Originally published in Jewish Affairs, November 1964.
While Charles Wesley was teaching Methodists in eighteenth-century England to sing of “love’s ecstatic height,” of “the glorious joy of unspeakable” and “the beatific sight,” which for him were gifts of the Holy Spirit, the followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement among Jews in Eastern Europe, were exploring the meaning of very much the same terms in relation to their own contemplation and experience of the love of God.
Outstanding among these wasDobh Baer of Lubavitch, who lived from 1773 to 1827, and who, towards the end of his life published the quintessence of his teaching in a Tract on Ecstasy, now made available for the first time in English translation by Dr. Louis Jacobs. Dobh Baer had been greatly influenced by his father, whom he succeeded as leader of one of the most influential of the Hasidic sects and whose teachings differed somewhat from that of many of his contemporaries in its insistence on the importance of contemplation and of the engaging of the mind and not the emotions only in the religious life.
The evil in man, his father had taught, was more effectively to be combated by the indirect method of contemplation, rather than by direct assault, and by contemplation, not so much of the harmfulness of evil, or even of the value of the good, but of the divine mystery of the Being of God himself and his relationship to the created world. While Dobh Baer agrees with his father in insisting upon the value of ecstasy, however, he was empathic in warning his followers against the dangers of that unauthentic type of ecstasy which is bound up with an excessive degree of self-awareness. While recognising that the self must play some part in every form of ecstasy, he draws an important distinction between “having an experience,” which for him is authentic ecstasy, and “experiencing that one is having an experience,” which is not!
Indebtedness to Dr. Jacobs for making available this fascinating study of first-hand religious experience is greatly increased by his scholarly introduction and the full apparatus of explanatory notes with which he has furnished both his own introduction and Dobh Baer’s text.
“Both the student of religious phenomena and the psychologist,” writes Dr. Jacobs, “will find in (the Tract) material for their studies and will, no doubt, offer their own explanation of its meaning and motivations. Whether he reader will find something more precious, an approach to the spiritual life, will depend on his general attitude to religion . . . In any event, he cannot fail to hear through these pages the voice of one who was an adept, to use his own terminology, in listening ‘to the words of the living God.’”
It is in the truth of this concluding sentence that the real value of this fascinating study will be found.
William W. Simpson.