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About the Legends of the Baal Shem Tov

by Rabbi Eliahu Klein

An Excerpt from the Introduction
to Meetings with Remarkable Souls

From a crosscultural perspective, one gets the impression that the Baal Shem Tov functioned similarly to the way shamans function in tribal cultures all over the world. Let it be understood that I am not labeling the Holy Baal Shem Tov a shaman. The Baal Shem, as far as I'm concerned, was the most influential spiritual master of the Jewish people for the past 300 years. I am merely noting similarities in the methods used in different cultures.

My limited understanding of shamanism is based on the studies of Eliade, Castenada, and Harner. A shaman intuitively understands the psyche of the individual he or she is working with and creates situations, sometimes even tricks and illusions, that will help the person resolve a conflict, or mitigate suffering, guilt, or anger. In other circumstances, the shaman will create a situation that awakens the individual's conscience (see, for instance, "That Man Who Thought He Was God", in http://www.aronson.com/Judaica/meetingwithremark.html"> Meetings with Remarkable Souls: Legends of the Baal Shem Tov).

One can see this style of shamanic work throughout these legends. At the beginning of "The Drunk of Moscow," (in Meetings with Remarkable Souls) the Baal Shem digs a hole in the ground and then pours whiskey into it. He then proceeds to explain to his disciples what really happened in this place. This act, in a sense, is a striking shamanic gesture, which, in an instant, catches the attention of the disciples. Looked at another way, the hole becomes an axis mundi, a point of junction between Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Pouring into it a libation of whiskey is thus a symbolic act to make a tikkun, a restoration, for the tortured soul.

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I have been a student and observer of the chasidic velt for twenty-six years. It began innocently when my father would create elaborate improvisational tales involving contemporary Jewish heros. He would tell these fantastic maisis as we walked to shul every Shabbat morning. Sometimes he would even tell me a story of the Baal Shem Tov. This formed the seeds of my lifelong relationship with the Baal Shem.

Years later, my family moved from Toronto, where my father was the director of the only religious camp in Canada, to Brooklyn, where he became a yeshivah administrator. It was his custom to pray every Rosh Hashanah at the little synagogue of the Bratzlaver chasidim. This was because of a tale a Bratzlaver chasid told my father. It seems that Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav told his disciples before he died that if his chasidim would all gather on Rosh Hashanah, he would descend from heaven to be present with his followers. My father could not resist such an opportunity, even though he was a litvak, trained in the Lithuanian anti-chasid school of Judaism.

I remember at the age of eleven witnessing the Bratzlaver chasidim clapping their hands in the middle of the silent prayer of Shemoneh Esrei or during Kaddish. This behavior so impressed me that in an ordinary synagogue I would start clapping in the middle of prayer, much to the dismay of my father. I felt I was secretly a Bratzlaver for many years after that.

Later on I would attend pirchei, the young men's club of the Agudah. On Shabbat I would sit enthralled as a young storyteller wove Baal Shem Tov legends in front of hundreds of young yeshivah students. This young man became Reb Moshe Apter, an activist rabbi who would become the foremost translator of Gerer Chasidut and spiritual role model for many young Jews in Brooklyn. As a teenager I would frequent all the chasidic shtieblach in Brooklyn, beginning with the "screamers" of Stolin-Karlin. The screamers didn't just pray like everyone else - they would shout "Awmein!" and scream the Shema. Even during the silent prayer you could hear the chasidim silently screaming. Anyone who entered the Stoliner shtiebel could not remain passive about praying. One was forced to wake up and begin to pray with all one's might.

And then there were the courts of the chasidim of Bobov, Klausenberg, Satmar, Lubavich, and Skolyeh. Each court practiced the same Orthodox traditions and yet each one lived in an amazingly different, unique universe. In Bobov, I experienced the sense of being in a king's inner chamber. There was a true nobility in the way the rebbe dressed, in the way he talked, in the way he made kiddush on Friday night. Bobovers say their rebbe escaped from the laager, concentration camp, twenty-eight times. I don't know if it is true, but if one can judge by the way he makes kiddush and sings HaShem Meilech during the darkened third meal on Shabbat, anything might be true about the Bobover Rebbe.

