by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
The Ba’al Shem Tov was a mystic who was able to ascend to higher spiritual realms through ecstatic worship, experiencing the underlying radiance, mystery and oneness of reality. His disciples were drawn to him, in large part, because of the promise that they could learn from him the way to enter those higher realms.
While it is true that the experience of transcendence was essential to the Besht, this pursuit was not the only or even the primary aim of the master’s spiritual path. At the heart of his mystical vocation was the necessity of shining the light of the Infinite into ordinary finite existence, illuminating darkness and chaos and revealing the presence of divinity in every here and now.
The Besht was heir to a spiritual and moral discipline known as musar that went all the way back to the eleventh century. Musar teachers created an entire genre of literature emphasizing the importance of living one’s life in a righteous way. These teachers provided their readers with spiritual practices that would gradually refine the seeker’s thought, behavior and beliefs so they would be able to attain moral and spiritual integrity and mastery.
Yet as significant as musar was it generally tended to have an ascetic edge, and by the Ba’al Shem’s time teachers would often use shame, guilt, fear, and threats of punishment after death as ways to motivate people to develop the moral and religious dimensions of their lives. But this method only made people feel bad about themselves, and it had the effect of cutting them off from the awareness of the divinity and the goodness within them.
The Ba’al Shem vigorously opposed this approach to musar. He felt that people were basically good and that they should work to make that goodness real in their lives and in the world. He opposed methods that directed seekers’ efforts on subduing their own wickedness, and favored a path that emphasized the transformation of the darker impulses into virtues. He also taught his disciples how to displace ego-centeredness with soul-centeredness, which would link the seeker to the divine within themselves. He focused his own understanding of musar on the cultivation of spiritual and moral virtues such as service, humility, equanimity, love, compassion, and joy.
I can personally attest to the transformative power of this discipline. Over time, such practices can dissolve deeply ingrained patterns of negative, distrustful behavior caused by past cruelty and disappointment.
The master was convinced that human beings could not heal the world (tikkun ha’olam) without first healing their own souls (tikkun ha’nefesh). This brings to mind an insight that comes from Marianne Williamson: “We expand our political activism to include spiritual growth work, in order that we might ourselves become facilitators of change. And we expand our perception of spiritual practice to include political activism, that we might profoundly extend our compassion into the world.”
Based on the insights of psychologist Abraham Maslow, I believe that the Besht’s view of ethics and morality flowed not so much from traditional books, but rather from his mystical or peak experiences. During these moments of oneness, he would experience not only wholeness, holiness, wonder, awe and joy, but also love, compassion, truth, goodness, wisdom and justice.
This Fall, in the Tikkun Ha’Nefesh: Spiritual Growth Circle, described in the accompanying announcement, we will engage with the path developed by the Ba’al Shem Tov, focusing on personal spiritual growth and transformation.