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“Everything Has Become Story”: A Bit of Jewish Mysticism

bstA marvelous end to an amazing book, here is Gershom Scholem final words in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, on the strength of “mere storytelling” in the Hasidic tradition: 

“In the place of the theoretical disquisition, or at least side by side with it, you get the Hasidic tale…. Triviality and profundity, traditional or borrowed ideas and true originality are indissolubly mixed in this overwhelming wealth of tales which play an important part in the social life of the Hasidim…. Nothing at all has remained theory, everything has become a story….

“When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire, and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the ‘Maggid’ of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers—and what he wanted became a reality. Again, a generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light the fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his gold chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the storyteller adds, the story he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.

“You can say if you will that this profound little anecdote symbolizes the decay of a great movement. You can also say that it reflects the transformation of all its values, a transformation so profound that in the end all that remained of the mystery was the tale. That is the position in which we find ourselves today, or in which Jewish mysticism finds itself. The story is not ended, it has not yet become history, and the secret life it holds can break out tomorrow in you or in me. Under what aspects this invisible stream of Jewish mysticism will again come to the surface we cannot tell. But I have come here to speak to you of the main tendencies of Jewish mysticism as we know them. To speak of the mystical course which, in the great cataclysm now stirring the Jewish people more deeply than in the entire history of Exile, destiny may still have in store for us—and I for one believe that there is such a course—is the task of prophets, not professors.”