Founded in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century, the Hasidic
movement and its religious thinking have dramatically transformed
modern Judaism. The figure of the Ba'al Shem Tov (known in acronym
form as the BeSHT)--the purported founder of the Hasidic
movement--has fascinated scholars, Jewish philosophers, and
laypeople interested in popular Jewish mysticism in general and the
contemporary Hasidic movement in all its variety.
In this volume, Etkes enters a rich and heated debate over the
origins of the movement, as well as the historicity of its mythic
founder, Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, who lived much of his life as
a miracle worker. The eighteenth century, as Etkes vividly
portrays, was the heyday of the kabbalists, who dabbled in the
magical power of letters and words to solve personal and communal
problems--and to earn a living. Etkes sheds light on the
personality of the Besht, on his mysticism, and on his close circle
of followers. But equally important, he challenges the popular myth
of the Besht as a childlike mystic, wandering the fields in prayer,
seeing visions and engaging in acts of godliness and piety.
Although Etkes shows great empathy for his subject, the Besht who
emerges in these pages is much more down to earth, much more a man
of his times. Indeed, according to Etkes, it was never the
intention of the Besht to found a religious movement.
Etkes looks at the Besht's mystical roots, examining him not only
from the vantage point of a social historian, but as a religious
figure. Moshe Rosman, author of Founder of Hasidism, a biography of
the Besht, claims that In Praise of the Besht--a volume published
about the Besht in 1814, many years after his death, which
portrayed his character by means of stories told by his close
followers--could not be a reliable source. Etkes, disputing this
claim, shows definitively that this well-known text (translated and
interpreted by, among others, Martin Buber) may indeed offer
trustworthy accounts of the Besht's life and thinking.
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