Saturday, March 10, 2007
In looking at the Cabala entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia, the close association between Kabbalah and Hasidism became obvious. Further searching brought up The Hasidic Stories Home Page and an article by Gedalyah Nigal on "Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism: Introduction".
According to Nigal, Hasidic literature is centered in storytelling. The earliest hasidic literature are the books of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonoye, a colleague of the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov. The telling of a story is a religious act for Hasidic thinkers on the same level as observance of the commandments, the study of Torah, or prayer. The baal shem or tzaddik is a wonder-worker known for magical and mystical miracles. The stories recount these accomplishments.
Among the miracles sought are blessings for matters of health, offspring, and livlihood.
These blessings were generally connected with the giving of an amulet written by a special scribe employed by the Baal Shem Tov for this purpose.
These wonder-workers "have a long history among the Jewish people" according to Nigal. The profession of baal shem has been found in southern Italy, central Europe among the Ashkenaz, and in Eastern Europe. There is also a tradition of the "shortening of the way" making it possible for someone to travel great distances in a short period of time. In modern society the need for such a miracle has been replaced by our rapid means of transportation, and so the miracle is no longer sought.
According to the article:
The baalei shem dealt with the magical. Magic, or "sorcery," as it appears in the sources, was forbidden by Jewish law, and presumably, there was no such thing as Jewish magic. The Torah states this clearly: "You shall not suffer a sorceress to live" (Exodus 22:17). Sorcery was, however, prevalent in different periods, and it could not be fought frontally. It is possible that the opposition to sorcery, on one hand, and the realization that the masses "needed" it, on the other hand, led to its restriction and to its attribution to a certain type of people. The Jew was no different from the non-Jew in the "need" for people possessing supernatural powers and for their activity. In the non-Jewish world, however, these individuals were called "sorcerers," while among the Jewish people they were known as "baalei shem." The Jews evaded the prohibition against sorcery by determining that there were powers of sanctity - the use of which was permitted - and powers of impurity, and only these constituted sorcery and therefore were prohibited.
The article discusses briefly the material contained in the author's longer work by the same name. In the book he deals "with transmigration (reincarnation) and exorcism". In the article he tells us that "the belief in transmigration is deeply rooted among hasidim and kabbalists." That would place Hasidim at odds with Christianity which rejects reincarnation. It would, however, demonstrate a common ground with New Age and Theosophy, both of which incorporate reincarnation as a central doctrine.