The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hasidism

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The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hasidism, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Samuel H. Dresner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

It is an exceptional honor to write a review of the book by my teacher, my master, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory. I was his last doctoral student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he taught about the Kotzker Rebbe in the course on Hasidism in 1972.

The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov contains Heschel's four essays on Hasidism originally written in Hebrew in different periods: "Rabbi Pinhas of Korzec," 1948-52; "Rabbi Gershon Kutover: His Life and Immigration to the Land of Israel," 1950-51; "Rabbi Nahman of Kosow, Companion of the Baal Shem," in 1965; and "Rabbi Isaac of Drohobycz," in 1957. In their original Hebrew, these four essays were different from each other in syntax, tone, and style; each reflected Heschel's particular passion for his subject.

These essays serve as Heschel's fierce rebuttal to scholars such as Gershom Scholem, who criticized Hasidism for "departing from the rabbinical scale of values, namely their conception of the ideal type of man to which they ascribe the function of leadership. For rabbinical Jewry . . . the ideal type recognized as the spiritual leader of the community is the scholar, the student of the Torah, the learned Rabbi" (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism [Thames and Hudson, 1953], p. 333). In all four essays Heschel demonstrates that the early leaders of Hasidism were scholars and kabbalists highly respected by their communities.

If his first English book, The Earth is the Lord's, was his eulogy for East European Jewry, these essays were his prescription for the remedy of Jewish piety after the Holocaust (The Earth is the Lord's was first published in Yiddish in 1946). The first essay speaks of Rabbi Pinhas of Korzec, who was descended from Rabbi Nathan Shapiro (b. 1633), a renowned kabbalist and rabbi of Krakow. Rabbi Pinhas had mastered not only the Talmud and the Zohar and other kabbalistic works, "but also several of the secular branches of knowledge. An expert in the disciplines of grammar, geometry, mathematics, and other subjects, he was among the few of his time who urged that one must acquire such learning in one's youth" (The Circle ojthe Baal Shem Tov, p. 4). In this he resembles Rabbi Elijah, the Vilna Gaon, who was eager to acquire the knowledge of secular sciences such as geometry, geography, astronomy and medicine (Elijah ben Solomon Zalaman, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 6, pp. 651-58).

R. Pinhas was nominated by the Besht to succeed him (alongside Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Miedzyrzez) but he declined the nomination (Circle, pp. 9-10). He questioned the Maggid's interpretation of Hasidism and his way of conduct. The Maggid introduced the method of the Lurianic Kabbalah and taught that the essence of serving the Creator was devekut and hitlahavut through wisdom and meditation, while Rabbi Pinhas preferred to teach his students honesty and humility and purification of one's character as the way to serve God. Despite the disagreement between Rabbi Pinhas and the school of the Maggid, Hasidism continued to develop as a unified movement. Indeed, polemic and polarity became a part of Hasidism's character and tradition.

In the essay "Rabbi Gershon Kutover: His Life and Immigration to the Land of Israel" (Circle, pp. 44-112), Heschel illuminates the figure of Rabbi Abraham Gershon by using information from several manuscripts that he discovered. R. Gershon spent many years in the town of Kuty (Kutov), where he was a member of the Society of Hasidism headed by the kabbalist Rabbi Moses. Later he moved to the city of Brody, where he became a member of the famed Kloiz of Brody. He was a presiding judge at one of the four rabbinical courts in Brody.

As the title shows, one of the main purposes of this essay was to analyze Gershon's mission in the land of Israel. …