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The Battle of the Baal Shem Tov

What I learned as a child, listening to my father and grandfather argue over the founder of Hasidic Judaism

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
May 12, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

When I was 8 years old, in the summer of 1971, I went with my parents to the Torah Umesorah Conference, an annual gathering for Jewish educators held at the old Pioneer Hotel in the Catskills.

My father, a rabbi/educator, was in his element, with lots of people there like him: rabbis and their wives, little rabbis and big ones, filled with life-gladness and the absoluteness that their calling sometimes conferred on them. These were principals and teachers who loosely belonged to the then-nascent Jewish day school movement.

My father was so well regarded by his peers, some of them kissed his hand and genuflected with exaggerated bows. And he was not even among the head honchos. The sages of the generation were there, men in their 80s and 90s—Rabbi Yakov Kaminetsky, Reb Moshe Feinstein—as were, on occasion, various Hasidic rebbes, including the rebbes of Novominsk, Boyan, and Bluzhev. The faces of these men shone Sabbath light from the dais on to the crowd.

My job was, as always, to keep my father company, root for him, learn from him, and make sure to not get in his way—a task I performed with the seriousness of a young corporal attached to General Patton’s unit. As a reward for good behavior throughout the Sabbath, my father allowed me on Sunday morning to go over to the booksellers table to buy a book. “Any one you want,” he said. I bought Tales of the Baal Shem Tov by Yisroel Yaakov Klapholz. This was a collection of stories about the legendary founder of the Hasidic movement, Yisroel son of Eliezer, who lived in the 18th century in Poland and the Ukraine and was reputed to possess mystical powers beyond human comprehension.

This great man and his exploits held extra meaning for me: My maternal grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Twersky, had drilled into us (at every Sabbath meal and every family and religious occasion): Do you know who you are descended from? That’s right. You are 10th generation fun di Baal Shem Hakadosh—a direct linye, he would say in Yiddish, a direct line.

What a gift to an 8-year-old! Not only to be the son of a rabbi, but to be descendant of the rabbi of all rabbis, the miracle worker the Baal Shem Tov, known by his acronym, the Besht.

I immediately began to ravish this book, reading every page of stories of derring-do and heroism on behalf of the cause of righteousness and of the Jewish people. With the grandiosity of an 8-year-old, and on account of my name, Alter Yisrael Shimon, the namesake of the family saint, the Novominsker rebbe of Warsaw (who was also my grandfather’s uncle and his father-in-law) I fancied myself to be spiritual heir to the Baal Shem Tov. I even managed to convince myself that I was in love with a girl who lived a few blocks away whose name was Chaya. Why, the Baal Shem Tov’s wife’s name was Chaya!

Unfortunately, there was a problem. My father told me he believed not a word of any of the stories in the book. My father, a rationalist rabbi if there ever was one, said these tales had no evidence to support them and the book itself was a copy of an earlier Yiddish book from 150 years ago of questionable provenance called the Shivchei HaBesht.

My grandfather, however, swore that these tales were true to the letter, adding a few of his own. This inflamed my father and they quarreled. Of course, to an 8-year-old, it was hard to distinguish between these tales and the miracle tales of the Bible. If the stories of the Baal Shem Tov were not true, then what of the splitting of the Red Sea, and the fall of Jericho, the 10 plagues? Did not Joshua stop the sun and the moon in their tracks to protect the Gibeonites? Thus, my father, the rabbi, unwittingly brought me into my first crisis of faith.

I would come to the Sabbath table proudly talking tales of exorcism, miraculous rescue of Jews oppressed by their feudal landlords, deliverance from certain death, imprisonment. It was said that the Besht could intercede at all levels of heaven and earth. He could make the sand tremble and could walk on water. He might use an amulet or the word, but he could make barren women conceive, bring wealth to a simple dairy farmer, ascend to heaven to file a brief with God on behalf of an oppressed man—Jew or gentile.

One time the Besht and some of his disciples were headed to the mikvah and a band of Ukrainian ruffians pounced upon them. The Baal Shem Tov was not the least bit afraid and he fended off the attackers. One of the belligerents was a mere youth, strong but not yet fully grown even as he was the town bully, and the Besht decreed that he should never grow beyond his present height. He of course, never again laid a hand against a Jew and tradition has it that in fact, he remained a stunted man.

My father called this a fable, but my grandfather saw great meaning in it: You don’t know the powers of the Holy Baal Shem. The behemos, the livestock of the Besht and his disciples, were on a higher plane than human beings!

Meanwhile, I got more and more wrapped up with the book. Hero worship was in my DNA. When I was 4 I had become entranced with Captain America and thereafter idolized my father as my next superhero, but this was better. He, the Baal Shem Tov, worked directly with God! And now every story I would read or hear (and back in the 1970s there were plenty) of Jews being hijacked, attacked, imprisoned in the Soviet Union—if only the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov could be conjured, he could stop an army, halt a plague, topple all of communism, end the war in Vietnam—all with prayer or just even with the secret word of God.

Nevertheless, I also learned from the book that many Jews called misnagdim persecuted the Baal Shem Tov and his followers, physically beat them on occasion and even worse—a few informed or snitched on them to the gentile government. I asked my father how could Jews—people of learning, no less—hurt each other like that? He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess they were angry. When people are angry they do all kinds of things.”

