Dov Ber of Mezhirich
DOV BER OF MEZHIRICH
DOV BER OF MEZHIRICH (c. 1704–1772), Hasidic teacher and leader of the movement from 1760. A scholar and an ascetic qabbalist from his youth, Dov Ber sensed a lack in the rigorous routine of study, fasting, and self-mortification that provided the standards for intense Jewish spirituality in his day. Tradition has it that he was a physically frail man, rendered so in part by the voluntary self-denial of his early years.
Toward the middle of the eighteenth century, Dov Ber came under the influence of Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer (1700–1760), the Besht, a wandering healer and folk teacher and the central figure of a spiritual revival movement that had met with some modest success among Jews in Podolia. The Besht, though a person of significantly less rabbinic learning than Dov Ber, was a natural mystic and a charismatic personality who probably had mastered the supranormal powers of perception. Their meeting transformed Dov Ber's life. The Besht taught a religion of divine immanence, of the palpable presence of God in each place, each moment, and every human soul. In this teaching Dov Ber felt his own religious life come alive, and he was liberated by it from the excessive demands of his earlier asceticism.
While the death of the Besht occasioned a struggle for leadership in the nascent movement, most of the master's disciples followed Dov Ber as he moved the center of Hasidic teaching westward to Volhynian Mezhirich, where he served as preacher (maggid). In the twelve years of his leadership, he attracted to Hasidism a dazzling group of young seekers, many of whom were to become important teachers, leaders, and authors in their own right. These include such well-known Hasidic figures as Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk, Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady, Levi Yitsḥaq of Berdichev, Elimelekh of Lizhensk, and Aharon of Karlin. It was Dov Ber who sent them forth to spread the Hasidic message throughout the Jewish communities of eastern Europe, and it is largely due to his impact that Hasidism became a far-flung and important force in Jewish history. His death in 1772 occurred just as the controversy and bans against the Ḥasidim were first being issued by the rabbinical authorities.
Dov Ber was a mystic intoxicated by the single idea of devequt ("attachment to God") as a return to the state of primal nothingness. He taught a panentheistic doctrine that bordered on acosmism: the transcendent God also fills all the worlds; his life force is the only true vitality in all of being. The outer human self as well as the exterior appearance of all reality are the infinitely varied garb of God. As the devotee learns to transcend such externals, he will find only the One, that nothing that is in fact the only Being. Paradoxically, this highly abstract immanentism was combined frequently with entirely personalistic religious metaphors. God is often described by Dov Ber as a father who reduces the intensity of his presence in the world, a process called tsimtsum, the way a patient parent lessens the complexity of a concept while trying to impart it to a beloved child.
Much of Dov Ber's work focuses on issues of devotion. He taught that proper prayer must be for the sake of the Shekhinah (the exiled divine presence) and that supplication for one's own sake was selfish. Prayer as practiced in the Mezhirich circle was an ecstatic ascent to devequt, with the externals of worship successively cast aside as the worshiper, even while continuing to recite the prescribed liturgy, basked in the glow of God's presence. The heights of such prayer bordered on the prophetic; moments passed in which the worshiper's own voice was silenced as "the Shekhinah spoke from his mouth."
Unlike earlier Jewish mystics, who seemed to shy away from unitive formulations in discussing their experiences, Dov Ber freely advocated union with the divine. The human soul, wholly identified with shekhinah, the lowest of the ten divine emanations, had to return to ḥokhmah, or primordial wisdom, the highest of the ten and often called by the name Ein, representing the divine nihil. In this act of mystical self-annihilation, man served as a channel by which all the divine energy released in creation was reunited with its source, effecting a foretaste of ultimate redemption.
In Dov Ber's teaching, the messianic urgency that characterizes much of the earlier Qabbalah is set aside or "neutralized"; the immediate and highly individual act of devequt seems to mitigate the need for the long-range and collective striving for tiqqun, or cosmic redemption. This neutralization was also made possible by a vision that denied the ultimate reality of evil, considered an illusion that stood as a temporary barrier to our sight of the good.
Dov Ber's teachings were edited by his students and published after his death in Maggid devarav le-Yaʿaqov (1784), Or Torah (1804), and Or ha-emet (1899). He is also frequently quoted throughout the many writings of his disciples, and his dominant influence is felt throughout the later Hasidic literature.
Dov Ber's Maggid devarav le-Yaʿaqov has been published in a critical edition by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer (Jerusalem, 1976). His other works are available in reprinted traditional editions. While no work of Dov Ber's as such has been translated into English, the reader can obtain an idea of his teachings from the works of his disciple Menaḥem Naḥum of Chernobyl, Upright Practices and The Light of the Eyes, translated by me (both, New York, 1982). Dov Ber's thought is the chief subject of Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer's important study Ha-Ḥasidut ke-misṭiqah (Jerusalem, 1968). For biography, see volume 1 of Samuel A. Horodetzky's Ha-Ḥasidut ve-ha-ḥasidim (Tel Aviv, 1951), pp. 75ff.
Goldstein, Niles Elliot. Forests of the Night: The Fear of God in Early Hasidic Thought. Northvale, N.J., 1996.
Kushner, Lawrence Square. "Bratslav and Mezritch: The Two Poles of Jewish Spirituality." In What Kind of God? Essays in Honor of Richard L. Rubenstein, edited by Betty Rogers Rubenstein and Michael Berenbaum, pp. 357–366. Lanham, Md., 1995.
Schatz Uffenheimer, Rivka. Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought. Translated by Jonathan Chipman. Princeton, N.J. and Jerusalem, 1993.
Arthur Green (1987)
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