There’s No Such Thing As A Simple Idolator

Fourth member of a Sukkot series on the teachings of the Holy Baal Shem Tov. Members the 1st, the 2nd, and the 3rd.

“The wholesome simplicity of the simple Jew touches on the utterly simple essence of G‑d. ”
The Holy Baal Shem Tov

It’s tricky to be simple. The opposite of chassidic simplicity is often characterized in the discourses as tachbulos, i.e. schemes, machinations, attempts to engineer, from the raw materials of life, positive outcomes for oneself. A schemer denies the absolute dominion of the Creator over the Creation. He denies individual divine providence, a major theme of the Baal Shem Tov’s Judaism. He denies miracles, too. His world is ruled by…whom, exactly?

The Rebbe writes that worldly hanachos, that is, the grounding axiomatic assumptions provided to the mind by the world, are the first step on the road to deep spiritual rot. One who plans to get ahead by scheming has made an error that surely impacts his heart.

I am reminded of a different teaching attributed to the Baal Shem Tov: He refused to ride with a non-Jewish wagon driver who would not cross themselves as they passed their place of worship, for fear they would steal from him, or worse.

This teaching makes many of us uncomfortable today, and for a number of reasons. One of them is our difficulty relating to the Baal Shem Tov’s distinction. Today, thank G-d, we do not generally assume that, barring some sort of religious test, any person walking down the street is a thief. Perhaps this is a testament to our greater ethical standing today, the way even the “irreligious” members of our society tend to be raised with religious virtue. Perhaps it’s the opposite: religion today is so weak that it has no influence and we thus have no useful distinguishing metric and must merely hope the citizens around us will be compelled by law and custom. Paradoxically, thrown back on our own resources, we fear mutual destruction.

Whatever the reason, we need a new notion of the village pagan, the baseline Jew-hating idolator uncivilized by the mores of Abrahamic religion whom we might find rolling in the mud of Poland three hundred years ago. We need to understand why we would fear him, why a bit of G-d* would make him less scary, and why any of this matters in a Sukkah in the suburbs of Atlanta in 5780.

A wagon driver steals from you as a scheme, a means to get ahead, whether physically (he needs to eat) or emotionally (he needs to pay back some perceived slight) or spiritually (he needs to enforce his own sense of his existence by wilful action, thereby holding emptiness and futility at bay). He does not trust G-d to fulfill these needs.** He takes matters into his own hands, and not merely to make a vessel for G-d’s blessing, as he would by working an honest job to provide for his family, etc. No, he believes that some kind of success will result purely from his own action.

He is not so different from the generation of Enosh described by the Rambam in the Laws of Idol Worship, who came to pray to sun and moon because he saw these luminaries providing the crops with succor. The wagon-driving thief is like the sons of Egypt, who worshiped the Nile, not because they did not understand it or feared it but because their lives seemed consistently to depend on it.

Tachbulos/schemes are similar to idolatry in the sense that both ascribe efficacy to the finite and manipulable. They both find force in knowable forms. When Pharaoh says he does not know the G-d of the Four-Letter Name, and the wagon driver fails to acknowledge his ostensible place of worship**, they open themselves up to alternatives. Pharaoh says “The Nile is mine and I have made it for myself.” The wagon driver says, “I earn by the power of my own hand.”

That’s what makes these men dangerous. It’s not that a believer in G-d can’t be a murderous king or a robber. It’s that others possess no inner countermeasure they can place against these impulses, nothing as real as the need for their own satisfaction. Ultimately, their reality is ordered to their own ends; everything in the world may be used to further their purposes, and it’s unclear why, if one is physically able, one should not take advantage. Sure, other people are real, and all human beings feel hurting others is wrong. But the reality of the other is ever-grounded in myself; they are as real, ultimately, as they may be some portion or corollary of myself; my mother, my neighbor, my comrade.

In other words, the hidden axiom underlying the revealed “gods” of idolatry is that all realities may be expressed as a function of my own. The concealed G-d of Abraham, by contrast, is Himself the basis of all realities; the axiom is named and placed infinitely beyond our reach.

The way to touch that ground of all things, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches us, is therefore not through striving and scheming, but through simplicity and sincerity, the lack of striving, transparency to the G-dly truth at the heart of all things. If the wagon driver acknowledges G-d, then he acknowledges something real inside him to place against the animal cries of his own being, to contradict the inner pharaoh.

We would be deeply mistaken to assume that idolatrous tachbulos no longer exist. Perhaps among the general population in a kind and religious country, the Baal Shem Tov would be less concerned. Then again, when order is crumbling and the wild eyes of a younger Europe are showing through the cracks, perhaps not. Either way, we’d be wise to watch for signs of danger.

When you meet, today, an idea that has a person, rather than vice versa, this emits the scent. Ideas please us because they fit with our reality rather than deny it, the same way the affirming and kind Nile pleased Pharaoh, and may be manipulated accordingly. Would you ride in a cab with a driver who is a known member of an extremist group, whatever its political persuasion? Would you be secure knowing that they believe in an image of what is good and right, and anything that will serve that image is itself good? Would you sit comfortably knowing that they acknowledge nothing real that encroaches upon their visions?

The holy Baal Shem Tov came to redeem Judaism from the images that attached themselves to its true inner simplicity. He taught that G-d is not an idea, that sincerity is worth more than study, that He cannot be known. He taught that the Mitzvah itself, the commandment, is of inherent infinite worth, that it is not a means to an end but an end unto itself, as is the Jew. He hoped to rescue us from the striving of self-perfection and -preservation, to reach into these webs of logic and draw forth a soul, a single point, perfect and whole no matter how deep it was buried.

Sit in the Sukkah, shake the Lulav, give Tzedakah, and do it not to accomplish anything, but simply because it is the will of G-d. This is simplicity: The place within us from which shines into our every act the faith that we were not created, except to serve Him.


*If he’s Jewish, he may know the unique mishegas of praying as you dig your tunnel for success in your theft, or attending shul on Yom Kippur even if you “don’t believe in G-d”. This is why we find many Chassidic tales, especially those of the Shpoleh Zeide, redeeming Jewish thieves and exploring the great worth of their hidden simple faith.

**Putting aside for the moment the question of whether Christianity itself constitutes idolatry. For an exploration of this tension hidden in the story of the Baal Shem Tov, see “On Churches, Wagon Drivers, and Contradictions“.