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Motifs of Nonviolence in Shivhei HaBesht (Tales of the Ba’al Shem Tov)

Shivhei HaBesht is a collection of tales mostly about Israel Ba`al Shem Tov (known as “The Ba`al Shem Tov” or “The Besht,” 1700-1760), the founder of the modern Hasidic movement. In his preface to Shivhei HaBesht, the author of the manuscript, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezhirich (1710-1772), explains,

The reader should realize that I wrote this not as history nor as stories. In each tale he should perceive His [God’s] awesome deeds. He should infer the moral of each tale, so that he will be able to attach his heart to the fear of God, the beliefs of the sages, and the power of our holy Torah. …I have let each one learn from the tales according to his value and his capacity.¹

In keeping with Dov Ber’s purpose, a selection of tales will be discussed as examples of four areas of nonviolent value concerns, viz., Reconciliation, Repentance, Economic Justice and the Means-Ends Relationship. A “Nonviolence Motif Index” is appended for selected tales. It is not the intention of this article to prove that the teachings of the Besht or his followers necessarily constitute on the whole a nonviolent outlook — although such a case could be made.² Rather, it is sufficient to demonstrate that these particular nonviolent values were held in some form by the founders of modern Hasidism, and to suggest that by adopting these values we may reduce the evil of violence in our own society. It should also be noted that fundamental changes have occurred since the days of the Besht in the movements that today retain the label “Hasidic” and so these teachings of the Besht are not intended to reflect one way or the other on the teachings of these modern namesakes.

Reconciliation

The importance of reconciliation is reflected in numerous tales. For example, the Besht is portrayed as a successful judge able to reconcile disputants: “Both the guilty and the innocent agreed with him because in his great wisdom he appealed directly to their hearts (haya midaber `al libam), so that all were satisfied,” and for this reason disputants would seek his arbitration and mediation services.³

This striving for reconciliation is shown on a metaphysical or abstract level when the Besht confronts an evil spirit:

Then the Besht said to the spirit: “Look what you have done. My advice to you is to leave this woman without causing any difficulty and all of us will study on your behalf.”4

Instead of calling in the Ghost Busters or threatening the spirit, the Besht successfully talks the spirit out of its evil ways and out of the woman. It should be noted, moreover, that such spirits are born of evil deeds and can usually be dispensed with only when the wrong is righted. Thus reconciliation is inextricably bound to the pursuit of justice, the confrontation of evil, and making amends.

Reconciliation is particularly important in the realm of Jewish-gentile relations. In one tale, the Besht keeps his disciples impatiently waiting to bake matza on the day before Passover while he speaks with and entertains a Christian priest at length. When the Besht finally comes,

The disciples asked him: “Why did you have to talk with the priest for so long?”

He said that the priest had planned to throw a murdered bastard into the synagogue street on Passover night and then blame all the people of the town. By talking with him so long and by treating him well he had erased the plot from the priest’s mind.5

Another tale, which does not seem to place the initial blame on the gentiles, makes a similar point in a somewhat more abstract fashion:

Once the Besht prayed before the ark. In the middle of the prayer he stopped and went to the street before the synagogue where he saw a gentile selling wood. He bought a wagon load of wood from him, and the gentile followed after the Besht and carried the wood to the beth-hamidrash. The Besht told them to pay him for the wood and to give him brandy for carrying the wood to the beth-hamidrash.

The gentile said: “Blessed be the God of the Jews who has such a holy people.” Had a gentile bought the wood from him he certainly would not have given him anything.

The disciples asked the Besht why he had stopped in the middle of his prayer to buy wood, and he answered that during his prayer he saw that in heaven there was an accusation made against the Jews who live in the villages that they cheated the gentiles in their accounts. He had to silence the accuser. As a result of the gentile’s praise of the Jews the arguments of the accuser were silenced.6

Here, the Besht’s act of generosity constitutes Qiddush HaShem, Sanctification of God’s Name. This deed counteracts the Hillul HaShem, the Desecration of God’s Name, that the Jews had allegedly committed by cheating their gentile neighbors. Significantly, the Besht’s act of Sanctification takes priority over the Besht’s prayer in that the Besht interrupts his statutory prayer to buy the wood. The Besht wins the good will of both God and humanity through a single deed. Thus ongoing reconciliation between communities, effected on the level of the individual, dispels hatred, prevents violence and pleases God.

