Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

A Passion for Truth

A Passion for Truth

5.0 1
by Abraham Joshua Heschel

See All Formats & Editions

In A Passion For Truth, Heschel delves into the exploration of hope and despair in Hasidism. Heschel drew on his own experiences from his study of the Kotzker and the Baal Shem Tov to create this classic work.


In A Passion For Truth, Heschel delves into the exploration of hope and despair in Hasidism. Heschel drew on his own experiences from his study of the Kotzker and the Baal Shem Tov to create this classic work.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
LJ's reviewer asserted that at the time of its publication this was "probably the best book on Hasidism to appear in the English language." Though it is not for the casual reader, those who undertake it "will be charmed by the work's depth of feeling and comprehensive scope" (LJ 8/73).

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
450 KB

Read an Excerpt

A Passion For Truth
The Two TeachersThe Baal Shem TovIT WAS a time when the Jewish imagination was nearly exhausted. The mind had reached an impasse, thinking about impossible possibilities in Talmudic law. The heart was troubled by oppressive social and economic conditions, as well as the teachings of ascetic preachers. Then a miracle occurred. It was as if Providence had proclaimed, "Let there be light!" And there was light--in the form of an individual: Reb Israel, son of Eliezer, Baal Shem Tov, "Master of the Good Name" (ca. 1690-1760), often known by the acronym of his initials, Besht, or as the holy Baal Shem.He was born in a small town in the province of Podolia, Okop, to poor and elderly parents. Orphaned as a child, he later eked out a living as an assistant teacher of little children (belfer). Tradition has it that at the age of twenty he went into seclusion in the Carpathian Mountains for spiritual training and preparation for his calling. There he lived for several years as a digger of clay, which his wife sold in the town where she kept house. When he was thirty-six, he revealed himself as a spiritual master. Later he settled in Mezbizh or Medzhibozh (Polish: Miedzyborz), another small town in the province of Podolia (which was Polish until 1793, thereafter under Russian rule), where he died in 1760.The Baal Shem Tov was the founder of the Hasidic movement, and Mezbizh was the cradle in which a new understanding of Judaism was nurtured.When millions of our people were still alive in Eastern Europe and their memory and faith vibrated with thought, image, and emotion, the mere mention of Reb Israel Baal Shem Tov cast a spell upon them. The moment one uttered his name, one felt as if his lips were blessed and his soul grew wings.The Baal Shem made being Jewish a bliss, a continuous adventure. He gave every Jew a ladder to rise above himself and his wretched condition.During his lifetime, Reb Israel inspired a large number of disciples to follow him. After his death his influence became even more widespread. Within a generation, the insights he had formulated at Mezbizh had captivated a great many exceptional individuals who, in turn, inspired the Jewish masses with new spiritual ideas and values. And Mezbizh became the symbol of Hasidism.Rarely in Jewish history has one man succeeded in uplifting so many individuals to a level of greatness. Yet no one in the long chain of charismatic figures that followed him was equal to the Baal Shem. Though he initiated the Hasidic movement, he remained greater than the movement itself. Generations of leaders sought to follow his pattern, and he alone remained the measure and the test of all Hasidic authenticity. Only one Hasidic rebbe dared challenge his teaching: the Kotzker, Reb Menahem Mendl of Kotzk.The Baal Shem brought about a radical shift in the religious outlook of Jewry. In ancient times the sanctuary in Jerusalem had been the holy center from which expiation and blessing radiated out to the world. But the sanctuary was in ruins, thesoul of Israel in mourning. Then the Baal Shem established a new center: the tzaddik, the rebbe--he was to be the sanctuary. For the Baal Shem believed that a man could be the true dwelling place of the Divine.How is one to explain the rapid spread of the Hasidic movement? What was the secret of the Baal Shem Tov's spiritual power? Why did other great leaders, such as Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, Maimonides, or Rabbi Isaac Luria, the "Ari," not arouse a similarly swift response?Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heller,1 a most brilliant Talmudic scholar who died in 1813, once asked this question, and Reb Zevi Hirsh of Zhydatshov (Polish: Zydaczow) replied with a parable:The people of a certain land wanted to elect2 a new king. They had heard a man in a very distant country who had all the desirable attribtues of royalty; he was said to be handsome, good, wealthy, refined--a man of great accomplishments. There could be no one more suited to the royal post than he. But the entire population could not possibly go to see him and verify the truth of the matter because his home was so remote.At length a person who had traveled afar and had met him personally returned and told the people about him. Although his report made an impression upon some, the majority were not moved.Finally, a very wise man decided to bring the candidate to the people, so that they could judge for themselves. Vast numbers