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The Roots of Chasidism


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The Roots of Chasidism

By Yechezkel Gold

Hasidism's origin was a tremendous creative leap which continues to evolve, exerting profound influence on Jewish religious life and thought. The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, Hasidism's founder, did not spring out of a vacuum, however. Like all new developments in Torah, it arose in a definite historical and intellectual context, following a line of succession. Traditions about Hasidism's roots are rather fabulous. As anyone familiar with the sources can attest, Jewish legends often contain profound truths which, if we examine them carefully, often modify our notions of their fabulous nature.

Akhia HaShiloni

One tradition traces Hasidism's origins to a Biblical prophet, Akhia HaShiloni, one of the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt. He heard Torah teachings directly from the mouth of Moses, according to traditional sources. When he prophesied in the days of King Solomon some 500 years later, he was obviously very, very old. Interestingly, Maimonides, based on the classical sources, places him after King David, and not contemporary with the generation of his birth, in the line of succession of Torah transmission which began when Moses received Torah on Mount Sinai and later transmitted it to Joshua who, in turn transmitted it to the elders. This line of transmission continues uninterrupted until today. While traditions of extreme longevity are not unknown in the ancient literature, they are remarkable and deserve our attention.

A still stranger notion of the line of transmission appears in the Hasidic tradition: Akhia Hashiloni transmitted the Torah to the Baal Shem Tov who lived about 300 years ago. How this transmission took place between individuals who lived some 2700 years apart is beyond conventional understanding, and the present essay and essayist cannot deal with it. The idea is not unique; numerous traditions, including several of even more recent times , speak of great sages, particularly those with mystical orientation, studying with the biblical Elijah the Prophet.

It seems obvious, at any rate, that Hasidic tradition conceives of communication between two souls transcending time and the boundaries of life and death. Precise comprehension of this communication may elude us , but the conceptual connection between Hasidic thought and Akhia Hashiloni the Prophet may be closer to our grasp. This goal entails a historical exploration of the roots of Hasidism. Our exploration will also highlight what may seem a surprising connection between the development of Hasidism and the evolution of modernity.

The Other Baal Shem's

Another tradition about the origins of the Baal Shem Tov's profoundly original teachings describes a succession of four holy Baal Shem's, Elijah, Joel, Adam and Israel, only the latter being known as the Baal Shem Tov. Elijah Baal Shem arrived in northern Europe shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, bringing with him a unique approach originating in the Iberian Cabala. Many years later, Adam Baal Shem posthumously sent his own profound mystical writings to Israel Baal Shem Tov, who became his successor and founded the Hasidic movement.

The Hasidic approach permeates contemporary Orthodox Jewish thought even in circles where the ideas' origin is not explicitly acknowledged or appreciated. Though often identified as the least modern, most traditional Orthodox approach, Hasidism among the myriad streams of Jewish philosophical thought seems in many ways particularly well-suited to the modern outlook. Indeed, a strong case can be made that developments in Jewish mysticism in general during the last 600 years greatly influenced, as well as paralleled, the development of modernity.

Development of Lurianic Cabalism some 450 years ago, and then of Hasidic thought during the last three centuries, expanded the scope of Jewish mysticism beyond the purely spiritual Garden of Eden contained and sequestered within Torah and revealed only in the recesses of the inner soul. Classical Cabalism's esoteric character always shrouded it in mystery anyway. However, , these new developments changed the primary focus of mysticism to a certain degree away from the intense privacy of the inner soul to somewhat more tangible matters to be discussed later. Paradoxically, this tended to further obscure a dimension of the unique, realistic clarity and perspective underlying our world afforded by classical Cabala.

Paralleling this change of perspective from classical to Lurianic and Hasidic mysticism, but more pronouncedly so, modernity has seen a significant change of focus from the medieval concern with pure spirit to frank, almost exclusive interest in worldly matters. Indeed, modern man's greater orientation toward, and superior sophistication and knowledge in, world matters has made him largely oblivious to who and where he is. We are so taken with dazzling economic and scientific successes that awareness of something fundamentally human which transcends culture and circumstance, has greatly dimmed. The magnitude of this loss is appreciated not only by those who have somehow retained more of their fundamental human realism, but also by those who suffer, without understanding why, from a sense of chaos and meaninglessness.

One of the main difficulties for those caught in the sense of chaos and meaninglessness is the modernist assumption that reality is truly mechanistic and materialist. So powerful is this assumption that we think it simply a truth, not an assumption.

Cabala & Scientific Development

Torah instructs us to " remember the days of yore " (Deuteronomy 32). If we examine the historical development of modernity, we become aware how much scientific approach developed from mystical and philosophic thinking prevalent in the last 500 or 600 years. Indeed, many leading Torah scholars, including Cabalists, were greatly interested in the natural world and contributed to the early work, philosophical, theoretical and experimental from which modern science derived. The intellectual context from which science was derived was keenly aware of the primacy and cogency of spirituality The scientific perspective oriented toward specifically characterizing the material realm did not depart from that outlook. Rather, experimental findings were always regarded in their spiritual and ethical context. Contemporary science prefers to regard this as a struggle for liberation from the intellectual shackles of superstitious thinking. However, this bias reflects their own philosophic ideology which prevents their making a truly objective assessment.

A brief example: Science accuses the medieval mind of imagining a tiny human form - a homunculus - in the beginning embryo, whereas we know now that it is merely a single, basically round cell. While it can not be denied that many people may have simplistically interpreted the teachings concretely, the real intent probably was spiritual: the primitive embryo has the potential of a human being, with all its limbs and functions, implicit in its essential structure.

Refusal to examine the findings of science within their spiritual context and giving primacy to the materialist outlook is a mental operation which denies cogent inner human realities. It is an assumption artificially which reduces the scope and depth of reality. The result, at least for sensitive people, is great discomfort and, because this assumption has cut them off from the spiritual sources of their vitality, a sense of chaos and meaninglessness.

For example , one of the primary philosophical bases of contemporary science is known as Occam's razor. Occam, a Franciscan monk who lived about 700 years ago, proposed: ""the mind should not multiply entities beyond necessity. What can be done with fewer ... is done in vain with more.". He held that an explanation should be built upon the minimum amount of ideas necessary to explain the phenomenon . Modern science has taken this idea to dismiss any description or explanation of reality which is not strictly materialist, claiming that the physical universe is a self-contained system accounting for which requires no further variables. Assuming that the physical universe is self-contained is extremely limiting. It defines the human soul out of existence. More pointedly, this scientific assumption highlights the extent to which modern mankind has lost touch with his inner spiritual resources.

Actually, a spiritual person can easily abide by Occam's idea because matters of spirituality are real and experiential. Occam's notion does not dismiss them. One who considers all non material description and explanation speculation has broken contact with inner spirituality. It is no wonder that artificially excluding an important dimension of reality has led to modern problems of chaos and meaninglessness .

Lurianic and Hasidic mysticism did not fall prey to the errors of omission which science did. Nevertheless it seems significant that this greater orientation toward outside phenomena in the secular domain paralleled, indeed reflected, a similar shift in focus in Cabala, the profound recesses of reality's spiritual and intellectual underpinnings.

Before further delineating our essay's theme, let us review some of the development of Jewish mysticism during the last 750 years, in which we may discern three stages.

The Three Steps of Mystical Development

1.  Zohar, a core Cabalistic work, though written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai during the days when the Romans occupied Israel, remained very hidden until just over 700 years ago. This ancient mystical work came on the scene in the context of a Cabalistic tradition originating in southern France and spreading to Spain. This classical tradition continued to shape Jewish notions of reality, finally finding particularly lucid, insightful and brilliant expression in the works of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, known as Ramak. His teachings came to be identified as the authentic statement of classical Cabalism. His most well-known work is Pardes, meaning orchard or garden.

2.  Rabbi Cordovero headed the prestigious mystical Academy of Safed. Almost immediately after his death, Rabbi Isaac Luria , known as the Ari, revealed himself. Almost unknown in Safed previously, the Ari disseminated a new system of mystical thought also based on Zohar but ostensibly quite different from the classical tradition. Considerable controversy ensued. Many considered the two systems incompatible, though some, particularly among the followers of the Ari, thought integration of the two approaches possible. In the following centuries, Lurianic ideas have assumed greater prominence and prestige.

