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The Baal Shem Tov and the Priest: On Problematic Texts and Dialogue

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  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading

1. Historical context of the source

Hasid or ‘pious’ (plural: Hasidim), is a term found frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures and in post-biblical literature. It was used in different historical contexts to refer to individuals known for unusual piety, and groups of people whose religious understanding impelled them to attain standards of devotion beyond what was actually required by Jewish law and tradition. The movement that originated in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe is unique in that it became a mass movement, with the term Hasidim,originally reserved for the spiritual elite, applied to the ordinary members.

Many themes are associated with Eastern European Hasidism: a theology of divine omnipresence in all aspects of our world, an emphasis on joy as a central component of religious experience, and on singing and dancing and telling stories, a de-emphasis of rigorous Talmudic scholarship (achievable only by the intellectual elite), and a greater emphasis on the transcendent experience of prayer (attainable by the ordinary worshiper). Its opponents criticized it for, among other things, lax observance of certain rules regulating the proper time for religious acts. Probably, the most important innovation of the movement was a new mode of religious leadership: the Tzaddiq or rebbe of a particular community, believed to function as an intermediary between his Hasidim and God, directing the prayers of the community into the divine realm, and channelling the overflowing of divine beneficence, coming about in response to these prayers, into his community of followers. The prototype and paradigm for the Hasidic leader was Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, known through an acronym of the last three Hebrew words as the Besht.

We know that the Besht began his public career in the mid 1730s, and died in 1760. Very few contemporary sources speak about the Besht (Rosman, 1996). Although his influence was great, he did not himself write a book. His teachings were preserved not in a systematic form, but as relatively brief interpretations of biblical verses and rabbinic statements appearing in the work of his disciples, starting from the year 1780 (twenty years after his death). A different type of record is Shivḥe ha-Besht (‘Praises of the Baal Shem Tov’), a repository not of his teachings but of stories about interactions with others. Its genre is closest to hagiography, the Life of a Saint, a biographical work written within a context not only of appreciation for the subject but of commitment to the belief that its subject is an individual of transcendent spiritual power, as documented in the narrative demonstrate. It was first published in 1815 in two different editions, one in Hebrew the other in Yiddish, two full generations after the Besht had died, but it contains traditions attributed to people who had known him, or knew the people that knew him. Scholars have debated which of these two kinds of source material—popular accounts of the behaviour of the teachings of the early leaders or records of their distinctive teachings—is a more authentic expression of Hasidism as a movement. Martin Buber, one of the first Western European scholars to portray Hasidism positively to a wide audience, argued for the first (Buber, 1947). Gershom Scholem, the leading authority on the history of Jewish mystical thought and practice, insisted on the second.

Obviously, in any work of hagiography, the question of historical reliability must not be overlooked. In this regard, the question is similar to ‘the quest for the historical Jesus’ based on a critical analysis of the Gospels: what can they tell us about what Jesus did and said, how much of the Gospels reveal only the circles that preserved and expanded earlier traditions. Certainly with regard to birth narratives, the historicity of hagiographical texts is extremely problematic for an obvious reason: unless the protagonist is someone born into a royal family, or the equivalent, there was no reason to pay any attention to the circumstances of birth, or to transmit accurate memories from the time in question. Nothing reliable was known about the father of Israel ben Eliezer; he himself did not excel as a student, and he had no outstanding scholar as a teacher. These are the circumstances where legendary material is crafted—drawn from other narratives and suitably modified—to fill in the gaps.

But what about our story? Did it really happen? Or can it tell us nothing about the Besht himself, his own behaviour and religious world-view, but only about the values of those in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who told the story, and finally wrote it and incorporated it into a collection, and had it printed? Unlike some of the other narratives, no source is provided for this, and no other individual is named. We have no indication when it took place, or even where. On the other hand, no miraculous acts are attributed to the Besht; the only thing miraculous is his purported knowledge of the inner life of a Christian priest and of the secrets of the heavenly realms. Furthermore, it fits into a pattern of Yom Kippur stories that present a challenge caused by an impediment to the prayers of the community, which requires the unique intervention of the Tsaddik to overcome.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the likelihood of historicity is that it would be difficult to imagine someone fabricating it in order to enhance the image of the book’s hero. At least from our perspective it is extremely problematic, revealing a side of the Besht that seems not at all appealing. And this was the response of Jewish opponents to Hasidism. A general principle of critical analysis is that stories portraying a saint or hero in a negative manner are more likely to be historical than those portraying the hero with the attributes of a saint. But even if it tells us nothing about the Besht himself, it is still of historical value, in that it tells us something about the community of Jews that treasured his memory: what they thought was important to disseminate and perpetuate about the founder of their movement. For this community, at least, the competition between Jewish and Christian models of holiness was not a trivial matter.

