Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Baal Shem Tov's Philosophy Explained

I read this incredibly gorgeous explanation of the Baal Shem Tov's philosophy on Shabbat; now I want to share it with all of you! It's told over in the form of a story. I know it is a long story but it is well worth reading if you want to understand the basics behind Chassidut and why the Besht acted the way he does. If you can't read all of it, at least read the part I have highlighted in blue (my favorite part.)

From pages 42-51 in Tales of the Baal Shem Tov by Yisroel Ya'akov Klapholtz, Volume 5:

"Blessed be He Who has created us for His glory and has separated us from those who err," Rav N. would often intone, raising his eyes and palms heavenward, thankful that he was not among the erring followers of chassidism. A sworn dissenter of the Baal Shem Tov, Rav N. was a learned and pious man, a leading Torah personality of the other camp. Rav N. had a secret ambition. He longed to visit the Baal Shem Tov and expound to him all of his errors, to argue so convincingly as to make the Baal Shem Tov reject his own teaching. One day, he finally took his courage in hand and went to visit the Baal Shem Tov.

As he sat on the coach he kept on repeating a prayer of his own making, "May God protect me from this new cult. May I not be led astray to apostasy, God forbid."

The Besht was not surprised by the visit, having already heard of this rabbi, of his virulent opposition to chassidus and of his intended visit. He greeted his guest warmly, bade him sit down and empty his heart of all his complaints and arguments against chassidus. "Take your time," he said patiently. "I am interested in hearing all you have to say on the subject. I have heard that you find fault with my ways and my school of thought. Tell me fully what it is that displeases you. Ask what you will of me and I will answer. I will try to resolve all your doubts. Is it not our purpose to serve our Creator as best we can? What does it matter who is the victor in this search as long as we finally reach the truth? What does the honor of victory signify in the light of the honor of the Almighty King to whom we must all ultimately bow?"

The rabbi collected his thoughts and then began: "I must first preface my words with the plea that if, in the course of this dialogue I accuse you falsely, you must not judge me harshly since I am ignorant in your ways. The Torah way is not to flatter or falsely accredit, all the more so when it involves a question of belief.

"My questions are the following: First of all, you are always boasting that you have innovated a new practice, a new mode of worship until now hidden from the Sages of all preceding generations. Only select souls are able to grasp this esoteric secret. My charge to you is that if your worship is an innovation, then it is forbidden by the Torah as are all supplements. It borders on apostasy.

"Secondly: you are quoted to have said that all your Torah thoughts and lectures emanate from heaven. Furthermore, anyone who propounds Torah thoughts that do not originate from heavenly sources is merely palavering so much nonsense. I find such arrogance intolerable! How can you dare to claim the monopoly on Divine inspiration and prophecy alone?

"Thirdly, most of the Torah presentations and hidden allusions repeated in your name seem to me unfounded in halacha. Most of them denigrate noted Torah scholars who spend the major part of their days and nights in study of the revealed Torah which you also belittle.

"And fourthly, who were your teachers in this new way of yours? From whom did you receive such a tradition, such example of behavior and practice?"

"It is interesting how often the view of the accused coincides quite closely with that of the accuser," the Baal Shem Tov answered pleasantly, with a perceptible smile of victory on his lips. "In this case as well, the very questions which you pose can be turned around to form justifiable answers. In fact, I must thank you for formulating your questions so well as to aim directly at the crux of the matter and to assist me in presenting my rebuttal.

"Let me begin with some facts about my childhood, as you requested. My father, may he rest in peace, was a man complete in his righteousness, exemplary in his personal characteristics. I was orphaned when I was but a child yet I still recall his last words to me. As he lay on his deathbed, he summoned me and whispered in my ear, "Remember always, my son, that Hashem is with you. Never forget this thought. Concentrate upon it with all your might wherever you are, at all times, but do not let other people be aware of your thoughts. Behave normally and don't let them divine your thoughts.

"These words remained carved upon my memory. After his death I used to seclude myself in forest and field to strengthen myself in this noble thought that God, Who fills the entire world with His grandeur, is actually by my side. I accepted a position of melamed to enable me to better serve Him in the open as well as in the confines of my heart. I used to raise my voice to teach the young children kriyas shema, to bensh with them or teach them to answer Omain after each blessing. I found this an excellent device to help me concentrate meanwhile upon the special thoughts I had been urged to think.

