Rebels With a Cause (or between Crown Heights and Northampton)


“Jonathan Edward and the Gospel of Love” By Ronald Story. University of Amherst Press. 176 pages. 2011.

The study of history shows countless coincidences when a social, aesthetic, political or religious trend has permeated the geographical or spiritual fabric. One example is the founding of the Chassidic movement in Eastern European Jewry in the 18th century and the Great Awakening among Colonial American Puritans during roughly the same time.


Around the founding of the American church and its division into several subsets, many of the spiritual elements adapted during the period of the Great Awakening mirrored many of the spiritual facets and tenets adapted by the early days of Chassidism in Eastern Europe. A subtle observation, this does not assume anything but certainly is worth an essay.


Where these two movements seem to part most is probably in terms of science and reason. Whereas Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) mixed philosophy with scripture, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) was not a scientist. His God was a God of miracles, not reason; his bible was understood by Kabbalah, not physical science.



Next door to 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn is the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad. It is on the second floor of the famous red brick complex, above a beit midrash for Torah students. Inside the actual library is a small museum where several glass casings display “ancient” Katubot  from Morocco, or so says the religious man who oversees the office. But for the Hebrew and Yiddish artifacts, there is scarce literature explaining what it is spectators are viewing, their country, community of origin and the dates.


I wander around for ten minutes before the place closes. Due to the shoddy indicators explaining the items on display, I must ask to be shown the attraction, or the photo of the attraction that I have come to see. It is a copy of the prayer siddur that belonged to the Baal Shem Tov. Two pages are photographed and framed so visitors can see, but the actual artifact itself is kept locked in a vault, not for the eyes of tourists.


Shalom Ber Levine is the name of the elderly gentleman who oversees the place and is rushing me to leave so that he can go pray. He explains to me that the Lubavitch Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Scheerson purchased the siddur in 1928 from a great grandchild of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzybzh, Ukraine. Shalom Ber Levine was not able to explain why the Rebbe insisted the Eastern European religious artifact be kept in the United States of America, or the monetary tax it cost him.




The First Churches in Northampton, Massachusetts is where Jonathan Edwards used to preach and before him, his grandfather Solomon Stoddard. Before there were any Jews in the country, the church stood there where it still stands today. The First Churches is a monument to the founders of the original American colonies. The present congregation is a mix of the First Churches of Christ and the First Baptist Church. It is open to visitors who wish to see the museum where Jonathan Edwards’s chair is kept, or pilgrims who wish to participate in the congregation, or to hear Reverend Peter Ives preach. Ives is among the most knowledgeable men alive about the teachings and life of Pastor Edwards. He refuses however to release information for an interview. The First Churches is constructed very near to the meetinghouse constructed in 1655 on “Meeting House Hill.” This edifice was replaced elsewhere in 1661, then during the pastorate of Jonathan Edwards a tertiary meetinghouse was built in 1737. The Northampton Baptist church was founded in 1822, and the two churches merged in 1988.[1]

The First Churches is a long ride from Crown Heights by stagecoach, but not a long shot philosophically.



The Baal Shem Tov taught that, “Everything is by Divine Providence” and the telos of life itself is hinged on man’s free will which in turn is hinged on God’s plan. This belief is a tenet of Puritan Christianity: what John Calvin called ‘predestination’. In his writings, this is among the issues Pastor Jonathan Edwards grappled with. That is, the cosmic tug-of-war between free will and Divine Providence. It is reconciled by a study of physics and rational reasoning, as per Sir Francis Bacon, John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. Such secular and pantheistic philosophy is what Jonathan Edwards spent so much time reading, cutting his scripture with. Later, he would be exiled from his station at the First Churches in Northampton partially for his spiritual fusion of rational science and dogmatic creed. Perhaps a browse today around the First Churches will reveal some of Edwards’s personal library and if so, certainly the works of Locke and Newton will be found there.

If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by G‑d to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.”[2]

This is one of the ethics that is pulled from the BESHT’s allegorical narratives. This phenomenon is known as hashgachah pratit. Such thinking is brought about by an especially romantic version of orthodoxy. Jews find this in Chassidism and American Christians may find this in the biography of Pastor Jonathan Edwards.


