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Brilliance of the Baal Shem Tov

Updated: Mar 17, 2019

Two hundred and fifty years after the Baal Shem Tov’s death, English readers finally have a scholarly compilation of some of his most important teachings. The collection is testimony to the brilliance of Hasidism’s founder and of the man who prepared the edited translation.

It is a rare, almost miraculous, event when a spiritual trove is recovered from the bottom of the historical ocean, when powerful teachings we were unaware of, or which we thought were lost in the mists of time, are suddenly available for all to see.

When the teachings are those of Rabbi Yisrael Ben Eliezer, known to posterity as “the Baal Shem Tov” (or by the acronym “Besht”), the legendary founder of the Hasidic movement, and arguably the most influential Jewish leader of the past 700 years, their appearance is a cause for celebration.

The life of the Baal Shem Tov holds many of us in thrall. Like the cherubim with their flaming swords who, the Book of Genesis tells us, guard the path to the Tree of Life, the Besht, who lived in the backwaters of the Carpathian mountains, in what in the 18th century was part of Poland and is now in Ukraine, stands at the brink of the modern period. His death in 1760, at the age of 60 (or 62, his date of birth is unclear) coming a few short decades before the beginning of the Jewish enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and other historical watersheds that would irrevocably alter Jewish and human - consciousness.

But unlike the cherubim, or angels, charged with keeping humankind outside of Eden, the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, the democratized spiritual instruction he seeks to convey to all, and the paradigm he created as a religious exemplar, are an invitation inward, a map that allows us access to premodern and even prehistoric modes of religiosity, and to the transforming secrets of the Jewish esoteric tradition.

With patience, compassion and fervor, the Baal Shem Tov demonstrated how these secrets were carved into the very stuff of our innermost longings and our sense of self, and thus how they could be teased out of the dark matter of collective and individual experience.

In “Pillar of Prayer,” Dr. Menachem Kallus gives us these teachings, with an English translation and copious footnotes and commentary, revealing the Baal Shem Tov’s spiritual exercises as well as his unique and masterful voice, his adept grasp of earlier Jewish mystical traditions, and his synergetic mixing of a compassionate and sober grasp of the human condition with a soaring vision of a God-soaked cosmos.

The teachings of the Besht were never totally lost. True, except for a few short texts notably his famous letter to his brother-in-law, in which he describes his soul’s ascent to “the Palace of the Messiah,” and a spiritual will. the Besht left no written record of his teachings. Martin Buber, in his “Tales of the Hasidim,” recounts a story in which the Baal Shem Tov upbraids someone whom he catches recording his words; “There is nothing here of what I said,” the Besht says to the writer, after glancing at the notebook. The implication is that mere written words could in no way express the living encounter between master and disciple. And yet in the writings of the second, third and fourth generation of Hasidic masters, quotations from the Besht, introduced by phrases such as “I heard it from my teacher” or “It was said in the name of the Holy Baal Shem Tov,” are fairly numerous.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, however, some 140 years after the Baal Shem Tov’s death (the 250th anniversary of his death was marked in 2010 and “Pillar of Prayer” is one product of that commemoration), that two Hasidic scholars from Warsaw, Rabbi Natan Nata Dunner and Rabbi Shimon Mendel Wodnik, began to systematically collect these quotations. They spent 16 years at the task, poring over more than 210 books and manuscripts. By comparing nearly identical teachings, gleaned from sources disparate in geography and lineage, so that one’s versions could not have influenced the other’s, they were able to convincingly demonstrate that these words did in fact authentically reflect the words of the Besht himself.

Mysteriously, their work, finished by 1916, was not published in Eastern Europe until 1938, just as the world began to collapse around Eastern European Jewry. Republished in 1948, in Brooklyn, as “Baal Shem Tov on the Torah,” the implications of the collection were largely ignored by scholars. Although the reigning scholarly authority of the past generation, Gershom Scholem, refers to their opus as “the most thorough anthology of all the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov whose value will doubtless be appreciated by any serious investigator of this literature,” almost no academic writing on his teachings, as they appear in the material culled by Dunner and Wodnik, has been published (though important biographical studies of the Besht have appeared). Moreover, despite the hunger for Jewish spiritual teachings and meditative practice that rose up like an outcry from the Jewish grassroots, beginning in the late 1960s, there was virtually nothing written (except for a poetic translation and rendering of some of the teachings in a slim but lovely volume called “Your Word is Fire,” by Arthur Green and Barry Holtz) about the collection’s most striking feature: a long section called “Amud Hatefila” (Pillar of Prayer). Taken together, the teachings collected in “Pillar of Prayer” provide a foundation for intensive and unique spiritual practice.

