The Golden Mountain, by Meyer Levin, , at sacred-texts.com
Two hundred years ago, in a remote hut in the Carpathian Mountains, there lived a wonder-worker named Rabbi Israel. Some now say that he never existed; the like has been said of King Arthur and of Jesus Christ; their legends remain with us. Some say that Israel was never a rabbi, but rather an unlearned peasant who took authority unto himself. It is told that even as a child he deserted the village schoolroom to run into the woods where he learned the speech of animals and birds, of trees, stones, and flowers.
A grown man, he knew all the secret mysteries of Cabbala; but he refused to lead the stifled life of the synagogue scholar, turned his back upon the rabbinical bickerings and pin-point disputes over minutae of the law, and withdrew to the mountains, where he earned his livelihood as a lime-burner, and where he would wander alone, sometimes for many days, absorbed in his strange reflections.
When Israel came down from the mountains to Medzibuz it was to teach men to live with abounding joy, for joy in every living thing, he said, is the highest form of worship. The woods were holy, and the fields, every stone and blade of grass contained a spark of the living Soul; every act of living: breathing, eating, walking should be accomplished with fervour, joy, ecstasy, for every act spoke to God.
Scholars who had passed their pale youth huddled over tomes of the law lifted their heads and for the first time saw the sky; he drew them out of the murky synagogue into the open fields; there, too, he said, God would hear them.
He did not violate tradition; he enlarged it. He was observant of every point of the law, and he revered the house of prayer; but he said again that divinely simple truth that becomes lost in the ritual of every religion; he said that the full-hearted desire to worship was more important than the form or place of worship.
Disciples gathered about him; soon legends began to grow of the wondrous deeds and teachings of Rabbi Israel, and then he was called the Baal Shem Tov, which means the Master of the Wondrous Name. By that Name, he had the power to do miraculous deeds. He went from one end of the earth to the other in the space of a single night; he conquered the wild boars that the sorcerers set upon him; he pierced the iron wings that shrouded the earth from heaven; he drew the dead bride from her untimely grave.
For a thousand years the Jewish folk genius for the creation of myth had made no new body of legend. But now the genius that had made the unsurpassable tales of the bible and the gem-like parables of the Talmud was turned back to its natural sources, and at once it began to weave the marvellous fabric of the legend of the Baal Shem Tov.
He had stood in the market-place, telling his fables to the entranced people who gathered about him while the rabbi of the town preached to an empty synagogue. In their huts of a Sabbath, his followers repeated the strange meaningful fables he had uttered, and told tales of the miraculous deeds he had done. Pilgrims came to Medzibuz, and carried home with them the tales of the Baal Shem Tov. Soon his followers numbered in the hundreds, and they became
known as the Chassidim. The word Chassid implies intense piety, ardour, fervour, ecstasy.
Despite the opposition of many noted rabbis, who accused him of ignorance, of wizardry, of Sabbath-violation, the number of Israel's followers grew, for his teaching had that beauteous simplicity that goes directly to the hearts of the common folk. The secrets and delights of heaven were no longer reserved for the scholars who could pass all their days and nights in the house of study; the water-carrier and the mule-driver could gather around the long table in the hut of the Master, and take part in the discussion.
After several generations, the Chassidim numbered half the Jewry of Eastern Europe. They were governed by their Tsadikim, or exalted saints, to whom they came for decision on every conceivable occasion. If a merchant of Brody could not make up his mind whether or not to go to Lemberg to buy goods, he asked his Tsadik; if a housewife did not know whether or not an egg was pure, she asked her Tsadik; if a father did not know whether or not a certain match was suitable for his daughter, he asked his Tsadik. The power of the Tsadik was transmitted in his family, so that soon veritable dynasties of Chassidic rabbis were established.
Soon, too, the decline of the movement set in, for many of the latter Tsadikim took advantage of their power, lived in pomp and luxury, and even sold the honour of being seated next to them at table. The meaning of Chassidism was lost; pleasure took the place of joy, and orgy of ecstasy.
There are still hundreds of thousands of Chassidim, many of them true to the original meaning of their
belief; and among them, true Tsadikim are to be found.
But the last to attain the exaltation of the Baal Shem Tov was his own great-grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlaw. In him, the Chassidic legend had its fulfilment and its completion.
Folk literature has two sources. The tales may grow imperceptibly as they pass among the people, each teller adding his words, until the image is complete; or they may be made in entirety by one who is so completely within his folk as to speak with the voice of the entire people. The Chassidic legend is drawn from both these sources.
The legends of the Baal Shem Tov have no single authorship; they were made partly from the Baal Shem's sayings, partly by story-tellers who went from town to town repeating the tales; one of the legends is concerned with what happened to such a storyteller. Later, the tales were written down, and to this day they are circulated by the hundreds of thousands in little penny-story-books printed in every city of Poland and Russia. Many generations of Jewish children had no other Arabian Nights than these Chassidic tales, whose glamorous adventures they absorbed while their parents discussed the deep meanings concealed in the same fables. At last scholars, philosophers, and literary men discovered the legends, and such masters as Israel Zangwill, Sholom Asch, S. Ansky, and the German poet-philosopher Martin Buber have made use of them.