The Baal Shem Tov took the art of clinging to God in prayer, outside of the minyan and bringing it into a natural forest of solitude. The BESHT would go off for walks by himself for hours on end, meditating and looking for a union with the Divine presence. In the forest, he could do this easily because God reveals himself in the workings of nature.


According to the BESHT, God can be found “In the pirouettes of a nondescript leaf falling from some lonely tree, in the puff of a sudden breeze on a summer’s day, in every sight that could be seen or sound that could be heard, the Baal Shem Tov perceived the Infinite, the Unknowable. “[3]


For this, the Baal Shem Tov raised many a strange eyebrow among his fellow Jews. His thinking isolated the stringent theology of pre-enlightenment Judaism.


According to one Professor Ronald Story, this theology is not so far off from that of Jonathan Edwards. “Finding God by studying nature [sic]…you can read the mind of God” as well as by studying scripture. Story is in town for a meeting and I’ve met him for lunch on a rainy day in May at the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan to discuss similarities in the theology of the Baal Shem Tov and Pastor Jonathan Edwards. Ronald Story is professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has also been a deacon at the First Churches of Northampton and in 2012 he released a book entitled “Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love” (University of Amherst Press).


“Edwards came to his sense of G-d when he was young.” says Story, sipping black tea from a paper cup. I listen to him talk above the public banter and jangling of commerce in a midtown cafeteria. He tells me that Jonathan Edwards did  “a lot of sitting alone in nature.” This ascetic lifestyle, the priest’s communion with Divinity outside of the boundaries of society and the establishment is one thing that the Baal Shem Tov and Jonathan Edwards were doing at about the same time. “Edward’s thought that this was the key to religion: if you are overwhelmed by God, you will have a sense of his greatness and his beauty [sic].” explains  Story with joy.




The sense of there being no ending or beginning of God and the universe and its constant expansion is one of the themes in Edwards’s theology. Creation, ex nihilo is a constant act, not a one time shot. Furthermore, something created ex nihilo cannot be totally independent of its creator. Professor Story calls this phenomenon “Einsteinian.” I explain to him that in Kabbalah, one of the apects of God is Ein Sof, which is translated as “no end.” and that this sense of omnipotence and constant expansion of space, sans any limit or commencement is one way to imagine God. The Baal Shem Tov studied Kabala and it is very responsible for the formation of the movement known as Chassidism.



“The Zohar (III:195 a) states that one’s will is to be like that of a pauper. Thus consider yourself like a pauper and always speak with soft and beseeching words like a pauper.”[4]


Charity is another tenet of Puritanism that Edwards preached. For him “charity has a global implication.” says Story. I tell him that tzedakah, the act of giving to the poor, is a form of tikkun olam (healing the world). It may be said that the Puritans were a humble bunch. Not particularly wealthy and meekly dressed. Calvinist garb consisted of black suits and white caps, a protest to the flamboyant garb worn by Anglicans. In 1723, Edwards told a New York congregation: “…if you are uncharitable…[and]…neglect the welfare of your fellow creatures…[and refuse to contribute]… necessities to the community, you are unchristian.” It goes along with Calvinist theology to live a lifestyle of generosity and charity and to not acquire too much or flaunt one’s wealth. Therefore, as per Martin Luther, the same Protestant standards that the church was held to during the Renaissance, the individual is held to in Calvinism. This is intensified in the theology of the First Great Awakening. The architecture of an 18th century synagogue in Eastern Europe also was probably minimalist and basic, as is the case with early Calvinist aesthetics.



“Love pervades Jonathan Edwards’s ministry and writings” writes Ronald Story in Chapter Six of his new book, “The Gospel of Love.” “Love swells…through Edwards’s conception of the Trinity, a vital component of his theology…” he writes. “This is true even for G-d, who loves Himself but does so within the context of a tripartite Godhead comprising God the father, his son Christ, and the Holy Spirit, each with a particular theological identity and function, each remaining nonetheless a part of the composite whole.” adding that “Love is therefore inherently and irreducibly social and relational.” Story concludes his explanation.