flocked to see him, fell in love with him, and joyfully invested him with the crown, because they realized that he alone was fit to be king.Similarly, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai3 and his associates werethe first to reveal the deep mysteries concerning God in the Zohar. But what they taught was only designed for, and understood by, the initiated. Then Rabbi Isaac Luria came and disclosed more than Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai. Yet his revelations regarding the lights of the worlds beyond and other spiritual themes were also far above most people's comprehension.At last, the teacher of all Israel appeared, Reb Israel Baal Shem Tov. He revealed the Divine as present even in our shabby world, in every little thing, and especially in man. He made us realize that there was nothing in man--neither limb nor movement--that did not serve as vessel or vehicle for the Divine force. No place was devoid of the Divine. He taught that the tzaddikim who grasped the bond between Creator and creature were blessed with so great a power that they were able to perform marvelous acts of mystical unification in the sphere of the Divine. Furthermore, every man in this world could work deeds that might affect the worlds above. Most important, attachment to God was possible, even while carrying out mundane tasks or making small talk. Thus, unlike the sages of the past, who delivered discourses about God, the Baal Shem, like the wise man in the parable, brought God to every man.Why was Reb Israel called the Baal Shem Tov, master of the good name? A poetic answer illustrates what subsequent generations felt about him.When the Baal Shem appeared in Eastern Europe, the community of Israel was on its sickbed, full of sorrow and, following the weird end of the Sabbatian excitement, consumed with anguish. Oppressed and persecuted, the people were fainting, gasping, trembling. They nearly expired. When a person is having a fainting fit and is in danger of wasting away, it is advisable to whisper his name into his ear, because his name has the powerto call a person back to life. The Baal Shem saw that the Jewish heart was faint, torpid, in danger of laying down its life. So he called it by its name: Jewish heart. And the Jews of Eastern Europe rallied, seeing the light of the Messiah shining overhead.Other great teachers bore the message of God, sang His praises, lectured about His attributes and wondrous deeds. The Baal Shem brought not only the message; he brought God Himself to the people. His contribution, therefore, consisted of more than illumination, insights, and ideas; he helped mold into being new types of personality: the Hasid and the tzaddik.The charisma of many tzaddikim defies description. Their sheer presence was a source of exaltation. It was impossible to see a tzaddik and remain a non-believer. The tzaddik's words thrilled the hearts of those who heard him and worked like a catharsis, helping them to cast out falsehood from truth and releasing disillusioned hearts from darkness and despair. His very being was an illumination. 
The Kotzker was a rebbe, and at first glance he would seem to be a descendant, a leader in the founder's line of succession. Yet he was not a follower by nature or temperament; nor was he able to conform to a model or transmit a message from the past. His existence was a continual self-renewal; he could live only in the present.Certainly, several principles stressed by the Baal Shem have remained part of the Kotzker's teaching. Even some of the customs and forms of conduct developed and observed by other rebbes were included in the Kotzker's style of living. He held the founder in high esteem, hailed the movement initiated by him, and once declared:The Baal Shem Tov has come to redress the Prophet's complaint: "And their fear of Me is a commandment of men learned by rote" (Isaiah 29: 13). His doctrine has spread from Podolia to Volhynia4 then to Galicia,5 and from there to Poland. It is desirable to introduce the teachings of Hasidism to the Jews of Lithuania6 as well.The Kotzker did not, however, feel bound by the norms and forms of the movement. Kotzk brought a revolution into the history of Hasidism, and was in many ways diametrically opposed to Mezbizh.The period of the Baal Shem was one in which poetic imagination was suppressed by Talmudic speculation. Blinders seemed to have been placed upon the eyes of the soul. The Besht removed them, hearts opened, and fantasy began to sing. Fountains of joy bubbled forth, followed by passionate insights, intoxicating tunes, exquisite tales. It was as if the world had regained its chastity, and holiness was gazing at itself in the mirror of all things. Faith was at home with beauty.The Kotzker, on the other hand, was troubled that truth was in distress. Dormant imagination did not concern him. Somber and plaintful, he had no patience with the playful or the rhapsodic.Copyright © 1973 by Sylvia Heschel as Executrix of the Estate of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Meet the Author

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72) was internationally known as a scholar, author, activist, and theologian. He was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was internationally known as a scholar, author, activist, and theologian. He was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

A Passion for Truth 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly recommend