The Gift of an ALEPH Student – A Story of Torah

The classroom – material or virtual – is a location for revelation. I am not just a guide in that setting, I am guided.

Nowhere is this truer than in a classroom with students of the ordination programs at Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Most, though not all, are pursuing their ordinations as cantors, rabbis, and rabbinic pastors as second careers. Many have already led professional lives as lawyers, social workers, teachers, musicians, health professionals and more. Even my younger students are carrying rich experience and admirable maturity into the classroom – it’s a reason, I suspect, why they are there in the first place.

This semester, I am teaching the history of Hasidism. Students have discovered that much of what they believed to be factual about Hasidism belongs to the realm of myth. But simultaneously, they have learned what has made those myths powerful.

The power of story, for example.

One of my students, Chaya Lerner, frequently speaks both to the history she is learning and the way she sees this history playing out among the Hasidic communities she serves as a social worker. Her class contributions are consistently thoughtful, measured.

Chaya is pursuing ordination as a rabbinic pastor with Aleph. She is a calm, clear-headed woman — straightforward and true.  She is, above all, fair.

One day, she told us that a member of her own Reform congregation had died. He was not a learned Jew, she said, but he was a kind man. He cared deeply about supporting and strengthening other congregants’ Jewish identity. He gave generously to programs to do just that.

“I was sitting in the sanctuary when his casket was rolled out,” she told us. “And I suddenly realized: There went Torah. He was Torah for our community.” Without the slightest self-consciousness, Chaya described what she did. She leaned over and kissed the casket as it went by. “Just as I would a Torah scroll.”

We were quiet for a few moments. A good man, not so Jewishly educated, had reminded his community to care about Jewish identity – to nourish and sustain it. It was a kind of Torah.

The community was enduring loss. Chaya had told us, with a story, how deep that loss had been.

“And there,” I said finally, “we have had a story from Reb Chaya.”

It was the kind of story that could be told decades from now or in the next hour, I added. We could each tell Chaya’s story in all sorts of settings, because it gave over the raw truth of the power and gift an individual Jew could be for others.

One week later, I did just that. I was speaking at an interfaith event about Torah scrolls – how they were made, what they were made of, how their features could tell a story inside their stories. I spoke about the importance of owning a Torah scroll for each and every community. I walked my audience through various commentaries about selling a Torah scroll – when it was to be avoided at every and nearly all cost, the rare and specific cases where such a thing could be permitted.

“The Torah is the heart of a Jewish community,” I said, “but in the end, the life of a human being is the most sacred of all. In fact, we believe that the life of a human being can itself be Torah.”

I looked at my audience. “Let me tell you a story I heard from my student, Reb Chaya,” I said.


Note: Thanks to Chaya Lerner for giving me permission to publish this post.


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.


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.

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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