The Besht way

The Ba’al Shem Tov is supposed to have said to his followers that it is better to say less with greater concentration than to say a lot quickly.

Ba'al Shem Tov's Tomb 370 (photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
Ba'al Shem Tov's Tomb 370
(photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
One of the biggest challenges for modern man and woman is prayer. Not desperate pleas for divine assistance made by people in dire straits, but the time-hallowed texts from the prayer book, many of which have remained unchanged for a thousand years or more. How can we approach them without feeling that the weight of tradition makes it impossible for us to make these prayers personal or spontaneously our own? This is not a new problem. The Talmud itself warns against making prayers “rote”.
Indeed, it tells us of one sage who used to pray only once a month, when he felt motivated enough to pour out his soul. The Ba’al Shem Tov (the Besht, 1700- 1760), considered to be the founder of Hassidism, is supposed to have said to his followers that it is better to say less with greater concentration than to say a lot quickly.
“This is one reason why I probably don’t pray much in a synagogue,” Rabbi Menachem Kallus tells The Jerusalem Report. He doesn’t relate to prayer merely as a personal issue. He sees it rather in universal terms: “It’s a societal problem, one that’s been around for some time. The Ba’al Shem Tov and the Hassidim who followed his way were a counterculture to crass materialism, and the kind of sacrifices that people made to achieve that [material lifestyle].”
Kallus has just brought out “Pillar of Prayer”, a translation and annotation of words attributed to the Besht. This book is actually the translation of just one section of a much longer work, which was originally published just before World War II . It was compiled from more than 200 published and manuscript sources dating from 1780 to 1913 by Rabbi Nathan Nata of Kalbiel and Shimon Menachem Mendel of Gavartschov.
“I wanted something that was the closest possible to the original,” Kallus says, when we met in his Jerusalem apartment. “I would like to feel that the reader will be closer to the Besht as a result of the book.”
Though the Besht didn’t write any book himself, “Pillar of Prayer” contains sayings of the Besht from the earliest sources that exist from within his immediate circle. The Besht did write a much-quoted letter to his brother-in-law, and part of it provides the opening teaching of the book. There is a story that the Besht went over to some of his Hassidim and asked what they were writing. “Your Torah,” they replied. He looked at what they had written and then proclaimed, “I never said that!” Kallus tells another story, of the Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk whose Hassidim copied down what he had taught on Shabbat.
When Elimelech saw what they wrote down, he proclaimed “What wonderful Torah!”
“Rebbe Haim Zans used to say of the Besht: 'The others learn the Torah, he is the Torah. He is the voice of God, the voice of the inner God of the Torah.'"
American-born Kallus had been drawn to the Hebrew original some 20 years beforehand, when he began to teach it at Jerusalem’s Yakar Center for Tradition and Creativity. “I started to translate passages for my students,” he recalls. “I had translated about 75 percent of the text when I thought about publishing it. Some eight years ago Rabbi Aubrey Glazer suggested that we might prepare a book to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the Besht’s death. Dr. Glazer is the editor of the “Spiritual Affinities” section of the Fons Vitae [Mekor Hayyim] Press and thought the project very appropriate for the series.”
“Naturally, I’d like Hassidim to read it.” says Kallus. “Despite some word changes, for example with gender, where I insert ‘she’ in addition to the traditional ‘he,’ there is nothing offensive in the book.”
The book analyzes prayer, not so much from a textual view of what prayers mean, but rather from a point of methodology: how to pray, how to find the energy to direct prayers to the appropriate time and place. In addition, there are notes below the text by Kallus, which constitute a whole book in themselves, explaining the many sources or contexts of the sayings.
