The Baal Shem Tov: A Study in Max Weber’s Charismatic Authority

Avidan Halivni, Columbia University

Israel ben Eliezer (circa. 1700-1760), more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov, (Master of the Good Name), is one of the more mysterious figures of Jewish history. A rabbi and mystic from eighteenth century Ukraine, the Baal Shem Tov’s life and teachings served as the basis for Hasidism, a Jewish renewal movement inspired by Lurianic Kabbalah. He wrote very little, however, and what record remains of his life is largely in the form of hagiographic tales. More than a century and a half later, the German sociologist Max Weber would coin the term charismatic authority in an essay on the archetypal qualities of religious revolutionaries (from Max Weber: Essays in Sociology). Viewed through the lens of Weber’s theory, one can come to truly appreciate the character of the Baal Shem Tov and the genesis of the Hasidic movement. This comparative analysis hopes to use Weber’s archetype to better understand the figure of the Baal Shem Tov, as well as evaluating the theoretical model presented by Weber by applying it to a historical example. The vindication of Weber’s archetype through the character of the Baal Shem Tov sheds light on the most important features of real charismatic authority and contributes to the overall understanding of charisma in religious life.

The first characteristic of the charismatic authority concern the attributes of the figure himself, his biography and personality. Weber begins with the assertion that some “men are differently qualified in a religious way,” meaning that the highest levels of holiness are not attainable by everyone (287). Those able to reach spiritual elevation are considered to possess a sort of charisma that makes them widely acclaimed and honored as truly exceptional. Oftentimes–Weber tells us–figures like this had reputations for magical powers, which cemented their standing as “extraordinary.” These fantastic acts, frequently combined with a dynamic personality, inspired many to desire this person as their leader. In the words of Weber himself:

“‘Charismatic authority’, hence, shall refer to a rule over men, whether predominantly external or predominantly internal, to which the governed submit because of their belief in the extraordinary quality of the specific person.”(296)

As the face of the movement, the charismatic authority is perceived as a superhuman of sorts, an exemplary personage to whom the laity submit.

In this regard, the Baal Shem Tov is unmatched in Jewish history. Tales abound of his powers to heal the sick, both physically and spiritually, diagnosing their ailments after a single conversation. Jews from all around Europe would travel for days to sit at the rabbi’s feet as he stared into their soul and provided spiritual guidance. The legend of the Baal Shem Tov grew to mythical proportions:

“Ghosts evacuated haunted houses at the mere mention of his name. Was he alone on a wintry night, he had but to touch a tree with his finger tips and flames burst forth. When his spirit wandered through the angelic sphere, as was frequently the case, he obtained access to Paradise for millions of pining souls who had vainly waited without through long thousands of mournful years.” (Schechter, Studies of Judaism, 11)

The Baal Shem Tov reaches and may even surpass Weber’s definition of extraordinariness, as he was dubbed by his followers a tzaddik, a righteous one, gifted with the exceptional personality, miraculous powers and ability necessary to engineer a revolution.

The next essential piece of Weber’s argument is the doctrine that the religious authority espouses; that is, his actual message. The charismatic authority is iconoclastic, often reinterpreting long-standing traditions to justify new practices and beliefs. Weber describes this process as a declaration of the charismatic authority of “It is written – but I say unto you…!” (296). His message subverts the existing normative system by replacing the errors of the old regime with a new spiritually elevated system. Whatever the content, a common trope in the message of the charismatic authority is the ennoblement of a suppressed class by providing more accessible mechanisms through which to access God and salvation.

The Hasidism pioneered by the Baal Shem Tov incorporated a universal theology, grounded in Lurianic Kabbalah, that redefined the approach to Jewish practice. Though he never preached a rejection of the halachic system, he understood that following the law was necessary, “not to gain grace thereby in the eyes in God but to learn how to love God and be united to Him” (Schechter 29). Halacha became the means to religious experience, not the ends. Martin Buber, a Jewish existentialist philosopher who saw in Hasidism a renewal movement as essential to Judaism as the shift from sacrifices to rabbinic law, designates the monumental achievement of Hasidism as the revival of the Deed. There was a dramatic shift towards the importance of every single action, granting the individual the agency to be the master of his own path to salvation, essentially “to become, himself, a law, a Torah” (Buber 48). The Baal Shem Tov was a prophet of the masses, reframing their understanding of their own actions and granting them mastery over their own spiritual lives. Every action and thereby every person had the potential to tap into the immanence of the divine if they came with appropriate intent.

