“The Besht’s [Baal Shem Tov’s] relationship to Hasidism is analogous to Jesus’ relationship to Christianity” writes Rosman, a teacher of Jewish history at Bar Ilan University, in this delightfully intelligible book of scholarship. “Neither consciously founded a new religious movement. The ideals they exemplified in their teachings and by their behavior were adopted, developed, and made into institutions by later figures.” Examining the evidence of census records, maps, leases and real estate deeds, Rosman deduces, for example that the Besht— who has been depicted as an outcast and a rebel—had already established a considerable reputation and was well thought of by the Jewish establishment in Miedziebusz since he moved into a house the community made available to him as a “mystic in residence.” Along the way Rosman cites in footnotes a few specific sources that might reward a devoted searcher in the quest of women’s stories, and he laments the fact there is too little documentation about the roles of women in these times to support much speculation about their lives. Aside from readers interested in Hasidism—which has had a wide ranging influence on contemporary Jewish spirituality—others interested in social change and human progress, will find fascinating Rosman’s narrative of how later accounts of commonplace events render them more revolutionary than their participants would have imagined.
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