The Baal Shem Tov never belonged to the big-city Jews in suits or the yeshiva prodigies in fedoras. He was ordained in the hard-luck seminary God reserves for His favorite students. Orphaned at 5, a widower in his 30s, a migrant, a destitute tutor, a shochet, he slept in the shadows, in the company of Carpathian highwaymen, thieves and peasants.
Elie Wiesel has written of the Baal Shem, “Some say that he saved schoolboys from werewolves and warlocks. Others, that he could bring mountains together. And that during his walks through the forests, he spun dreams in which ends found their beginnings and the world’s song reverberated in God’s. … The most hauntingly beautiful legends are those in which the Baal Shem is the central — or at least a major — character.
And then, as Leonard Cohen wrote of another, “When he knew for certain only drowning men can see him,” the man known as Israel ben-Eliezer revealed himself: the Baal Shem Tov, the greatest rabbi of them all, founder of the chasidic movement, easily the most beloved and legendary Jew of the last several centuries, revered by the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. Because no one loved Jews, all Jews, like he did.
The Baal Shem Tov, Master of [God’s] Good Name, turned 300 just before the holidays. He lies sleeping in old shtetl earth, but he’s more alive than Joe Hill, a spiritual Robin Hood robbing a share of Eden from the scholars and returning it to the simple Jew.The Baal Shem was not against rabbinic regulations; he added hundreds. He wasn’t against messianism, which was his goal. But he reinjected the religion with a sense that piety was possible, that joy was inherent to Judaism. In perhaps his most famous legend, one Yom Kippur he protected an illiterate boy, who choked by his inability to pray but armed with a pennywhistle played his private shofar to God.
He never wrote a book. His only siddur, the margins inked with notes and the names of people needing a blessing, can be found in the Chabad Lubavitch archives at 770 Eastern Parkway, alongside an old letter or two. A fragment of his tallit can be found in the archives of the Breslover chasidim.His tercentennial is being celebrated by every chasidic group around the world, all of whom trace their spiritual lineage to this one teacher.
The birthday, Chai Elul, in late September, falls on a warm night in the West Bronx, the urban trees glimmering in moonlight. Inside a small red brick home serving as the Chabad of Riverdale is a fabrengen, a chasidic gathering with schnapps, stories, noshing and seltzer.“L’chaim! L’chaim!” greets Rabbi Levi Shemtov, no relation, at the head of the table.“L’Chaim! L’Chaim!” say some 15 men and women. Some are dressed like chasidim; some are disguised as civilians.Rabbi Shemtov says that the Baal Shem Tov was the prototype rebbe, helping Jews not only with religious problems but with things emotional, financial, even medical. The idea, he says, is unification: of God’s name, of people with God, of people with each other, of body and soul, of Judaism and nature.For example, says Rabbi Shemtov, “The Baal Shem Tov teaches that when a leaf is blown by the wind, this is by Divine Providence. There’s a reason for it. There’s no such thing as coincidence. If a leaf turns over, not of its own will but because that’s the way God wants it, how much more so a human being? How much more so the soul of a Jew? And when a Jew meets another Jew, it’s not coincidence. It’s because you can help that other Jew. L’chaim! L’chaim!”The Baal Shem’s biography is a sketch. Wiesel once wrote, “It is not surprising that the Baal Shem should have fared so poorly with the lay historians. … He eludes them. … Those who claim to have known him, to have come close to him or loved him, seem incapable of referring to him in terms other than poetic. He has made them dream so much that they describe him as a dream.”Rabbi Shemtov tells of the time the Baal Shem Tov’s soul ascended — in life — to the Other World. The Baal Shem, says Rabbi Shemtov, asked the Messiah, when are you coming?
He was putting the Moshaich on the spot,” Rabbi Shemtov says with an impish smile. “But the Moshiach puts the Baal Shem on the spot. ‘I’ll come when the wellsprings of chasidus flow through the world.’ ”Rabbi Shemtov breaks into an old chasidic tune about those wellsprings, “Musai, Musai, Musai,” When will my Master come?Near the door, an elderly man and woman, in rough clothes with faces mapped by hard times, approach each other as they exit from opposite ends of the room. His beard is as wild and pale as prairie grass; her laugh is a wheeze. But as the chasidim sing the Baal Shem Tov’s words, the old man and woman take each other’s hand and dance a serendipitous, ethereal coupling. Like Hallel’s old mountains that pranced like rams, they seem younger than the night, the Baal Shem younger than his 300 years.