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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Great Teachers: The Baal Shem Tov – CREDO CXVII

If you look up the Baal Shem Tov in any current reference book you get volumes of serious information, so go ahead, but you won’t get that from me! Not a one mentions the joyful, humorous, and wise Jewish saint that he was. My love for him is intense because he exemplified the Joy of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Joy, the title of many lectures and seminars I used to give. Religions generally take themselves so seriously or theologically that they totally forget that description of Holy Wisdom in the Old Testament. Let me quote from the British Jungian analyst Alan McGlashan’s book The Savage and Beautiful Country. I met him when he spoke at the Jung Foundation in New York and again when I lectured to the Jungians in London. He was a love.

Delight is a secret . . . delight has a glancing, dancing, penetrative quality, the quality of Sophia, the consort of God, as when she sings

  “From the beginning I was with Him
  forming all things: And was delighted every day
  playing before Him at all times: Playing in the world;
  and my delights were to be with the children of men.”

Playing in the world! That is what Wisdom does. And this is what those sad, resigned ones . . . the will-driven, over masculinized betrayers of life miss.

Delight is a mystery. And the mystery is this: to plunge boldly into the brilliance and immediacy of living, at the same time as utterly surrendering to that which lies beyond space and time; to see life translucently.

To which, I can add my own delight in finding in Skeats’ An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, the following : Silly, adj. simple, harmless, foolish . . . allied to O. Lat. salvus, whole, complete, safe. The German cognate is selig which means holy, sacred.

In the biography of the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) called Nine Gates by Juri Langer, he was born in Okup in 1689 in the disputed territory of what probably is today Ukraine. Whatever. When he was young, he observed his fellow Jews all spending hours poring intellectually over the Talmud, when he had an epiphany! God was not to be understood as a concept but in the delightful reality of the experience of nature, of beauty, and joy. So he literally began to dance and worship with a strong sense of humor and delight. He became the archetype of the Jewish comedian ever since, but always with a twist of holy wisdom. Here are some of my favorite anecdotes:

He was always concerned about those in poverty, so one evening he approached some drunken Cossacks in a tavern begging some money to help them. They responded by ridiculing him and throwing him to the floor. He picked himself up and said, “Well, that was for me. Now, what have you got for the poor?” The Cossacks enjoyed the joke so much, they emptied their pockets and hailed him out the door.

Another tale concerns a beggar coming to the door of his home, but he had no money to give him. So he went into his bedroom and took a necklace of his wife and gave it to the startled beggar, just as Channa discovered what her husband had done. She had a fit! So the good man ran to the door and yelled to the departing beggar: “Guess what? It is very valuable – see that you get a good price for it!”

My favorite though is this account: By now, he was well known in the district. He went to a neighboring town and a large crowd was waiting for someone. When he asked about it, he was told a holy man. Greatly excited, he joined the crowd, looking this way and that, shouting “Guess what? A holy man is coming! A holy man is coming!”

His followers started what today is known as the Hasidic tradition, but as Emerson once pointed out, most institutions are the extended shadow of one person, and today, as I understand it, the Hasidim are bound by more rules and regulations than any of the others.

Islam has an equivalent legendary saintly humorist in Mullah Nasruddin, whose delightful teachings have been gathered by Idries Shah. Mullah lived in Turkey in the eleventh century and taught at the time of William the Conqueror.

The Celts defined the goddess Brid as the goddess ruling wisdom, weaving flax, and laughter!

The ancient Greeks gave us the twin masks of Tragedy and Comedy, and their ancient plays reflected this.

Physically, I understand that the synapses (?) in the brain governing laughter and tears are so close that sometimes we laugh so hard, we shed tears.

Shakespeare seems to have understood this because in almost every tragedy he wrote, there is at least some delightful and humrous relief.

The archetype of the Holy Fool is still with us reminding us of the necessity of loving humility and the courage of “laughter in the void”. It seems that laughter is a human attribute and actually a key to peace, if you think about it.

We are living in one of the most tragic challenging circumstances on our planet. It is hard, if not impossible, to see any humor in it. Yet, humor endures and we need its balance. I am reminded of the man on the sinking Titanic calling out: “Anyone want to buy a watch?” And nature quietly spreads its delights everywhere, especially in the miraculous beauty of flowers. The Gnostic Gospel according to Thomas tells us that “Heaven is spread upon the earth but men do not see it.”

Surely this points to the mystics telling us something that Jung always reminds us of: serious groups are a good beginning, but the joy and delight of individuation happens to us one at a time. Christ reminds us that we have to become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.

It seems that like popcorn, once you’ve popped, you are transformed!



Jon said...

Hi Alice.

I just found your blog and have subscribed. I am currently reading 'Jungian Symbolism in Astrology' and each time I pick it up, I get a little fearful, that it might end this time. I have passed my sentiments onto my friends. Did this book come along at the right time in my life? I think so, as I am beginning to believe pretty strongly that things happen for a reason, that EVERYTHING happens for a reason.

Anyway, I love the way your write, I am a writer myself with lots of professional experience, and this book speaks to me.

Thank you so much.

Your fan,

Jonathan Bartlett

Jon said...

>sad, resigned ones . . . the will-driven, over masculinized betrayers of life miss.<

thank you.