2. Source

2a. Source in Original Hebrew

פעם אחת בערב יום כיפור קודם כל נדרי נתאספו כל הקהל לבית המדרש, ועמד הבעש”ט ולא התחיל להתפלל, והיה ניכר בו שהוא במבוכה רבה. ונתעכבו עד בוש וגעו כל העם בבכיה, כי הבינו הכל שלא דבר ריק הוא.
אחר זה ראה הרב מהחלון, איך שכומר אחד זקן הולך לפני הבהמ”ד. ויצא לקראתו, והתחיל הרב לדבר עמו ולשאול בשלומו, ונכנס עמו בדבורים עד שהלך עמו לביתו, ודיבר הרב עמו מדוע אינו נושא אישה, הלא לא לתהו בראה וכו’. והשיב הכומר כי הגם שכנים דבריך, הנה עפ”י נמוסיהם הכומר אינו רשאי לישא אישה. וטען עמו הרב הרבה בזה, כי עכ”פ לעת זקנתו יקיים מצווה פריה ורבייה וימחול על כומריותו.
ואמר הכומר, כי לישא אישה נחותת דרגא אינו לפי כבודו, וממשפחה הגונה לא תתרצה האישה שיקחנה.
ואמר הרב, כי הנה לשר פלוני יש בת יפת תואר, אשר בוודאי יתרצה לתתה לו לאישה. והרבה לדבר עמו עד שנתרצה, ונכנס יופיה בלבו עד שמרוב תאוותו ראה קרי.
ומיד הלך הרב לבית המדרש והתחיל להתפלל כל נדרי. ואחר התפילה באו אנשי סגולתו אליו, וסיפר להם המאורע, כי היה קטרוג גדול עד שלא היה באפשרי שיעלו התפילות למעלה, מפני זה הכומר הוא זקן ולא ראה קרי מעולם. אשר לכן הוכרח לדבר עמו עד שראה קרי.
ושאלו ממנו היכן ידע שראה קרי, ואמר כי מיד לא היה אפשר לו לעמוד אצלו, ובעז”ה נסתתמו פיות המקטרגים.

The text has been reproduced from http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/history/shivhey/17-2.htm (the fifth story)

2a. Source in English

The Besht and the Old Priest

Once, on the evening of Yom Kippur, before Kol Nidre, the congregation gathered in the study hall [bet hamidrash]. The Besht stood up, but he did not begin to pray. It was evident that he was greatly perplexed. There was a long delay, and the entire congregation began to cry because they realized that this was not an empty matter.

Then the rabbi looked through the window and saw an old priest walking before the bet hamidrash, and he went out to him. The rabbi began to talk with him. He asked him how he was, and they became so engrossed in conversation that he accompanied him home.

The rabbi discussed with him why he did not take a wife, as “He created it [the earth] not a waste, He formed it to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18). The priest answered him that he was not permitted to marry. The rabbi argued with him a great deal about it and urged him to resign his priesthood and perform the mitzvah of propagation at least in his old age. The priest said that to marry a woman of the lower class was beneath his dignity, and a woman from a worthy family would not agree to marry him. The rabbi said that a certain governor had a beautiful daughter and he would certainly be willing to give her to him as a wife. He kept talking with him until he agreed. Her beauty so appealed to him that he had an accidental emission from the excess of his desire. The rabbi immediately went to the bet hamidrash and began to pray Kol Nidre.

After the [Amidah] prayer, his followers came to him and he told them the story. A great accusation in heaven had blocked all the prayers from ascending because this priest had never had an accidental emission.

They asked, “How did you know that he had an accidental emission?”

He replied, “Because it was immediately impossible to stand near him.”

With the help of God all the accusers were silenced.

Source: Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz, editors, In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei ha-Besht) (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 248–49, translation somewhat modified. Reproduced with kind permission of Dan Ben-Amos.

