“You must place the word of God on your heart” says scripture. But why, the Baa; Shem Tov’s disciples asked him must we only put the word of God on our hearts? Why does not scripture tell us to put the words of God in our hearts? Ah, that is beyond your ability. No man can put anything into his heart. Even God respects that boundary. All we can do is put the word of God on our heart and then, when our breaks, the word of God will fall in!
And this is Hasidism, or so the story goes. And to understand Hasidism you must understand their stories and sayings. But you must also let go a little of the critical mind and listen with your heart, because the sayings are not always consistent, they don’t always follow logic, they don’t always make sense to our critical thinking. But if we listen to them with openness we find that they stay with us and like seeds planted in good soil, they start to grow and eventually bear fruit. So mostly I want to stay with the sayings, but a little background is always helpful.
Background: Jews in Eastern Europe The Ball Shem Tov, the Master of the Name, was born in 1700. What was happening with the Jews of Eastern Europe during this period of time? This was a time of great loss of faith and confusion. The Jews had a number of things happen to them that brought about this state, but I want to focus on three: The state of Jewish scholarship, the lives of the peasants, and the false messiahs and the sense of delusion left in their wake.
First, in previous lectures on Judaism I have emphasized the Jewish love of learning and that fact that study was a form of prayer. While this is true, it so happened that during these years study was centered mostly in certain cities where the great scholars lived. The masses of Jews were peasants who were struggling to survive and were not engaged in studies. Their lives were short and difficult and they were losing touch with scholarship and its importance. It seemed to most peasants that Jewish scholarship had nothing to do with them and was no longer relevant to their lives. Jewish scholarship had become arcane and scholastic and less and less people were able to follow it. Even Hebrew was being lost as the peasants spoke mainly Yiddish.
Second, the Jews were going through terrible persecutions where many of them were killed. And when not killed they lived under harsh restrictions and were allowed only limited opportunities to prosper and receive and education. As a result they were mostly unlettered and downcast and losing hope that they would be redeemed. Due to the times and a lack of education there were growing amounts of the population that were held in sway of a growing number of superstitions. And what was known of Kabbalah seemed more like magic and magic was needed to contradict the superstitions.
Finally, the Jewish people had given their loyalty to a number of leaders who were proclaimed as the Messiah. These leaders promised to usher in a new age of redemption and return the Jews to Israel and to respect in the world. Once again the Jews would be free from persecution and poverty. But each of these Messiahs proved false and what was left in their wake was a deep disappointment and hopelessness.
It was around the 1730’s that “a Jewish mystic and faith healer emerged from the mountains of southern Poland and brought to the alienated elements of Polish Jewry what he believed was a new vision of God and man and new messianism. He founded the Jewish Pietist movement called Hasidism” (Chaim Potok, Wanderings, p. 350).
Israel Baal Shem Tov
He was born in 1700 and he died in 1760. He was orphaned and not a particularly good student. He would leave school to wander in the woods. What we know about him comes from the oral tradition. As we have seen with so many profound masters of the spirit, he wrote nothing himself. He would spend his nights pouring over kabbalistic works, although he showed little interest in Talmud. However, his followers would claim that he was well versed in even this traditional scholarship. He married and lived for along time alone in the mountains with his wife in a small hut. They lived in great poverty but Israel was free to spend his days meditating in the woods.
When he was 36 he emerged from a somewhat hermit like life to begin teaching people. He was like a breath of fresh air. He was charismatic and he was an ecstatic. During prayers he would become so enthused that he would start to dance and sing with great joy. And in fact, that became one of his main teachings, namely, that God is served by joy more than scholarship, by service more than prayers, and by love of others more than by ritual laws. He made sense to the common man and as a result he was seen as a threat by many of the great Rabbi’s who believed that the Israel’s teaching about the role of feeling in worship would lead to excesses.
