THE MAGGID OF MEZRITCH
The Life and Times of
Rebbe Dov Ber
The Maggid of Mezritch
by Yitzchak Dorfman
by Rabbi Nachman Bulman
The origins of the Chassidic movement two centuries ago are veiled by a lack of historical clarity and by sharp controversy. The dying embers of Sabbatarian and Frankist false messianic movements were still causing painful turmoil among East European Jewry. The organizational structure of the communities, and their inner morale, had been dangerously weakened in the wake of the 1648 Chmielnitzki massacres. There was frightening material and spiritual impoverishment. The crown of Torah learning was no longer held in the unsurpassing esteem that had always marked Jewish life. The heart of the nation was faint.
R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov appeared as a messenger from Above to rejuvenate the joy of Torah faith for a deeply wounded generation of Jews. To be sure, what seemed innovative in the movement he founded was really only a greater emphasis on selective elements of the classic Torah heritage. However the Baal Shem's vision of leadership, brotherhood and devotion aroused fierce opposition. The preeminence of Torah learning and precise halachic practice seemed threatened by a new folkism. The institution of the Chassidic Tzaddik at the top of the pyramid of Jewish leadership, the stress of devotional inwardness, the messianic strivings were all too reminiscent of the the devastation wrought by Sabbatarianism.
In the lifetime of the Baal Shem Tov, such opposition, however, was only incipient. Upon the accession of R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, to Chassidic leadership after the demise of the Baal Shem, the movement grew rapidly. It attracted a number of brilliant Talmudic scholars. It quickly gained an ever-growing following in many communities. Some of its leaders and devotees were excessively zealous on behalf of the new light in their lives. It seemed clear to the Torah scholarsheaded by the venerable Gaon of Vilnathat the new movement cast dishonor on Torah scholarship and Torah practice; that its deviations were not minor, but of major import.
The conflict that erupted between the established Torah community and the fledgling movement led to a rift within Eastern European Jewry, which took a century and a half to heal; the scars of that conflict have remained to this day.
The second leader of the Chassidic movement, R. Dov Ber, was the consolidator of the movement, following the kindling of its flame by the Baal Shem. He broadened its base. He institutionalized its vaulting vision. He attracted a brilliant following, who, within one generation, won tens of thousands of devotees to the cause.
No less important, the condemnation faced by the movement stimulates its leadership and following to demonstrate that Chassidism was not guilty of the accusations leveled against it. Torah luminaries of the first order were among its mentors and leaders. Total devotion to the practice of Halacha became one of its central emphases. In time, the Chassidic movement became a decisive element within the Torah community. The debate remained alive only over emphasis, no longer over root principles. In fact, both parties came to defend a common Torah against the onslaught of rising tide of enlightenment and secularization.
What was the secret of R. Dov Ber's leadership? Among his following wee commanding Torah intellects, persons of extraordinary critical acumen. What captivated them and engendered in them limitless devotion to their master and his teachings? Their common testimony is to the utter truthfulness their perceived in every fiber of their teacher's personality. The Maggid did not author books of paper. He inscribed his books in the minds and hearts of his disciples. The historical record of such a life is obviously not to be sought in the externals of formal documentation. It is in the lore radiated from his life and refracted through the accounts of disciples, that the inner truth of the life of R. Dov Ber may be sought.
A beloved young friend of mine, Yitzchak Dorfman, has attempted the difficult task of organizing the lore that has come down through the generations, of the life and times of R. Dov Ber. He has authored a beautiful work on the Maggid of Mezritch and some of his disciples and heirs.
In eleven chapters written from the heart, without the pretense of sophistication, hundreds of episodes, teachings and aphorisms are woven into a tapestry that is beautiful and rings true, though the idiom of translation cannot always preserve the pristine quality of the original.
It is hoped that the work will stir many in these troubled times to a deeper appreciation of what all Israel owes the Chassidic movement, in its ongoing aspiration towards oneness with God and Torah.