Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - Derech Baal Shem Tov
Answering the question I posed to Rabbi Tal Zwecker, Chabakuk Elisha comments:
I want to avoid specifically discussing individual groups, because there are many groups and each is different. If I understand the question correctly I'll try to address it with the general Chassidic scene in mind. Let's also remember that today's Chassidic world is only a remnant of a vibrant Chassidic tapestry that existed in pre-war Europe – the vast majority of which lived in Poland, where 3 million of them – and many entire groups – were slaughtered, HY"D.
The Kloizenberger Rebbe Z"L used the following parable:
There was a simple man who had no livelihood. His wife constantly complained that he must find a way to support his family – finally she says: "Yankel, please, go to a businessman and watch how he does things. Afterwards you can do the same, and we will have what we need."
So Yankel goes and watches. He sees the rich businessman picking up the phones, answering calls, using his computer, filling out papers and barking orders throughout the day.
Yankel gets home and his wife tells him, "Well, let's go! It's time to use what you learned."
So Yankel gets a computer some phones and papers and begins to exert himself all day. He's picking up phones, hanging them up, writing things, yelling, you name it… but no money. His wife asks him what he's doing – so Yankel says, "I did everything the businessman did!"
She says, "And how is it supposed to work if the phones aren't connected, the papers are meaningless and the computer has no software? If there's no product, you can't sell it."
So, the Kloizenberger Rebbe said, "This is the sad state of many Chassidusin today; They mimic the movements, but have little idea of what there supposed to be doing. The tragedy is that people begin to think that this is how it always was."
In the early years of Chassidus, there was a group with a teacher, a Rebbe, a tzaddik, whose primary role was to lead his disciples on a path to elevate his Chassidim to a more G-dly state. Chassidus has in many ways has gone away from that model, into becoming communities with a communal-head instead of students with a teacher. This is not new – it began not all that long after the Baal Shem Tov. In modern times there are also huge amounts of money, power, institutions and real estate added to the equation, and a Rebbe is often a CEO, trying to advance the interests of his community. In many ways, this would probably be a foreign development to the original derech HaBaal Shem Tov.
But, this is actually a trick question in the first place, because whenever we compare individuals and movements from different time periods there is an inherent flaw in the process - so, here's what I think:
The conditions Jews were living under at the time of Baal Shem Tov were completely different than they are today, so the true opinion of the Baal Shem is quite hard to ascertain. The various conditions, struggles, realities, challenges – and their solutions – are different than they were in the Baal Shem Tov's day. Indeed, many of the battles have already been won, so to speak, and our current reality is heavily influenced by the Baal Shem Tov's derech; many of his ideas pervade Jewish thinking today. Like all movements in history – Jewish and non-Jewish – there is an evolutionary process that will, over time, take the movement ultimately into other directions and modify it for different times, places, etc. So, the case can be made that although there are many ways that Chassidus has changed, and does not resemble the original article, but if Chassidus is a vision, an ideal, than any means to that end are not a corruption – rather they are innovations that are quite "Chassidic."
The Baal Shem Tov wanted to rejuvenate klal yisroel. At the time there were the Bnei Torah on the one hand, and the simple, comparatively ignorant, Jews on the other – with almost no "middle class." The Baal Shem Tov believed in uplifting the "lower class, and uncorrupting the "upper class" (so to speak). These were some of the issues he emphasized as I understand them:
* Ahavas Yisroel – especially to uplift the poor, simple, everyday Jew. He wanted us to recognize how every Jew is holy, and not to look askance or ignore the uneducated or downtrodden. Who isn't involved in this today? I'm not saying that there is none of this in existence, and there's surely room for improvement, but the concept is universally accepted. I'd say that this is directly a result of the Baal Shem Tov's vision.
* Anava. To eliminate the ego – especially as it existed in many of the bnei Torah. He taught that "Bittul HaYesh" is the first step to living a G-dly life. In his time the average Torah scholar was easy prey to an ego trip – which is still the case today – but Mussar and Chassidus (and I must say that mussar is actually a product of, or more of a modification of, the derech HaBaal Shem Tov) are constantly addressing this today just as it did then, and I don't think it has been left by the wayside. The human condition hasn't changed, and maybe this ideal should be addressed more, but the concept is universally accepted (although it was radical in the Baal Shem Tov's day).
* Emunah – Belief and service of G-d the primary focus of life. To recognize that G-d is in all things and the focus of life should be around this principle. The Baal Shem Tov's derech is a more mystical approach and the Besh"t's idea of emuna is connected with his desire to make Penimus haTorah (the mystical element) accessible to the masses. This also touches upon the Chassidic/misnagdic machlokes of tzimtzum, which boils town to the question: Can we serve G-d with divrei chol? I dare say that this has been a complete victory for the Baal Shem Tov. And although limud or toras hachassidus was downplayed in many Chassidic groups after the war, there is a renaissance today that may lead to big improvements in this area. I have hope that Chassidim will once again return to the toras hachassidus that may have been neglected – but even many of our litvishe bretheren have taken a more Chassidic position in these areas.
* Avoda –. That not only is Torah G-dly, but that all things we do must be G-dly as well. That Tefioh is a most essential component to connect with G-d, and that it must take a primary role in our life. Unfortunately, most Chassidic groups today don't daven with the old fashioned Chassidic feeling, and this is a tragic fact. I think that the culture that we live in is the real problem here and there's a good chance that the Baal Shem Tov wouldn't be terribly pleased with that. Sadly, it seems to me, this is a real failure – and I suspect that it is a direct result of chassidusin becoming communities as I said earlier.
In the letter to his brother-in-law R' Gershon Kitover, the Baal Shem Tov wrote that Moshiach will come when his teaching spread to all Jews, and (for some reason people don't quote this part) when all when Jews will be miyached yechudim as he did. I don't know where that is going on – yichudim are currently not commonly taught or practiced in most groups that I know of. I don't really know why this is, but I suspect that this will begin to change.
But we can see that these ideas are considered pretty mainstream today – much less so in the Modern Orthodox community – even if they are not all carried out to perfection. I think that things are improving in many ways after taking a real hit in the 1900's – it was a rough century – but the setbacks can be overcome. I personally feel that the Rebbe figure has possibly outlived its usefulness (gasp!), and it would be beneficial if we would just recognize individual talented teachers or leaders without labeling them Rebbe in the Chassidic sense, so as to avoid the risk of cheapening the word.
The Kloizenberger Rebbe Z'L had another parable for this, but I think I wrote too long a piece already…
When I wrote this response I had not seen Rabbi Zwecker's posting. Maybe we understood the question differently, but I'd rather not get into comparative chassidus – an exercise fraught with danger (of oversimplifications and misunderstandings). I agree that all derachim are valid, and we see that they are even encouraged, beginning with the Maggid. The Baal Shem Tov included them all. If you were to ask me where you can go to see the closest living thing to the Baal Shem Tov's chassidus, I must admit that I would say… go to Uman for Rosh Hashana.