"Later on I became a shamosh in a shul. I was now able to continue my practice and extend it through the night. When I became of age, I married the sister of Reb Gershon of Kitov and went to live in a little cottage between two mountains, earning my meager bread by digging clay and selling it in the village. I subsequently rented a house near the forest where I would retreat in solitude. I returned periodically to tend to household matters and welcome the few visitors that came to see me.

"In the course of time I acquired some knowledge of the revealed and the mystic aspects of the Torah. This did not play a prime part with me as did purity of thought and concentrated effort to bear in mind what my father had told me. My Torah study, prayer and good deeds were then only means to achieve a higher purpose. In the way a man desires to go, so is he led. I found myself constantly being aided in my project and merited to hear and see most wondrous and fearful things.

"I was soon able to perceive God manifest everywhere, with every step I took. I felt that every word that was spoken, every occurrence that took place, was Divinely directed on an overall plan and brought to bear upon each individual. I was so thoroughly immersed in Godly thoughts that even my everyday words were full of sanctity and meaning as if they had been prayers.

"Let me set you straight on one matter. My way of worship is not at all innovative or supplementary to Judaism. Whoever claims that about me is completely mistaken. The renaissance that I create in people's hearts to draw nearer to Hashem is neither new or additional to knowledge common to all past believers for it is a tradition handed down from our fathers and teachers. I have only come to reinforce people's faith from the lethargy into which it has sunk in the course of time.

"There is no doubt that the belief in God's omnipresence is the very fundamental of the entire Torah. Whoever claims that there is no purpose, design or value to life, rather the world is a product of happenstance, is an utter fool. Even if we consider those who profess their belief in the existence of God, who ascribe to the idea that everything in this world has a purpose and was created with infinite intricacy and wisdom, we see that people can miss the point altogether, which is God's specific intent for every single happening.

"There is a class of people higher than those able to perceive God inherent in everything; there are people who believe further that He brings his spirit to rest upon this nether world through the letters of the Torah which are heaven-sent luminaries. They are aware that botei medrosh and botei knesses are filled with His holy presence, further, that dreams that tzadikim dream are sometimes prophetic visions; that a true tzadik uses the heavenly echo- the bas kol- and merits that Divine Presence rest upon him.

"Let me bring an example of God's absolute guidance of worldly events to the minutest detail. A bedbug once bit a man in the middle of the night, causing him to awake with a start. He jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen to get a drink. In his haste, he bumped against the water barrel, causing it to spill its contents upon a bed of burning coals that would have otherwise ignited a roaring fire in the house. He returned to his bed to find that an overhead beam which had lain precariously, had finally fallen upon his bed. Were this man an unbeliever, he might attribute this chain of events to happenstance. One who firmly acknowledges God's omniscience can see Divine Presence in these events face to face, as it were.

"One who witnesses such occurrences two or three times in his life, becomes strengthened in his faith and begins to recognize the hand of Providence in other seemingly unapparent circumstances. He eventually concludes that He is the Prime Mover of every single thing, without exception.

"Thoughts that cross a person's mind in constant stream, making way for other insignificant thoughts, thoughts that flame up briefly only to fade away, have no lasting value or significance. Their coming and passing need not be questioned or dwelt upon. But thoughts which linger on beyond the usual fleeting ones are manifestations of Torah and emuna and come to serve as reinforcers or reminders from above. They are valuable to their hosts and should be considered by the people they visit as subtle hints from heaven attuned to a person's individual soul.

"People with finely developed vision see each angel, that is, each manifestation of Godly power, with every tap on every blade of grass; they hear each heavenly decree and echo as it goes forth into the wide world. These people know that every place has sanctity, not only the heavenly realms. Not only is every vision and prophecy heaven-sent but also every utterance is a messenger from above. The discerning person will realize its purpose after sufficient contemplation.

"And that is why certain people can weave a cloth of halachos and lessons from seemingly mundane matters. Such people who have captured the essence of all holiness need not differentiate between a shul and a forest as a place for their prayers. Similarly, the study of mishna and gemorra does not depart from apparent idle talk uttered by the lowliest of the low even though the speaker has no ulterior intent in his words. The true believer is aware that He who gave man the power of speech also put the particular words in his mouth, embodying within those words the most esoteric of messages.

"Just as Ruth's parents had no motive behind the name they gave their daughter, never realizing that she would mother the most righteous Jewish kind, neither did the parents of the meraglim endow their children with names prophetic of the future. A believer of the highest degree does not differentiate between study of a holy volume or the study of a child's prattle or even of a gentile's talk for if he considers it well he can extract from everything a lesson in Torah. If such a person is possessed by an idea, as insane as it may appear, he studies it, knowing that it is a message from on high which has particular relevance to his individual soul for all his ideas are the raw material of ultimate Torah.

