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  • The Besht: Magician, Mystic and Leader
  • Mark Verman
The Besht: Magician, Mystic and Leader, by Immanuel Etkes. Hanover: University Press of New England / Brandeis University Press, 2005. 342 pp. $39.95.

R. Israel b. Eliezer, c. 1700–1760, better known as the Baal Shem Tov or Besht, is one of the most intriguing, yet enigmatic figures in early modern Jewish history. The life and accomplishments of the Besht have been widely discussed among Jewish historians, with very little consensus. Throughout this fascinating monograph, Immanuel Etkes methodically presents the views of previous scholars on central issues, such as magic in Jewish society and the baalei shem, i.e., the practitioners of the magical arts. Etkes then presents his own position, which he effectively supports with wide ranging evidence, both [End Page 212] textual and historical. This results in a very edifying presentation that is quite convincing.

Etkes divides the book into an Introduction, six chapters and a Conclusion, as well as three Appendices. The Introduction serves its purpose as a succinct overview of the book's goals and objectives. Chapter One constitutes a major essay on the phenomenon of the baalei shem in Eastern European Jewish society. This provides important background material for an appreciation of the Besht's primary occupation in his latter years. In contradistinction to the Enlightenment's denigration of magic as appealing to the lower and uneducated classes, Etkes effectively substantiates his contention that "demonological beliefs and the application of magic were common to all classes of society—including the scholarly elite." He continues by noting that "[i]t was the scholarly elite, furthermore, that conserved and transmitted the knowledge of magic from generation to generation" (p. 43). Moreover, in Appendix One Etkes presents extensive quotes from 19th century Haskalah writers on magic and magicians.

Starting with Chapter Two and continuing through Chapter Five, Etkes examines the life and accomplishments of the Besht. In so doing he examines all of the historical data pertaining to the Besht's biography that has been gathered by his predecessors. Etkes also focuses on the Besht's teachings, as preserved in his literary legacy, as well as comments made by disciples and others. This material is vividly collected in Chapter Four, "The Besht as Mystic and Pioneer in Divine Worship."

Although Etkes regularly refers to the seminal contribution of Gershom Scholem on the Besht and early Hasidism, his primary foil is the more recent monograph by Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba'al Shem Tov (1996). Both Etkes and Rosman concur that in his capacity as a baal shem, the Besht was not an anti-establishment figure. Rosman offered a groundbreaking analysis of the Polish archives of Miedzyboz, where the Besht lived for the last twenty years of his life. He demonstrated that the Besht, who was listed as "Balszam Doktor," lived in a tax-free manse and was financially supported by the Jewish community (Founder, p. xii).

In general Rosman adopted a minimalist approach to the Besht. "[The] Besht did not inaugurate new, fully developed forms that became the hallmark of the movement. Rather he appears to have made some moderate changes to existing forms" (Founder, p. 174). Etkes strongly disagrees with this conclusion. He maintains "that the Besht ought indeed to be regarded as the 'founder of Hasidism'" (p. 249). A key element of Etkes' characterization is the Besht's self-image as the leader and guide of the Jewish people. This was forcefully expressed in the various accounts of his celestial ascents, to defend Jews against [End Page 213] negative heavenly decrees. These stories served to establish the Besht as the archetype of the Zaddik for the Hasidic movement.

One of the principal sources that Etkes used was Shivhei ha-Besht ("Praises of the Besht," hitherto SH), an anthology of miracle stories. He devotes Chapter Six to a systematic and insightful analysis of how previous scholars have approached this work. In so doing he takes issue with Rosman's "pessimistic view" of the historical reliability of the text. For Etkes, much of SH preserves useful information that can be successfully retrieved when it is read critically and in comparison with...


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