True-confession time. I’m what’s called in Catholic circles a contemplative. The more generally used term is mystic. In fact, some 30 years ago, when I was still a Lutheran, my Centering prayer teacher, a Franciscan nun named Sister Joan T., hired me to do a four-book adult-ed series at St. Olaf Catholic Church, Minneapolis, where I was introduced on signs as “Dr. Reynold Feldman, Contemplative.” Now for those who know me, this bit of self-disclosure may be surprising since I am such an extreme extrovert, and the general concept of contemplatives is that they are self-contained, non-talkative introverts. Yet Sister Joan was not wrong. And although my contemplative training comes roughly from the Sufi mystical tradition of Islam, a major inspiration for me as a cradle Jew is the Baal Shem Tov and the mystical order he is credited as having founded, the Hasidim...
What we know about the Baal Shem Tov, or Besht, comes mainly from his followers. He was in many senses a man of mystery. The tradition is that he was born Israel ben Eliezar in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine in 1698 and died on May 22, 1760. Numerologically, his month, the 5th, and date of death, 22 (incidentally the sacred number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet), resolve to 9, the all-and-everything number. After it comes 10 which numerologically is ONE (1 + 0), the number for God. So, Israel ben Eliezar ended his earthly mission fully (9) and returned to his Creator (1). He began that mission on turning 36, numerologically also a 9 (3 + 6) and, in the Jewish mystical tradition 36 is the number of unknown righteous men in the world (the Lamed-vav Zadikim) required to keep the Almighty from destroying it. During his ministry the Besht was a healer, preacher, beggar, stand-up comedian—probably not the first in Jewish history—and above all a storyteller. Mystical powers, for example the ability to be in two places at once, were attributed to him. He was thus given the title of Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name. Because he was credited as knowing the Unspeakable Name of the Divine, his followers said, he was able to do all these extraordinary things. His many devotees in Eastern and Central Europe were called the Hasidim, from the Hebrew term for a pious, or observant, Jew. According to Wikipedia, a central tenet in the Baal Shem’s teaching was dvekut, or the belief that everyone has the innate capacity for a direct connection with God at all times and in all places. Moreover, not only is joy not ruled out, but it is the primary manifestation that one has consciously achieved that connection. Not surprisingly, singing and dancing became the public trademark of the Besht and his Hasidim.
The Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), whom I was honored to know, not only founded the newest version of Judaism, Jewish Renewal, but was, in my opinion, a modern version of the Baal Shem Tov. He was literally a member of a Hasidic lineage, but more importantly, he had that playful, joyous spirit that characterized the Besht. Like the Baal Shem, Reb Zalman was a holy man who was also, as we Jews say, “a real mensch” for whom smiling, laughing, and joking were habitual.