Hasidism — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Friday, August 31, 2018

The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)—Master of the Good Name—was the founder of a Jewish religious movement called Hasidism that began in the eighteenth century. The “Besht” (acronym for Baal Shem Tov) was ecstatically in love with God. He reminds me a bit of my own spiritual father, St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Like Francis—who was simply following Jesus, who was following the Hebrew Scriptures which always showed a bias toward the bottom—the Baal Shem Tov began a grassroots movement of joyful love and service that appealed to ordinary people, not only to a scholarly elite.

In his book, Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained, Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains this stream of Judaism:

The ancient Rabbis taught, “God desires the heart.” They themselves, however, seem to have preferred the head. Judaism has struggled through the ages to find a balance between heartfelt yearning for God and the intellectual mastery of God’s Word. Generally speaking, it was the head that won out. Yet when things got too heady, the pendulum would swing in favor of the heart. The eighteenth-century Jewish revivalist movement called Hasidism was one of these heart swings. . . . The goal [of Hasidic disciples] was d’veikus, or union with God.

The concept of d’veikus (“clinging” or “cleaving”) is found in the Torah [the Hebrew Scriptures] where the verb davak signifies an extraordinary intimacy with the Divine: “To love YHVH your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:20). To achieve d’veikus is to realize that God is your life. While later Hasidic masters spoke of d’veikus as a union with God requiring the dissolution of the self, this was not the original understanding. God is your life, but your life is still yours; that is, Torah speaks of d’veikus as an experience of feeling the fullness of God present in your self without actually erasing your sense of self.

The essential message and practice of early Hasidism are simple. The message: . . . “the whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3). The practice: . . . “I place God before me always” (Psalm 16:8). Understand these and you understand Hasidism.

. . . Hasidism tries to wake the wave up to being the ocean. Awakening to your true nature is what it is to “place God before you always.” Everywhere you look you see God, not as an abstract spirit but as the True Being of all beings.

The Besht believed that God was everywhere and could be found by anyone whose heart was open, simple, and pure. At a time when Judaism was focused on a scholar elite, he reached out to the masses with a Judaism rich in compassion, devotion, and hope. His inner circle of disciples took his teachings out into the larger world, creating a global movement that continues to this day.

Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained (Jewish Lights Publishing: 2004, 2013), xxvii-xxviii, xxix, xxxii, xxxiv.

Image credit: Red and Orange Solar Flare (Rosette Nebula [detail])
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God reveals the essence of divinity to Moses: ehyeh asher ehyeh, most often translated as I AM what I AM. A more accurate Hebrew translation would be “I will be whatever I will be.” In either case, the Hasidic understanding of the text is the same: God is all that is. God is all that is happening at every moment. God is I AM—not a being or even a supreme being, but Being itself. . . . [Each of us is] a keeper of the I AM; just as a wave is a “keeper of” the ocean in its particular place and time, so are you a keeper of God in your particular place and time. To realize this about yourself is to realize it about all beings. —Rabbi Rami Shapiro
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