the Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, Yitzhak Buxbaum, New York: Continuum, 422 pp. Reviewed for The J. (San Francisco Jewish newspaper) by Lawrence Kushner
Yitzhak Buxbaum, who has already brought so many titles to the English bookshelves of lovers of Jewish spirituality, has now given us the definitive collection of stories about and (sometimes allegedly) by the Baal Shem Tov. In over three hundred fifty pages of text and another fifty of notes, he has assembled, translated, and arranged virtually every tale told about the Besht (a traditional Hebrew acronym formed from the first letters of the Baal Shem Tov). And, because the Besht is the progenitor of Hasidism, he is also therefore, the papa of American Jewish spiritual renewal. So, in another sense, this is our primary “source” book.
And it’s all there. In one selection we read that
“The Torah says that all the [forty-two] wanderings of the Jewish People in the Sinai Desert…[correspond to] all the journeys of each Jew in his lifetime—everything that happens to him, form the day he is born, to the day he dies…[they are all] symbolized by those same forty-two journeys.” (131)
Well, in narrative form, Buxbaum has given us a detailed map of all the wanderings of the Baal Shem—from where he had a vision to where he had lunch. (Indeed, there might be more here than most readers will ever care to know or be able to digest.) We can only hope that, as Louis Finkelstein’s monumental four volumes of Legends of the Jews has been edited down to one, some future publisher will do the same for Buxbaum’s Light and Fire of the Baal Shem.) But, make no mistake, Buxbaum is not writing for us; he is writing for the Besht!
For Yitzhak Buxbaum, the Baal Shem is truly a personal rebbe. The author is not trying to be academic (like Ben Amos & Mintz) or poetic (like Buber) or literary (like Wiesel); he is reverently channeling all the tales of his personal spiritual master. This is not a reference work, it is a meditative text!
The anthology is unique in another way. It is neither popular (the author is faithful to the original versions the stories and makes no pretense about making them relevant) nor scholarly (while there are bibliographies and footnotes, there are no indices!). This is evidenced by Buxbaum’s tone. The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem seems to have been written centuries ago by some Eighteenth or Ninteenth Century chronicler. When was the last time, for instance, an author addressed you:
“Precious Jews! You have the promise of the Baal Shem Tov himself that reading stories about him is mystically potent to bring salvation and help… I, Yitzhak son of Meyer and Charna [declare that] the spark of holiness in each Jew will never disappear (God-forbid)!” (6)
While such a tone might initially take some modern readers aback, this reader soon found it comforting. My God, here is an author who really believes it. And, like in many classical anthologies, it is unclear who is talking—the imaginary chronicler, Yitzhak Buxbaum, or, indeed, the Baal Shem Tov himself. All this, of course, only increases the book’s mystery.
Buxbaum’s devotion to, passion for and faith in his material glisten on every page. He cites a teaching in the name of the Rebbe of Helish who was once asked to tell a tale. “He explained that ‘A person should tell a tale in a way that the telling itself saves.”
Over a year ago, when Yitzhak was completing this volume, we spoke on the phone. “Larry, he said to me, “I think I’ve written a holy book…”
He might just be right.