3.  The Baal Shem Tov's mystical system incorporated many notions from earlier approaches, especially from the Lurianic Cabala. One of the marks of his incredible genius was his ability to turn this profound, esoteric system of thought into a powerful populist movement. Indeed, the Baal Shem Tov directed his mystical teachings not only to the spiritual elite, but also, pointedly, to the uneducated, disenfranchised masses. At the center of the Hasidic community sits the Rebbe, a revered, righteous sage who serves as an example, as a source of wise counsel and succor, and as spiritual leader of the community.

Comparing Differences in Mystical Development

The historical sequence described represents a unified theme. All three stages are necessary steps in Torah's program to perfect the creation. We must explore somewhat more in detail the differences between classical and Lurianic Cabalism to comprehend the Baal Shem Tov's innovation with greater clarity.

Rabbi Cordovero's works deal with a realm which scarcely interfaces with identifiable, common reality. It is a realm of transcendent, pure spirituality, a realm of exquisite, soulful delight, a veritable Garden of Eden where considerations of this world, often dominated by selfishness and physicality, find no place. Access and sensitivity to this realm are hindered by selfishness and involvement with the mundane. It's practitioners were private, indeed, intentionally hidden. They eschewed material occupation, instead savouring other-worldly delights. Their selfless involvement with the material world was guided by spiritual concerns unencumbered by the emotional excesses and imbalances that over-concern with self aggrandizement often engenders. We can compare Cabala's approach to the Sabbath, when we withdraw from the self-assertion necessary for work, thereby inducing contact with the sublime spiritual delights of Sabbath.

Classical Cabala's approach contrasts strongly with modern notions. Basing himself on materialist, anti religious philosophy and psychology, modern man thinks nothing more important than feeling good about himself. He or she will not only strenuously resist feeling inadequate, but will even castigate him/herself for humility and feeling small. This, of course, massively denies a great and significant portion of spontaneous life experience, resulting in an inaccurate picture of reality. Through accepting his own smallness, the classical Cabalist became aware of God's wondrous kindness and greatness. He was moved and overwhelmed by that great kindness, and inspired to holy, righteous, generous and altruistic acts out of a sense of devotion . Feeling small and humble, then, became a positive, broadening, even pleasurable experience.

Rabbi Luria's work takes a perspective which subsumes both the awesome , pristine realm of classical Cabalism, and the powerful forces which could not be contained by pure spirituality and find often uncontrolled expression in our world. According to the Ari, life's fierce, chaotic passions have their source in a very high mystical domain which shattered, unleashing destructive forces into the created world whose unrefined expression is often incompatible with a satisfying, stable way of life. Rabbi Luria taught that only Torah, permeated by the supreme, selfless spiritual sensitivity contained in Cabala, could guide a healthy expression of human passion in a constructive, salutary manner. That is, the Ari saw the fulfillment of the classical , mystical realm and of the tangible, fierce passions of this world in bringing them together. Thereby, both are greatly elevated. True insight and mystical perspective join submission to God and to the Torah to release powerful emotions from their material disguises. For example , we come to recognize that love of a person or of people can reflect our passionate love for God.

The Lurianic approach, extending Cabalism's realm to tangible human reality, obviously parallels that same shift in focus from the medieval concern for transcendent spiritualism to the modern world's preoccupation with human feelings and material things . In many respects, a rather late modern development, Freudian psychology, is particularly congruent with Lurianic concepts, especially as transmitted by the Hasidic approach. Freud was intolerant of religion, but his ideas which reify human emotion and experience and perceiving a hierarchy of personality levels are clearly consonant with Lurianic thinking. The psychoanalytic teachings of Melanie Klein, describing rapidly shifting levels and furious passions tending to overwhelm a single , stable resolution of personality, seem a particularly apt , if unintended, translation of the Ari's vision of mystical reality into secularist terms. What is lacking in these modern, secularist conceptions is their refusal to acknowledge the profound import of man's spiritual and religious character.