3. Discussion of the source

The following themes seem paramount:

a. Morally problematic texts

The passage raises a broader question about problematic texts in one’s religious tradition. There is a natural tendency to avoid such texts even in internal discourse, as we prefer to identify our own religious tradition with the values that we cherish. This is all the more true in the context of many inter-religious dialogues. In presenting our tradition to those outside it, we privilege the texts that are likely to impress the others, challenge rather than confirm their negative preconceptions, and confirm rather than undermine their positive views. And thus we sometimes restrict ourselves to mollifying and almost meaningless generalizations: Judaism is a religion of peace, Christianity is a religion of peace, Islam is a religion of peace. This is even worse when this presentation of one’s own tradition is presented in counterpoint with a contrasting negative presentation of the other.[1]

Perhaps one test of true dialogue is that we can feel secure and comfortable enough to wrestle with the problematic texts of our own tradition, in the presence of others from a different tradition, confident that the unpacking of the most difficult texts will not be used against us. The case of the Besht and the Priest seems like a good example of this test.

The prayers of a congregation of Jews are blocked from reaching God, creating a situation of potential danger that only the Besht knows about and only he can resolve. This is a motif that can be found in other stories from the same collection (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1970, pp. 52–53 and 55–57). Here it is because of a ‘great accusation’ based on the perfect celibacy of a Catholic priest. In order to resolve the problem, the Besht delays the beginning of Yom Kippur worship, encounters the priest, engages duplicitously in a conversation (which at first seems like the beginning of a religious dialogue), entices him to consider violating his religious vows, convinces him through a blatant falsehood that a beautiful, noble, young woman would happily be his wife, describes the pleasures of making love with this fantasy wife to the point of sexual arousal and an involuntary ejaculation, and then abandons the old man to his fate and hurries back to his congregation. This is, quite simply, an appalling text, an embarrassment to most of us, something that we can perhaps learn from but would never think of defending.

Yet it is part of the Jewish tradition. What does it teach us about a community that apparently viewed such behaviour on the part of its holy leader as praiseworthy?
Would a Hasidic Jew, who venerates the Baal Shem Tov, respond as we do? Should we take this as evidence that Hasidism is not a romantic, liberating return to the spontaneous religious spirit of ancient Israel with a potentially universal appeal, as some non-Hasidic Jewish thinkers began to present it in the early 20th century?  Is it perhaps evidence that Hasidism, even near its beginning, contained an element of a ‘deeper, xenophobic retreat into the darkness of medieval Jewish alienation from the world’ (Nadler 1992, p. 19), which found everything associated with Christianity a source of contamination, all the more dangerous because it appeared superficially attractive?

b. Hasidism and Christianity

It might seem from this text that the Baal Shem Tov, or at least those who preserved and published this text, thought of Christianity in totally negative terms. And indeed there is additional evidence for this conclusion in Shivḥe ha-Besht. In another encounter, the Besht has a prolonged and cordial conversation with a priest, even though this delays the baking of matzah before Pesach. Explaining his behaviour, the Besht reports that the priest had planned to throw the body of a murdered bastard into the street of the synagogue on the first night of Pesach so that the Jews would be blamed, but the conversation ‘erased the plot from the priest’s mind’ (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1970, pp. 241–242). In that story, the priest is a source of clear and present danger that can at best be neutralized. In addition, the Besht, once tempted by the apostate ‘messiah’ Sabbatai Zevi, is said to have hurled him to the deepest level of hell, where he landed next to Jesus (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1970, pp. 87).[2]

But the relationship is not so simple. One scholar has argued that Hasidism drew significantly on the influence of Russian Schismatic and Dissenter groups in the 17th and 18th centuries, including direct contact between the Besht and Raskolnik communities, from which he derived his ritualistic innovations, condemned by the opponents to Hasidism, and his socio-economic outlook.[3] Another more mainstream scholar noted striking parallels between the quietistic doctrine of prayer articulated by Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezhirech, a leading disciple of the Besht, and that of certain Christian groups; in both cases, personality and individual needs are negated or even annihilated so that the empty soul can be filled with God (Schatz-Uffenheimer 1993, pp. 144 –167 and 198–199; Jacobs 1973, p.31). Opponents of Hasidism have frequently accused the Hasidim of Christian practices and beliefs, ranging from spontaneous preaching without preparation to the claim that the Jewish Messiah can die without having fulfilled the traditional messianic roles yet remain the Messiah (Wilensky 1991, pp.258–259; Berger 2001, 53–55).

Moshe Rosman recently formulated the current state of the question as follows: ‘The relationship between Hasidism and new mystical-ecstatic sects in other religions is an important issue. . . . This subject awaits an expert in the requisite fields to investigate it fully’ (Rosman 1996, p. 60).

c. Hasidism and sexuality

The story also expresses a great deal about ambivalent Hasidic attitudes toward sexuality. On a superficial level, it might seem consistent with the positive outlook on marital sex that Jews often cite as a fundamental difference from the Pauline suspicion of sex, permitting marriage for the majority because it is preferable to burning with lust, but idealizing the celibate life. Here the Besht cites Isaiah 45:18, which was used in serious discussions over celibacy as a religious value, and it might indeed appear as if the violation of a divine injunction by a celibate priest is what is blocking Jewish prayers.

