To be with the king whom he loves so dearly is for him the highest good. It has already been implied that, with regard to our duty towards our fellow-man, we must not only honour him for the good, and abstain from judging the evil that may be in him, but must pray for him. Furthermore we must work for his spiritual and moral reclamation.
In giving practical effect in his own life to this doctrine, Baalshem's conduct was in striking contrast to that of his contemporaries.
He habitually consorted with outcasts and sinners, with the poor and uneducated of both sexes, whom the other teachers ignored. He thus won for his doctrines a way to the heart of the people by adapting his life and language to their understanding and sympathies. In illustration of this, as well as of his hatred of vanity and display, it is told how, on the occasion of his being accorded a public reception by the Jews on his arrival at Brody, instead of addressing to them in the conventional fashion some subtle discourse upon a Talmudical difficulty, he contented himself with conversing upon trivial topics in the local dialect with some of the less important persons in the crowd.
This incident is perhaps the more noteworthy because it occurred in Brody, which was at that time a seat of learning and Rabbinic culture,—a place where, for that very reason, Chassidism was never able to gain a foothold. It is probable enough that Baalshem in his visits to this town kept aloof from the learned and the wise, and sought to gather round him the neglected and humbler elements of Jewish society. It is well known that Baalshem consorted a good deal with the innkeepers of the district, who were held in very low repute among their brethren.
The [pg ] following remark by one of his followers is very suggestive in this respect. Just as only superficial minds attach a certain holiness to special places, whilst with the deeper ones all places are alike holy, so that to them it makes no difference whether prayers be said in the synagogue or in the forest; so the latter believe that not only prophecies and visions come from heaven, but that every utterance of man, if properly understood, contains a message of God. Those who are absorbed in God will easily find the divine element in everything which they hear, even though the speaker himself be quite ignorant of it.
This line of conduct gave a fair opening for attack to his opponents, an opportunity of which they were not slow to avail themselves. Baalshem was pointed at as the associate of the lowest classes. They avenged themselves for his neglect of and hostility to the learned by imputing the worst motives to his indifference to appearances.
He was accused of idling about the streets with disreputable characters, and one polemical treatise draws the vilest inferences from his apparent familiarity with women. To this charge Baalshem's conduct, innocent in itself, gave some colour; for his views and habits in relation to women marked a strong divergence from current customs. The position of women in contemporary circles was neither debased nor inevitably unhappy, but it was distinctly subordinate.
Their education was almost entirely neglected, and their very existence was practically ignored. According to the Chassidic doctrine of Universality, woman was necessarily to be honoured. His own wife he reverenced as a saint; when she died he abandoned the hope of rising to heaven while yet alive, like Elijah of old, saying mournfully that undivided such translation might have happened, but for him alone it was impossible.
Then again in a form of religion utilising so largely the emotions of Faith and Love there was a strong appeal to the female mind.
The effect of this was soon evident, and Baalshem did not neglect to profit by it. Among the most devoted of his early adherents were women. One of them was the heroine of a favourite anecdote concerning Baalshem's work of Love and Rescue.
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It is related that in a certain village there dwelt a woman whose life was so disgraceful that her brothers at last determined to kill her. With this object they enticed her into a neighbouring wood, but guided by the Holy Spirit Baalshem intervened at the critical moment, and dissuading the men from their purpose rescued the sinner. The woman afterwards became a sort of Magdalen in the new community.
Above I have endeavoured to throw together in some order of sequence the doctrines and practical rules of conduct which Baalshem and his early disciples seem to have deduced from their central idea of the omnipresence of God. This was necessary in order to give a connected idea of their creed, but it is right to say that nowhere in Chassidic literature have these deductions been logically co-ordinated.
Perhaps their solitary attempt to formulate and condense their distinctive views is confined to a statement of their idea of piety or service of God, and an examination of three cardinal virtues, Humility, Cheerfulness, [pg ] and Enthusiasm.
Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age by Jay M. Harris
What the Chassidim held as to true service brings into relief Baalshem's characteristic manner of regarding the Law. By the service of God was generally understood a life which fulfilled the precepts of the written and oral law.
Baalshem understood by it a certain attitude towards life as a whole. For, as God is realised in life, each activity of life when rightly conceived and executed is at once a manifestation and a service of the Divine. All things have been created for the glory and service of God.
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The smallest worm serves Him with all its power. Thus, while eating, drinking, sleeping, and the other ordinary functions of the body are regarded by the old Jewish moralists as mere means to an end, to Baalshem they are already a service of God in themselves. All pleasures are manifestations of God's attribute of love; and, so regarded, they are at once spiritualised and ennobled.
Man should seek to reach a higher level of purity and holiness before partaking of food and drink, than even before the study of the Law. For when the Torah had once been given by God the whole world became instinct with its grace. He who speaks of worldly matters and religious matters as if they were separate and distinct, is a heretic. Upon the continual and uninterrupted study of the Law, Baalshem lays but little stress.
He accepted the ordinary belief that the Law under which term are included not only the Pentateuch, but the whole Old Testament and the major portion of the old Rabbinic literature was a revelation of God. But, as the world itself is equally a divine revelation, the Torah becomes little more than a part of a larger whole. To understand it aright one needs to penetrate to the inward reality—to the infinite [pg ] light which is revealed in it. We should study the Law not as we study a science for the sake of acquiring knowledge he who studies it so has in truth been concerning himself with its mere outward form , but we should learn from it the true service of God.
Thus the study of the law is no end in itself. It is studied because, as the word of God, God is more easily discerned and absorbed in this revelation of Him than in any other. The Torah is eternal, but its explanation is to be made by the spiritual leaders of Judaism. It is to be interpreted by them in accordance with the Attribute of the age. For he regarded the world as governed in every age by a different Attribute of God—one age by the Attribute of Love, another by that of Power, a third again, by Beauty, and so on—and the explanation of the Torah must be brought into agreement with it.
The object of the whole Torah is that man should become a Torah himself. Every man being a Torah in himself, said a disciple of Baalshem, has got not only his Abraham and Moses, but also his Balaam and Haman: he should try to expel the Balaam and develop the Abraham within him. Every action of man should be a pure manifestation of God. The reason why we should do what the Law commands is not to gain grace thereby in the eyes of God, but to learn how to love God and to be united to Him. The important thing is not how many separate injunctions are obeyed, but how and in what spirit we obey them.
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The object of fulfilling these various ordinances is to put oneself, as it were, on the same plane with God, and thus, in the ordinary phrase of the religious mystic, to become one with Him, or to be absorbed in Him. People should get to know, says Baalshem, what the unity of God really [pg ] means. To attain a part of this indivisible unity is to attain the whole.
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The Torah and all its ordinances are from God. If I therefore fulfil but one commandment in and through the love of God, it is as though I have fulfilled them all. I have now briefly to refer to the three virtues to which the Chassidim assigned the highest place of honour. The prominence given to these qualities is in sharp contrast to the faults of conceit, vanity, and self-satisfaction, against which Baalshem was never weary of protesting.
He regarded these as the most seductive of all forms of sin. The test of the real service of God is that it leaves behind it the feeling of humility. If a man after prayer be conscious of the least pride or self-satisfaction, if he think, for instance, that he has earned a reward by the ardour of his spiritual exercises, then let him know that he has prayed not to God but to himself.
And what is this but disguised idolatry? Before you can find God you must lose yourself. He who loves the father will also love his children. The true lover of God is also a lover of man. It is ignorance of one's own errors that makes one ready to see the errors of others. Once believe that you are really the servant and the child of God and how can you fall again into a gloomy condition of mind?