"One can thus understand a verse in the Torah in a new light, by way of metaphor; "If a man seduces a virgin," - if a man develops a new thought "who was not engaged" - which was not yet formulated into words- "and sleeps with her"- he finds this idea staying with him- "he shall pay her dowry"- he should realize that this idea was ordered specifically for him and that it is his duty to find the hidden meaning in it.

"I am aware of the mockery of many rabbis and scholars. It does not faze me in the least. I have repeated my rationale in so many different ways because the majority of scholars have forgotten this basic concept. Rather they put the emphasis upon inventing a well-constructed pilpul which has no relevance to the problems of their particular generation. My followers and I try to remind them that polemics are only worthwhile if they concern Torah and piety, morals and character traits. Polemics for the mere sake of polemics is worthless. Happy is the generation whose elders listen to the juniors, for the greatest of men will always find something to learn and benefit from another."

Just as he was finishing these words
a gentile tapped on his window. A band of metal hoops rested upon his shoulders. "Do you have any pails, barrels or vessels that need repair?" he chanted.

"Go in peace," the Baal Shem Tov waved the tinker away with a smile. "In my house everything is in order."

"Give a good look," the man persisted, "maybe you will find things that need repair."

The Baal Shem Tov turned to his illustrious guest and said, "See! Is this man not a direct messenger from heaven? Can you not see the sanctity in his words? This is just what I have been telling you all this time. If one searches well, anyone- even one who considers himself perfect- will find cracks or splits in his heart and soul, in his mind and traits, that need improvement.

"I believe with all my heart that there is no idle coincidence in this world. I find constant support to this notion from above. I am grateful to heaven for having sent this tinker to me to tell me things which are directly relevant to this matter.

"I know that there is much opposition to my thoughts but I feel it my duty to stand apart from the rest in maintaining a staunch position. If you persist in your opposition, there is nothing that I can do. If you wish to give these concepts some consideration, then stay here and I will spend more time exploring them with you until they penetrate your very being and illuminate your very thinking."

The guest bowed his head, carefully considering all that the Baal Shem Tov had said until now. He arose and began pacing the floor, to and fro, thinking what to reply.

"I concede that most of your thoughts make sense. I must differ, however, with your insistence that idle chatter is also Torah, that this goy is a messenger of God and his words prophecy. This strikes me as veritable apostasy. Furthermore, according to your theory, even apostasy is endowed with holiness- in evil, sinful thoughts there is sanctity or sparks of heavenly revelations. My mind cannot tolerate such irrationality. I must beg to differ with you."

"The matter does not rest with your ability to accept it but your desire to do so. I insist that the words of a gentile in the market emanate from heaven and border on prophecy and revelation. You can subscribe to this idea but you do not want to." With these parting words, the Baal Shem Tov closed the discussion and dismissed his guest.

The rabbi left the Besht's home and started going on his way. Suddenly he came across a gentile whose wagon of stones had overturned. The unfortunate man was trying to get people to help him set the wagon aright.

"Jew!" he called out at the sight of the rabbi, "come here and give me a hand with this load. Do me a favor and giver me a boost."

"I am weak," the rabbi replied. "I can't."

"You can," the goy replied, "but you don't want to. If you wanted to you would be able."

The goy's answer stunned the rabbi. He did not know what to do. Should he make a superhuman effort to help this man or should he return to the Baal Shem Tov and tell him this story? Finally he decided, "The first thing is to get up and act."

When the wagon had been set aright he returned to the Besht. His conscience kept on hammering: Should he believe or not?

As soon as he stood in the doorway of the rebbe's room, the latter asked: "Is it already clear to you that you can but you don't want to?"

When he heard these words, the rabbi decided to remain several more days. And in the end he became one of the close, staunch followers of the Baal Shem Tov.

(Shalom Al Yisroel)


There is nothing in this world that does not connect back to God. There are those who can and have read kefirah, the most secular works, delved into philosophy and who are connected to a physical and material world. But you see, all these things lead back to God, not away from him...they strengthen us; they do not defeat us. There is something to learn from everything, from every book, every movie, every conversation, every person, and this is not reserved for holy people but for all of us. I know that I have had some of my best insights after hearing a particular song or watching a particular movie, even after having a conversation with my non-Jewish friend about matters that ostensibly had nothing to do with Torah. I do not say that every person must follow this approach, only that all should be aware it exists...everything has the potential for sancity; everything can be uplifted, everything can be used for the good. All things, you see, are holy; it is simply a question of finding what is holy within them.


haKiruv said...

