Originally published in Journal of Jewish Studies 40:2.
Abraham J. Heschel (ed. Samuel H. Dresner), The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hasidism. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1985. xiv, 213 pp. £23.75.
Heschel examines in rich detail all that is known or claimed to be known about four charismatic figures belonging in the circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Pinhas of Koretz, Gershon Kutover (brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov), Nahman of Kosow and Isaac of Drohobycz. The great problem in considering material on the very earliest Hasidic masters is how to disentangle the facts from the legends, so much so that it was even doubted by some whether the Baal Shem Tov ever existed. Recently, M. Rosdman has shown that, in fact, the names of the Baal Shem Tov and two other figures mentioned in the legendary Shivhey Habesht are found in government documents in Polish archives, where even the homes of these masters are recorded as well as the stipend they received from the Jewish community. This material was not available to Scholem when he wrote his famous essay, ‘The Historical Baal Shem Tov’, yet Scholem showed how the historian of Hasidism is able to get to the facts behind the legends. It cannot be said that Heschel is equally successful, but there is a wealth of material here, and in the editor’s Introduction, for the study of a movement on which so much has been written yet where there is still room for more.