Imagining A Jew

The previous four Fire Chapters consider two historical periods, classical antiquity (begins 700 BCE) and post-classical history (500-1600 CE). The first 1200 years approximately corresponds to the birth of Jewish ethnic identity, which begins during the Babylonian exile and matures both in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora, which was local to the Mediterranean: North Africa, Arabia, and Southern Europe. A population shift over next 1100 years sees Jewish ethnicity become more central and northern European.

Times On Fire begins with the dawn of the modern age. This means different things in different historical contexts; for our purpose in begins in 1648, when Shabbat’I Tzvi began his messianic missions; Jewish communities from north to south were plagued for almost 150 years by the chaos that followed.

Times on Fire

The Aharonim, the rabbis after Yosef Karo, refused to concede to the past the importance of Judaism’s future. They struggled both for and against the Enlightenment. This was a double-edge sword, for it led to a major upheaval of Jewish life: the heresies of Shabbat’I Tzvi and Yaqov Frank. Both heretical movements up-ended Jewish communities in Europe.

Tzvi’s heresy came in 1648, when the Polish-Ukranian Jews were enduring the Christian massacres dirceted against Jews under cover of the Khmelnytsky revolts (1648-1657). Gluckl of Hameln documents the difficulties Tzvi’s heresy caused. European communities in both Germany and Poland were devestated and there was suspicion of any Jewish innovation, no matter how benign. From this period comes the well-known Yiddish proverb a hidush es issur.

The Haskala

The re-animation of Jewish intellectual study by Spinoza (1632-1677) and Mendellsohn (1729-1786) coincides precisely with both heresies: Tzvi (1648) and Frank (1750s). It also coincides with the Chasidim of the Baal Shem Tov, who re-imagined the Ashkenzai chasidic movement and brought it east from Vienna in the 1730s, when the Shabbat’I Tzvi was still a fresh memory. The Frankist movement began in the 1750s and was entirely contemporary with the origins of chasidut.

We will begin our study of these times with the Baal Shem Tov and the Magid of Mezrich, the first two leading Chasidic masters. We will later introduce two other masters, and their primary disputant, R. Eliahu of Vilna, the Vilna Gaon. After we learn of them we’ll learn of some later masters from both the traditions of the Chasidim and the mitnagedim.

Israel Baal Shem Tov

Often called Besht (for his title Baal Shem Tov), he re-animated the chasidic traditions of Ashkenaz. His chasidic movement was not precisely a continuation of the Hasidé Ashkenaz. It borrowed the socially progressive attitude towards halakha and also the mystical piety but is otherwise distinct. All the chasidic stories we have of the Besht are legendary.

A later chasidic rebbe cautioned “Anyone who believes a chasidic story is a fool. Anyone who does not believe a chasidic story is a scoundrel.” Another noted “I place no stock in chasidic stories – except about Baal Shem Tov. Even if the story did not occur, it could have.” What we think we know is this: He survived a profound spiritual experience while living in the Carpathian mountains of what is now Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Romania. He became an itinerant preacher and healer. He began to reveal his hidden light and attracted many great rabbis to his movement.

Besht never wrote responsa or mystical intructions; his followers recorded his teachings. There is a story about this. One day Ribash asked his chozer (secretary) to repeat a lesson. The chozer repeated it word for word and the Baal Shem Tov replied “You said every word but I said none of it”.

Dov Ber of Mezrich

The eventual successor of the Baal Shem Tov, he led the 2nd generation of chasidim. He was a strong mystic and a great Talmudic scholar. He was an ascetic mystic before he met Ribash, whom he sought to cure his crippling illnesses. His assocication with Ribash taught Dov Ber the importance of daily simplicity. He abandoned hs ascetisism and recovered his health. He remained a student for 2 years and became heir apparrant after the Baal Shem Tov passed away. He was concerned that the rabbininic leaders should have no opposition to chasidut. The primary emphasis of chasidut is on prayer, not halakha, and Dov Ber was opposed to the elitist trend among rabbis, who in his time and place were all iluim. Dov Ber introduced the Nusah Ari as the official siddur of the movement. This is a highly edited (but no less traditional) form of the siddur which excludes almost all piyutim. The piyutim contain many mystical allusions and require interpretation, and this Dov Ber denied the rabbis of the new Chasidim; the siddur was dropped from the texts which rabbis could claim as their own and it bercame the property of any Jew who could read it.

It was this innovation which finally compelled the The Vilna Gaon to issue his cherem against the Chasidim, who were well-insulated from this ban because Dov Ber gathered about him great scholars and mystics who could properly dispute the Vilna Gaon while they sought to spread chasidut among the masses. There were no pretenders in his circle; only scholarly mystics formed his Cabinet. They included Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Levi Ytzhak Berditchever, Elimelekh if Lizehnsk, Zusia of Anipol, and Menahem Mendl of Chernobyl, all of whom still animate Cchasidic traditions; we’ll learn of them in the next section, beginning with the Baal Shem Tov’s great-grandson, Nachman of Breslev.