Can we summarize his teaching? “He taught that the sparks of divinity which had spilled from the broken vessels during the act of creation now filled the world with sanctity. This was a crucial reinterpretation of the kabbalistic view of the world. Kabbalists believed that the falling of the sparks into the realm of the Other Side had been a cosmic disaster necessitating the task of redemption, which was the sacred mission of the Jew. [Israel] taught that those fallen sparks infused all of existence with sanctity. No corner of the world was without the presence of the Master of the Universe. The truly pious man experiences God even in the most mundane of acts-eating, drinking, sexual intercourse. Man was not surrounded by swarming hosts of invisible demons, as the scholars and preachers often taught. The world is not full of sin and sinners. One need not seek protection against Satan, wicked spirits, and ghosts through endless study, prayer, penance, mortification, and fasting. No, no, he taught. The Master of the Universe is a compassionate God who loves his people and does not wish them to live in endless dread. He is everywhere, in every blade of grass, in every scudding cloud. He wishes man to be near him. The fulfillment of even a single commandment, performed with love and intense devotion, is sufficient to bring s man merit. The world can be redeemed through joy. We do not perform the commandments in order to restore the cosmos, but to experience the ecstasy that comes from the sense of approaching the presence of God. It is not the mysterious universe outside us that should be the concern of man, but the intimate world of our emotions. We are linked to the Master of the Universe through our inner being. It is wrong to weep or fast unnecessarily or to mortify the flesh. The Master of the Universe delights in the happiness of his people. Dance-God watches; sing-God hears; be joyous-for God loves his people to be happy. Pray with a full and open heart, for nothing can so bring a man close to the Master of the Universe as can sincere prayer. We have not simply been placed in this world to perform the commandments. No- God needs his people. What good is a king without a nation? The Jew brings the Master of the Universe into this world through his feelings and deeds, through his awareness that all is from god, even sin. What would there be to pray for if the world was without sin? And sin is not the horror that Talmudists and preachers make it out to be. If one’s gaze should fall upon a beautiful woman-a serious transgression-one need merely recall that her beauty was given her by the Master of the Universe in order to transform a sinful act into one that exalts God. The Master of the Universe knows that his people cannot possibly perform all the commandments. It is inconceivable that he would punish them for their transgressions. Does a loving father punish a stumbling child?” (Chaim Potok, Wanderings, p. 351).
The Sayings The Baal Shem Tov taught his disciples “to be suspicious of anyone having all the answers (the sin of rationalism): “You want to know if a particular Rebbe is genuine? Go and ask his advice. Ask him if he knows a way to chase impure thoughts from your mind; if he says yes, you’ll know he is a fake” (Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, pp. 25-26).
And yet we do not need to be suspicious of the wisdom in this tale: Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” We are unique and we each have something to contribute and if we are not doing so then we are missing the point of our existence.
Many of the sayings have to do with Hasidic interpretations of scripture. These are great because they allow us to see how there is another way to understand scripture then the way that takes things too literally and uses scripture to knock other people over the head rather than knocking ourselves over the head. Hasidism is against judgment of others. It always holds out that we are in no position to judge because our understanding of the mysteries of God’s work in other people is inadequate.
Remember when Moses saw the burning bush in the Exodus story? “God says to Moses: ‘Put off they shoes from off thy feet’-put off the habitual which encloses your foot and you will recognize that the place on which you happen to be standing at this moment is holy ground. For there is no rung of being on which we cannot find the holiness of God everywhere and at all times” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 15). This happened just the other day when I was standing outside with Alan waiting for the copy room to open. Alan pointed out a tree that was in bloom that he had not noticed before. I had not even noticed the tree, let alone that it was in bloom! What changed? Not the tree! But we had our eyes washed clean for a moment and could see what was right in front of us. Another story along the same lines about Moses is that scripture said he noticed the bush was on fire but that it was not burning. Now how would he know it was not burning unless he was paying attention and closely watching? Otherwise you would just assume that it would burn up. So paying attention is one way to practice putting off the habitual thoughts that prevent us from truly seeing.
Another saying about seeing: “As the hand held before the eye hides the tallest mountain, so this small earthly life hides from our gaze the vast radiance and secrets of which the world is full, and whoever can take life from before his eyes, as one takes away one’s hand, will see the great radiance within the world” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 39). What blocks our vision? What prevents us from seeing? The Baal Shem Tov taught that one of the first blocks to true sight is our judgment of others, especially our demands that the world be different from the way it is. Hasidism seems to be asking: “Can we accept life on life’s terms?”
