Baal Shem Tov

acrylic, ink and collage on canvas
40" x 30"
Baal Shem Tov

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760 C.E.), founder of Hasidism,became aware in his mid-20s of his own mystical powers, and chose to go intohiding so as to properly prepare himself for his future role as spiritual leader.Finally, in the mid 1730s – Hasidic tradition fixes it on his 36th birthday – Israelben Eliezer revealed himself to the world as a healer and leader, taking on the mantle "Baal Shem Tov," or "Master of the Good Name."

Unflinchingly ecstatic in his constant companionship with a living God, he built his mystical system out of a the ideas of earlier, Sufi inspired Jews, turning away from the staid worship of northern European orthodoxy and towards the ecstatic vision of the Sufi mystics. Joy, intoned the Baal Shem Tov, wasnot just a passing emotion, but a way of life and devotion, the proper attitude, even in thetraditionally stilted Jewish house of prayer.

Breaking with earlier Jewish tradition – though in keeping with the undercurrentof Sufi ideas in aspects of the Kabbalah – the Baal Shem Tov emphasizedthe salvation of each individual, which, of course, had to precede the redemptionof the world. Building on ideas first touched on in the Zohar (and imported fromSufi sources), the Baal Shem Tov transformed social phenomena like poverty, crimeand charity into legitimate concerns for the mystic. Building on medieval Suficonceptions of prophecy, the social mission and the mystical quest became intertwined for Jews in new and important ways.

The Baal Shem Tov's mystical practicewas riffled through with specific Sufi doctrine, sucked up into the Jewish mysticalstream centuries before andswallowed hook, line and sinker by this Jewish mystic. The manner in which followerscollected around a single charismatic leader; meditational prayer based in theSufi-inspired "Science of the Letters;" specific ideas of the powerof letter-energies, ideas concerning an adepts ability to cleave directly toGod, the ability of the spiritual leader to act as a conduit for God'spower into this world and many other concepts came to the Baal Shem Tov fromthe Sufis, via medieval Jewish intermediaries. Despite the fact he didn'tknow that his "innovations" stemmed from Islam, he was aware thatthey were "unusual" in terms of his contemporary, orthodox Jewishpractice. As such, the Baal Shem Tov justified his novel conceptions in thetime-honored manner perfected by earlier Jewish/Sufis, attributing Sufi innovationsof Jewishmethods to the ancient Jewish prophets.