The doctrine of Hasidism is certainly congruous with that of Weber’s charismatic authority. Though the Baal Shem Tov didn’t do away entirely with the existing normative behaviors, he relegated them to the background and replaced them with a different set of pursuits. It wasn’t important that one simply prayed three times a day, but rather that it was done joyously, in ecstatic praise to God – a state known as hitlahavut, from the Hebrew root “to set on fire”. What could be considered a transgression of social norms, shattering the legalistic idols of medieval Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov saw as a return to the original mission of Judaism. This new system proposed by the Baal Shem Tov and his followers easily satisfies Weber’s criteria for the accomplishments of a charismatic authority.

Weber admits that charismatic authority is an incredibly unstable stage in the process of religious change, consistent with the irrationality of its message and the unique character of its figurehead. The final, and arguably the most crucial, component of the charismatic authority’s success is the matter of his succession. The transition from the charismatic authority to the next generation of religious leaders, stages which he terms “traditional authority” and, eventually, “bureaucratic authority,” is a delicate and highly politicized undertaking. Weber writes, “The ruler’s disciples, apostles, and followers become priests, feudal vassals and, above all, officials” (297). The responsibility to establish any sort of permanence to the work of the charismatic authority falls to his disciples. They are the ones who translate the revolution of the charismatic authority into rational, normative practice to last for posterity, and it is they who ensure his retroactive establishment as an extraordinary figure through telling stories of his greatness.

In this case, as well, Hasidism matches Weber’s vision. The relatives and prominent disciples of the Baal Shem Tov were sent all around Eastern Europe to spread the light of Hasidism and establish their own Hasidic dynasties, beginning with Dov Ber of Mezritch, whose intimate apprenticeship with the Baal Shem Tov represented the transition from the single authority to a circle of disciples, who were also considered tzaddikim. It is largely due to the efforts of the successors that Hasidism spread to Poland, Russia, Galicia, and as far as Israel and America today.

Ultimately, it seems that the Baal Shem Tov is a Weberian charismatic authority par excellence. The Baal Shem Tov exemplifies everything that Weber describes for the idealized charismatic authority. He was widely acclaimed as an extraordinary figure, performing miracles and healing the sick, and people came from all over to submit to his guidance and receive a blessing; the doctrine of Hasidism altered Judaism within its existing framework, reshaping Jewish practice in a more democratic, psychological manner, complemented by a new theology; and the translation into an established tradition was secured by his disciples, who spread Hasidism all over Europe in the name of their holy master. In light of the Baal Shem Tov, Weber’s model is confirmed.

In his 1993 dissertation, “Charismatic Leadership and Appeal in Early Hasidism,” Barry J. Hammer generally affirms the previous conclusion, having reviewed both Weber and Hasidism and observed many commonalities between the two. Yet Hammer’s work suggests that Weber’s archetype is fallible, failing to completely encompass any single example. He points out several inharmonious details between Weber’s charismatic authority and the case of Hasidism and the Baal Shem Tov. For example, on the issue of Baal Shem Tov’s disciples, tzaddikim in their own right, Weber’s model breaks down, for he does not account for the ability of the charismatic authority to transmit his radiance to another individual who has not been blessed by God (Hammer 35). Weber believes that these gifts are divinely gifted and therefore the authority could not transmit his charisma to his followers without divine approval, in contradistinction to the manner in which Hasidic leaders imparted their connection to the divine onto their successors.