What else distracts us from seeing? How about worry? We are told: “We must not worry. Only one worry is permissible: a man should worry because he is worrying” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 43). And what of sorrow? Hasidism teaches that as much as we hate our sorrows we would not trade them for someone else’s: “If we could hang all our sorrows on pegs and were allowed to choose those we liked best, everyone of us would take back his own, for all of the rest would seem even more difficult to bear” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 43). I like this one because I tend to not believe it! But when I get past the surface I see it is true. Never would I want to go through all the things I see others going through and so this is yet another reminder not to judge.
How are Hasids to worship God? By following their individual calling. We are told: “It is impossible to tell people what way they should take. For one way to serve God is by the teachings, another by prayer, another way by fasting, and still another by eating. Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him, and then choose that way with all of his heart” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 54). This goes against the impulse to believe that whatever we are doing everyone else should be doing as well. While there might very well be things we can share with each other, we all know how irritating it is to be around someone who has just converted to something. And it does not even have to be a religion. Just think of someone who loses weight on a diet. Pretty soon everyone is trying that specific diet whether it be all meat or all vegetables. Or think of someone who has just quit smoking. They can be so obnoxious to those who still smoke!
One Hasidic story reminds us: “ When senseless hatred reigns on earth, and people hide their faces from one another, then heaven is forced to hide its face. But when love comes to rule the earth, and men reveal their faces to one another, then the splendor of God will be revealed” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 79). This is a good way of seeing how Hasids believe that the coming of the Messiah is up to us rather than God. The Messiah will be revealed not at some predetermined time, but rather when we are ready to see him appear. Again: “We should pray for the wicked among the peoples of the world; we should love them too. As long as we do not pray in this way, as long as we do not love in this way, the Messiah will not come. To love God truly, one must first love man. And if anyone tells you that he loves God and does not love his fellow-man, you will know that he is lying” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 82). Well there is not a lot of room for doubt there!
Hasidism taught that we should not fear sin the way traditional Judaism had feared it at that time. Instead we were to look for the holiness hidden inside it. And with a lack of fear we could meet people where they are at: “If you want to raise a man from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to stay on top and reach a helping hand down to him. You must go all the way down yourself, down into mud and filth” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 84). I think this is a beautiful understanding of why self-help groups work so well. Instead of having people preach at you, groups like 12 step groups work because it is people who have been there helping people who can only relate to someone else who understands. Would national debates on things like euthanasia be different if they were conducted only by people who had been in these terrible situations, rather than just people spouting off? I am reminded of this because of a situation involving a philosopher I respect who was asked about that woman in Florida who was being allowed to die. Do you remember the hysteria? He said that in the vast majority of cases he knows about that when a person is confronted with the situation face to face and can be quiet and assess the situation, they almost always know what to do. But it doesn’t come out of a rulebook; it comes out of the heart of compassion.
Redemption, too, has to do with seeing. “A man cannot find redemption until he sees the flaws in his soul, and tries to efface them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. But whether it be a man or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of his flaws is shutting out redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, p. 113).
Summary “A Hasid must know how to listen. To listen is to receive. The Jew who does not know how or does not wish to receive is not Jewish. Our people is what it is because it knew how to listen and receive the law, right? Yet, though the Torah was given only once, each one of us must receive it every day” (Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, p. 6).
And this is the call of Hasidism, to listen, to receive, all the joy and wisdom that God is pouring out upon humanity. The sayings appeal to our imagination rather than our reason and so they are the antidote to the rationalism of the enlightenment that, advance though it might be, it also has the tendency to separate people from their hearts in yet another false dualism of feelings versus thought.
Hasidism came to Eastern Europe at a time when the Jews were desperate for help and healing and hope. It restored a people to their God and made a way for the many who were not scholars to find a place for themselves in the House of Israel once again. Hasidism went through many changes and developments that we do not have time for today, but we can be sure that it forever changed the face of Judaism and has enriched the heritage of all of the Jews, Hasidic or not, as well as the rest of us who may be interested in drinking from this well.