Active confrontation, whether direct or indirect, is an integral part of the reconciliation process. A problem and its causes must not be ignored and cannot simply be wished away, but rather must be addressed. In several tales the Besht directly confronts the antagonists. In one tale, for example, the Besht goes out of his way traveling to meet face-to-face with a doctor who had sworn to shoot him.7 In the story about the priest noted above, the Besht takes the initiative, and is careful to confront the problem, and not the person per se. But the dangers of using confrontational tactics for purposes other than reconciliation are suggested in a case in which a decree of martyrdom had been issued in heaven against a certain group of Jews.

I heard from the rabbi of our community that the Besht said that in heaven they had promised him to cancel the decree, but a [Jewish] preacher gave a sermon in the holy community of Brody exploiting the plight of the prisoners and in so doing caused strife which resulted in the death of the prisoners because of our many sins.8

The preacher in this tale, like some modern politicians, in attempting to gain political mileage from the suffering of others, ends up causing them great harm.

In these tales, mercy, humility and generosity are valued for their own sake — and they should be considered nonviolent values in themselves — but they are also portrayed as being part of the reconciliation process. In one case, Rabbi Gershon brings hardship upon himself and the community of Safed by trying to resolve a conflict through the full force of the law rather than through mercy and humility.9 In another case, a transgressing woman is saved from a very evil fate — which she really “deserved” — by the Besht’s kindness and generosity. In the end the woman mends her ways and lives a good life.10 Several tales show how the Besht, through his mercy, humility, and generosity (and often through his wisdom and magic as well) manages to turn his adversaries not just into friends but into his followers.11

In the United States, roughly half of the murders, and many of the assaults, are the outcome of conflicts between individuals who know each other. When reconciliation is held as a primary value in conflict resolution, it becomes less likely that the desperation or rage of one party will be directed against the other party or against an innocent third party. No conflict should be considered resolved until all those involved feel satisfied with the outcome.

Repentance

A second area of nonviolent attitudes derives from a particular notion of repentance. The Besht’s encounter with a transgressor who was turned into a frog teaches that anyone can repent:

… If the [the man-turned-frog] had persisted and repented they [of the heavenly court] would have accepted him since there is nothing which can stand in the way of repentance [ki ein lekha devar she-omed bifnei ha-teshuva].12

Since anyone can repent, we should always believe that there is a possibility of winning over a wrongdoer. We should refrain from thinking of the person as evil objectified. Our goal should be not to destroy or punish our adversaries but rather to get them to change their ways. This attitude is fundamental to a non-violent lifestyle and crucial for a nonviolent world.

Another tale teaches us that one must be open to accepting the rebuke of others, and must be ready to publicly show that one has indeed repented:

…[The] Besht was still upset, and he was so angry at the guests that they left his home. After that his wife scolded him for being angry with the guests. The Besht leaned over the table and said: “I am ready to accept your rebuke.” And after that he sent a messenger to apologize to the guests, and in the morning he prayed in public.13

In this tale, perhaps to avoid delay or great inconvenience, the Besht performed part of his repentance through a messenger. But in another tale the Besht insists that the penitent personally make restitution face-to-face with the victim. The Besht’s servant, Rabbi Ya`aqov, had admitted to having kept a pair of stokings found in the house they were renting.

The servant [Rabbi Ya`aqov] told the gentile servant to return the stockings to the inn. The Besht said to him: “You yourself should go and return what you have stolen.”14

Only in this way can the laceration between the penitent and the injured party be wholly healed.

Economic Justice

In the realm of economics, two lessons are stressed. First, honest work — doing it oneself and making sure others can do it — is valued highly. To one tale the editor adds an explicit moral: “From this we can see the greatness of the person who enjoys honest work.”15 In another tale, “…the angels said to the Besht: ‘Why do you keep still when the rabbi of the holy community of Raszkow can not make a living?'”16 Likewise, one must not deprive a person — even a wicked person — of their livelihood: “The rabbi [of Polonnoye], God bless his memory, was very careful not to cut off the livelihood of any person unnecessarily….”17 And in a fourth tale, when the Besht finds a dishonest shokhet (animal slaughterer), “Since he was careful about cutting off anyone’s livelihood, he said, ‘I will remove him from his position and find another way for him to earn a living.'”18

Today, job availability and the stress of economic dislocation are recognized as major factors in crimes against persons, crimes against property, suicide and domestic violence,19 and political scientists recognize economic conditions (especially unemployment) as major contributors to civil unrest and international military conflict. No matter what kind of economic system we choose, it is the responsibility of the community to insure that all are able earn a decent livelihood.