Furthermore, Hammer draws on Freudian concepts of the ego to complicate the understanding of the character of the religious authority, going so far as to suggest that Freud bears the more accurate notion of charisma. Freud believed that charisma was simply a projection of one’s own egocentrism, characterized by a belief in the self as quasi-omnipotent and an overall inflated personality. Hammer notes that the “ego-ideal-image and its charismatic appeal is actually a distorted derivative of radiance and of the ‘pure,’ Weberian charisma that is directly derived from radiance” (Hammer 20). His findings indicate that Weber’s model may be too one-dimensional because it tends to believe the stories about the unnatural, miraculous nature of the charismatic authority. Weber does not acknowledge the possibility that the figure’s charisma may be just a hyperinflation of his own ego. In this case, the true brilliance of the charismatic authority is that he leads a revolution by sheer force of personality, possessing charisma of such consequence that he has persuaded many people to invest in him and his new system. Faced with these two extremes, Hammer chooses to integrate them both, creating a continuum of Weberian radiance to Freudian ego-ideal-image upon which he places the Baal Shem Tov and his Hasidism.

The emphasis Hammer places on strength of personality, whether divinely gifted and real, or humanly constructed and projected, answers a different question for the sociology of religion, namely, what aspect of charismatic authority is the most influential. Though the matters of doctrine and succession are of great consequence, it seems that the personality of the authority makes the most difference in gathering a successful following. This view was echoed by Martin Buber, as well as by the early writings of Gershom Scholem, who saw in Hasidism an excellent illustration of this point. Scholem writes, “The whole development centers around the personality of the Hasidic saint; personality takes the place of doctrine” (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism).

It is precisely this conclusion, however, that gives me pause in the discussion of charismatic authority. The present day has seen cult leaders with dynamic personalities convince myriads of people of the virtuousness of ideologies that seem quite radical. The winning charisma of these individuals has persuaded their followers to suspend  their personal autonomy in favor of that of their leaders. Should we not fear the power of Jim Jones, the leader of the Jonestown People’s Temple, whom his disciples called “Father,” and who ultimately convinced his commune, “a population count of over 900 people to drink cyanide laced Kool-Aid to their deaths”? (UIC Social Theory). Jones’s legendary charisma caused almost a thousand people to give themselves over to him entirely, suspending their instinct for self-preservation at his behest. There is no question that charismatic authority is seductive, even hypnotic. Yet because of this inherent danger, it behooves one to be extremely wary of the message this figure espouses, constantly evaluating it for its costs and benefits. Suspending reason to any higher human authority, though psychologically appealing, contains great danger.

I have also noticed a great deal of that suspension of personal autonomy in modern day Hasidic communities, who trace their roots back to the Baal Shem Tov. The rebbe, the spiritual leader of each Hasidic branch, is the final say on many important issues; there is very little personal autonomy among the individual hasidim. The New York Times remarked in 1989 that “What makes the Hasidic voter unique is the tradition in which the rebbe decides important issues for the community” (“Birth of a Voting Bloc: the Hasidim and Orthodox Organize). This forced uniformity, though certainly unifying, often stifles dissenting opinions on important issues. In the past few years, when numerous cases of sexual abuse within Haredi communities have surfaced, stories abound of victims of abuse having received a phone call from the rebbe asking them to settle the matter in a Hasidic rabbinical court, rather than go to the police (NY Times, “Ultra-Orthodox Shun Their Own for Reporting Child Sexual Abuse”). These rebbes rely on their charismatic authority to preserve the status quo, when perhaps what is necessary is an autonomous voice from below that criticizes rather than submits.

Though Weber’s charismatic authority has the power to reshape the world for the better, he or she can also cause great harm to those who would entrust them with their lives. Though we may rely on the leader for guidance, we must never enslave ourselves to their charm so that we forsake our own moral and spiritual needs. I find it appropriate to close with a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov himself that underscores the previous point. In A Passion for Truth, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The prophet Isaiah’s appeal, ‘Do not hide yourself from your own flesh’ (58:7)… was interpreted the Baal Shem Tov as, Do not remain indifferent to your own flesh, your own body’s needs” (Heschel 27). When dealing with charismatic authority, we must not remain “indifferent to our own flesh” — preserving our own autonomy just as we admire that of the leader.