Jumping into the Danube

It took another dedicated Hasid, an unusual one, to raise the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings from obscurity. Menachem Kallus was born to Hungarian Hasidic Holocaust survivors.. His father, who saved numerous Jewish lives by distributing forged visas, himself escaped a Nazi firing squad by jumping from a bridge into the Danube, and hid beneath the bridge until finally swimming to freedom. Menachem, whom I have known for some 25 years (we were both members of the circle around Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in New York and Israel), was raised in the post-war ultra-Orthodox milieu of Brooklyn, New York. Restless and intellectually curious, he spent his teenage years being thrown out of numerous yeshivas for asking provocative questions; he began studying surrealism, anarchism, Tibetan Buddhism and anthropology, and eventually moved in and out of Chabad, where at one point he was the editor of the English edition of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s sichot, or Torah discussions.

Menachem also began to study kabbala and Hasidism with an obsessive seriousness, becoming not just familiar with, but adept in, Lurianic kabbala.This did not stop Kallus from seeking truth in other religious traditions as well, as he told me in conversations we had as I prepared to write this article. One fateful journey in search of authentic spiritual experiences, at the age of 22, led him down the Amazon in search of hallucinogenic drugs used by indigenous tribes, whose secrets he believed these tribes held. Through a series of mishaps, he ended up alone and abandoned on the banks of the mighty river with his tefillin, a copy of Chabad’s mystical primer the Tanya, and a classical Tibetan Buddhist text. Certain he was going to die, he put on his tefillin and began to meditate. At the same time, his mother, back in Brooklyn, struck by a premonition that he was in danger, began to recite Psalms for him.

Kallus survived, moved to Jerusalem and eventually completed a Ph.D. on Lurianic kabbala as well as receiving rabbinic ordination from a fellow Hasidic rebel, Rabbi Zalman Schachter, the sage of the Jewish Renewal movement. Unlike most scholars, Kallus is a practitioner as well, and he sometimes prays and meditates for several hours a day.

An earlier generation of academics had sometimes dismissed the Baal Shem Tov’s accomplishments as a scholar or theoretician, seeing him as an unschooled folk hero; Joseph Weiss, an important disciple of Scholem, surmised in one paper that the Besht was largely an ignoramus. Kallus’ commentary on “Pillar of Prayer” undermines any such notion, demonstrating the Besht’s mastery of Lurianic kabbala, the intricate, abstract theoretical system of Rabbi Isaac Luria, of 16th-century Safed, as well as of the works of other previous masters. Kallus had fallen in love with the Baal Shem Tov from the moment he encountered his teachings during his first sojourn in Chabad-Lubavitch, not only because of their content, but also because of their tone. Even though these words of guidance and spiritual exercises are being retold here second- or third-hand, the Besht’s voice comes across as direct and non-condescending, neither pietistic nor sentimental, devoid of the hidden threats and warnings that often accompany esoteric literature meant only for the eyes of the elite.

Instead, the Baal Shem Tov conveys faith in the power of each individual to touch, experience, unite with and even influence the divine spheres in order to bring spiritual and material blessing down into the world. He speaks with authority, but also sounds as if he is speaking to equals. The idea that access to mystical knowledge must be democratized if the world is to achieve the spiritual transformation promised in the prophecies of messianic times is the theme of the most famous of the few surviving letters written by the Besht himself. Writing in 1746 to his brother-in-law, who had moved from Podolia, in Ukraine, to the Holy Land, the Baal Shem Tov describes putting his head down on the prayer lectern while leading the Rosh Hashanah services. With his body inert, his spirit rises through dimensions populated by souls and angels until reaching “the Palace of the Messiah.” As any good Jew would do he greets the Messiah with a question: “When will you come, sir?” The Messiah’s answer startles him. “When your wellsprings flow outwards, and when everyone can do the unifications and soul ascents of which you are capable.”

At first, he was downcast and discouraged, the Besht reports. How could such an awesome revolution take place? But the Messiah teaches him a few “simple unifications”-- he doesn’t elaborate in the letter-- that might make this transformation possible. One can only assume that the teachings on meditation and prayer recorded in “Pillar of Prayer” contain within them at least some of the secrets alluded to in the letter.

What emerges from this book is a vision of human consciousness in constant contact with the divine in forms hidden and revealed, fallen and elevated; in darkness and light, majestically enthroned and in continuous process; aspiring to liberation and already redeemed. In this vision, our will, minds and emotions, the totality of our inner selves, can and should be marshaled at all times, and in all situations, in order to serve God. This is accomplished by breaking through the illusion of separation and darkness and revealing the ecstatic truth of His unity, which includes and integrates everything, including the material world and our selves and the secret core of all our desires.