Differences in Actuation Cabala

All of Torah, and particularly the Cabalistic perspective, aim at establishing and solidifying the world's connection to God. The result is the harmonious, inspiring satisfaction of the Divine kingdom. It is accomplished through the created human being opening him/herself to the Divine Light, accepting God as King and expressing this awareness in thought, speech, and action. In the process, the created being merges with the Divine. Cordoveran and Lurianic Cabala differ about how to accomplish this. For classical Cabala, the person must work not to interfere with Divine revelation. The resulting revelation emerges spontaneously, exquisite, awesome and other worldly.

For Lurianic Cabala, the person must labor to connect the intense, passionate experience of this world to the Godly Light. One opens oneself to the Torah's guidance and direction, not by suppressing the affairs of this world, but by fully living them in a Godly manner. This means energetically overcoming the destructive impulses and redirecting them toward Divine service. The result merges the created world with the Divine, and the Divine Light extends to and includes the now elevated passions and affairs of the world.

The Ari's approach was controversial not only because of its innovation. It was considered dangerous. Frankly facing this world's unpredictable difficulties and passions can easily lead one astray. Rabbi Luria himself taught a very select group of righteous disciples. He taught, nevertheless, that the time had come to disseminate mystical teachings more widely.

The Pitfalls of the Ari's Teachings

Not all who gained access to his profound teachings after Rabbi's Luria's death interpreted the intentions properly. Nor could many of them achieve the spiritual purity necessary to adhere to this sublime way of serving God. Less than 100 years after the Ari, the debacle of the Shabbetai Tzvi movement based on erroneous interpretation of Lurianic Cabala, wrought spiritual, political and material havoc among virtually all the communities of world Jewry. Reverberations from this destructive approach are seen even today. Interestingly, many modern secular trends in Judaism trace their intellectual and historical roots to the Sabbatean movement.

At this catastrophic juncture, European Rabbis decreed that no one may study Cabala before the age of 40, and even then, with the proviso that he has studied and mastered the revealed, non mystical sections of the Torah. Jewish mysticism again went underground, particularly in Europe.

The Innovation of the Baal Shem Tov

When the Baal Shem Tov began teaching his mystical system, some 90 years later, he encountered stiff, and all too understandable opposition. Memory of the disaster of Shabbetai Tzvi was fresh in everyone's memory. Indeed, the terrible religious and spiritual collapse continued long after Shabbetai Tzvi was long dead. Moreover, the Baal Shem Tov did not propose a return to classical Cabalism, but adapting Lurianic mysticism to the masses, the very thing many Rabbis feared.

The Baal Shem Tov's goals in spreading his system were two-fold. On the one hand, he wanted to spiritualize the world, to bring God closer to the Jews. On the other hand, he wanted to raise his fellow Jews from the depths of despair by bringing them closer to God . Deeply dispirited by the catastrophes and tremendous disappointment of Shabbetai Tzvi and the almost simultaneous holocaust of Polish and Ukrainian Jewry by Bogdan Chmielnitzky and his marauders, a large portion of Eastern European Jews were educationally, spiritually, and economically disenfranchised. Many, many families became homeless wanderers. The Baal Shem Tov knew that despite being spiritually disadvantaged and discouraged with life, these Jews possessed lofty souls which only needed, and really craved, to be awakened. Grim economic and social circumstances prevented taking the tried and true path to bringing these unfortunate souls back. In those difficult days, extensive Torah education was a luxury few could afford.

The Baal Shem Tov decided to awaken the pure, intense spark of divinity in every Jew by touching their hearts. This meant transmitting relatively short, seemingly simple ideas which aroused emotions. Even the uneducated.can truly reach God through dancing, singing, and soulful prayer. The Baal Shem Tov's explanations centered on the high, holy spiritual root of powerful emotions and of the affairs of this world. In short, the Baal Shem Tov was spreading Lurianic Cabala.

The Baal Shem Tov, too, was keenly aware of Lurianic Cabalism's dangers if it were to be misinterpreted. Indeed, Hasidic tradition relates that he held public debate against the Frankists, an extremist neo Sabbatian movement in Eastern Europe. Yet, he saw East European Jewry's salvation precisely in authentic Lurianic Cabalism, though its perversion led to Sabbatism and Frankism. This powerful mystical approach could save the masses of disenfranchised Jews.

