Besht – Pillar of Prayer

For those looking for something to contemplate in shul for this Elul/Tishrei, I recommend the recent translation of the Amud haTefillah ascribed to the Baal Shem Tov and recently translated by Menachum Kallus as Pillar of Prayer.

Before WWII, Dunner and Wodnik collected every statement attributed to the Besht and published a volume called Besht on the Torah. It is a great teaching tool because all statement on a given topic is collected into one place. Everything on creation is in Bereshit, everything on prayer is in Noah, everything on freeing oneself from inner bondage is in Shemot to Beshalah and everything on Torah study is in VeEthanan. The volumes accept all the material from the school of the Magid of Mezerich and that of the Zlotchover Magid told in the name of the Besht. Both Scholem and Green cautioned that the learned commentary contained too much Galcian, especially Komarno material, which was too Lurianic for their conception of Hasidism. The volumes also do not contain the recent minted statements and stories of the Besht emanating from Rebbe Riyatz. Rather they contain the God-intoxicated aphorisms that were quoted, transmitted and followed in the late 19th century and in the footnotes how they were interpreted in later Hasidism, mainly Komarno.

Kallus recently translated the section in Noah on prayer with a commentary based on that of Wodnik. Read it, learn to pray with ecstasy and focus. This is not neo-hasidism or any of the recent soft repacking of Hasidism for pop psych or new age. This is fierce and demanding as the Greek Orthodox Philokalia or Tibetan Nyngma practice. Everything in the world is about God, or God’s emanted energies. It is not of self, psyche, or human potential. If you do use the sources for teaching, I would recommend softening the often abstract language of the translation and relegating the internal cited sources and parallel texts to footnotes.

The volume was recently reviewed and praised by Micha Odenheimer, Israeli journalist and founder of Tevel BeTzedek to help the unprivileged of Nepal. Micha reports on both Kallus and the sefer. The article is available from Haaretz online, but I also have a pdf of it-page one here p6 odenheimer 1 and page 2 here p7 odenheimer 2

Kallus made a journey from Hungarian Hasidc Brooklyn to practitioner of Lurianic kavvanot via Tibetan texts helps set the volume in its proper context of Komarno Hasidiism and actual meditation practice. As Odenheimer puts it “In this vision, our will, minds and emotions − the totality of our inner selves − can and should be marshaled at all times, and in all situations, in order to serve God by breaking through the illusion of separation and darkness and revealing the ecstatic truth of his unity, which includes and integrates everything…”

How does one raise distracting thoughts that arise during prayer? “through an array of contemplative tactics…” Three of those highlighted in the article are 1) hakhna’ah “surrendering” − by realizing that the content of all thoughts emerge from the divine; 2) havdalah − shifting one’s mind, for example, from desire for earthly pleasure to longing for the divine; and 3) hamtakah – sweetening our thoughts so that they connect with the divine source itself, the fount of all pleasure.

From the review:

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century, however, some 140 years after the Baal Shem Tov’s death (the 250th anniversary of his death was marked in 2010 and “Pillar of Prayer” is one product of that commemoration), that two Hasidic scholars from Warsaw, Rabbi Natan Nata Dunner and Rabbi Shimon Mendel Wodnik, began to systematically collect these quotations. They spent 16 years at the task, poring over more than 210 books and manuscripts. By comparing nearly identical teachings, gleaned from sources disparate in geography and lineage, so that one’s versions could not have influenced the other’s, they were able to convincingly demonstrate that these words did in fact authentically reflect the words of the Besht himself. Mysteriously, their work, finished by 1916, was not published in Eastern Europe
until 1938, just as the world began to collapse around Eastern European Jewry. Republished in 1948, in Brooklyn, as “Baal Shem Tov on the Torah,” the implications of the collection were largely ignored by scholars Although the reigning scholarly authority of the past generation, Gershom Scholem, refers to their opus as “the most thorough anthology of all the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov whose value will doubtless be appreciated by any serious investigator of this literature,” almost no academic writing on his teachings, as they appear in the material culled by Dunner and Wodnik, has been published (though important biographical studies of the Besht have appeared ).

Instead, the Baal Shem Tov conveyed faith in the power of each individual to touch, experience, unite with and even influence the divine spheres in order to bring spiritual and material blessing down into the world. He speaks with authority, but also sounds as if he is speaking to equals. The idea that access to mystical knowledge must be democratized if the world is to achieve the spiritual transformation promised in the prophecies of messianic times is the theme of the most famous of the few surviving letters written by the Besht himself. Writing in 1746 to his brother-in-law, who had moved from Podolia, in Ukraine, to the Holy Land, the Baal Shem Tov describes putting his head down on the prayer lectern while leading the Rosh Hashanah services, while, his body inert, his spirit rises through dimensions populated by souls and angels until reaching “the Palace of the Messiah.” As any good Jew would do he greets the Messiah with a question: “When will you come, sir?” The Messiah’s answer startles him. “When your wellsprings flow outwards, and when everyone can do the unifications and soul ascents of which you are capable.”

What emerges from this book is a vision of human consciousness in constant contact with the divine in forms hidden and revealed, fallen and elevated; in darkness and light, majestically enthroned and in continuous process; aspiring to liberation and already redeemed. In this vision, our will, minds and emotions − the totality of our inner selves − can and should be marshaled at all times, and in all situations, in order to serve God by breaking through the illusion of separation and darkness and revealing the ecstatic truth of his unity, which includes and integrates everything, including the material world and our selves and the secret core of all our desires.Exactly because of this potential for goodness and revelation, prayer is almost invariably accompanied by distracting thoughts, as if the dark matter that is a necessary part of the weave of selfhood must inevitably offer resistance. The Besht’s innovation is in seeing opportunity in this dynamic.