But the second part of the Chassidic legend is composed of the tales of a single author: Rabbi Nachman. Here the individual speaks as the folk, and we have
a group of seeming fairy tales that are lucid and meaningful as the parables of Christ. Over the table on Sabbath eve, or during long wagon-journeys in the Galician provinces, on walks, or when teaching his students, Rabbi Nachman would spin these marvellous illusions, in which Kings and Princes, Heroes and Demons move in colourful transparency, like majestic figures of a stained-glass window set into speech and motion. Each tale is an intricate maze; the reader follows seven different paths, only to find himself suddenly standing, bewildered and triumphant, at their common cross-roads. The meaning is hidden and yet shining clear, for each person in each tale is a symbol as abstract as a numeral, and at the end, the symbols seem miraculously to have taken their places in the pure formula of a given theorem. There is the story of the King (God) who unwittingly sends his beloved Daughter (the Shechina, Glory of God) into the place of the Evil One (Earth); then He grieves at her loss until the Prince (Israel of the Messiah) goes out to find her. Twice he meets her but fails, through his own weakness, in delivering her from the palace of the Evil One; twice he must wait in the desert (Egypt and Babylon); the third time he is sent wandering over the earth (the present exile); but at last he comes to her in the Palace of Pearls upon the Golden Mountain (the Holy Land); he remains there a long time, and then they return to the King (but how the return is effected, we do not know) .
This might be the place for an essay on Chassidic doctrine; I am no scholar, but merely another storyteller who, from a far land and through a strange tongue, has come upon a saga of his own people, and
recognized it, and felt that he must tell it again. Chassidic doctrines have been explained, beautifully so by Martin Buber, whose essays on Chassidism, together with his versions of some of these same tales, have recently been published in an English translation by Lucy Cohen.
And yet it has seemed to me that an outline of doctrine would be superfluous as an introduction to these tales, for the tales themselves were used by the Chassidic rabbis to explain that very doctrine. Rabbi Nachman's fable of the Princess lost in the palace of the Evil One is an example of their magnificent clarity and beauty.
For we may explain the Chassidic conception of the Soul as embracing all things and beings on earth: for God sent his Living Glory, called the Shechina, down to earth, and the sparks of Living Glory are in all things: the rocks, the trees, the grass of the field, the caterpillar, the eagle, and the lion, and in man. The soul of each thing and of each man is part of the Universal Soul, and at the awaited time, when Messiah comes, the sparks will flow together, and return to unite with God. The flaw is in man, and the Evil One prevents his arriving at the time of perfection that will bring down Messiah. But is not all this told in Rabbi Nachman's tale?
The Evil One himself is part of Universal Glory, for he has known suffering. Then all that happens on earth, even evil, should be met with joy in the universality of the Soul, for the descent is part of the rise, and sin is necessary to purity. But this, too, is beautifully made clear in the tale of Rabbi Israel who as a boy held the twitching black heart of the Enemy in his
hand, and would not destroy it, because he saw that it, too, suffered. And again, in Rabbi Nachman's tale of the Prince Who Was Made Entirely of Precious Stones, but had to become a leper before his gem-like beauty was revealed.
We may explain the Chassidic belief in the union of souls predestined for each other, but that is beautifully and dramatically told by Rabbi Israel in "Two Souls"; we may tell of the Chassidic conception of the voice of the soul, or the Melody in each Thing, but Rabbi Nachman's story of the "King's Son and the Servant's Son" almost makes us hear that very melody; we may repeat the Chassidic principle that the form of worship is insignificant beside the emotion, but no abstract words can ever make that as clear as the tale of the shepherd who worshipped God by leaping back and forth over a brook!
These are the imaginings of obscure rabbis who lived long ago in remote villages along the River Dneister and the River Bog, and yet the work of our modern men of intellect and sophistication does not go beyond their fundamental conceptions, for no one can go beyond truth. The modern conception of Time as non-existent, elaborated in Professor Einstein's formulae, is exquisitely stated in Rabbi Nachman's "Tale of the Seven Beggars"; and so sophisticated an author as Professor Erskine bases his latest novel upon the fable of the man who was sent back from the gates of heaven to complete whatever good deeds or bad he had left unfinished on earth, for order is the universal key; and that, too, is part of Chassidic doctrine, and is told in the story of the Baal Shem and the little horse.
To my knowledge, this is the first attempt to tell the Chassidic legend in English. I have read the tales in many collections in Yiddish, Hebrew, and German; and I have tried to be merely another story-teller, receiving the legends from his forebearers, choosing of the many tellings of the same tales those that please him most, adding his own little turns and touches to the fables, and telling them again, but trying always to keep in them the spirit of the tale told in a warm hut to many eager hearers.
In the more mystical portions of some of the stories of Rabbi Israel, the interpolations of Martin Buber have seemed so just as to become an integral part of the myth, and I have therefore followed closely his versions of "Israel and the Enemy," "The Book of Mysteries," "The Wandering in Heaven," and "The Prophecy of the New Year," and have used his story in combination with tales from other sources in the account of the Baal Shem's attempted voyage to Palestine.
I have tried to put the scattered legends of the Baal Shem Tov together so as to form a legendary life-story of Rabbi Israel, who was born in 1700 in Okup and died in 1760 in Medzibuz. His great-grandson, who was born in Medzibuz in 1772, and died in Uman in 1810, left thirteen tales, which were written down by his pupil, Nathan. Of these, I have here translated eleven; the other two are fragmentary and confused.
Many of these tales I first heard from the lips of Marek Szwarc, of Lodz and Paris, a true Chassid and a great artist. To him I am profoundly grateful. I wish also to thank the Jewish novelist, Sholom Asch,
for the loan of his excellent collection of Chassidic literature; and to express my indebtedness to Leo Schwarz, of New York, for his scholarly aid, especially in relation to the Rabbi Nachman sources.
New York, 1932