Baal Shem Tov - Characteristics

Characteristics

Besht did not combat the practice of rabbinical Judaism; it was the spirit of the practice which he opposed. His teachings being the result not of speculation, but of a deep, religious temperament, he laid stress upon a religious spirit, and not upon the forms of religion. Though he considered the Law to be holy and inviolable, and emphasized the importance of Torah-study, he held that one’s entire life should be a service of God, and that this would constitute true worship of Him.

Since every act in life is a manifestation of God, and must perforce be divine, it is man’s duty so to live that the things called “earthly” may also become noble and pure, that is, divine. Besht tried to realize his ideal in his own career. His life provided the best example for his disciples; and his relationships with the innkeepers (a number of whom he raised to a higher level) furnished a silent but effective protest against the practice of the rabbis, who, in their inexorable sense of strict righteousness, would have no dealings with people fallen morally. The Hasidim tell of a woman whom her relatives sought to kill on account of her shameful life, but who was saved in body and soul by Besht. The story may be a myth, but it is characteristic of Besht’s activity in healing those in greatest need of relief. More important to him than prayer was a friendly relationship with sinners; though the former constituted an essential factor in the religious life. The story of Besht’s career affords many examples of unselfishness and high-minded benevolence. And while these qualities equally characterize a number of the rabbis of his day, his distinguishing traits were a merciful judgment of others, fearlessness combined with dislike of strife, and a boundless joy in life.

Moreover, Besht’s methods of teaching differed essentially from those of his opponents and contributed not a little to his success. He directed many satirical remarks at his opponents, an especially characteristic one being his designation of the typical Talmudist of his day as “a man who through sheer study of the Law has no time to think about God”. Besht illustrated his views of asceticism by the following parable:

A thief once tried to break into a house, the owner of which, crying out, frightened the thief away. The same thief soon afterward broke into the house of a very strong man, who, on seeing him enter, kept quite still. When the thief had come near enough, the man caught him and put him in prison, thus depriving him of all opportunity to do further harm.

Not by fleeing from earthly enjoyments through fear is the soul’s power assured, but by holding the passions under control.

Much of Besht’s success was also due to his firm conviction that God had entrusted him with a special mission to spread his doctrines. In his enthusiasm and ecstasy he believed that he often had heavenly visions revealing his mission to him. In fact, for him every intuition was a divine revelation; and divine messages were daily occurrences.

Besht is quite naturally one of the most interesting figures in modern Jewish history. As a man of the people and for the people, it is not strange that he should have been honored and glorified in story and in tradition. Of the many narratives that cluster about him, the following are given as the most characteristic:

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