Rather than resisting the resistors, the Besht encourages practitioners to follow their distracting thoughts to their roots in the divine. This is accomplished through an array of contemplative tactics: first by hakhna’ah “surrendering” − by realizing that the structure and content of all thoughts emerge from the divine; then by separating (havdalah ) − shifting one’s mind, for example, from desire for earthly pleasure to longing for the divine; and finally, by sweetening our thoughts (hamtakah ), so that they connect with the divine source itself, the fount of all pleasure.

What is practiced intensively in prayer is meant, on some level, for everyday pursuits as well. “The perfect person,” the Baal Shem Tov teaches, “would be able to unite with the Divine Presence in every step she or he takes and through everything such a one does − even in physical acts such as eating or business dealings − in all of them one is able to unify with God’s presence and recognize the Divine origins of one’s occurrences, in a particular way.”

Both the translation and the commentary are also evidence of the potential gains for all of us when a scholar of Jewish mysticism is also learned in other traditions. In this case, it’s Tibetan Buddhism, which has a highly developed language for states of consciousness. Kallus draws upon his knowledge of Buddhism to elucidate terms that are embedded in the intricate cosmological and redemptive structure of Lurianic kabbala and would thus otherwise
be incomprehensible to the lay reader. He can do this only because he knows kabbala so thoroughly − otherwise the risk of inauthentic comparisons and superficial similarities would be great.

4 responses to “Besht – Pillar of Prayer

  1. Alan, I was wondering if you could help me with a crude stumbling block I’m having here. It sounds like a great volume and I like how you are reading it as a set of claims about prayer and religious devotion, and I’ll be happy to read it as such. What I don’t get though is something more positivist. I have no problems with Shivhei ha’Besht. I know what it is, a late recesnsion. What then “is” and whose is the Amud ha’Tefilah? What kind of a thing are we looking at here, in terms of date, place, authorships, and redaction? Thanks for any light you might be able to cast here.

    • The text collects all the statements attributed to the Besht. Most of it consists of the statements found in the two main followers of the Besht, Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polnoye and Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch. As a scholarly tool, it allows one to compare the way the each formulates the same statement. The former added greater context from Safed piety and used the metaphors of father-son, or princess- the latter more panentheism and king-prince metaphors. The collection also included versions in other seforim, as well as 19th century versions. It even included versions of Besht statements received in 19th century prophecy in the school of Komarno. But everything is clearly labeled and you can always go back to the originals. It is an early 20th century work collecting prior statements.

      The bottom of the page in the Hebrew is a commentary connected the passages to kabbalah and to discussions in later Hasidim. The commentary relies on Galican material and much Komarno. In contrast, Scholem, Green et. al. are more concerned with Chabad and Breslov, who understandings play less of a role in the commentary. The commentary is also more kabbalistic than the taste of the academics.
      On the Galician dynasty Komarno- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komarno_(Hasidic_dynasty)
      Kallus uses much of the commentary for both its Lurianic context of the passages as well as Komarno’s visionary mediation tradition.
      Here is an example of a komarno meditation, one of almost 300 from the Komarno source.
      http://solitude-hisbodedus.blogspot.com/2009/03/rabbi-eizikl-of-komarnos-meditation.html

  2. There seems to be a not-so-subtle subtext to Odenheimer’s review, and Kallus’s book too. They are pushing a “new spiritual paradigm”.

    The reviewer writes:

    “An essay by Rabbi Miles Krassen [affilated with the Jewish Renewal movement and former professor at a Tibetan Buddhist university], a scholar of Jewish mysticism and of comparative religion, introduces Kallus’ translation and commentary with a convincing presentation of the Baal Shem Tov as the avatar of a new spiritual paradigm wholly relevant for our times.”

    “In a long essay at the end of the book, Rabbi Aubrey Glazer… shows how tales of the Baal Shem Tov’s journey are entwined with symbolism that hint at the existence of an ongoing dialogue of religious imaginations
    in which Sufism and Hasidism share both geographical and spiritual space − that new paradigm toward which both Krassen and Kallus are pointing.”

    “The book is part of a series called Spiritual Affinities, initiated by Glazer
    for the scholarly interfaith publisher Fons Vitae, dedicated to emphasizing such shared spaces and the often subterranean or even subconscious conversations between religions, in which spiritual traditions influence and inspire each other without fully admitting or even being cognizant of this cross-fertilization and exchange.”

    Both Kallus and Krassen are rabbis who were ordained by the leader of the Renewal movement. That leader is well known for his affinity to Buddhism, and many of his ordained students take on practices from other religions and strongly identify with other religions.

    One of the primary foundations of the Besht and the Ari was their insistence on the observance of every one of the Torah’s commandments.

    In my opinion, Odenheimer and Kallus and Glazer seem to really love the Besht’s cool “spiritual” practices – especially when they can find parallels in Sufism or Buddhism or perhaps any other religion.

  3. Lawrence Kaplan

    I heard Menchem Kallus lecture several times at academic conferences. He is a genuine scholar. I was always greatly impressed by his deep mastery of the Lurianic tradition and by how he worked his way from technical and meticulous textual observations to important and suggesive conceptual and historical conclusions.

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