An Exemplar of Faith

One Jew, significant for his life and the tradition which he founded is the Baal Shem Tov.

Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) (b. c.1698 in a settlement near the village of Okopy Świętej Trójcy, Podolia, Poland [now the Ukraine] – d. 1760 Międzybóż, Podolia, Poland [now the Ukraine]), whose original name was Israel Ben Eliezer and was also known as Besht, was the founder of modern Chasidism. He caused surprise and opposition because he mixed with ordinary people, he rejected mortification of the flesh and insisted on the holiness of ordinary human life.

He defended his behaviour and said that his actions were a necessary ‘descent for the sake of ascent’. This was later developed into a socio-theological theory placing great value on spiritual ministration.

He was responsible for getting rid of the rigid asceticism which Isaac ben Solomon Luria had imposed on Kabbalah in the 16th century.

The Baal Shem Tov’s life is surrounded by myth and legend. He came from a very simple background and was an orphan. He had several unimportant jobs in synagogues and Hebrew schools. Later he married the daughter of the very wealthy Ephraim of Kuty and moved to the Carpathian mountains. Here he studied mysticism and worked as a lime digger. He gained a reputation as healer using herbs, talismans and amulets which held the Divine name.

Later he became an innkeeper and schochet (ritual slaughterer).

In 1736, moved to the village of Międzybóż in Podolia. From then until his death he spent his time in spiritual study.

As a young man the Baal Shem Tov knew Rabbi Nahman of Gorodenka and Rabbi Nahman of Kosov. The discussions which these men had at meals were later written down and became part of Chasidic literature. The Baal Shem Tov’s spirituality was tested by these rabbis and he recognised a mezuzah as non-kosher simply by his spiritual powers.

Eventually, he rejected the strict asceticism of his colleagues. According to his grandson, Rabbi Baruch of Międzybóż, he said:

I came into this world to point a new way, to prevail upon men to live by the light of these three things: love of God, love of Israel, and love of Torah. And there is no need to perform mortifications of the flesh.

The Baal Shem Tov’s teaching was based on three issues:

– communion with God; – service in ordinary bodily existence; he taught that every human deed done for the sake of heaven (even eating) was as valuable as any formal commandment; – rescue of the sparks of divinity that are trapped in the material world.

These teachings appealed to ordinary people as it did not require any retreat from the world around them. They were all ‘limbs of the divine presence’. Members of the movement were criticised by rabbinical leaders for ‘dancing, drinking, and making merry all their lives’.

A story explains the Baal Shem Tov’s view of the Messiah:

The Baal Shem Tov made an ‘ascent of the soul’ and met the Messiah in heaven. He asked when the Messiah would come and received the reply, ‘when your well-springs shall overflow far and wide’ – when the teachings of Chasidism had been spread.

He taught that piety was more important than learning and so even the poor and uneducated could commune with God if they had enthusiasm.

The Baal Shem Tov had great influence during his lifetime and brought about social and religious change. He challenged many traditional values; there was more happiness and new rituals with smaller prayer houses outside of the synagogues. These changes were emphasised by the wearing of distinctive clothes and by storytelling.

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