Let My People Know

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: "There was nothing new in what the Baal Shem Tov taught"


The stress on direct perception was the innovation of the Hasidic movement, as Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditshov expressed allegorically.

A traveler reported that in a foreign land, he had seen a bird with a human face and cow's legs. 

Only a few people believed this outlandish tale. 

Later, another traveler came and described the same bird but in a more abstract manner: its face only bears a certain similarity to that of a human being, and its legs a certain resemblance to ox legs. 

More people were prepared to accept that explanation, but there were still many skeptics. 

Finally, a third traveler arrived and brought one of those birds with him, which he showed to everyone. 

The first traveler represents Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose work (the Zohar) is filled with colorful depictions of various heavenly figures and images. 

The second traveler is the Ari, who explained and arranged the Zoharic material in a more comprehensible manner. 

And the third traveler is the Baal Shem Tov, who made the presence of God an experiential reality. 

There was nothing new in what the Baal Shem Tov taught–the only difference was in the relationship to that knowledge. 

The Baal Shem Tov pointed out that the things that everyone had already heard about can be seen with their own eyes and not learned by rumor.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From Understanding the Tanya, Chapter 29, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz