Posted on | April 11, 2008 | By Rabbi Yonason Goldson | 6 Comments
In 1648, the Cossack massacres in Poland led by Bogdan Chmielnicki plunged European Jewry into nearly a century of spiritual darkness. Peasant uprisings fomented against the Polish nobility, with the Jews caught in the middle, left at least 100,000 dead, and perhaps many times that number.
Many Jews sought meaning within the senseless violence by imagining that the bloodshed constituted the chevlei Moshiach – the birthpangs of the messianic era. The appearance of the false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi raised, then dashed, the hopes of thousands, spreading depression and despair through Jewish communities across Europe.
The sages of Europe, fearing the rise of other charismatic personalities that might draw Jews desperate for hope into folly, issued decrees against the teaching of mysticism and against practices that might, by enflaming the emotions, lead the people astray. According to the law of unintended consequences, these edicts left many Jews without the means of expressing themselves spiritually and condemned them to life without either joy or inspiration.
It was a dismal time for European Jewry. The average Jew lacked sufficient scholarship to find inspiration in learning. Expressions of the heart and soul were not allowed. Potential leaders, like the saintly Ramchal, were literally chased out of Europe.
The appearance of Rav Yisroel Ba’al Shem Tov changed everything. Controversial, contested, and at first universally condemned, the Ba’al Shem Tov persisted against his many detractors and spread his message of inspired joy. The Chassidic movement transformed Europe, until even its most vehement opponents could no longer deny that it had saved the soul of European Jewry.
In stark contrast to many the reformers who would soon attempt to revitalize Judaism by stripping it of both form and content, the Ba’al Shem Tov offered no new ideas. Rather, he sought to re-emphasize that which had fallen dormant, stressing aspects of traditional Torah philosophy that had been actively suppressed. For his efforts, the Torah establishment demonized him and persecuted his early followers with vitriolic passion.
Perhaps, as we enter into the Festival of Freedom and prepare to celebrate HaShem’s overthrow of the Egyptian nation that oppressed us, it’s worth our while to contemplate whether a bit of revolutionary spirit is not consistent with Torah ideology. Condescension for – or outright contempt toward – legitimate expressions of Orthodoxy characterizes too much of today’s Orthodox community. When superficiality increasingly characterizes the right, when complacency increasingly characterizes the left, when arrogance and indifference frequent every quarter, uncompromising adherence to the status quo seems an unlikely recipe for redemption.
Virtually no one today would question the legitimacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his movement. It is sobering to contemplate how much violence was justified in the name of Truth and Torah in the early conflict between the Chassidim and Misnagdim. If the tensions and frustrations that afflict so many Torah Jews today can be directed and channeled by our leaders, perhaps we can prevent a similar upheaval. If not, the tortured history of those ideological adversaries may provide a solemn prophecy of what lies ahead.