Baal Shem Tov

wil

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from chabad.org
Iyar 25, 5769 · May 19, 2009

G-d Within


By Tzvi Freeman

Before the Baal Shem Tov, people thought of G-d as the One who directs all things from above and beyond.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that the vital force of each thing, from which comes its personality, its sense of pain and pleasure, its growth and life -- that itself is G-d. Not that this is all of G-d. It is less than a glimmer of G-d, because He is entirely beyond all such descriptions. But that life force is G-d as He is found within each creature He has made.
from wiki
The foundation-stone of Hasidism as laid by Besht is a strongly marked panentheistic conception of God. He declared the whole universe, mind and matter, to be a manifestation of the Divine Being; that this manifestation is not an emanation from God, as is the conception of the Kabbalah by Mitnagdim, for nothing can be separated from God: all things are rather forms in which God reveals Himself. When man speaks, said Besht, he should remember that his speech is an element of life, and that life itself is a manifestation of God. Even evil exists in God. This seeming contradiction is explained on the ground that evil is not bad in itself, but only in its relation to man. It is wrong to look with desire upon a woman; but it is divine to admire her beauty: it is wrong only insofar as man does not regard beauty as a manifestation of God, but misconceives it, and thinks of it in reference to himself. Nevertheless, sin is nothing positive, but is identical with the imperfections of human deeds and thought. Whoever does not believe that God resides in all things, but separates God and them in his thoughts, has not the right conception of God. It is equally fallacious to think of a creation in time: creation, that is, God's activity, has no end. God is ever active in the changes of nature: in fact, it is in these changes that God's continuous creativeness consists.
This panentheism would have been ignored, had Besht not been a man of the people. He gave his metaphysical conception of God an eminently practical significance.
The first result of his principles was a remarkable optimism. Since God is immanent in all things, all things must possess something good in which God manifests Himself as the source of good. For this reason, the Besht taught, every man must be considered good, and his sins must be explained, not condemned. One of his favorite sayings was that no man has sunk too low to be able to raise himself to God. Naturally, then, it was his chief endeavor to convince sinners that God stood as near to them as to the righteous, and that their misdeeds were chiefly the consequences of their folly.
Another important result of his doctrines, which was of great practical importance, was his denial that asceticism is pleasing to God. "Whoever maintains that this life is worthless is in error: it is worth a great deal; only one must know how to use it properly." From the very beginning Besht fought against that contempt for the world which, through the influence of Isaac Luria's Kabbalah, had almost become a dogma among the Jews. He considered care of the body as necessary as care of the soul; since matter is also a manifestation of God, and must not be considered as hostile or opposed to Him.
As Besht fought ascetics, so he fought the rigidity and sanctimony that had accreted to strict Talmudic viewpoints while not abrogating a single religious ceremony or observance. His target was the great importance which the Talmudic view attaches to the fulfillment of a law, while almost entirely disregarding sentiment or the growth of man's inner life. While the rabbis of his day considered the study of the Talmud as the most important religious activity, Besht laid all the stress on prayer. "All that I have achieved," he once remarked, "I have achieved not through study, but through prayer". Prayer, however, is not merely petitioning God to grant a request, nor even necessarily speaking to God, but rather ("cleaving", dvekut)— the glorious feeling of 'Oneness with God Almighty', the state of the soul wherein a man or woman gives up their consciousness of separate existence, and join their own selves to the Eternal Being of God Supreme. Such a state produces indescribable bliss, which is the foremost fruit of the true worship of God.
Now this fits quite well with much of my Christian belief. Where Jesus said regarding the kingdom of heaven...look neither high nor low it is in your midst.... and I and the father are one...which is a direct extension of everything being manifestations of G!d.
 
Excellent piece - I was beginning to think I was the only one who gravitation towards any form of panentheism! But to find it ingrained in any branch of any religious tradition is always a welcome surprise - though somehow I'm not surprised that it arises within a part of Judaism. :)
 
u me n poo

What I find interesting is that you and PoO both seem to approach the issue from a very Christian-centric position, so you both often appear to me as Liberal Christians, rather than Panentheist.