The rebbes of Satmar and Lubavich were opposing forces; the former was politically pro-Israel and the later militantly anti-Zionist. However, when I went to their gatherings, a Satmar tisch or a Lubavich farbrengen, I can honestly say that I experienced their similarities. I could see where they came together. They were both spiritual grandchildren of the Holy Baal Shem Tov, the difference was that one lineage developed in Hungary while the other carried the message to Russia.

In Lubavich I experienced the rebbe as an old revolutionary general reviewing his troops of God, ready to transform the world through the power of Torah. I saw the Lubavich Rebbe hundreds of times and, God forbid, what I'm going to say about his rival, the Satmar Rebbe, doesn't take away from his spiritual power.

I saw the Satmar Rebbe, the Rebbe Reb Yoilish as he is remembered, only two times, but those two times shook me to the depth of my soul like no other rebbe. The first time was at a Saturday night fundraiser in Brooklyn. There must have been ten thousand chasidim crowded in the hall waiting hours for their rebbe to appear. When at last he came in through the back door, after walking up a fire escape on a bitter cold winter night, pandemonium ensued. Everyone lost control in that moment. At first I couldn't understand what the commotion was about. The emotional heat in the room jumped a hundred degrees in five seconds. There was electricity in the air. I felt excited and terrified at the same time.

And then the rebbe sat down on a stage overlooking the audience. As I experienced his presence of being and looked at his angelic face, his twinkling blue eyes, his long white beard, suddenly I burst into uncontrollable tears. It was as if being in the presence this great rebbe, survivor of the Holocaust, triggered something in the depth of my primal soul. It was the shock of recognition of some ancient memory, a memory that had to do with this luminary.

But let me not rationalize this moment. To simply say that I burst into tears doesn't do justice to the experience. It was for me a direct emotional experience and transmission of the essence of Chasidism, of having a direct link and bonding with tzaddik. Ultimately, this bonding points toward the direction of having a direct experience with God.

From the age of thirteen through my mid-thirties I explored the entire chasidic world. As a student of the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan I apprenticed myself to one of the great translators of Kabbalah and Chasidism and watched the perpetual unfolding of genius. I watched Reb Aryeh simplify complicated and profound chasidic teachings. He taught me clearly that what is most profound is not necessarily complex, like that the highest idea of God is called achdut hapashut - simple unity. He taught me again and again that the two most important rebbes of Chasidism were the Holy Baal Shem Tov and his great-grandson Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. Under Reb Aryeh's guidance I studied the complete teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. My learning capacity increased by an order of magnitude in his presence.

During this period I also attended the informal gatherings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. When Reb Shlomo would begin telling chasidic stories it was as if we listeners were being transported back to Lublin, Crakow, and Mezhirech. As he strummed his guitar, he would sing his stories and seduce his listeners with the bittersweet tales and legends of the tzaddikim and their chasidim. He made a profound impression on me as far as understanding how to orally transmit tales of Chasidism.

Just as Reb Shlomo transmitted the authentic spirit of the rebbes through songs and stories, Elie Wiesel transmits this spirit through the written word. I have read most of Wiesel's works, and it is amazing how the flavor of Chasidism infuses his work. His chasidic works - Souls on Fire, Somewhere a Master, and Four Masters - demonstrate how to transmit chasidic spirit through the written word.

For me Wiesel's work has a more immediate emotional impact than do Martin Buber's anthologies on Chasidism. It is true that Wiesel has one "advantage," his words have been tempered by the fires of the laager. But Buber, with all his profundity, doesn't have the talent for turning profoundly experienced suffering into a crucial moral stand, something Wiesel does throughout his writings.

In a lighter vein, the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer have influenced and educated me about life in the big cities and tiny shtetlech of eastern Europe, at least in the fantastic imagination of Singer. One is simply impressed by his factual and imaginative descriptions of chasidic life in prewar Europe.

There are certain principles that are clearly interwoven throughout the legends and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Specifically, three chasidic spiritual principles come to mind:

  1. The Baal Shem Tov transmitted to his students a direct experience of God.
    This experience can still be found with certain chasidic masters and with certain chasidim in this generation.

  2. The Baal Shem Tov taught that it is possible to serve God without any doubts.
    This is known as complete faith. One can find certain Rebbes and certain chasidim in this generation who are the embodiment of doubtlessness.

