250th Yahrzeit of “Baal Shem Tov” – Shavuos 5520-5770 (1760-2010)
I’ll never forget the question posed to me by a woman in South Miami Beach. I had just finished a lecture about my book, Toward a Meaningful Life, presenting the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to the secular public.
“Did the Rebbe recognize Conservative Judaism?” asked the woman. “Because if he did not, I don’t want to buy the book of a bigot,” she bluntly stated. The entire auditorium fell silent.
I paused before I replied. “No, he did not recognize its legitimacy.” The audience became uncomfortably restless, until I continued: “But he also didn’t recognize Orthodox Judaism, ultra-orthodox, reformodox, reconstructodox, and all the other ‘doxes’ that have been and will be created.
“The reason being: Nowhere is mention made of all these labels in the constitution of Judaism – The Torah.
“Indeed, allow me to ask you in return: Was Moses Orthodox, Conservative or Reform? Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of spirituality knows that one cannot stereotype and fit the soul into man-made labels and structures. The soul is not square, round, tall or short. Neither is it orthodox, conservative or reform, any more than it is republican or democrat. The soul is a Divine force in each of us, infusing us with an indispensable mission to fulfill in our lifetime.”
I learned this fundamental truth in Chassidic thought, as a student and chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Rabbi Schneerson, or as he is lovingly called “The Rebbe,” was the ninth in a dynasty of Rebbes, spiritual leaders, that began with the founding of the Chassidic movement in 1734 by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov.
The Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidic movement he founded can be appreciated by placing his advent in historical context. The primary challenge facing the Jewish people following the Emancipation in the 18th century was: How to benefit from their newfound freedoms while not compromising the integrity of millennia-old Jewish tradition. Indeed, modern assimilation was birthed as a result of a people unprepared for the challenges of accelerated emancipation. The challenge would take on different forms in the subsequent years – the battle between religion and science, between church and state and between faith and reason. Some chose insulation to protect from these progressive forces; others compartmentalization, and yet others assimilation.
The Baal Shem Tov and his successors – Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch (d. 1772) and his students, who began various Chassidis dynasties – developed an eloquent and comprehensive system to bridge the schism between the material and the spiritual – offering a dynamic blueprint for Jewish life today, one that makes the spiritual journey personally relevant to contemporary times.
Drawing from the vast corpus of mystical and Talmudic teachings, Chassidus teaches that within all of matter lies potent spiritual energy. Each of us is charged with the mission of discovering the Divine “sparks” allocated to us in our respective corner of the world and sphere of influence.
We relieve the tension between matter and spirit by spiritualizing the material, releasing the Divine energy embedded in every person, object and experience. Redemption is the natural culmination of this process. Recognizing the Divine soul in each person naturally leads to a loving attitude toward every individual, regardless of background or persuasion.
If Kabbalah manifests the Divine in the human then Chassidism transforms the human into the Divine. This interface between God and Man allows us to enter the emancipated world of the West without compromising timeless values. On the contrary: it begets the opportunity to integrate both freedoms, material and spiritual, by refining and spiritualizing material secularism, turning the world into an intimate home for the Divine. Chassidus offers man the tools to perceive and reveal the Divine in every aspect of life: to integrate personal independence with the highest moral standards of Torah, to blend fiery passion with profound intellect.
The ultimate litmus test for the success of any movement or philosophy is its future – does it inspire passion and commitment in its youth? Does it have the power to perpetuate into future generations?
Since its inception, some 250 years ago, Chassidus has spawned generations of adherents, men and women from all walks of life. Today, Chassidus is a vibrant force in Judaism: Infused with a profound sense of mission, tens of thousands of young revolutionaries can be found all across the globe, building schools, synagogues and community centers – perpetuating Jewish life and igniting souls.
What lies behind this power is a profound philosophy that plumbs the depths of Talmud and Kabbalah and integrates it into a systematic lifestyle, joining ritual and spiritual in a seamless union, resting on the underpinnings of the cardinal mitzvah in the Torah: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
The intimate appreciation of each soul’s dignity – regardless of background, education, or Jewish experience – drives the Chassid, welcoming all with an unmatched warmth and non-judgmentalism. Eternal and humble respect for the mysterious journey of every unique soul, and the responsibility to do everything possible to actualize that soul’s potential, lies at the heart of a Chassid’s commitment: to not just warm yourself in this cold universe but to warm all those around you.
Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated… is not the way a Chassid looks at a Jew. A Jew is a Divine soul, period. And “who can know their [every soul’s] greatness and excellence of in their root and source in the living God…all Jews are called real brothers” (Tanya chapter 32).
What does the future hold to a Chassid? The Chassid is driven by the words of Moshiach to the Baal Shem Tov: “When will you come?” asked the Baal Shem Tov of Moishiach, to which he replied: “When your wellsprings will spread outward.” The Chassid is dedicated with all his heart and soul to spread these “wellsprings” everywhere he can reach. The Chassid is infused with the absolute belief that we now stand at the threshold of Redemption – when all the Divine “sparks” will be actualized. We therefore are compelled to do everything possible to finish our work of refining and transforming the material universe into a Divine home; to be “a light unto nations” and reveal the G-dly “spark” in every human being and in every part of existence. Then, our accumulative effort, coupled with the hard work of generations past, will finally erupt into a global surge of goodness and spirituality, bringing on the age of redemption, the messianic age, when the “wellsprings” will flow outward and the world will be filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.