Sparks of holiness

The struggle for direct connection with the divine, or “dvekut”, continues during every human activity and every waking hour, according to the Baal Shem Tov, but prayer is an especially intensive arena. For the Besht, as for his predecessors in the Jewish mystical tradition, Hebrew letters and words, if we so intend, are gateways through which hidden worlds can be encountered, consciousness expanded, sparks of holiness raised up out of the darkness of the human condition and divine light drawn down into this world. Exactly because of this potential for goodness and revelation, prayer is almost invariably accompanied by distracting thoughts, as if the dark matter that is a necessary part of the weave of selfhood must inevitably offer resistance. The Besht’s innovation is in seeing opportunity in this dynamic. Rather than resisting the resistors, the Besht encourages practitioners to follow their distracting thoughts to their roots in the divine.

This is accomplished through an array of contemplative tactics: first by “surrendering”. (hakhna'ah) by realizing that the structure and content of all thoughts emerge from the divine; then by separating (havdalah) shifting one’s mind, for example, from desire for earthly pleasure to longing for the divine; and finally, by sweetening our thoughts (hamtakah), so that they connect with the divine source itself, the fount of all pleasure.

What is practiced intensively in prayer is meant, on some level, for everyday pursuits as well. “The perfect person,” the Baal Shem Tov teaches, “would be able to unite with the Divine Presence in every step she or he takes and through everything such a one does even in physical acts such as eating or business dealings in all of them one is able to unify with God’s presence and recognize the Divine origins of one’s occurrences, in a particular way.”

According to Menachem Kallus, the idea of finding God in the ongoing story of one’s own life, as the Besht suggests, is also a confirmation of the value of each individual, and of the meaningfulness of life within the material realm. It is a recipe for an engaged mystic, one who is of the world rather than withdrawn from it.

Kallus’ translation, though sometimes overly sophisticated and wordy-- the Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew is more simple and direct-- is precise and masterful. But it is his notes, really a full-fledged commentary on the text, that are truly dazzling, and will remain a treasure trove in their own right for generations to come. Kallus is conversant in a huge range of works, from the Torah and Talmud, on through the Zohar, and the Tikunim written a generation or two after the Zohar, the works of Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century neo-Maimonidean linguistic and psychological mystic, and of Moshe Cordovero, the 16th-century sage, whose works represent the summit of the Spanish kabbalistic tradition; and the Lurianic corpus, as well as the modern scholarship in these areas.

His commentary enriches by anchoring the Besht’s teachings in a kaleidoscopic array of texts and ideas, creating a multidimensional Jewish mandala of contemplative consciousness. Although the multitude and variety of concepts might seem daunting, even labyrinthine, to the uninitiated, Kallus also has a rare capacity for making ideas obscured by technical kabbalistic terms comprehensible to all. It’s worth wading through the copious notes, knowing that there is a lot that will be difficult to understand, for the sudden illuminations he provides.

Both the translation and the commentary are also evidence of the potential gains for all of us when a scholar of Jewish mysticism is also learned in other traditions. In this case, it’s Tibetan Buddhism, which has a highly developed language for states of consciousness. Kallus draws upon his knowledge of Buddhism to elucidate terms that are embedded in the intricate cosmological and redemptive structure of Lurianic kabbala and would thus otherwise be incomprehensible to the lay reader. He can do this only because he knows kabbala so thoroughly; otherwise the risk of inauthentic comparisons and superficial similarities would be great.

“Pillar of Prayer” is a lovingly produced book of engaged scholarship whose purpose is not only to increase knowledge, but also to spark the religious imagination. An essay by Rabbi Miles Krassen, a scholar of Jewish mysticism and of comparative religion, introduces Kallus’ translation and commentary with a convincing presentation of the Baal Shem Tov as the avatar of a new spiritual paradigm wholly relevant for our times. In a long essay at the end of the book, Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, who leads a congregation in Harrison, New York, evokes the 18th-century context of Hasidism’s founder, noting both the far-flung presence of Turkish Sufi mystics in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, where the Besht lived, as well as his legendary aborted journey to the Land of Israel, which ended prematurely in Istanbul and during which he almost surely encountered Sufi practitioners. Glazer shows how tales of the Baal Shem Tov’s journey are entwined with symbolism that hints at the existence of an ongoing dialogue of religious imaginations in which Sufism and Hasidism share both geographical and spiritual space, suggesting the new paradigm toward which both Krassen and Kallus are pointing.

The book is part of a series called Spiritual Affinities, initiated by Glazer for the scholarly interfaith publisher Fons Vitae, dedicated to emphasizing such shared spaces and the often subterranean or even subconscious conversations between religions, in which spiritual traditions influence and inspire each other without fully admitting or even being cognizant of this cross-fertilization and exchange.

At a moment in which fundamentalism of various stripes seems to have grabbed religion’s high ground, “Pillar of Prayer,” rooted in an erudition that allows us to soar rather than weighing us down, enables us to reimagine the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidism as guides for a future Judaism, potent and spiritually democratic rather than moribund and authoritarian. For this, we are indebted.

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