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Dov Baer (the Maggid) of Mezhirech

DOV BAER (the Maggid) OF MEZHIRECH

DOV BAER (the Maggid) OF MEZHIRECH (d. 1772), one of the earliest and most important leaders of *Ḥasidism. As a youth, Dov Baer received a traditional religious education in the yeshivah of R. Jacob Joshua *Falk, author of Penei Yehoshu'a. He taught in Torchin and later became preacher in Korets and Rovno. Subsequently he moved to Mezhirech (Mezhirichi) in Volhynia, which became the center of the ḥasidic movement, and toward the end of his life he moved to Annopol (Hanipol). An erudite talmudic scholar, Dov Baer also made a profound study of Kabbalah, adopting the system of Lurianic Kabbalah (originated by Isaac *Luria) and an ascetic way of life. The mortifications to which he subjected himself eventually made him ill; he contracted a disease which affected his legs and he became bedridden. Tradition relates that he sought a cure from *Israel b. Eliezer (the Ba'al Shem Tov), the originator of modern Ḥasidism, whose reputation as a healer was widespread, and Dov Baer became one of his foremost disciples.

After the death of the Ba'al Shem Tov in 1760, Dov Baer was recognized as his successor to leadership of the movement although opposed by *Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, the more senior disciple. The authority of Dov Baer as the main proponent of Ḥasidism was apparently only recognized in 1766, and even then there were a few notable exceptions such as Phinehas of Korets. Unlike his predecessor, Dov Baer was not a man of the people, and his illness made it difficult for him to associate with his disciples. He possessed charismatic qualities, however, and was an eloquent preacher and teacher. Solomon *Maimon, who visited Dov Baer during his youth, expressed great admiration for his spiritual endowments. Dov Baer was highly esteemed by his disciples, who not only derived spiritual sustenance from his teachings and utterances but also divined an inner significance in his daily life and actions. Thus, *Aryeh Leib Sarahs is said to have visited Dov Baer in order "to see how he put on his shoes and tied his shoelaces."

Dov Baer formulated a doctrine that provided Ḥasidism with a speculative-mystical system, introducing into it the concepts of Kabbalah and a specific pattern of organization. Dov Baer transferred the center of Ḥasidism from Podolia in the southeast to Volhynia in central Poland, and this facilitated its spread throughout the country. He endeavored to popularize Ḥasidism among new classes and in new areas, and sent emissaries to spread the new teaching in many places throughout Poland. His activity may be considered the beginning of Ḥasidism as a movement, while his personal conduct set the precedent in Ḥasidism, for the institution of the Ẓaddik, or saintly leader. Under his leadership, Ḥasidism spread in the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poznania, and began to take root in central Poland. He also won respect and authority outside his own community, and his reputation as a talmudist led numerous people to appeal to him on legal matters, such as ownership and trespass. Dov Baer also took part in communal affairs and his emissary Aaron of Karlin succeeded in obtaining an amendment of the communal tax regulations. In Dov Baer's later years, his views on the Divinity, as well as his methods of leadership, aroused fierce opposition from many rabbis and those who did not accept Ḥasidism. Especial targets for their hostility were the ecstatic modes of religious worship, accompanied by violent bodily movement, adopted by the Ḥasidim of "Talk," the changes he introduced in the prayer ritual in adopting the Lurianic liturgy, the innovations in ritual slaughter, and the neglect of Torah study by the youth who abandoned the yeshivot and flocked to Mezhirech. The main problem confronting the rabbinical opposition was the authority assumed by the Ḥasidim to decide matters of belief and religious conduct. Eventually the ban of excommunication was pronounced on Ḥasidism in Vilna, the orthodox stronghold. According to tradition, the excommunication affected the health of Dov Baer and he died shortly afterward. After his death Ḥasidism remained without a single leader commanding the same authority and general support from all Ḥasidim, and the leadership was assumed by a number of his disciples. The doctrine of Dov Baer may only be ascertained from collections made of his interpretation of biblical passages and rabbinical literature which appear in several versions: Maggid Devarav le-Ya'akov, and Likkutei Amarim ("Collected Sayings," Lvov, 1697, falsified date), written down by Isaiah of Donovich; Or ha-Emet (Husiatyn, 1889), copied from the manuscript written by *Levi Isaac of Berdichev, and in Ms. 8°3282 in the Israel National Library, written by Levi Isaac of Berdichev. Additional sayings have been collected in Likkutei Amarim (Lvov, 1792).