Excellent post and conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, and I completely agree with your conclusion. However, I would question one point:

"But thoughts which linger on beyond the usual fleeting ones are manifestations of Torah and emuna and come to serve as reinforcers or reminders from above. They are valuable to their hosts and should be considered by the people they visit as subtle hints from heaven attuned to a person's individual soul."

What about people with mental illnesses characterised by recurrent thought patterns? The best known is probably obsessive compulsive disorder, but it can be a symptom of other, more common illnesses such as depression and anxiety. This is not an academic question for me; as a sufferer of mental illness, I know what it is like to be tormented by thoughts that are far from 'holy', and I don't see exactly how this can fit in with the Baal Shem Tov's view.

I can think of two possible explanations:

1) He is not speaking of mental illness, which is a separate category. This seems unlikely, as it would run against his general philosophy that everything can be used to serve Hashem.

2) Psychologists say that the symptoms of mental illness are not the main problem; they are reflective of problems deep within a person's personality. This could simply be given a religious gloss: the treatment of these underlying problems allows a person to improve his or her character in order to reach his or her true spiritual potential.

However, neither of these possibilities seems to quite fit what he was saying.

Anonymous said...

I liked your conclusion. While I don't agree with the general dictum of the Besht, that every thought and action is a direct intervention from G-d, I do believe that we all can and should learn from every situation. Everything that happens, everything that we see and hear can be used as a path to get closer to G-d.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Actually, I got more interested in Judaism and became much more theist after going to a Jesuit university than after all the time living within my Jewish community.

Chana said...


Excellent question and I am not sure as to the answer; however I assume that the Besht is not speaking about mental illness here. How is mental illness necessary/ able to be used for good? I think that would depend on situation by situation, but I'd rather not speculate on this one, as this is out of my depth.

Everyone, especially those of you who liked the conclusion,

I just want to clarify that none of this is my original idea. This is all based on the idea that it is our task to elevate the sparks of holiness that are caught within the kelipot (shells/ husks/ peels) of the mundane. This is beautifully expressed by the Arizal and is the main concept in Kabbalistic thought (which I know very little about, only the central idea.)

Looking Forward said...

chana, yes even madmen and the mentaly ill represent the divine, often in a way that others do not.

Often I have found listening to the mad very enlightening, as they generaly notice things that others are to afraid to notice.

As for they themselves, one should know that hashem chastens those he loves. Certainly there is something that can be learned from these thoughts as well, but it would seem to me that this is a very, very difficult thing to learn, and perhaps the process of overcomming it and internalizing the message without losing it are part of the ultimate point.

I have seen it said that the majority of mad men are that way because they have seen more revelation of g-ds presence than they can comprehend. Should it happen that they can comprehend it and internalize what it really means, then I suppose that is a double measure of blessing for them, untill then I don't know.

(speaking from one to another of course.)

Anonymous said...

I think that you are romanticizing mental illness (I do not mean you personally; I am only referring to what you wrote). I do not think that most people with mental illness "have seen more revelation of G-d's presence than they can comprehend". I rather think that they, just like someone with diabetes or PKU, have a debilitating condition which they have to monitor for life. I do not think that the ill thoughts of someone with, say, OCD, or schizophrenia, are holy. But someone with such an illness who does his best to manage his condition and live a healthy life - perhaps that is the way in which his/her thoughts can be turned holy.

MYG said...

Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:2-3 is pertinent.

P L said...

A tremendous Yasher Koach Chana for posting this piece by the Bal Shem Tov. I wrote a two part piece on my blog about how the Bal Shem Tov’s concepts have been a lifelong battle for me with people of differing hashkofic approaches.

In fact I was so moved by it; I reprinted your entire post and wrote about how this timeless hashkofic battle manifested itself in my life.

Part 1 of 2: The Battle Over Our Jewish Hashkofic Souls

While you may believe that you JUST shared a powerful story you read, in fact, by actively allowing others to see your approach (making it a focus, taking the time, possibly typing the story word for word) embodied in the Bal Shem Tov’s words, you may have caused a chain reaction that will completely change someone’s life.

Because of you I became aware of this story. I then pass along this story to others who are living in a world where these concepts are fierce battles. They in turn find peace and are strengthened by having discovered the Bal Shem Tov as a source to lean on. On and on it goes.

Butterflies can cause Tsunamis. And you, Chana, are one heck of a butterfly!

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