Monday, May 17, 2010

Did the Besht visit the palace of Moshiach? Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?

Rabbi Harry Maryles has a post up that is sure to get some folks riled up, questioning the very validity of chassidus. I disagree on several counts.

He begins by writing of his own chassidic ancestry. I suppose this is meant partly as preemptive defense, as he is one of them, by ancestry at least. (I, too, have some strong chassidic ancestry.) Then, praising chassidim, and explaining the appeal of chassidus. All well and good.

Among the problems he lists are break from masorah, and each rebbe being appointed primarily based on yichus rather than merit. And also, the following quote from a hand-written letter (in his own handwriting) of the Baal Shem Tov:
Finally I rose and arrived at the actual Palace of the King Messiah and I actually saw [him] face to face, and great untold mysteries were revealed to me…. and there was in heaven much happiness and rejoicing; so I decided to ask him, ‘When, my Lord, will you be arriving?’ But the answer from his Eminence was, ‘This cannot be revealed, but by this shall you know: When your [the Besht’s] learning becomes publicly known and your teachings shall be spread across the world… then shall evil be broken and it will be the time of favor and salvation. And I worried about this and it greatly pained me on account of the very long time this would take.
Rabbi Maryles does not understand how someone can rationally accept that the Baal Shem Tov actually traveled to the actual Palace of the King Messiah. As he writes:
The founder of Chasidim actually went to the Palace of the King Messiah? Is there a rational person alive that believes this? There are apparently many more legends about the Baal Shem Tov ascending into the heavenly sphere. As unbelievable as this story is to believe - to the best of my knowledge this is an accepted fact by all Chasidim. How can something like this be believed?
This reminds me of a story, sometimes attributed to Churchill:
Anecdotal dialogue
Churchill: Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?
Socialite: My goodness, Mr. Churchill… Well, I suppose… we would have to discuss terms, of course…
Churchill: Would you sleep with me for five pounds?
Socialite: Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!
Churchill: Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price. 
I am sure that Rabbi Maryles believes certain things that other people nowadays would look askance at. Does he really believe that Moshe Rabbenu ascended Har Sinai to receive the Torah from Hashem?! (He does, and I do.) Once we have established what kind of man he is, it is a mere haggling about the price.

We are rational, and rationalists, to varying degrees. I do think that the many Baal Shem Tov stories are bubbe maasehs, and that there was a culture of making up these fake stories to promote Rebbes. But while one may draw a line between believing one and believing the other, I do not think that it is a mere matter of that it is utterly irrational to believe X, and so how can group Y believe X?

Perhaps it is easier to believe it about figures in the Tanach and the gemara, because we mentally draw such a line. Because we often posit that they lived in supernatural times, whereas we do not. But for non-rationalists, even now we live in somewhat supernatural times. And I would guess many chassidim would consider rebbes to be on similar level to Tannaim and Amoraim, in terms of spiritual force.

Look at some of the responses in the comment section there. A "chosid" writes
Are you also skpetical of what it says about the "passing" of Eliyahu Hanavi? It's this exact kalta misnagdish haskala that the baal shem tov continues to fight and defeat every day.
Thus, if it can be true of Eliyahu Hanavi, then it can be true of the Besht. Rabbi Maryles replies:
You are comparing a Navi in Tanach with a 18th century figure about whom little is actaully known?
This indicates to me that it is not a categorical rejection of the possibility, but the haggling I referred to above. And note that the chosid does not make this mark of distinction. And later writes:
Your definition of reality is that which you can see with your physical eyes. That is a false reality. True reality is ein oid milvado. And according that emes, there is no stira between reality and the heiliger baal shem tov ascending to heichal moshach. If you can't see or understand, it is YOUR chisaron, not G-d forbid any lack in the emes of the nasi.
Thus, he is not living in a natural world, but in a supernatural world.

I would also note that it is not entirely clear to me that the pesukim in Tanach really indicate that Eliyahu ascended to heaven while alive. Read the pesukim inside. This was a vision seen by Elisha, and it indicated to him that Eliyahu was not returning. Thus, the bnei neviim were wrong in trying to find him deposited elsewhere. But this could be a means of describing death. Only with the last pasuk in Malachi do we get a more solid interpretation of a returning Eliyahu Hanavi, and thus, seemingly, one who is yet alive.

What I am getting at is that many of the givens could be, and were indeed, interpreted by rationalists in something other than the most "literal" manner, and such a precedent is not necessarily established. Moshe Rabbenu did not ascend to heaven. He ascended to the top of the mountain and had a vision, and a dialogue with Hashem.

A bit later in the comment thread:
As a misnaged, how do you deal on Yom Kippur with R. Yishmael in the piyut of the Asara Harugei Malchus?  "v'ala lamakon vsha'al me`eis levush habadim..." 
Rabby Maryles responds appropriately. That piyut is a piyut, and an amalgam of 10 rabbis who didn't even live at the same time. And it might well be intended allegorically. But the distinction between Tannaim and a 17th century charismatic figure is, once again, to my mind, a rather subjective distinction. Sure, we believe that Hashem has changed his relationship with us to one of nes nistar and the like, but other religions, and other subgroups within our religion, might well disagree in this aspect.