Many of Dov Baer's homiletical observations are included in works written by his disciples, among whom were Samuel and Phineas *Horowitz, *Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Israel of *Kozienice, *Jacob Isaac of Lublin, Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, Nahum of Chernobyl, *Elimelech of Lyzhansk, *Zusya of Annopol (Hanipol), Levi Isaac of Berdichev, Aaron of Karlin, and Aryeh Leib Sarahs.

His Doctrine

Dov Baer develops the doctrine of devekut ("devotion") out of a pantheistic and acosmic perception which describes the essence of God as penetrating all existence and embodying everything: "the whole earth is the Holy One, and it is the world which stands within the Creator." From this doctrine he formulated an approach to mankind which had as its basis an elevated appreciation of the metaphysical status of man. The divine emanation through all things renders possible, by means of inner reflection and contemplation, a close and direct relationship with the root of being, and the ẓaddik or the devoted man is thus a medium who enjoys direct contact with God. Since, in Dov Baer's theory, every man can achieve this direct contact with the Divine, the charismatic figure of the ẓaddik loses his function as the intermediary between the Ḥasid and God. From his acosmic and spiritualist outlook, Dov Baer speaks of devekut through the turning aside from conscious will and the negation of existence. The purpose of man is to abolish concrete cosmic reality and to return to the mystical Ayin ("Nothingness") which preceded creation ("God created existence out of nothing and He makes nothingness out of existence"). Thus the existence of man in this world is seen as a decline which must precede a rise, an existence which must precede nothingness. The soul descends from the heights in order to raise up the material existence through its spiritual exaltation and thus restore the unity which was disturbed by the work of creation. The Sefirah of Ḥokhmah ("Wisdom") or Ayin is the state which precedes creation as the object of the meditations of those in a state of devekut. In the words of the Maggid: "it is impossible for anything to pass from one existence to another, without it becoming nothing (Ayin) at the point of transition." (This is the Aristotelian theory of the "absence" in the transfer from potential to actual existence, which was transmuted from the physical realm to the metaphysical.) In all his extant writings there is a definitely acknowledged mingling between the sphere of the first Sefirah (Keter, Ayin) and the second (Ḥokhmah). Generally, Dov Baer does not distinguish between the two Sefirot – in various places they are treated as identical – and he transposes them in order to elucidate the true structure of the soul. He uses theosophic language and kabbalistic terminology when dealing with matters pertaining to the theory of the soul, from the principles of the doctrine of the Sefirot.

In his words on the essence of prayer, Dov Baer rejects the emphasis on the personal nature of supplication and advocates an attitude of indifference toward the results of the act, with no anticipation of an answer. Prayer is a psychological exercise in maximal concentration, a technique or ladder toward denial of the self. In the transfer from vocal prayer (speech) to prayer by thought, the human act is converted into divine speech (automatic speech).

The logical conclusion to be drawn from Dov Baer's monist approach, which lays down that God is to be found everywhere ("there is no place which is not occupied by Him") is that it is possible to worship Him with every act: "know Him in all thy ways" (he does not accept the Lurianic dualism which accentuates the extremes of evil and good; for him there is no absolute evil but only degrees of good). The idea of divine immanence and the Lurianic concept of the uplifting of the niẓoẓot ("sparks") are the theoretical basis for the principle of "worship through corporeality" (avodah be-gashmiyyut), i.e., the worship of God through devekut even during the performance of physical acts. Dov Baer was aware that such an emphasis on the value of the devekut, with its concomitant disregard of the precepts and halakhic principles, was likely to lead to anarchy and antinomianism; he therefore limited his approach to the spiritual sphere and emphasized the importance of the necessity for meticulous observance of the normative framework of the mitzvot. Because of his tendency toward spirituality, Dov Baer was a conservative in the field of halakhah and inclined toward conformity in practical areas. Worship through corporeality is difficult and only "outstanding men" can abide by it.

