Geza Vermes has put Jesus into the category of Hasidism – that lineage within Judaism. Although Hasidism started in the 1700’s there are remnants of this idea in early Judaism as well (which is where these leaders draw their water from).
What is Hasidism? “The Hebrew for Hasidism, hasidut, denotes piety or saintliness, an extraordinary devotion to the spiritual aspects of Jewish life.” (Rabbi Louis Jacobs)
This piety/extraordinary/hasidic devotion included many aspects like healer, man of prayer, righteous leader/teacher for the masses, love for God and all people/classes (namely within the faith), disciples who inherit movement after the tzaddik is gone, personal relationship with God, purity in religious spirit/heart means more than knowledge, world is filled with God’s glory, asceticism, use of stories/parables, focus on joy, and in constant conflict with the more orthodox strains of the faith.
If that don’t describe Jesus I don’t know what model within Judaism does.
So who is this Ba’al Shem Tov? He is all the things mentioned above. Oddly, this character resembles the life of Jesus as well.
These are incidences from Ba’al Shem Tov’s life:
- key teaching passed to him ‘fear no one but God‘
- while young had a close relationship with God – spent time in fields praying – even had visions while in such ecstatic states (many while studying in caves) (wandering rabbi)
- even though well studied, kept an image of simplicity
- early life surrounded by mystery (even his birthdate is unknown)
- developed a relationship with other hidden righteous men
- revealed himself in his early 30’s as a healer and teacher/leader
- Was a highly respected teacher and had insight lacking in forms of Judaism at the time
- believed in mentorship/discipleship relationship as key
- gained follower’s in the the tens of thousands and even more after death
- believed in the Jewish homeland – they should be there
- had ideas that ,after passed, he would be there with you (IE: if you sang a certain prayer)
To not see Jesus in the same light as the Hasid, someone like Ba’al Shem Tov, is to miss out who Jesus was and how he taught within the framework of Judaism. Jesus existed in a time in Judaism when the core beliefs were not set and he offered a version to Judaism, a wandering rabbi, that focused on equality and a push back to Torah/Prophets as the core to learn from (sometimes went deeper than his contemporaries). He followed the tradition of healer but also focused on a purity in faith, be like children was somewhat the core of that. He possessed great knowledge about God due to his personal relationship with Him, one he also passed onto his disciples. Jesus tried to frame the ‘here and now’ as his importance (the kingdom of God is here) and this was a set-up to the after-life (even the apocalypse themes of the times).
What Christianity is lacking is this – they have taken Jesus from his Jewish roots, supplanted him, and placed him into philosophical thoughts exterior to his faith. Jesus is no longer a teacher of Torah/Prophets – he fulfilled them (finished them – completed them – was greater than them). He becomes a blood atonement for the masses, something he never did teach. He is placed into a 3 headed God figure (Trinity) that he never once teaches about. Jesus becomes a version of Gentile imagination, placed on the Jewish stories of him, to fit a Roman world.
And that’s too bad because Christianity is missing out on a gem of a person.