I would also point out that the Besht ascending on high is quite possibly not intended literally. I would agree with the commenter who wrote:
 when it says that the Besht ascended to heaven etc. it doesn’t mean that his body left this world etc. but rather that while still in his physical body his neshama reached that heichal in shomayim, and being a ruchniyesdike person, the Besht was able to feel what was happeneing tot his neshome.  
That is eminently possible. And similarly, by Rabbi Yishmael, in the piyut, this is likely what was intended, rather than physical ascension.

If we understand it as such, the result of reaching another state of being and having visions of what was happening to his soul On High, then we need not criticize the Besht of making it up. As one person wrote at the start of the comment thread,
I think they actually have a csav yad of a letter from the Baal Shem Tov where he himself says this. To accuse the Besht of making things up is not a light thing. Why is this more difficult to believe than any of the stories of the Gaon, or the Arizal, or the entire sefer Maggid Meshorim?
This brings us to the famous Lewis' trilemma, which is an attempt to prove the divinity of Jesus, a feature of Christian apologetics. That argument is not sound, for a large variety of reasons. But to shift this to the Besht, if the Besht claimed this, then either he indeed did so, and so is on a lofty level; or he lied about it, in which case he is a bad person; or he is a lunatic, who believed that he did it.

I don't think one needs to resort to saying this was a lie. Or even that he was a lunatic. Rather, the Besht meditated, and indeed believed that he ascended On High. Perhaps he did, but I personally doubt it, in part because chassidus is founded on kabbalah, and I have seen convincing proof elsewhere that modern kabbalah is inauthentic.

So what would cause the Baal Shem Tov to believe this? Well, even in ancient Mesopotamia, people would try all sorts of mantic methods to try to induce an altered consciousness and prophecy. The royal archives at Mari indicate this. And while on the whole, Israelite prophets avoided mantic methods to induce prophecy, but instead were selected by Hashem, we do see the schools of prophets, the benei neviim, hearing music to bring them to a state to receive prophecy.

That Baal Shem Tov smoked a pipe. It was the holy practice of the Baal Shem Tov to prepare for prayers by meditatively smoking his pipe. I heard (an urban legend? I don't know) that a chaddishe fellow is in possession of the pipe, but steadfastly refuses to let it be tested. Examples of this, culled from the Internet, include:
One day Rabbi David, head of the Ostrow Beit Din (Jewish court) was shown by the Baal Shem Tov the new heavens that had been created by his thoughts while smoking. Rabbi David fell into a faint from the awe and fear that the sight inspired in him"

"Being connected with nature, the Baal Shem Tov was connected with his own body too. He discouraged fasting and self-affliction; he prayed with shouting, dancing and singing, with his whole body. He and his followers drank and smoked much more than their opponents thought was decent, using both drinking and pipe smoking to lift their spirits and even enter into trances. "
Indeed, to cite one story about the Besht, from a book called The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov:

On the other hand, Louis Jacobs rejects this, writing:
The lulke (churchwarden's pipe) of the Baal Shem Tov features frequently in Hasidic legend. Some sources report that the Baal Shem Tov used to recite a benediction before smoking his pipe. The suggestion that the Baal Shem Tov's pipe contained a substance other than tobacco is completely unwarranted.
Regardless, one can get oneself into an ecstatic state even without smoking cannabis. That does not mean that the visions one sees are real. They can reflect one one would expect to see, given one's predispositions.  But one need not be a liar.


IlaN-ach said...

The imaginative faculty is purified through Torah. How 'real' one's visions are (how closely his imagination is inline with real spiritual phenomena) is determined by how pure and bonded the mind is with Hashem and his Will (Torah).

IlaN-ach said...

As we can see with the technique employed by the beis yosef re: Maagid Mesharim (Meditating and binding oneself with the words in a verse of Mishna, by reciting it like a mantra for an extended period of time, eliciting a trance state, a state in which the imagination roams freely, while being bonded on high to Hashem's Will.) A mind purified of klipos, will automatically have a reverie depicting spiritual reality. The degree of purity dictates the degree of accuracy/truth in visions.

E-Man said...

If chassidus changed the halacha and minhagim of traditional judaism of the time, how could it be authentic?

Baruch Pelta said...

I don't see how you disagreed with anything R' Maryles wrote.

Yoseph Leib said...

The Louis Jacobs dismisal of the possibility that there was a psychoactive substance in the lulke of the Besht is notably without any explanation or any gesture of "proof." I'm curious what the meat and potatoes of his argument is, if there is any.

Yaffa Eliach famously raised the Besht-Lulke-as-Reefer possibility in an essay as early as the 1970's, but still, very little research has been done on the point. Some scholars have suggested that someone learn Turkish, and look up the tax records, do determine what was getting circulated into Eastern Europe at the time.

@E-man: Authenticity is proven from taste. Does Chasidic Minhag and Halacha resonate as authentic? That's really all it takes. When has halacha and minhag ever been static? for how long?


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