The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hasidism
Teshima, Jacob Yuroh, Shofar
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. It is generally accepted that Gershon first journeyed to Israel in 1746/47, but Heschel assumes that his first visit in Israel was probably before 1741/42 (Circle, pp. 90-97). Heschel says, "The view that he went there to propagate the teaching of the Besht is incorrect" (Circle, p. 62). He was merely one in a continuous migration of Diaspora pietists and kabbalists who settled in the Holy Land. Gershon lived in Jerusalem, Safed, and Hebron and joined Bet El of Jerusalem, the most prestigious center of kabbalah. In Jerusalem, the Ashkenazim asked him to take on a rabbinate and to assume control of their financial affairs even though he was Sephardic.
As proof of Gershon's rabbinical scholarship, Heschel points to his instructions to R. Tzvi, the scribe of the Besht, dealing with the problem of the inversion of the Hebrew letter "nun" in the Torah scroll (Circle, pp. 106-112).
In the essay "Rabbi Nahman of Kosow" (Circle, pp. 131-51), Heschel focuses on the original Hasidic teaching that Rabbi Nahman shared with the Besht. R. Nahman was the most prominent member of the Society of Hasidim (hevrah shel hasidim) of Kuty, from which the first disciples of the Besht were drawn. The beginnings of the emerging Hasidic movement can be traced to this society. The Besht gave great respect to the head of the "society," Rabbi Moses. R. Nahman held no religious office. He was a prosperous grain dealer. He traveled with his merchandise in the cities of Galicia and Podolia.
It was Rabbi Nahman's custom when he came to a city to go to the synagogue and lead the congregation in prayer, sometimes even without the permission of the synagogue officials. He demonstrated for them prayer with passion, hitlahavut and sincerity in the Hasidic way (Circle, pp. 133, 87). Once Rabbi Nahman asked the Besht, "What am I thinking about at this moment?" The Besht answered:"If you focus your mind on one thing, then I will know." Nahman did so. The Besht said: "The name YHVH is in your mind." Nahman said: "You would know this is any case. For I must always think that thought, as it is written, and I have set the Lord (YHVH) before me always. If I put aside all other thoughts and concentrate my mind on only one, it must be the name YHVH." After that he became close to the Besht (Circle, p. 120). The constant awareness of God was a central concern of early Hasidism.
Although the Besht and Rabbi Nahman were the fathers of the new movement, the way of Rabbi Nahman was different from that of the Besht. While the Besht faced the world with love, joy, and compassion, and sought to understand the way of each man, Rabbi Nahman approached the world with tension, bitterness, and revulsion. He was short-tempered and demanded that men live their lives uncompromisingly. Heschel spends a large portion of the essay analyzing the differing approaches of the Besht and Nahman, specifically, their ways of dealing with the problem of the yetzer hara, including self-interest and keri (involuntary nocturnal seminal emission) (Circle, pp. 136-48).
Heschel's essay"Rabbi Isaac ofDrohobycz" (Circle, pp. 152-81) may leave a strange impression. As Dresner comments, Rabbi Isaac "remained somewhat distant until the end" (Circle, p. xl). Nevertheless, Heschel counted Rabbi Isaac "among the movement's founders." The presence of Rabbi Isaac was important to the early Hasidim because he was the one person who possessed a spiritual power equivalent to that of the Besht. He once issued a ban on the Besht's amulets because he felt their magical use was a serious abuse of the sacred names written in them. But when the Besht met Rabbi Isaac, he revealed to Rabbi Isaac that there were no oaths nor any names in the Besht's amulets save his own name, "Israel, son of Sarah, Baal Shem Tov" (Usually, Baal Shem Tov is translated as "the Master of the Good Name." This is an incorrect translation; it should be translated as "the good Master of the Name.") Rabbi Isaac immediately rescinded his ban. From that time forth, the Besht again worked mighty deeds by means of his amulets (I, pp. 167-70). R. Isaac's reversal of his own ban against the amulets attested to the legitimacy of the Besht's activity as an authentic expression of Hasidism.
This original work on Hasidism by Heschel is a major contribution to our understanding of the Hasidic movement. Also, the introduction and supplemental notes by Samuel H. Dresner are a useful resource for students of Heschel as well as of Hasidism.
Jacob Yuroh Teshima
Gilboa Institute of Humanity
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hasidism. Contributors: Teshima, Jacob Yuroh - Author. Journal title: Shofar. Volume: 26. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2007. Page number: 218+. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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