The Mad Dancers
by Bob Schwartz
The Baal Shem Tov is the eighteenth-century founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism. Jews and non-Jews who know the modern versions of the movement often don’t know much about its beginnings. Some of those contemporary manifestations may seem distant from the original spirit.
We have no writings by the Baal Shem Tov, so we rely on the records of his disciples, and on legends and stories that have come down the years—and that still have a remarkable power to inspire. Their authenticity is not in their being a verbatim record of what was said and what happened. Instead, they are an unmistakable reflection of a unique spiritual figure from any age or faith.
The Baal Shem Tov believed in and lived the direct experience of God everywhere in everything. Study and conventional piety took second place, which made him unpopular with the establishment, and would still today. He thought we should be outdoors in the trees, not indoors at the desks. Living in a divine state of optimism, joy and wonder was the ideal. People who live that way, of course, are remarkably hard to control.
This story is taken from The Golden Mountain (1932) by Meyer Levin.
The Mad Dancers
Already the voices of opponents were raised against the Baal Shem’s teaching, for many
rabbis could not understand his ways. Some said of him that he dishonored the Sabbath with singing and freedom, some said that his ways and the ways of those who followed him and called themselves Chassidim were truly the ways of madmen.
One of the scholars asked of the Baal Shem, “What of the learned rabbis who call this teaching false?”
The Baal Shem Tov replied, “Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played upon their instruments, the guests danced to the music, and were merry, and the house was filled with joy. But a deaf man passed outside the house; he looked in through the window and saw the people whirling about the room, leaping, and throwing about their arms. ‘See how they fling themselves about! ‘ he cried, ‘it is a house filled with madmen! ‘ For he could not hear the music to which they danced.”