Saturday, September 8, 2012

Baal Shem Tov and Joseph Smith

Baal Shem Tov, "Besht" for short, was the founder of the Hasidic movements, and was an 18th century mystic in what is now Ukraine.  Besht was to Judaism what Joseph Smith was to Christianity: he had mystical experiences, and turned Judaism upsidedown, fighting against the moribund rabbinical talmudic scholars as Joseph Smith fought against the creeds and orthodoxy.

Of all things last night, his name kept coming up in my dreams.  So, reading this morning the wikipedia entry about Baal Shem Tov this morning, I read about his teachings about god and man.  Here are some excerpts:
He declared the whole universe, mind and matter, to be a manifestation of the Divine Being; that this manifestation is not an emanation from God, as is the conception of the Kabbalah by Mitnagdim, for nothing can be separated from God: all things are rather forms in which God reveals Himself. When man speaks, said Besht, he should remember that his speech is an element of life, and that life itself is a manifestation of God 
Whoever does not believe that God resides in all things, but separates God and them in his thoughts, has not the right conception of God.
In Doctrine and Covenants 88, Joseph Smith states the same thing: that god, or at least the power of god is everywhere.  Joseph Smith thought of god as being everywhere in the beginning of his teachings, but towards the end said unequivocally, that god is a man, with material flesh and body.  Besht is panentheistic in a way that LDS might not accept, yet if we accept that the Holy Ghost dwells within us, then at least the HG is physically resident in us.  As for panentheism, consider these two verses:
D&C 88:13 The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.
Moses 6:63 And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.
My feeling is that Joseph Smith was a mystic, and did not fully comprehend his own thoughts and revelations about the integral nature of god and man.  He came as close as any Christian had done until that time, and by bringing god out of the ex-nihilo idealism of plato, Joseph Smith did much to move the needle.   Perhaps JS did understand, fully, this mystical vision, but at the time, the Saints were only ready for a conventional definition of god.  Milk before meat.
It is equally fallacious to think of a creation in time: creation, that is, God’s activity, has no end. God is ever active in the changes of nature: in fact, it is in these changes that God’s continuous creativeness consists.
Again, in section 88, the idea that the power of god is god and that it is the laws of nature within its respective kingdom.  Besht had identified three dimensions of reality similar to three kingdoms of glory.

Besht's concept of eternal creation is a marvellous concept.  Getting away from a physical point-in-time creation narrative, this idea that the act of creation, the garden of eden story as taught in temples, is not merely an historical event, but the ongoing creation narrative as humans deal with god and the world here and now.
The first result of his principles was a remarkable optimism. Since God is immanent in all things, all things must possess something good in which God manifests Himself as the source of good. (wikipedia)
This as well characterizes LDS thinking: Rather than the totally depraved world of the Calvinists and Catholics, LDS believe in the divine nature of creation, the world, and humans.  We are inherently optimistic (or at least should be).

For this reason, the Besht taught, every man must be considered good, and his sins must be explained, not condemned. One of his favorite sayings was that no man has sunk too low to be able to raise himself to God. Naturally, then, it was his chief endeavor to convince sinners that God stood as near to them as to the righteous, and that their misdeeds were chiefly the consequences of their folly.
This is a lesson many of us should realize in the church, especially on the topic of church discipline, and on how to treat those who don't share the TBM point of view.
From the very beginning Besht fought against that contempt for the world which, through the influence of Isaac Luria’s Kabbalah, had almost become a dogma among the Jews.
Again, back to the idea of the sacredness of creation.  This concept of the world's inherent goodness puts perspective on the hasidic concept of tikkum olam/repair of the world into context -- we should be caring for the world, treating it with utmost respect -- an inherently green viewpoint so needed today.  Not sure I see that attitude, politically, in LDS thinking, although many prophetic teachings speak of caring for the land.
He considered care of the body as necessary as care of the soul; since matter is also a manifestation of God, and must not be considered as hostile or opposed to Him.
This is doctrinally identical to LDS thinking.  All spirit is matter.  And it adds life to the idea that the Word of Wisdom, in its original intent and not current interpretation, is to care for the body.

...he fought the rigidity and sanctimony that had accreted to strict Talmudic viewpoints while not abrogating a single religious ceremony or observance. His target was the great importance which the Talmudic view attaches to the fulfillment of a law, while almost entirely disregarding sentiment or the growth of man’s inner life.
I sense that Besht was a bit of a Middle Way Jew.
While the rabbis of his day considered the study of the Talmud as the most important religious activity, Besht laid all the stress on prayer. “All that I have achieved,” he once remarked, “I have achieved not through study, but through prayer”. Prayer, however, is not merely petitioning God to grant a request, nor even necessarily speaking to God, but rather (“cleaving”, dvekut)— the glorious feeling of ’Oneness with God Almighty’, the state of the soul wherein a man or woman gives up their consciousness of separate existence, and join their own selves to the Eternal Being of God Supreme. Such a state produces indescribable bliss, which is the foremost fruit of the true worship of God.
This.  I cannot say more or better than the above.  This is the essence of the mystical experience -- that which is achieved through revelation.  Joseph Smith said that all members "who receive the holy ghost receive revelation, for the holy ghost is a revelator" -- thus to 'receive the holy ghost' upon confirmation, is to seek revelation daily in one's life as befitting one who has received the gift of the holy ghost.  Sometimes revelation comes in words, but only rarely.  The mystical experience is a oneness with god that cannot be described in words.

I believe Joseph Smith was a mystic like Baal Shem Tov.  Besht lived a longer life, and his followers picked up much more of the mystical message than Joseph's successors, who were more inclined to create the more traditional Christian LDS church that we have today.  I, for one, love to embrace Joseph's original mysticism as a pattern for my own spiritual journey.

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