From spoken word to the discourse of the academy: reading the sources for the teachings of the Besht
Moseson, Chaim E.
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This dissertation is concerned with the sources for the teachings attributed to the Besht (Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, d.1760), the purported founder of the Hasidic movement. Works of Hasidic literature preserve many teachings attributed to the Besht but since he wrote none of these himself, the reliability of the oral transmission of his words and of their written record has repeatedly been called into question. After surveying previous critical scholarship on the sources for these teachings and arguing that very basic questions about the nature of these sources and their reliability as historical records remain unanswered, this dissertation presents the first systematic investigation of the earliest of these sources, assesses their various textual problems and historical connection to the Besht, and, finally, offers a number of methodological strategies for evaluating and interpreting them. The sources that are the focus of the investigation include the several letters and documents that have been attributed to the Besht directly, as well as the numerous teachings quoted in his name in the writings of his disciples. Employing historical and philological analyses, this study traces the textual history of all of these sources and their various, often conflicting, versions in manuscript and print, and offers a fresh assessment of their connection to the Besht. In the course of the investigation important aspects of the complex origins of Hasidic literature are reconstructed and it is shown, for example, that a vast corpus hitherto attributed to the Besht’s disciple Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritsh (d.1772), is, in fact, the product of a prolonged, and largely anonymous, collective effort. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the historical and methodological consequences of the analyses. It is argued that the scope of the oral transmission of the Besht’s teachings was relatively limited and that it was their dissemination in written form that had a decisive historical impact. Following a discussion of the applicability of criteria of authenticity to the case of the teachings quoted in the name of the Besht, a number of methodological strategies for interpreting them are described and a future program of research is proposed.