The concept of ẓimẓum ("contraction") in his doctrine contradicts in principle the Lurianic concept and returns to the ideological system of Moses *Cordovero. Ẓimẓum is not interpreted as a regression but as an abundance of emanation. The process of ẓimẓum is conceived as an act which differs in meaning with respect to the bestower and the recipients. From the aspect of the Divine Essence, ẓimẓum is an oblivion and a concealment, while from the aspect of the living creatures it is a manifestation and a revelation. Ẓimẓum is a form of cognition which compels God to appear according to the laws of the intellect. Dov Baer interprets the verse: "the king is held captive in the tresses" (Song 7:6), as "tresses of the mind" (Maggid Devarav le-Ya'akov). (The contraction of light and its embodiment in objects is conditional to perception, just as thought is revealed by its materialization – its ẓimẓum – in sound and speech.) By rejecting the Lurianic mythical personification, he blurs the origin of the fall of the niẓoẓot and dissociates himself from the notion of a crisis in the relationship of God with Himself and His relationship with the world. He does not interpret the shevirah ("breaking of the vessels") as a catastrophe within the divine world; its purpose is to illuminate, just as the tailor cuts in order to sew. The shevirah is expressed in allegoric fashion ("a broken heart") and is described as an internal event in the life of man.

Dov Baer's eschatological conception is not bound to any historical period. In it the emphasis is not on matters concerning messianism, as in Shabbateanism; rather the pre-redemption tension is slackened and the emphasis is placed on the road which leads to redemption instead of its consequences. Redemption has ceased to be a single national historical event and has become a continuous spiritual experience for the individual.

The main authority of the ḥasidic leader derived essentially from his direct connection with the heavenly powers, allied to his concern for the individual and the community. The ẓaddik is a man who struggles to attain a life of complete holiness, devoid of any personal benefit and untainted by any evil inclination. He supervises the scales of the world, watching over its moral equilibrium, and the social sphere is the lowest plane of his mystical activity. By the strength of his religious elevation, he is an intercessor for the bestowal of plenty and it is his task to put right the status of the worlds and redeem existence according to the Lurianic system of the uplifting of the "sparks" and the special ḥasidic method of the sublimation of evil thoughts, which transferred the scene of the struggle to the personal sphere and determined a process of internal individual restitution of the soul (tikkun of Adam Kadmon by means of tikkun of Adam Tahton). Dov Baer differentiates between ẓaddikim who succeed in maintaining the dialectic tension between social life and the mystic life (and thus maintain a social and metaphysical link between themselves and the individual) and "ẓaddikim who are compelled to withdraw from the people" because their contact with society is liable to result in their downfall. His theory does not emphasize the doctrine of the ẓaddik and recognizes the possibility of ecstatic experiences without intermediaries. The doctrine of the ẓaddik was mainly developed by the disciples of Elimelechof Lyshansk (ẓaddikut ma'asit, the practical role of the ẓaddik) and was stressed in the Ḥasidism of Bratslav.

bibliography:

R. Schatz, Ha-Ḥasidut ke-Mistikah (1968); M. Buber, Der Grosse Maggid und seine Nachfolger (1922); idem, Tales of Hasidim (1964), 98–112; G. Scholem, in: M. Buber and N. Rotenstreich (eds.), Hagut (1944), 147–51; idem, in: Review of Religion, 14 (1950), 115–39; Horodetzky, Hasidut, 75–102; Dubnow, Hasidut, 76–99; A.J. Heschel, in: Sefer ha-Yovel shel ha-Do'ar (1952), 279–85; J. Weiss, in: Erkhei ha-Yahadut (1953), 81–90; idem, in: huca, 31 (1960), 137–47.

[Esther (Zweig) Liebes]

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