However, I guess if Panentheist is more a philosophical proposition than an issue of faith, no wonder it can be found in wider theological discussions.
 
I kind of see it as both- a matter of faith (as is any type of theism) and a philosophical proposition. I also think that it is visible in many of the religions' mystical writings, perhaps a somewhat common conclusion for any who spend a good deal of time connecting to God, and seeing this connection expand their concept of God until they can see the unity behind the diversity. I think the latter part was most telling (for me)- the emphasis on prayer, and not just prayer as reaching out, but prayer as opening up and waiting in faith.

Thanks for posting this, Wil. Very interesting read, and I agree that it would undergird my own Christian interpretation of Jesus' teachings. In fact, it would also be entirely understandable to most in modern Druidry, which generally upholds life and nature as a manifestation of the Divine itself, and which encourages a sense of balance rather than asceticism and a sense of error being out of proper place-time rather than condemnation according to any strict code.

Oh, and to add one to the mix, I believe Luna also views herself as a panentheist along with being a Trinitarian.
 
As I read more about Kabbalah and Chassidism it seems that they bring together ideas related to both understanding reality and happiness. Understanding reality is a hard, nuts and bolts endeavor, steeped in rationality. Panentheism and even atheism are good fits with these ideas.

On the other hand, happiness and joy are also a important parts of our existance. It seems like mysticism can provide this part, but I do not really understand that to well :)

In my reading of some of R. Zalman's ideas about Jewish Renewal I see these complementary ideas portrayed.
 
I wonder how much influence Sufi panentheism had on early Hassidim.

Obadiah, welcome to the forum.

Uhmm, could you please explain the little heading over your avatar, "My God's Better" ?

By the way, what brings you to an interfaith board ?
 
Obadiah,

I was thinking, if there was an influence, it would have to have been pretty indirect. Hasidism began in Poland. My guess was that it might be found by tracing back through the thought of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. Did a little googling, came across this:

The Hasidic parable - Google Books

See the 13th note.
 
it could have come in via sufi influence on the spanish/turkish/middle-eastern kabbalists who would then in turn have influenced the kabbalistic thought in eastern europe. you'd have to show sufi influence in panentheistic terms on lurianic doctrine as drawn from the zohar i dare say. one for moshe idel, i think.

b'shalom

bananabrain
 
Uhmm, could you please explain the little heading over your avatar, "My God's Better" ?

It's just a joke. Couldn't think of anything else to put in that particular box.

By the way, what brings you to an interfaith board ?

I've been reading a forum on Islam and was looking for a more diverse range of views.

I was thinking, if there was an influence, it would have to have been pretty indirect. Hasidism began in Poland.

But there are a lot of Sephardic influences. Moses De Leon (regardless of how you view his relationship to the Zohar) was Spanish. A lot of pre-Hasidic Kabbalists were obviously influenced by Sufism. Openly, so. But the Hasidic concept of Rebbe is very similar to the concept of Shaykh.
 
But there are a lot of Sephardic influences. Moses De Leon (regardless of how you view his relationship to the Zohar) was Spanish. A lot of pre-Hasidic Kabbalists were obviously influenced by Sufism. Openly, so.

Right, that's what I was referring too. I specifically mentioned the RaMaK because he had a relatively strong influence on Hasidism. The footnote that I linked to which I'd found on google specifically links him to sufism and, more importantly, to earlier kabbalists who were even more influenced by sufism than he was.

But the Hasidic concept of Rebbe is very similar to the concept of Shaykh.

I think that connection might be a bit more difficult to make, although it is possible that certain ideas implicit in earlier kabbalistic writings about tzadikim became much more explicit in hasidism. I haven't read anything on the matter. If it's something you're interested in, the source that I provided in my last post referred to a number of books that touch on hasidism and sufism, including one by Mose Idel who BB mentioned in his post.

edit: Just wanted to add, another link worth exploring that I'd personally like to investigate more is the potential influences of Christian pietists on hasidism.
 
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