  3. The Baal Shem Tov applied these above stated teachings to daily life.
    This can also be seen with certain rebbes and their chasidim.

These conclusions are the result of personal experience spanning twenty-six years observing various chasidic dynasties in the United States and Israel. Ultimately, when these three elements become integrated, a holistic vision of Chasidism will emerge. It is because of my understanding of the Holy Baal Shem Tov, early Chasidism, and its relevance to this generation, I have devoted the past three years of my life to translating and reworking previously untranslated legends.

The Baal Shem Tov is the most important reference point I know as a Jew in this lifetime. To paraphrase a teaching from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach:

There are two primary relationships in the world. One is the business relationship, when two or more partners make an agreement to do or give something to each other in exchange for something. If one or the other does not fulfill his end of the agreement, problems ensue. The second type of relationship is a gift relationship. The gift is given freely, with no conditions. The business relationship is conditional. A true gift is unconditional. This is why children who operate from a gift relationship love stories, because a story is the essence of a gift.
It says in our sacred tradition that there are two kinds of love. The first is a love that depends on something, ahavah shetalui b'davar. It is conditional. This kind of love cannot last, the love will dissipate. The other kind of love is a love that depends on nothing, ahavah she'eino talui b'davar. A love that is unconditional will last for eternity. The stories and legends of the enlightened and luminous founder of Chasidism are just such gifts of love, creations of sacred imagination filled with wisdom and compassion.

To my humble understanding of Jewish literary traditions, these stories initiated the idea of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century and are the spiritual origins of Hollywood and the movie industry. Just as ancient Sufi tales are transmitted as being part of the real transmission of Sufism, chasidic tales were told and retold as a way of enabling the listener, teller, and reader to have an experience of chasidic luminosity.

In my life the creative imagination of the strange and sometimes terrible forces in Baal Shem Tov legends were always imbued with the implicit message that God is everywhere and that Divine Providence is real, albeit appearing in strange manifestations. They instilled in me a long lasting faith and hope, and has kept alive the embers of motivation to continue being a Jew in this post-Holocaust, premessianic millennium.

The Baal Shem Tov clearly understood the despairing climate of his generation. The religious leadership was rigidified, politicized, and exclusive. The Jews of central and eastern Europe were devastated by the continuous massacres of the Chmielnicki and Haidamacks murderers. The people, wanting to believe in redemption, most likely still had faith in Shabatai Tzvi and to a lesser extent Jacob Frank. The rabbinical hierarchy was justifiably paranoid and suspicious of anyone who came along claiming to have a new way. And yet, Orthodox luminaries came to the Baal Shem for a new spiritual direction.

Some rabbis initially came to interrogate and confront his nonconformist, seeming antinomian ways, which smacked of the continuing Sabatean dissension and Frankist heresies. But no! The Baal Shem Tov converted most of these rabbis to his path, and the rabbis who left were put at ease.

I see in Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov a far-reaching visionary who transformed the minds and hearts of his colleagues and disciples. These included luminaries such Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, the first writer of transformative chasidic theology, and the Great Maggid, Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezhirech, the organizer of the movement.

In his chasidim the Baal Shem instilled an insurmountable faith and longing, and above all, an unquenchable enthusiasm. These new attitudes and compassionate insights into the very nature of Jewish religious practice, and communal reorganization, effected real change. Eventually, these changes reverberated throughout eastern Europe, influencing religious and, surprisingly, Jewish secular life.

To his daughter Udel, the Baal Shem Tov transmitted the secret of writing healing amulets, and the profound art of blessing others. She gave the world a grandson who became identified as the historical prototype writer of modern Hebrew literature through his fantastic moral tales - the famous, enigmatic Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. A good example of this style of storytelling can be seen in "The Tapestry of Love" (in Meetings With Remarkable Souls ).

As far as historical authenticity is concerned, I cannot honestly claim to know if any of these tales is historically correct. But historicity is not the reason to immerse oneself in folk legends. When I read a tale, being fully entertained is the first consideration. However, as a Jewish seeker, I wish to receive some insight or teaching concerning some event or great person. This is what I get from the Baal Shem Tov and other masters of Chasidism.

Rabbi Eliahu Klein is available for presentation performances of his book Meetings with Remarkable Souls: Legends of the Baal Shem Tov and seminars on Kabbalah and Meditation.

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