We Have Much to Learn

Despite pretensions to the contrary, my knowledge of great world religions other than Christianity is woefully deficient. You might say a one-size-fits-all superficiality characterizes my understanding. I claim to be fascinated with other cultures and peoples but I am still trapped in caricatures and stereotypes.  My loss!

As a Roman Catholic I should know better. Too many presume we all walk in lock-step – granted, too many in the hierarchy wish that were the case! But it’s not as if the Pope sneezes and we all catch cold! Many of us would not survive if that were the case, nor should we!

In the spirit of pushing back against stereotypes and caricatures, I was fascinated to learn that Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer of Mezbizk died on this day in 1760. He was honored with the appellation “Master of the Good Name” as founder of Hasidic Judaism. That title is Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew, thus he came to be commonly known as the “Besht”.

The rabbi has much to teach all people of good will about faith and the spiritual life. Rather than providing a set of teachings, the Besht “communicated his lessons through a certain attitude, a spirit of joy, an instinct for the holiness of experience.” Thus, his followers inspired so many they came to be known as the “pious ones,” the Hasidim.

The Besht was born into a Ukraine still reeling from brutal persecution in which more than a hundred thousand Jews had lost their lives. Within this world of suffering, he proclaimed a “mysticism of the everyday.” Within each task and each moment, regardless of how mundane, there resides a spark of the divine.

The Besht opposed excessive asceticism just as he opposed a preoccupation with the law. Each person is called to discover and express the potential holiness imbedded in the everyday and ordinary. And, this was all to be grounded in a pervasive spirit of joy. He spoke of prayer as a window to heaven and called the entire world a house of prayer.

We have the twentieth century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber to thank for popularizing the stories and example of the Baal Shem Tov and early Hasidic masters well beyond their home in Eastern Europe. Though not himself a Hasid, Buber recognized that Hasidic spirituality carries a universal message especially relevant to the secularized West.

Buber summarized the Besht’s consecration of everyday life to God this way: “The human task, of everyone, according to Hasidic teaching, is to affirm for God’s sake the world and oneself and by this very means to transform both.”

The large Hasidic community in Eastern Europe was largely extinguished by the Nazis. Vibrant communities in the United States and Israel continue to give expression to the joyful and compassionate vision of the Baal Shem Tov.

We have much to learn! We have much to learn!


I am entirely indebted to All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Times by Robert Ellsberg (Crossroads, 1999) pp. 224-5 for this reflection.

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