But the story is more complex, for the accidental ejaculation of the priest induced by the Besht’s conversation about the joys of marital life is not a fulfilment of God’s will; in the context of the story, it is clearly a source of impurity. Thus the priest’s perfect celibacy without any ejaculation of seed throughout a long lifetime is presented as a source of holiness. But it is holiness in another religious tradition, and this is precisely what is blocking the prayers of the Jews in the heavenly realm. In the logic of this story, the celibate holiness of the priest is in competition with the holiness of the Jewish people, and, in this zero-sum game, the Christian holiness has to be subverted through an act that both traditions view as impure.

The idea that involuntary ejaculation is a source of impurity has biblical roots (see Deut. 23:11). In the Jewish mystical tradition, which profoundly influenced Hasidic thought, the impurity and danger of involuntary ejaculation, or any ejaculation outside of appropriate sexual relations, became something of a preoccupation.[4] The Besht expresses this idea explicitly when he says that from the moment of the priest’s ejaculation, ‘it was immediately impossible to stand near him.’ And so the priest is abandoned in his state of impurity.

But there is something more as well. Kabbalah presented an understanding of sexual union in marriage as an act that could effect mystical unification within the divine realm. Yet in some mystical circles, suspicion of improper ejaculation, and indeed of physical pleasure, was transferred even to marital life.[5] Shivḥe ha-Besht contains the following startling tradition:

I heard that when the Besht’s wife died, his followers and those of his generation suggested that he remarry, but he replied to them in wonder: “Why do I need a wife? For the last fourteen years I refrained from sleeping with my wife, and my son Hersheleh was born by the word.” (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1970 p. 258; Biale 1992, p. 138; Eliach 1968, p. 77)

The final phrase (in Hebrew, al pi ha-dibbur) is tantalizingly ambiguous. Even if it is interpreted moderately to mean ‘born because I had to fulfil the divine word/commandment to be fruitful and multiply,’ the claim of 14 years of voluntary celibacy, except for the necessary act of procreation, is rather extraordinary, suggesting a possible personal competition in this kind of celibate holiness between the priest and the Besht. The possibility of a more radical interpretation, that his son was conceived without sexual intercourse, is of course even more extraordinary, and indeed this statement was removed from the second (Berditchev) edition of the book (Ben-Amos and Mintz 1970, p. 342).[6] But on either reading, it suggests the possibility of a personal rivalry between the Besht and the priest for celibate holiness.

Notes to discussion

  1. For an example of this kind of presentation, see Adler (1963), pp. 120–30: Christianity teaches extra ecclesiam nulla salus, Judaism teaches: “The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come” (in both cases, this is an oversimplification). For an example from the Christian perspective, see Rausch (1987), p. 81, reporting an Evangelical seminary graduate writing on the board of a Sunday School class in one column: JUDAISM/ OLD TESTAMENT/ PHARISEES/ LAW/ DEATH, and in the other parallel column CHRISTIANITY/ NEW TESTAMENT/ SAINTS/ GRACE/ LIFE.
  2. See also 251, where the Besht recognizes that a certain rabbi is plagued by alien thoughts, envisioning Jesus standing before him every time he tries to concentrate on ‘Hear O Israel’.
  3. Eliach 1968 pp. 76 – 80. The article was scathingly condemned by Scholem 1971, p. 363.
  4. The Zohar, the classical text of medieval Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), states that improper emission of sperm produces illegitimate children in the form of demons that are potentially harmful. As a late 17th-century preacher said, ‘what good will the vaunted powers of arrogant individuals be at the time of their death, when all the demons they created during their lives from the impurity of improper seminal emissions gather around them?’  (Saperstein 1989, p. 326).
  5. Thus Joseph Karo, the mystic and legal expert living in sixteenth-century Safed, wrote, ‘Take care not to enjoy your eating and drinking and your marital relations. It should be as if demons were compelling you to eat that food or perform that act, so that if it were at all possible for you to exist without food and drink or to fulfil the duty of procreation without having intercourse, you would prefer it.’ (Jacobs 1977, p. 104); cf. the more moderate translation (Fine 1984, p. 56). A leading scholar has written  that ‘without the positive injunctions of rabbinic tradition, [Jewish ascetics] would, most probably have chosen the path of celibacy’ (Werblowsky 1962, p. 137)
  6. Also on theme of abstinence within marriage in this work, (Biale 1992), pp. 139–140).