The second lesson in the realm of economics is that meeting the immediate human needs of others takes precedence over selfish material accumulation. Consider this remarkable selection:

Once when he was a boy, Rabbi Tsevi, the son of the Besht, went with his father to greet the local rabbi. And he observed that there were a great many pieces of silverware there. On the way back the Besht said to his son: “You are doubtless envious because your father does not possess any silverware.”
His son said: “Yes.”
The Besht said: “If your father had money for silverware, it would be better used to provide for poor people and the rest to give to charity.”20

While neither the Besht nor Jewish ethics in general demands such piety of all their followers, the Besht’s attitude is considered the ideal for which we all should ultimately strive. This may mean a measurable change in our lifestyles as we reorder our priorities on the personal level.

Means-Ends Relationship

A fourth and crucial nonviolent concern holds that we should not separate the “ends” we seek from the “means” we use to reach them. In other words, good results cannot be achieved through evil means. While it may be possible to achieve a particular worthy goal through evil means, the net result of the effort will surely be ill. Just as “One transgression leads to another (`avera goreret `avera)”21 so one act of violence leads to another. On balance, good can not be accomplished through evil. This point is demonstrated in the following story.

I heard from the rabbi that in one Torah scroll they always found a mistake. They corrected it each time, but in spite of this they continued to find a mistake in it. They showed the Torah scroll to the Besht, and he said that the money given to inscribe this scroll was from debt money &mdash that is to say, the coins collected at card games which are given to the person in whose house the game is played. This person collected the coins and used the money to have a Torah scroll inscribed.
This turned out to be the case. The Besht said that there was no way to correct it and it would be defective forever even if it were corrected over and over again.22

This story similarly illustrates the Talmudic concept of “a mitzva done by way of a transgression is not a mitzva (mitzva ha-ba’a be`avera eina mitzva),” that is, a commandment may not be fulfilled through the performance of a transgression.23 Notably, this Rabbinic language suggests that the mitzva is thought of as a state of being, or a state of action, as it were, rather than as a goal or end. In the same way, the liturgy of the Torah service (from Proverbs 3:17) eloquently states that “All her [the Torah’s] paths are peace (ve-khol netivoteha shalom),” rather than “paths to peace.” By this way of thinking, a war could not be fought to “end all wars,” at least in the most hopeful sense of the phrase. As it has been said, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

What is more, another tale suggests that we should refrain from enjoying “fruits” obtained through unjust means:

Once Rabbi Elimelekh came to his neighbor, a silversmith, and saw a ring there. He took it in his hand and immediately threw it away. He said that this ring was ordered with money gained from interest. The silversmith investigated and found it to be so.24

Today, this might mean declining to benefit from consumer goods produced through slave labor or produced from stolen land or by illicitly acquired capital. Such refusal to participate in the structures of oppression and violence helps replace them with humane social relationships.

Thus far we have seen how a few tales from Shivhei HaBesht suggest nonviolent ways of living, ways of halting the spread of violence. But there is much more in this collection than can be presented in this brief essay. In order to facilitate access to other tales that demonstrate nonviolent values and approaches, and in order to encourage the reading of the texts, a “Nonviolence Motif Index” is appended for selected stories.


 

Nonviolence Motif Index to Selected Tales

Tale number in Ben-Amos & Mintz/Beginning page number in Horodezky.

Repentance

12/48 Accepted from anyone
24/119 Urged by Besht
43/107 Apology made directly; Apology via messenger; Rebuke accepted by Besht
48/16 Wealth given away to effect repentance
138/140 As result of kindness of Besht; Adulteress
158/144 Restitution made personally
238/162 As result of kindness; Adulteress

Reconciliation

8/45 As judge Besht effects
20/52 Negotiation with evil spirit
26/109 Confronting an antagonist
32/119 Winning-over adversary
43/107 Apology to insulted party; Apology made directly; Apology via messenger
50/63 Must solve problems at home rather than emigrate to Israel; Praying for one’s antagonist
56/68 Strict adherence to law as impediment; Pride as impediment
67/90 Divine punishment for failure to achieve
68/90 Divine punishment for failure to achieve
137/139 Preferred to revenge; Exploiting others’ suffering as impediment; Rhetoric as impediment
158/144 Restitution made personally
210/150 Flight preferred to fight
235/157 As result of kindness; With Gentile; Priest
238/162 As result of kindness; Adulteress

Relations with Gentiles

29/55 Help accepted from gentiles
30/56 Righteous gentile
90/179 Stealing from gentiles as serious crime
168/72 Soul aided by Besht in heaven
235/157 Kindness to gentile reconciles; Priest
236/158 Generosity to gentiles expiates Jews’ sins

Escapism: Flight or Fight

50/63 Aliya (emigration to Israel); Desire for aliya really means one must address local problems
127/137 Earthly matters most
158/144 Avoiding responsibility for restitution; Restitution made personally
210/150 Flight preferred

