Ex- Hasidim and the Besht

Over Shabbat, I met another of the many Boro Park Hasidim who have left the Hasidic world. Our Bachur said that unlike his friends who went un-observant, he was looking for some form of modern Orthodox identity.

He mentioned that the Besht was his role model because the Besht did not care what people wore or what the people did. I have noticed this intense and gravely serious use of the Besht by others in the same situation. Many of the articles and dissertations on the LES Chulent mention the important use of the Besht as a justification.

I did not have a heart to tell them that we have no indication that the Besht did not care about these things. The image of Besht as friend of the common man was created by Shimon Dubnow based on Renan’s Life of Jesus. The common folk needed a voice to be harnessed by Dubnow’s Yiddishist Folks party. IL Peretz also used this image with a healthy dose of Tolstoy mixed in. From Dubnow, the image of the Besht as friend of the common man was picked up by R. Yosef Yitzhak in his creative memoirs and stories, and then further used by Yisrael Yaakov Klapholtz. It was also picked up in 1930’s US by Levin and Shnitzer. They fill out the details of how the Besht was a proponent of education for girls, was a democrat, and a rationalist.
(I am not discussing Zweifel’s modernizations nor Buber’s view of an elite mystic, rather the friend of the common man.)

So obviously there is a need for a source and authority for change. Many times when a generation cannot turn to the prior generation they pick a distant figure to idealize. What are the contours of this new image of the Besht? It certainly has Chabad elements. Is it only a transitional image to something else? Is this different than when the generation of the 1920’s chasidic youth lost faith in their parents and the Piesetzna rebbe told them to consider “as if” the patriarchs and prior ages were their parents? Or many modern groups that choose Maimonides? I do feel it has a different feel, a lack of an “As if”” quality. Any thoughts?

12 responses to “Ex- Hasidim and the Besht

  1. What sort of clothing do we assume the Besht had on when he was living as a simple Jew hualing clay during the week? Do we have any Hasidic coloring books depicting this scene?

  2. I’m curious about other Orthodox Jews who leave Orthodoxy but maintain a Jewish identity. Do they have a patron saint (tongue-in-cheek) to identify with? Maybe Scholem, or Heschel? If you want to be Jewish, but not frum, who has blazed that path?

  3. “As if”-ness of the Avot are of course also asked of Gerim – the more right-wing the setting of the gerut (I believe the bulk of Gerim, b’chutz), it’s implied more like “it is so”. Charedi Gerim are also asked, more than center/left, to believe certain things about non-Jews and non-Jewish realms of experience “as if” they are as believed/accounted by their new settings, despite their experiences (“Esav sonei..”, etc, etc, etc). Maintaining “as if”s is a world easier when you are actually born and grew up within the believing-identity.

  4. Mordy,
    Spinoza? Mordechai Kaplan?
    Liberals dont usually have the same need for an authority to serve for legitimization.
    I have heard Scholem used in YU as patron saint of anarchy within Orthodoxy- to point to Shabbatai Zevi, Abulafia, and heikhalot to weaken the surrounding sense of hard and closed authority. But it does not create a liberal identity, just weaken the cognitive dissidence for those staying.

  5. Eiver LaNahar

    2I must protest that there is more text-obsessed academic bias here than “street smarts.” The oral traditions of all Chassidic communities share this view of the Baal Shem Tov, which is reinforced by the living legacy of inclusiveness of both the “have’s” and “have not’s” even today in the Chassidic world.

    Among the Chassidim, lovers of the masses of Israel such as Reb Moshe Leib Sassover, the Apter Rov (known by the title of his sefer, the Ohev Yisrael), the Berditchever Rov whose defense of the common folk was legendary, did not emerge in a vacuum.

    Moreover, whatever the final verdict may be on the veracity of the “Zikhronos” of the RaYaTZ, we see that early Chabad leaders, too, were dedicated to improving the conditions of the masses, as through the Mittler Rebbe’s attempt to make good farmers of the impoverished peddlers of the Pale of Settlement.

    As for the “Chassidishe levush,” their are some insulting remarks in Wilensky’s “Chassidim U-Misnagdim” which indicate that this issue goes back a long way. But it is self-evident that the central concern of the derekh ha-Baal Shem Tov was the inner life, and not the chitzoniyus that prevails today. So I must side with your guest.

  6. In your opinion, what is the best current scholarship on the Baal Shem Tov?


  7. Why presume that leaving chasidut implied chozeh b’she’eylot? Far more former chassidim became normative practicing Dati but modern Jews. Their interaction with chassidim is far more interesting history (see the House of Rizin, and in particular Boyaner.

  8. Eiver LaNahar


    I found Moshe Rossman’s book to be a mixed bag of interesting (but minor) historical research, which sneakily slides into anti-Mittler Rebbe / Chabad / and contemporary Chassidus hisnagdus. Rossman’s agenda corrupts his scholarship . Bezalel Naor was equally unimpressed (see his review in “A Kabbalist’s Diary,” Orot).

    The snatches of scholarly comment on the Baal Shem Tov and the early Chassidim I’ve come across in Moshe Idel, especially “Between Ecstasy and Magic” (SUNY), I recall as having been on the money. Among academic scholars of Kabbalah and Chassidus, I think Moshe Idel is in a league by himself.

    But to tell the truth, I’m less interested in the academic evaluation of the Baal Shem Tov than in his works and those of his immediate successors (Toldos, Degel, Maggid, Reb Pinchos Koretzer, Reb Nochum Chernobyler, etc.) — the derekh of the Baal Shem Tov, as a still-relevant and profound spiritual practice. Quite apart from Chassidic haberdashery.

  9. IsraelFrac,
    The 1950’s were very different than today. Then many of chassidc background adapted a modern life.
    No one has ever studied the Holocaust survivors of the UWS and Queens who arrived clean shaven and western dressing in the early 1950’s and were given HIAS housing and their 25 year journeys to either raise their kids as non-observant, Conservative, modern orthodox or as hasidic.
    Rizhin and boyaner were a different era. Even the Munchatcher went to YU. My comment was only about now. Popular perception is those leaving Hungarian Hasidic groups today are not becoming Modern Orthodox but giving it all up, at least for now. We definitely need some real statistics of how many are leaving places like New Square and how do they affiliate? Right now, we only have anecdotes and the most outspoken on blogs. We have no base line actual statistics.

  10. Mordy:
    Or for autobiographical fiction, how about Chaim Potok, or ybl”ch Rebecca Goldstein (Mind-Body Problem, or the new 36 Arguments for the Existence of God). She’s a bit more contemporary than Potok, who, as an Orthodox guy who became a Conservative rabbi, liked to write about Orthodox people who became Conservative.

    Goldstein seems to have been raised Orthodox, chose to remain such by marrying a Mod-O guy, but lost faith in it and retains a weird love-hate relationship to Orthodoxy.

    R’ Brill: And those survivors are dying out. My parents’ summer C-nagogue in Fleischmanns, NY was largely populated with them. One could still interview their kids, though, who are in their 40s-50s. IME, some children of survivors are messed up in ways related to their parents’ experience, and not just on Law & Order.

  11. Prof. Moshe Idel’s lecture on the Besht is now up here:

  12. lawrence kaplan

    Rebecca Goldstein is now married to or the partner of Steven Pinkner.

    On the Besht, see the work of Immanuel Etkes.

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