by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
When Abraham Joshua Heschel arrived in the U.S. in 1940 from war-torn Europe, he was determined to write a book on the Ba’al Shem Tov. My teacher had lost most of his family in Poland and during that bleak time he deeply needed to connect with the hopeful spirit of the founder of Hasidism. He had other books he wanted to write, however, and he decided that the volume about the Besht would have to wait. In 1954, Heschel received a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a biography of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He engaged in research for the book for over ten years.
And then in 1965-66, during my senior year in rabbinical school, there were two serious arson attempts on the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was living on the sixth floor of the rabbinical school dormitory, and both times I had to escape by climbing through my dormitory window onto a narrow parapet and then crawling several hundred feet to safety. The first fire did little real damage, but the second, which took place in April of 1966, destroyed seventy thousand books and damaged many others. My friend and fellow student, Arthur Green, was standing in front of the Seminary next to Rabbi Heschel while the fire was raging. He told me that Heschel was weeping. “There goes my book on the Besht,” he told Green. Heschel had left his entire collection of notes and insights on the Ba’al Shem with the volumes he was studying in the rare books collection, and they were going up in flames.
The last book in English that Heschel wrote before his death was a work on the Hasidic rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. The book was published in 1973. I read it during the period of time that I was still feeling alienated from Judaism. I didn’t know that Heschel had died just before A Passion for Truth came out in print. In the first 80 pages of the book Heschel offered a comparison between the Ba’al Shem and the Kotzker rebbe. He wrote that the Besht focused his teachings on love and joy, while the Kotzker taught about the necessity for uncovering the lies that people use to hide from the truth.
“I was taught about inexhaustible mines of meaning by the Baal Shem; from the Kotzker I learned to detect immense mountains of absurdity standing in the way. The one taught me song, the other—silence. The one reminded me that there could be a Heaven on earth, the other shocked me into discovering Hell in the alleged Heavenly places in our world.”
Let us look more closely at what my teacher had to say about the Ba’al Shem Tov. Heschel emphasizes the master’s buoyant teachings on goodness, on love, on cherishing the physical world, on joy and ecstasy and on erotic love. But when I first read Heschel’s description of the Besht I was most taken with the Besht’s view of human potential, because at the time I was plagued by my own sense of low self-esteem.
For the Besht, Heschel wrote, the greatest sin is forgetting that as children of God, we are royal beings and we have royal power, power to mend the world:
“All worlds are in need of exaltation, and everyone is charged to lift what is low, to advance what is left behind.”
How do we engage in this sacred work? The Besht taught that every one of us has his or her individual destiny, spiritual goals, and special forms of service that can lift what is low. He taught the daring notion of spiritual redemption for the individual—that each one of us has the ability to find liberation for our souls. And he stressed inwardness, the workings of the heart which lent importance to the personal situation of an individual.
The Ba’al Shem maintained that human beings are capable of such great spiritual achievements because of the divinity that dwells within us. He taught that every Jew could be a sanctuary. The ancient Temple in Jerusalem could be rebuilt by each Jew within his own soul.
How do we find God? Heschel writes that the Ba’al Shem taught that
“You will know God, who is above, from within, out of yourself. Man has a soul which is itself a divine portion of Divinity and through it he can intuit something of the Divinity of God who is above.”
It is not the Torah, not the tradition that takes us to God. Rather, it is the spiritual potential within each of us, our souls. If I could learn to connect with my soul, the Besht taught, I could find redemption. It is this this teaching more than any other that persuaded me to return to Judaism and to take the Ba’al Shem Tov as my primary spiritual teacher.