Simply the Besht
The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization has just published a new edition of Moshe Rosman’s Founder of Hasidism, a biography of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov, aka the “Besht” (c.1700-60), which originally appeared in 1996. I first read this book not long after it came out, when I was a graduate student, and it was in many respects a revelation. Unlike earlier biographers, who had been content to leave the Besht shrouded in the mists of legend, Rosman insisted that “only by bringing the Besht down to earth will it be possible to evaluate his way in the service of heaven.” If some had regarded Międzyboż, where the Besht rose to prominence, as just another idyllic shtetl, Rosman set out to show us that “Międzyboż was a real place.” To grasp an elusive mystic like the Besht, he maintained, we must first demystify him.
Rosman argued that Hasidism was not a response to a crisis in Judaism or Jewish society, but “an outgrowth of an already existing religious orientation.” There was more than one ba’al shem before the famous Ba’al Shem Tov showed up, and a very different kind of hasidism before the emergence of Hasidism. A ba’al shem (literally, a “name master”) was someone who possessed knowledge of Kabbalah that enabled him to invoke powerful, esoteric names of God in order to heal people and do battle with their demons. A hasid of the old style tended more towards the theoretical side of Kabbalah, but also practiced rigorous ascetic exercises like long fasts for the sake of penance and redemption. The Besht’s innovation was to combine and transform both roles. He stopped traveling from individual to individual and began employing his magic for the sake of the whole Jewish community of Międzyboż. And he urged his Hasidic colleagues to cease their painful fasting, arguing that “God’s presence will not inspire out of sorrow, but only out of the joy of performing the commandments.” Thus was born a new Hasidism, one which replaced the harrowing demands of old-style hasidism with joyful worship led by a charismatic super-ba’al shem. Who could resist?
Rosman explored the Besht’s geographical context with even greater independence. Thanks to his ability to access and decipher Polish sources, at that time a rarity among scholars of Hasidism, he could take readers deep into the nitty-gritty of Jewish life in Międzyboż. We trudged through—or got hopelessly bogged down in—the vicissitudes of Jewish leaseholding, mercantile pursuits, and crafts. We found ourselves on strange terrain, for contrary to what we had been led to believe, 18th-century Poland-Lithuania was not in the grip of an economic crisis, and Jewish and Christian neighbors tended more or less to get along. Within the Jewish community of Międzyboż, on the other hand, butchers and tailors strove mightily against each other, especially when a choice synagogue was at stake. Most significant of all was what the Besht was not doing during local conflicts. Rosman found that, contrary to prior depictions of him as a social revolutionary, or at the very least a hero of the common folk, the Besht preferred to remain above the fray.
This picture of a relatively conservative Besht became sharper when Rosman turned to sources on the Besht himself. Unlike other scholars, he was not content to draw indiscriminately upon any and all sources, but tried instead to locate each piece of testimony on a spectrum of reliability. Beginning with the seemingly most reliable version of the “Holy Epistle” (c. 1752), the Besht’s famous letter outlining his spiritual mission, Rosman proceeded source by source until he arrived at his book’s climax, a chapter entitled “Light from the Archives.” Here he revealed that Międzyboż tax registers list a certain “Balszem” as residing tax-exempt in a kahal-owned house from the 1740s through 1760, the year of the Besht’s death. While tax registers may not be the sexiest of sources, they are reliable. Rosman held a smoking gun: the Besht was a real, historical figure, firmly ensconced in the local elite, enjoying a tax-free and rent-free existence while local butchers and tailors battled it out.
His last discovery, Rosman argued, decisively erased the prevailing folksy image of the Besht, one that was based primarily on his depiction in the classic collection of oral Hasidic traditions known as In Praise of the Besht (Shivhei ha-besht), printed in Hebrew in 1814. In a move that stunned and outraged some scholars of Hasidism, Rosman cast serious doubt on the historical reliability of In Praise of the Besht. There was no autograph version, its printer and redactor openly acknowledged their pious agenda, and its accounts were corrupted by decades of oral transmission that added or subtracted elements according to the needs of the day. If In Praise of the Besht was not treif, Rosman seemed to say, its status was certainly questionable.
The shrill responses to Rosman’s skepticism have rung hollow. Most Israeli critics seemed entirely dependent on sources written in Hebrew, and therefore desperate to exonerate In Praise of the Besht regardless of its actual historical merits. Moreover, they tended to exaggerate Rosman’s skepticism, claiming unfairly that he discounted the historical reliability of In Praise of the Besht altogether. Still, Rosman does seem to have applied an overly rigorous standard. Future biographers of the Besht will have to revisit this rich source and mine it for what they can determine to be genuine clues to the Besht’s personality and career. For if Rosman was right in claiming that In Praise of the Besht was driven by a pious, inspirational agenda, it stands to reason that the many elements of it that did not serve such an agenda (e.g., neutral or negative claims) need to be taken more seriously.
Future scholars will also want to revisit the hundreds of teachings attributed to the Besht that are scattered throughout Hasidism’s rich homiletic literature—sermons delivered at the Third Meal on Sabbath day that were recorded by disciples after sundown. Rosman mistrusted the attributions embedded in pioneering homiletic works like Toldot yaakov yosef, which appeared 20 years after the Besht’s death and was compromised by “editorial interference.” But this does not mean that a diligent scholar can’t identify a consistent line within those sermons attributed to the Besht. It is at least worth a try, for without a better sense of the founder of Hasidism’s spiritual innovations all of these painstaking exercises in reconstructing his biography seem hard to justify. The Besht was not merely remarkable in advocating joyful worship and meeting the needs of the Jewish collectivity (the same could be said of several messianic pretenders who preceded him), but in introducing a way of seeing the divine in everyday life.
Rosman’s Founder of Hasidism may not answer all our questions, but it is truly a momentous piece of scholarship. Its republication, after seventeen years, reminds us how its author took a semi-legendary figure and, by digging deeply into hitherto neglected sources, rendered him more real. It has changed forever the scholarly research of Hasidism.
Glenn Dynner is a professor of Jewish Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of Yankel's Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland, which will be published this year by Oxford University Press.
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Indeed, in its "rebbe" worship with his Pope-like infallibility, Hasidism is Catholic Judaism.