In the words of Elie Wiesel:
“The man who left his mark on so many survivors of so many massacres in Central and Eastern Europe, the leader who not only made survival imperative but possible, the Master who gave to despairing communities, managed—we shall never know how—to disappear without leaving the professional seekers even a fragment of valid autobiographical material. Obsessed by eternity, he neglected history and let himself be carried by legend.”
Wiesel is talking about the Baal Shem Tov, The Master of the Good Name. Readers acquainted with Jewish history will have an idea who the Baal Shem Tov was. But the width of the spectrum of such ideas can be immeasurably wide. Equally wide is the range of emotions these ideas arouse.
Readers unacquainted with such a history may be able to read this book more easily as a novel, which it is.
All we know of the Baal Shem Tov is from legends, a few unattested letters and accounts of disciples. Most collections of these legends begin with the story of the Werewolf and I feel impelled to begin with the same event.
What surrounds the stage of our action is, of course, the great world of history and a time of disruptions and new thinking.
In England the Royal Society is formed in 1662, and in France the Academy of Science is founded in 1666. Milton writes Paradise Lost in 1667. Peter the Great becomes Tsar of all the Russians in 1682 and reigns until 1725 when the Baal Shem Tov was a young man in the Tsar’s domain. Newton has published the Principia in 1688 and across the Atlantic in America the Salem Witch trials take place in 1692.
Perhaps of greater consequence to our present time is the transmission from China of the musical theory of equal temperament which forms the basis of almost all musical composition from the mid–18th century to the music saturated present. This musical theory was received and then published in France by Mersenne in 1636; in 1722 it was being championed by Bach in his instructions to young musicians collected under the title, The Well Tempered Clavier. That year the Baal Shem Tov was probably earning his living digging clay and accompanying his labors with Carpathian shepherd’s tunes.
Wars of religion tore at Europe through much of this period. And the consequence of the wars was an increase in the misery of all marginal peoples and particularly the Jews who suffered terrible massacres during the 17th century. So it is within this mosaic of a world theatre that the figure of a barely visible person walks across the stage in a remote corner.
I tell this person’s story through the eyes of an invented student of his who becomes a physician in Prague.
A physician is as unlikely a narrator as he is the natural one to present my perspective in this novel. He is an unlikely narrator because in the 16th and 17th centuries very few, if any, Jews became physicians in Eastern Europe. Although medicine had been an honorable profession for Jews in the 12th and 13th century, by the century of this novel it is considered too secular a pursuit and a gentile science.
He is a natural narrator because the novel is written from the point of view that the activity of the Baal Shem Tov was intended to be a bridge between worlds of human life that had become fragmented and separated. It is reasonable to make this assertion because legend and all testimony suggest he was a practicing Kabbalist. A hundred years before his time another rabbi who is an invisible presence in this novel, the great Rabbi Loew of Prague, whom legend credits with making a golem, demonstrated that unity and unifications were the essential goal of Kabbalah through his work on the three dimensions of space and the three dimensions of time. The Baal Shem Tov was more interested in applying the tradition to heal human relations and to bring about a restoration of innate human heartedness and dignity.
It is important to mention that the Baal Shem Tov is considered the founder of modern day Hasidism. For most readers this conjures an image of black hats and long black coats as depicted in media images. It is also important for the reader to realize that at the time of this novel Hasidim dressed no differently than other Jews of the time. What distinguished them in those days was an inner dimension that expressed itself in a much more exuberant practice of their faith.