Economic Issues

48/61 Repentance achieved by giving charity; Wealth; Charity
71/127 Livelihood protected when possible
79/127 Humility preferred to competition for job; Rabbinate
87/117 Honest work valued; Common labor valued
90/179 Stealing from gentiles serious crime
95/180 Charity valued; Woman
107/115 Having children preferred to money; Children
123/131 Business with rulers
141/127 Livelihood protected when possible
148/141 Gambling disapproved
149/141 Interest-taking disapproved
160/144 Human needs priority over wealth accumulation; Wealth
161/144 Human needs priority over wealth accumulation; Wealth
201/65 Securing livelihood of others valued; Livelihood
236/158 Generosity to gentiles effects reconciliation

Humility

55/66 R’ Gershon avoids arrogance; Arrogance
58/69 Mockery divinely punished by muteness
79/74 More important than status
93/179 Cursing someone in public to be avoided
95/180 Value of; Woman and
118/131 Self-righteousness to be avoided
173/116 Torah not a tool for teasing or argument
233/157 Must respect parents

Mercy

7/43 Judge people by inside not appearance
50/63 Praying for one’s antagonist
56/68 Preferred to strictness of law
70/126 Thief receives
137/139 Revenge undesirable
207/150 Visiting the sick
238/162 Effects repentance of transgressor

Redeeming Prisoners

90/179 —
97/82 —
137/139 Failure results in death; Responsibility of community
168/72 Soul aided by Besht in heaven; Gentile

Means-Ends Relationship

2/40 Benefits denied from evil means
148/141 Evil means can not produce good ends; Benefits denied; Gambling-money disapproved
149/141 Self-denial of benefits from evil means; Interest-money disapproved
196/149 Evil spirits not used

Rulers

(see footnote 2)

1/39 Served by Besht’s father; Counseled in war
1b/40 Served by Besht’s father; Counseled in war (Allegorical?)
2/40 Served by Besht’s father; Counseled in war (Allegorical?)
5/42 Entertained by Besht’s father
76/72 Cajoled; Used to enforce Rabbis’ will
77/73 Cajoled; Played-off against other rulers
123/131 Business with
197/136 Not trustworthy

Physical Violence and Meanness

(see footnote 2)

1/39 Counsel in war given by Besht’s father
1b/40 Counsel in war given by Besht’s father (Allegorical?)
2/40 Counsel in war given by Besht’s father (Allegorical?)
4/41 Killing of Satan/gentile sorcerer with club by Besht
5/42 Meanness to Jew-hater (perhaps the Rabbi gave the Jew-hater literally what he wanted)
10/47 Beating received by one who sought to hurt Besht


 

Notes

1. Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz, In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (New York: Schocken Books) 1970, 1984, p. 4; corresponding to the Hebrew edition of Samuel Aba Horodezky, Sefer Shivhei HaBesht (Tel Aviv: Devir) 5707/1947, 5735/1975, p. 35. A table of tale numbers and the corresponding page numbers in other editions is given at the back of the book by Ben-Amos and Mintz.

2. Violence is neither advocated nor condoned in these tales to any significant extent, whereas many tales strongly advocate the efficacy and advantages of nonviolence. The main exception to this generalization are a few of the first fifteen tales (pp. 39-51 in Horodezky), which in distinction to the rest of the collection are from the manuscript of Admor.

3. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 8; Horodezky, pp. 45-47.

4. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 20; Horodezky, pp. 52-53.

5. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 235; Horodezky, pp. 157-158.

6. Ben-Amos & Mitz, Tale 236; Horodezky, p. 158.

7. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 26; Horodezky, p. 109.

8. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 137; Horodezky, pp. 139-140.

9. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 56; Horodezky, pp. 68-69.

10. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 238; Horodezky, pp. 162-163.

11. E.g. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 32; Horodezky, p. 119-121.

12. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 12; Horodezky, p. 48.

13. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Talke 43; Horodezky, pp. 107-108.

14. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 158; Horodezky, p. 144.

15. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 87; Horodezky, pp. 117-118.

16. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 201; Horodezky, p. 65.

17. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 21; Horodezky, p. 127.

18. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 141; Horodezky, p. 127. The rest of the story, however, is confusing and does not necessarily support this position.

19. United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Uniform Crime Reports for the United States, 1984 (Washington, DC: USGPO), 1985, p. v.

20. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 160; Horodezky, p. 25.

21. Mishna Avot 4:2.

22. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 148; Horodezky, p. 141.

23. Sukkah 29b-30a; Berakhot 47b; Baba Qama 94a.

24. Ben-Amos & Mintz, Tale 149; Horodezky, p. 141.