Nov 16, 2010

Going Mad Before the Deaf

I've been busy watching a nine-hour, nine-part series called Heritage: Civilization and the Jews for my Jewish Communities course. It hasn't been easy, but between the overly dramatic music and the Fiddler on the Roof-style breakouts on shtetl life and Yiddish theater it's been interesting. I was particularly taken with an opening line that, to scholars, Mesopotamia is identified "as the starting point not of creation, but civilization." The narrator, Abba Eban, says, "You cannot recount the story of civilization without coming face to face with what the Jews have" said, written, and performed. A truer statement nary has been uttered.

But it was a mention of the Ba'al Shem Tov ("master of the good name" aka the Besht), the father of Hasidism, and a store he often told in response to those who were opposed to the unique styles of Hasidic life and worship. The story goes something like this:
A deaf man passed by a hall where a wedding reception was being celebrated. When he looked through the window, he saw people engaged in exultant and tumultuous dancing. But because he could not hear the music, he assumed they were mad.
Another version of the story goes like this:
Once, a musician came to town -- a musician of great but unknown talent. He stood on a street corner and began to play.
Those who stopped to listen could not tear themselves away, and soon a large crowd stood enthralled by the glorious music whose equal they had never heard. Before long they were moving to its rhythm, and the entire street was transformed into a dancing mass of humanity.
A deaf man walking by wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the townspeople jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in middle of the street?
Sometimes, this is how I feel. The dancing, exultant Jewess fervent in my Judaism and spinning in my own circles while others pass by deaf, or blind, assuming I'm mad. The appeal of Hasidism, I understand. The idea that anyone, even the simplest of mind, can study Torah and grow toward G-d. And as such, I truly appreciate this simple story. My neshama, or soul, is the people in this story, and the world around me the deaf man (at least, sometimes). The oft-asked question is, "Why on earth would you want to be Jewish, let alone Orthodox?" Sometimes it is difficult to express, to explain, the inner-workings and dancings of my soul. Even with fancy eye surgery, you might not see it. I'm not sure if the Besht meant what I mean when I discuss this story, but I think for converts, the story speaks volumes.

On a side note: It is truly interesting that at its advent, Hasidism was viewed as a threat to traditional Judaism, to Judaism in any and all ways. And yet, today Hasidism is alive, well, and powerful. Then again, there is always an internal threat, the perpetual driving force of Jew vs. Jew.


Elle said...

I am sure I am not the only convinced you wrote this post entirely for their benefit :) You have put this sentiment into beautiful flowing words and all I can do in nod my head up and down.

Batya said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. I've never studied Chassidism at all, but the story you've quoted resounds.

Daniel Saunders said...

Hasidism was viewed as a threat to traditional Judaism, to Judaism in any and all ways

Actually, reading Buber's Tales of the Hasidim recently, I was struck that there was a strong streak of antinomianism (for want of a better word) in early Hasidism. I can see why people like the Vilna Gaon saw it as dangerous.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Daniel I think that the antinomianism was a far cry from the norm for Hasidim. Found some interesting stuff by Norman Lamm ... in The Religious Thought of Hasidim. Interesting stuff. The screen caps are below.




Daniel Saunders said...

I think the extreme antinomianism described by Scholem was not really present, but if Buber's book is representative (and I know it may not be, as Buber was far from Orthodox himself), there does seem to me to have been flexibility regarding prayer times and several cases where ethics or emotional connection to G-d were prioritised over strict halakha (in that respect I was often reminded of Reform!). Unfortunately, I don't have access to my copy of Tales of the Hasidim at the moment, so I can't quote examples.

Mottel said...

-Chaviva: Great post. Of note, the picture featured in your post is NOT of Reb Yisroel Ba'al Shem Tov, but rather of the Baal Shem of London. There is no known portrait of the Baal Shem Tov.

-Daniel: Chassidim did put a certain stress on various aspects of the mitzvos - the intent and meditation behind prayer etc - accompanied at times by a softening of others. That being said, they never encouraged a break with halcha - just the opposite, increased diligence in the fulfillment of many mitzvos is stressed.

For a great analysis of Chasidic stories in general and the flaws in Buber's presentation see here.

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