"The Baal Shem Tov was so different than other teachers of his day. They were studying the texts that were in books. And they were so smart about those texts, they were able to find the very fine finesses between one statement and another statement, and do a kind of philsophical building that they called pilpul... It led to cleverness, but it didn't lead to wisdom. The Baal Shem, on the other hand, didn't study at any of these schools. He lived and studied in nature. When people would say, he knew the voices, he could hear the speech of birds and of the trees -- it's not that they were speaking human language! It means that he had tuned in to the frequency where they were communicating."
That's my teacher Reb Zalman, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. (If you can't see the embedded video, above, you can go directly to it: A Clip from the Film.) This is part of an interview with Reb Zalman which appears in A Fire in the Forest, a new film about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Here's how the filmmakers describe it:
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, is one of the most beloved and celebrated figures in Jewish history, but also one of the most elusive. Today, Jews all over the world, and even many non-Jews, revere him as the founder of the Hasidic movement, and as a model of piety and mystical spirituality.
But many also find it difficult to say why he is so important to them, and to characterize his unique contribution to Jewish spirituality. Thus, A Fire in the Forest, a new documentary on the life and legacy of the Ba'al Shem Tov, sets itself the task of answering these basic questions, exploring how the Ba'al Shem Tov’s teachings can be applied to our lives today.
To do this, the filmmakers traveled with Rabbi Marc Soloway, our guide on this journey, around the world, talking to leading rabbis, scholars and teachers of Hasidism, traveling to the graves of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spiritual heirs, and to his own prayer-house and grave in the town of Mezhibozh in the Ukraine.
I'm really excited to see this. I've ordered myself a copy, and I'm looking forward to settling in with it -- both to watch the film proper, and to take in the extra interview footage that's part of the dvd extras. One of the other teachers featured in the film is Rabbi Burt Jacobson, with whom I was blessed to study the BeShT a few years ago. (See Two short teachings from the Baal Shem, 2009.) R' Burt has dedicated his life to immersing in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and he is an amazing teacher of those texts and of their meanings.
The film features interviews with a number of other rabbis and scholars who I admire greatly, as well: in addition to Reb Zalman and Reb Burt, the list includes Rabbi Dr. Mimi Feigelson, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Rabbi Dr. Art Green -- as well as others who I don't yet know but feel certain I will learn from as I watch. I'm looking forward to hearing what they have to teach about the "Master of the Good Name" and about the continuing relevance of his teachings in today's world.