Meanwhile, the situation between my grandfather and father grew worse. Every time I brought up the Besht at the dining room table, my father and grandfather would argue in fierce, high-temperature Yiddish. Did the Besht know Shulkhan Arukh? my father would mockingly ask. A Jew, certainly a rabbi, must know Shulkhan Arukh! “He knew everything,” Zayde would say as he helped himself to a piece of chicken. Although the two men sat next to each other, this arrangement was no hindrance to full-scale verbal assault that erupted between them. They traded barbs and snipes, all in defense of their respective mentors and schools of Yiddishkeit. My father invoked his teachers, men of the Lithuanian tradition such as those who were at the conference; my grandfather invoked his fathers and relatives and their greatness. As the pitch rose, and wine and beer were drunk, one could hear shouts of buffoon, am haartez, ignoramus, yold, and the like.

It did not take long for it to dawn on me that their conflict mirrored the ones between misnagdim and Hasidim of old. After all, it was about how to properly be a Jew, but it took me much longer to understand that what was between them was also deeply personal—it was about their respective injuries and aspirations.

In fact, in the passing of years, I realized that their wounds went all the way back to the Old Country. Dad doubted (and resented) the miracle workers on my grandfather’s side, the pantofl yidn, men who wore slippers, who did not know the salt of the ground as his ancestors had. My father’s people were men of the earth who knew what a cow and a pig and a horse smelled like.

My grandfather, on the other hand, saw my father as essentially a hard-working peasant whose rationalist rabbinic garb and knowledge—though he respected it—could do only so much to blunt the scars of his primitive pedigree, which imposed on him a blindness to the greatness of the Besht.

Indeed, my father believed only in the miracles of the Bible. A Jew today could neither expect nor demand any heavenly intercession in a supernatural way. You worked a day whether on the farm or on a page of Talmud and God blessed your efforts. One reached higher and higher levels of godliness, by knowing. A Jew must know! He must spend hours and hours over the Talmud and master the works of all of the medieval sages like Rashi, the Rashba, and the Rambam in order to even pretend to be close to God—and expect no miracles!

For my grandfather, such labor was laudable but unnecessary. A Jew was about being. Not about knowing. If one could be a Jew, really be a Jew—that was the labor of the soul—and through the labor of the soul, one could ascend to God, and even expect miracles. Even if he was not a scholar of the Talmud.

Who was right? My father or my grandfather?

I didn’t have the sophistication of course at that age to even pretend to know, but I studied both of these men. My father did everything by the book. The law said a Havdalah candle had to be braided and have at least two wicks. Dad labored to get it all right, whether it was a Havdalah candle or mezuzos or tefillin. Even his lesson plans as an educator were color-coded and organized for a ferocious assault on the forces of laziness and complacency.

But when I would visit my grandfather at his ramshackle summer bungalow on the Far Rockaway shore, at Sabbath’s end, there was no Havdalah candle. He would make Havdalah over the blue flames from the gas burner. It was neither a candle nor did it have wicks, but my grandfather, born in Chernobyl and son of the great rebbes of Trisk and Chernobyl and even of the Holy Baal Shem himself, gave me a look across the stovetop as if to say that his “substandard” offering was just as acceptable to God.

The Baal Shem Tov, he told me, would go ibber di hayzer—into and out of the homes of every Jew back in White Russia and Poland; even the lowly ones were high in his eyes. He knew what was in their houses and in their hearts—Havdalah candle or not.

Years later when I encountered the famous Chagall watercolor “Over Vitebsk” it came to me that this was a visual representation of my grandfather’s mind. In that famous and sublime painting, the shtetl of Eastern Europe is depicted as a dimension where the supernatural and the prosaic exist side by side. There’s snow and houses that are all too real, yet there is a figure like the Besht who is both saint, beggar, and itinerant preacher who drifts large and above like a Thanksgiving Day float—vos geyt ibber de hayser—literally goes over the houses, taking and giving and watching over the frail and fragile Jews of the interminable, dark, and frozen Polish-Russian exile.

Every few years. I would again accompany my father to the Torah Umesorah Conference. He and his buddies aged, and yet at the dais were still the scions and the great men of the generation who presided. One time someone told me of a middle-aged man who tried to flatter one of the Lithuanian sages, someone whom my father had worshiped. The man thought he had picked an easy mark. “You know,” he said, “it’s America now and we are all friends, the Hasidim and the misnagdim.” (He waved his hand toward the Hasidic rebbes who shared the dais.) “But truth be told, the Baal Shem Tov may have been great and all that, but he wasn’t like you and your students. He could not master a page of Talmud—after all, he was an orphan boy who instead of learning in yeshiva spent time in the forests trying to get in touch with God.”

Instead of agreeing with him, the old sage became furious with the flatterer: “I do not forgive you. Neither in this world nor the next! The Baal Shem Tov was able through a shailas khalom—through dreams—to ascend to heaven and bring down the Torah! He was every bit the scholar as he was holy. And he worked very hard for it. Shame on you!”

By the time I heard this story I was already a fully formed man. Yet I remembered the fights at the Shabbes table long ago and tears came to me unbidden. My God! My grandfather had been right.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.