The Baal Shem Tov

“Isaiah” (The Prophets)
Marc Chagall, 1956

The Baal Shem Tov

The Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) is the preeminent Hassidic master, the 18th-century founder (1700-1760) and prototype of any follower who practices in that tradition.  His very presence was said to be a teaching – though not for the unreceptive, of course.

I’ve been reading about him in a collection put together by Martin Buber.  The Hassidim were (and still are) a sect within Judaism that emphasizes personal devotion and piety over scholarly and intellectual attainments.  (I have an 18th-century ancestor, renowned for his scholarly eminence, who drove the Hassidim out of Vilna, but that’s just an aside.)

Until recently, I’d been more interested in Christian saints than in Jewish holy persons.  The Christian ones seemed to soar toward certain peaks of experience – such as powers to endure abuse without losing poise, or healing powers, or fearlessness – that very much attracted me.  Of course, they got a better press, at least in retrospect, than the Jewish ones did, and that may have played a part in their appeal.  The Jewish ones seemed to get, and to give, mixed reviews.  They didn’t strive for perfection and that disappointed me.

It’s only lately that I’ve begun to be fascinated by the Jewish spirit itself.  What intrigues me is their balancing capacity – in the midst of life’s pounding waves.  Jews are in a virtually intolerable situation, which I’ll describe for you in a moment.  But it is this balance, maintained by those who have the art of being Jews — who are good at it — that fascinates me.

Jews have the strange fate of being hated, era after era, north and south, east and west, left and right.  They draw to themselves an oddly shaped hatred, inmixed with envy.  Jews are the target of what one might call

an insincere envy.

Why insincere?  Well, if those who struggle with this feeling think it’s such a privilege to be a Jew, why don’t they convert?  Hey, you too can be a Jew!  Come and get it!  Convert your envy into teeming self-satisfaction!  Get on the inside lookin’ out!

As soon as you extend the Big Opportunity, you’ll discover that, oh well, thanks but no thanks.  Lemme think about it.  I’ll be back.  Maybe next year, Jews will be more popular.  I’ll do it then, for sure!

About envy, I’m an expert.  Listen, I’ve got a long list of skills I don’t possess, and I envy every single person who possesses those skills.

On the cosmetic side, I can itemize each improvement from which I could benefit, and I envy all the women already endowed with the blessings of beauty in all its forms.

I also wish I didn’t carry Jewish fears, especially the realistic ones, and I envy all and sundry who have never suffered from those fears.

In reporting all those kinds of envy, I’m quite sincere.  The only reason I might refuse these benefits, if magically they were offered to me, is that I feel one thing more sincerely: curiosity about the story of my own life.  For a long time, I’ve been at work on the project of how-it-is-to-be-me.   Gifts magically bestowed might distract me from that task, to which I’m already deeply committed.  So my envy is entirely real.  It just gets trumped by a stronger passion.

Contrariwise, envy of Jews is demonstrably unreal and inauthentic.  People shouldn’t play around with it.  If they could stash it somewhere, their hatred would also deflate, I suspect, the way air goes out of a punctured balloon.  While thus distracted by pseudo-feelings, they’ve been cheating themselves out of their own intrinsically absorbing life stories.

What now fascinates me about the giants in Jewish spiritual history, of whom the Baal Shem Tov is certainly one?  It’s precisely their ability to live in the absence of peak experiences or happy endings.  They carry on without theatricality.  They really are who they say they are.

Here’s an anecdote about the Baal Shem Tov from Buber’s collection.  His disciples submitted a question to him: How do you recognize a zaddik (the Jewish equivalent of a saint)?

Here’s what he answered: If he gives you advice about how to overcome your bad inclinations, forget it.  Just leave.

For this is the service of men in the world

to the very hour of their death:

to struggle time after time with the extraneous,

and time after time to uplift and

fit it into the nature of the Divine Name.

Now what does that mean?  And doesn’t it sound mysterious?  As if you have to meditate for millenia on a mountain top before you can say something that sounds so remote and inspired.  But it’s not really a mystery at all.  In fact, it’s rather simple. 

What’s “the extraneous”?

The extraneous is the stuff, whatever it is, that we’d rather not talk about.  Many reformers try to defeat stuff in the world that they haven’t faced in themselves.  Unsurprisingly, all their busy-work-in-the-world can have the effect of reinforcing the very thing they were trying to overcome.

That’s why it’s more of an honor to be liked by a horse or a dog than to be cheered by adoring multitudes.  The animal can see what’s inside.  The crowd can’t.

If we can grant and give houseroom to the-stuff-we’d-rather-not-talk-about  then we are in a position of sincerity.  From that position –

God looks nearer than

 previously we had imagined

and we feel more able to ask

what God wants of us.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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