Baal Shem Tov - Influence On Hasidism

Influence On Hasidism

The later developments of Hasidism are unintelligible without consideration of Besht’s opinion concerning man’s proper relation with the universe. True worship of God, as above explained, consists in the cleaving to, and the unification with, God. To use his own words, “the ideal of man is to be a revelation himself, clearly to recognize himself as a manifestation of God.” Mysticism, he said, is not the Kabbalah, which everyone may learn; but that sense of true oneness, which is usually as strange, unintelligible, and incomprehensible to mankind as dancing is to a dove. However, the man who is capable of this feeling is endowed with a genuine intuition, and it is the perception of such a man which is called prophecy, according to the degree of his insight. From this it results, in the first place, that the ideal man may lay claim to authority equal, in a certain sense, to the authority of the Prophets. This focus on oneness and personal revelation helps earn his mystical interpretation of Judaism the title of panentheism.

A second and more important result of the doctrine is that through his oneness with God, man forms a connecting link between the Creator and creation. Thus, slightly modifying the Bible verse, Hab. ii. 4, Besht said, “The righteous can vivify by his faith.” Besht’s followers enlarged upon this idea and consistently deduced from it the source of divine mercy, of blessings, of life; and that therefore, if one love him, one may partake of God’s mercy.

On the opposite side of the coin, the Baal Shem Tov warned the Hasidim:

Amalek is still alive today.…Every time you experience a worry or doubt about how God is running the world—that’s Amalek launching an attack against your soul. We must wipe Amalek out of our hearts whenever—and wherever—he attacks so that we cannot serve God with complete joy.

Though Besht may not be held responsible for the later conceptions, there is no doubt that his self-reliance was an important factor in winning adherents. It may be said of Hasidism that there is no other Jewish sect in which the founder is as important as his doctrines. Besht himself is still the real center for the chasidim; his teachings have almost sunk into oblivion. As Schechter (“Studies in Judaism,” p. 4) finely observes: “To the Hasidim, Baal-Shem …was the incarnation of a theory, and his whole life the revelation of a system.”

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