The Tisch: Repairing the foundations

According to hassidic lore, the Besht arrived with the goal of revamping Jewish leadership.

Hassidic lore has preserved the image of the Ba’al Shem Tov, also known as the Besht (ca. 1700-1760) as a rebel against the establishment. He is nearly always painted in hues of disdain for incumbent communal leaders and authority. While the historical accuracy of such a depiction has been called into question, the image of the Besht as an insurgent has served as the narrative of the hassidic movement since the first half of the 19th century as new Jewish institutions and communal mores took shape. The revolutionary image of the Besht continues to animate many hassidic tales today. Thus he is remembered as the hero who arrived in this temporal world with the mission to repair all that was broken.
Our sages tell us that the world stands on three pillars: the study of Torah, the service of God and acts of lovingkindness (M. Avot 1:2). Alas, these three foundational pillars had over the years begun to crumble.
The pillar of Torah had been tainted by the darshanim, the preachers, who would stand before the community and disparage their Jewish brothers and sisters. Rather than fortify Jewish identity, these preachers succeeded in eroding the bond between the people and the tradition. They sowed despair rather than hope.
Moreover, to make their sermons more dramatic, the preachers would falsify Jewish sources. Their audiences, often hard-working but simple Jews, could hardly know that the preacher was not quoting from an authentic source.
The second pillar, that of service of the Almighty, had initially been the province of the daily service in the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple, this pillar was transferred to the synagogue, where the medium of heartfelt prayer served as a foundation of the world. Alas, this pillar had been corrupted by the hazanim, the cantors, who were more interested in hearing their own voice reverberate than in conversing with the Almighty. Performance had taken the place of prayer. Words that should have been said with heartfelt tears were plied into the service of the concert recital and in the process mangled beyond recognition.
The cantors themselves were hardly worthy of leading the congregation. They were chosen for their vocal ability, not for their piety. Beyond the center stage of the synagogue podium, these cantors would often be empty people, void of learning and void of ethics.
The shohetim, the ritual slaughterers, were responsible for the contamination of the third pillar of the world. They were not as committed to Jewish law as one entrusted with the task of providing kosher food should be. The cost of declaring a slaughtered animal nonkosher was a serious expense that a ritual slaughterer was often tempted to consider. The lure of passing off the meat as kosher was too great for many. Under the guise of doing good deeds, they would sell the nonkosher carcasses to the poor at cheaper rates. Alas, not only were they not doing deeds of unbridled kindness, they were causing unsuspecting customers to eat nonkosher.
Thus the religious functionaries of the community – the darshan, the hazan and the shohet – entrusted with leading their charges in the path of our ancient tradition had infected the very foundations of our existence. Instead of the sustenance of Torah, of prayer and of kosher food, the people were imbibing spiritually rancid substances. Indeed, the danger of the collapse of these foundations threatened the entire human existence.
According to hassidic lore, the Besht arrived with the goal ofrevamping Jewish leadership in an attempt to rectify this diresituation. His method was simple: Lead by example. Thus the Besht beganhis career as a ritual slaughterer; later in his life when he wassurrounded by a like-minded cohort of spiritually orientedstudent-friends, he always led the prayer services. The words of Torahthat he shared with those in his midst were always authentic and likehis prayers came directly from his heart. In this manner, the Beshtsought to repair the three pillars of the world: Torah, prayer and actsof kindness.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.