Readers will be able thus to follow the original text (reproduced in Hebrew at the back of the volume) enriched by Kallus’s immense knowledge of the Jewish sources. Citing the comment “...even the soul of an ignoramus contains soul-sparks that gives such a one occasional access to high spiritual levels,” Kallus notes, “This is a startling humanistic, democratic attitude of one toward one’s fellow, which I have In addition, a long essay by Glazer notes similarities shared by Hasidism and Turkish Sufi Islam, and ties it in with the Turkish influence in early 18th century Ukraine and with the Besht’s aborted attempt to journey to the Holy Land.
Most of the quotes from the Besht in these texts come from the earliest generations of Hassidic literature. The effects of time are apparent. The later Hassidic authors, foremost among them the 19th century Rabbi Isaac of Komarno, Ukraine, emphasized the Lurianic sub-text in the Besht’s words, which for the most part is less stressed in many of the earlier works. But the most significant shift of nuance is between the teachings of the Besht as filtered through the pedagogical tradition of the Maggid of Mezritch and his followers, whch arose after the Besht’s death, and the direct renditions of the words of the Besht in their original homiletic setting, found in the writings of the Maggid’s contemporary, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye and others.
Why, though, should a modern reader, let alone writer, be interested in this subject, when as mentioned above, it is rare that we find Jewish communities really fervent in their prayer. Outside the yeshiva world, or the ultra-Orthodox, people show very little concern for prayer.
“It’s a reflection of people’s inner lives,” says Kallus. This is the central point of Kallus’s involvement in this area of experience – somewhere between the world we sense and the world beyond it.
“I was always involved in prayers,” he says.
“My parents came to Brooklyn as refugees after the Second World War. Every now and then, someone would come by to collect money with his pushke, and he would have such a shining face. I was eight years old when the Skulener Rebbe was allowed out of Russia. He prayed with us one Shabbat and this was the first time I saw someone recite the Sh’ma [a short prayer recited during morning and evening services] for half an hour! We prayed in a shul where the rabbi was very learned and most of the congregants were Holocaust survivors from Europe, so I was privileged to hear many forms of traditional Hassidic liturgy.
“My involvement with the study of hassidut started only after my bar mitzva.
At that time, the rabbi of the synagogue where we prayed was a descendant of well-known ecstatic Hassidic dynasties – Rabbi Meir of Premishlan [1783-1850] and Rabbi Mordechai of Nadvorna [1823-1891]. He couldn’t carry a tune, but it didn’t matter. I was taken by the sincerity of his prayer. For about two years, I went to a high-school/beit midrash founded by Rabbi Simcha Wasserman in Los Angeles, around the time that the first Chabad House was founded there in 1969, and then went to a yeshiva high-school in Brooklyn, and that’s where I fell foul of the yeshiva world.
“In my mid-adolescence I went away from yiddishkeit altogether. On the other hand, around that time, we inherited from my grandfather a first edition of the “Chumash Heichal haBeracha” by Rabbi Isaac of Komarno, which contained extensive intertextual analysis of the words of the Besht and the Kabbala. I thus started acquiring the vocabulary of Kabbala.”
After many years of personal searching, travels, meditation, drugs, yeshiva, going to college – Kallus eventually received a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2004, for his thesis on “The Theurgy of Prayer in Lurianic Kabbalah”.
Kallus finally decided to publish this work, which has already garnered praise from many quarters. Not a moment too soon, he feels.
“The Besht book emphasizes the importance of words. I was astonished to read that the people running the campaign for the president of the United States don’t even consider it important to be concerned about what fact-checkers say. The Besht book says that what you think, and what you say, and how you communicate really does matter.”
This book offers the kind of inner searching that a sincere person looking for pure prayer will find in abundance, alongside a detailed analysis of why prayer is important.
According to Kallus, if the Besht hadn’t existed, the Jewish world would have looked totally different. “We would have missed the last honest voice of spiritual Judaism.
Afterward, the rabbis were too afraid to talk because of the Enlightenment.” Kallus adds that the followers of Enlightenment tended to look down on anything ‘mystical,’ considering it bordering on superstition and not rational.
Now that we are all enlightened, we appear to need to pray even more.