One of the Baal Shem Tov's important innovations, therefore, was to modify and greatly broaden the structure of mystical community to extend Cabala to greater numbers and simultaneously render mystical education less dangerous by distilling and simplifying the Ari's teachings, making them more accessible, but also less in danger of misinterpretation. In fact, whereas Rabbi Luria's teachings demanded profound penetration into the mystical realms to the extent that the normal tie to outer reality was transformed, many of the Baal Shem Tov's ideas were designed to arouse a strong emotional reaction more than to bring mystical insight. He lauded the simple, householder's emotional grasp of life, welding it onto an enthusiasm for religious matters. The Baal Shem Tov used ecstasy to bring the Hasidim to God.

Transforming the mystical community from a small society of the elite to a mass movement that at one time included two-thirds of world Jewry was a great accomplishment on many levels. It really did save the disenfranchised Jews of Eastern Europe, restoring not only their faith but also their self-esteem and joy in life. But it also accomplished a much deeper, Cabalistic purpose. Whereas Lurianic Cabalism was the domain of a select few, so that the ideal of transforming the events and passions of this world into Godly experience was quite limited in scope, Hasidism spread throughout the Eastern Europe, and its ideas continue to penetrate all schools of Jewish thought.

The Transformation to Hasidism

This transformation of community was accomplished through introducing the institution of the Rebbe or Admor. The notion of a charismatic mystical leader serving and intimately involved with the people was not entirely new. Nachmanides alludes to it in his commentary to the Book of Exodus. However, the centrality of the leaders' role, particularly as an example from which his followers could learn, and the specific aim of teaching his followers to live according to a mystical system was something new. Contact with the Rebbe was exciting, exhilarating, and spiritually uplifting, and millions were drawn.

In order to fulfill his role, the Admor needs great integrity, purity of character, and commitment to his noble, Godly purpose. Otherwise the power and adulation accompanying his position might corrupt him. One Hasidic story tells of a scoffer waiting for hours to be received by a Rebbe. He resented the Admor's prestige and glory. Upon entry into the Rebbe's room, he said: " It seems to me that being an Admor is a kind of lust no different from any other. You are no less selfish than anyone else." The Rebbe replied: "You are quite right. Only, to be a Rebbe one first must be rid of all other lusts."

This purity of character and unselfish objectivity emanated from mystical contact with the upper worlds. Access to that reality came from the works of classical Cabalism. Only after achieving this lofty connection with God could the Rebbe proceed to elevating his own passions and his personal contact with the world. That is to say that the works of Rabbi Cordovero logically precede the works of Rabbi Luria. Only after mastering these two stages could the individual become a Rebbe and guide his community in this Divine service which would unite God with the world through Torah and Israel. Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov's teachings and way of life, logically depended on the wisdom of both classical and Lurianic Cabala.

Systematic Evolution

In yet a further evolution of Hasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi developed a system in which not only the Rebbe, but also the Hasidim (obviously, to a lesser extent) studied and penetrated the Torah's mysteries so that not only the Hasidim's deeds and passions were spiritually elevated. As well, the inner experience and awareness of his followers, known as Chabad Hasidim, are imbued with the mystical Light.

The Prophet Akhia Hashiloni, with whom we began this essay, received transmission of Torah from King David. It is reasonable to say that his extremely illustrious mentor greatly influenced Akhia Hashiloni's grasp of Torah. King David, in fact, occupies a unique position in the constellation of Cabalistic personages. He is one of the seven archetypal tzaddikim, righteous men, associated with God's mystical attributes. The other six are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Joseph, in that order. These six relate to types of pure, transcendent spirituality. King David, on the other hand, is associated with forming God's kingdom, with the task of implementing the Divine purpose and thereby connecting the mundane creation to the Creator. This was presumably the main emphasis of Torah as King David transmitted it to Akhia Hashiloni. We can understand now that it also must have been the emphasis of the teachings his prophet transmitted to the Baal Shem Tov. These teachings became the mission of the Baal Shem Tov and the emphasis of the Hasidic movement. May we soon see fulfillment of this exalted mission!


from the November 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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