years ago, and started mostly with pretty head coverings for all the girls of our congregation. I love to sew as I love to cook. Pink and purple and blue, beaded and braided and trimmed – I added some every year. I began finding little animal appliqués and made kippot for our toddlers. Ducks, alligators, donkeys, giraffes. I started making some for my colleagues and friendswith rich colors, with sparkles and beads and flowers.

I’d sewn blessings into each one.

God knows, we need blessings. We are wounded and small in so many ways, cut off from our own richly attired texts and traditions

How do we connect with a language we don’t understand but still use to sing our prayers? How do we find meaning in all the acts that seemed inexplicable to us in our youth? In what ways can we nourish our Judaism while enriching the world?

By renewing our understanding, our connections, our love of who we are, where we have been, and where we must go to make this world the one we hope and long for. We of Jewish Renewal can and long to do just that among fellow Jews and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists and all the rest of humanity who are in pursuit of that thing we call a better world, a world renewed.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May it be so.

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