Baal Shem Tov - Elements of Besht’s Doctrines

Elements of Besht’s Doctrines

The foundation-stone of Hasidism as laid by Besht is a strongly marked panentheistic conception of God. He declared the whole universe, mind and matter, to be a manifestation of the Divine Being; that this manifestation is not an emanation from God, as is the conception of the Kabbalah by Mitnagdim, for nothing can be separated from God: all things are rather forms in which God reveals Himself. When man speaks, said Besht, he should remember that his speech is an element of life, and that life itself is a manifestation of God. Even evil exists in God. This seeming contradiction is explained on the ground that evil is not bad in itself, but only in its relation to man. It is wrong to look with desire upon a woman; but it is divine to admire her beauty: it is wrong only insofar as man does not regard beauty as a manifestation of God, but misconceives it, and thinks of it in reference to himself. Nevertheless, sin is nothing positive, but is identical with the imperfections of human deeds and thought. Whoever does not believe that God resides in all things, but separates God and them in his thoughts, has not the right conception of God. It is equally fallacious to think of a creation in time: creation, that is, God’s activity, has no end. God is ever active in the changes of nature: in fact, it is in these changes that God’s continuous creativeness consists.

This panentheism would have been ignored, had Besht not been a man of the people. He gave his metaphysical conception of God an eminently practical significance.

The first result of his principles was a remarkable optimism. Since God is immanent in all things, all things must possess something good in which God manifests Himself as the source of good. For this reason, the Besht taught, every man must be considered good, and his sins must be explained, not condemned. One of his favorite sayings was that no man has sunk too low to be able to raise himself to God. Naturally, then, it was his chief endeavor to convince sinners that God stood as near to them as to the righteous, and that their misdeeds were chiefly the consequences of their folly.

Another important result of his doctrines, which was of great practical importance, was his denial that asceticism is pleasing to God. “Whoever maintains that this life is worthless is in error: it is worth a great deal; only one must know how to use it properly.” From the very beginning Besht fought against that contempt for the world which, through the influence of Isaac Luria’s Kabbalah, had almost become a dogma among the Jews. He considered care of the body as necessary as care of the soul; since matter is also a manifestation of God, and must not be considered as hostile or opposed to Him.

As Besht fought ascetics, so he fought the rigidity and sanctimony that had accreted to strict Talmudic viewpoints while not abrogating a single religious ceremony or observance. His target was the great importance which the Talmudic view attaches to the fulfillment of a law, while almost entirely disregarding sentiment or the growth of man’s inner life. While the rabbis of his day considered the study of the Talmud as the most important religious activity, Besht laid all the stress on prayer. “All that I have achieved,” he once remarked, “I have achieved not through study, but through prayer”. Prayer, however, is not merely petitioning God to grant a request, nor even necessarily speaking to God, but rather (“cleaving”, dvekut)— the glorious feeling of ’Oneness with God Almighty’, the state of the soul wherein a man or woman gives up their consciousness of separate existence, and join their own selves to the Eternal Being of God Supreme. Such a state produces indescribable bliss, which is the foremost fruit of the true worship of God.

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