4. Questions for discussion

  1. What is the appropriate role of religious leaders in providing access to the divine? Can a community of believers be entirely dependent on their leader to ensure that their prayers will be acceptable?
  2. What is the relationship between sexuality and the religious life? Is it diversion from the path to God, part of the path, or of no religious significance? Are there boundary lines between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour, and if so how should we define them?
  3. Does religious commitment necessarily imply a denial of the capacity for holiness attained through other religions (e.g., in the life of a celibate, world-renouncing religious hermit)?
  4. What can we learn from hagiographical texts? In what respects are they not fully reliable?
  5. How do we deal with morally problematic texts in our own tradition in the context of study and preaching within our own communities? Can we respectfully dissent from statements in our sacred texts? Is such dissent appropriate in the context of inter-faith dialogue?
  6. Are different religions flourishing in the same environment in competition with each other? Can there be creative competition among different religions? Can we recognize positive aspects of other religious traditions without betraying our own?

5. Selected bibliography

On Hasidism

  • Adler, Morris. (1963) The World of the Talmud. New York: Shocken Books.
  • Ben-Amos, Dan and Jerome R. Mintz (eds.) (1970) In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei ha-Besht).Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press).
  • Berger, David. (2001) The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference. London: Littman Library.
  • Buber, Martin. (1947) Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters. New York: Schocken.
  • Eliach, Yaffa. (1968) ‘The Russian Dissenting Sects and Their Influence on Israel Baal Shem Tov, Founder of Hassidism,’ Proceedings of the American Academic for Jewish Research 36, pp. 57–83.
  • Jacobs, Louis. (1977) Jewish Mystical Testimonies. New York: Schocken.
  • Jacobs, Louis. (1973) Hasidic Prayer. New York: Schocken Books; Philadelphia: JPS.
  • Lamm, Norman. (1999) The Religious Thought of Hasidism. New York: Yeshiva University Press.
  • Nadler, Allan L. (1992) ‘Rationalism, Romancticism, Rabbis and Rebbes,’ Inaugural Lecture as Director of Research, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, February 6, 1992.
  • Rausch, David. (1987) A Time to Speak: The Evangelical-Jewish Encounter. Grand Rapids, Mich.: WB Eerdmans,
  • Rosman, Moshe. (1996) Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Saperstein, Marc. (1989) Jewish Preaching 1200–1800. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Schatz-Uffenheimer, Rivka. (1993) Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought. Jerusalem: Magnes Press and Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Scholem, Gershom. (1971) The Messianic Idea in Judaism. New York: Shocken.
  • Weblowsky, R.J. Zvi. (1962) Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Wilensky, Mordecai L. (1991) ‘Hasidic-Mitnaggedic Polemics ion the Jewish Communiteis of Eastern Europe: The Hostile Phase’ in: Essential Papers on Hasidism, ed. Gershon David Hundert. New York: NYU Press, pp. 244–71.

On sexuality

  • Biale, David. (1991) ‘Ejaculatory Prayer: The Displacement of Sexuality in Hasidism,’Tikkun 6,4, pp. 21-25, 87-89.
  • Biale, David. (1992) Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. New York: Basic Books.
  • Fine, Lawrence. (ed.) (1984) Safed Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press.
  • Fine, Lawrence. (2003) Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

6. Further Reading

Impediments to prayer

  • Saperstein, Marc. (1980) ‘The Simpleton’s Prayer: Transformations of a Motif in Hebrew Literature,’ Judaism 29, pp. 295–304.

Sexuality and competition between Christians and Jews

  • Saperstein, Marc. (1990) Decoding the Rabbis: A Thirteenth-Century Commentary on the Aggadah. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 97–101 (on circumcision).
  • Saperstein, Marc. (2005) Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira’s Sermons to a Congregation of “New Jews”. Cincinnati: HUC Press,  420–21 (on celibacy).

Positive images of the other:

  • Saperstein, Marc. (1986) ‘Christians and Jews: Some Positive Images” in: Christians Among Jews and Gentiles, ed. George Nickelsburg. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 236–46, =Harvard Theological Review 79; reprinted in Saperstein (1996) “Your Voice Like a Ram’s Horn”: Themes and Texts in Traditional Jewish Preaching. Cincinnati: HUC Press, pp. 45–54.

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