According to the Chassidic teachings of the Baal Shem Tov: “The three Loves, the love of G‑d, love of Torah, and the love of one’s fellow are indeed truly one.”[5] These three sources of devotion and their bonding into a single union are almost indeterminable from Edwards’s meditation on the Trinity. Love is a central tenet of both Chassidism and the First Great Awakening: “The Baal Shem Tov’s love of a fellow Jew was beyond imagination. His successor, the Maggid of Mezeritch, said: If only we could kiss a Torah-scroll with the same love that my Master kissed the children when he took them to school as a teacher’s assistant.” [6]



The Baal Shem Tov was very fond of light, and said, “Or (light) is the numerical equivalent of raz [‘secret’]. Whoever knows the ‘secret’ in every thing can bring illumination.”[7]


“Light was Edwards’s favorite image and metaphor.” writes Story in his new book. And this could be proven by the title of one of Edwards’s original published sermons, “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” Jonathan Edwards “was a man of scripture, and Scripture enshrines the concept of light from the creation of the world (‘let there be light’) to the coming of the Messiah (‘I am the light of the world).” This certainly begs to recall the Jewish perception of Israel as being a “light unto the nations,” Or Goyim.


“Light represents,” writes Story “as is self-evident and imperative for Edwards, first and foremost, the beams of God’s glory.” This is no different than in Kabbalah. Among the conceptions of God is the phrase Or Ein Sof. Divinity exposes itself as light, all the light of the universe. But this light is concealed, only to be exposed by the ways of Chassidism.


The same “light” from the Book of Genesis is what God is using to create the universe even as we speak, according to this theology. “For He is the Or Ein Sof, the Infinite Light, transcendent of even the most spiritual realms. To place Him within the creation itself, within any worldly activity, is to equate Him with the finitude of His own creation.”[8]


During the prior generation in England, Sir Isaac Newton held that white light shown through a prism could reflect a rainbow spectrum. This recalls various Kabbalistic concepts.



During our interview, Ron Story talked about what Pastor Jonathan Edwards called “God Entrancement.” A good congregation, according to Edwards, should be able to worship the Divine presence by becoming entranced in love and devotion. They should sacrifice themselves in charity, prayer and devotion. This is similar to the Chassidic way of life and prayer. Chassidic prayer is more intense than prayer in any other sect and the emphasis is placed on meditation. If a Chassidic can clear his mind of all worldly concern and devote his entire being to devotion and worship of the Divine, he may transcend his earthly place and rise to heaven, man being an extension of God Itself.



One of the most revolutionary ideas of Jonathan Edwards was the introduction of prayer hymns; these were sung by the entire congregation. Men, women and children would sing in church. Sometimes, the tunes were arranged in harmony so that the women and men sang different parts. According to Pastor Jonathan Edwards, part of prayer and love of God is happiness. Worship music induces happiness perhaps better than any other method. This came as a shock to the austere theology and aesthetics of Calvinism and Puritanism.


The Chassidim too made music a part of their prayer. Yiddish melodies known as niggun[s] were prayers that were sung in synagogue, at home and at work. The idea is the same as in the Great Awakening. Singing melodies induces extreme happiness and joy in the congregation.


Jonathan Edwards’s congregation would sway along with the music in church the way Breslov and Chabad Chassidim dance and sing in synagogue today. Today, when Christian music is performed, usually a faith-based form of rock n roll or country, the audience sways in prayer, and the recalling of such imagery on the television set or at Christian youth group will give a sense of what Jonathan Edwards intended.


            Tradition has it that before the followers of the Baal Shem Tov received the name     chassidim, they were called the “frielicheh“—the “happy ones.” From the very inception of     chassidism, in fact, perpetual joy was one of the primary         distinguishing   characteristics of the chassid.[9]


Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov famously said: “The ability to be joyous, by discerning the good and joyous within every experience, is considered by Chassidim as a biblical command.” [10]




The Baal Shem Tov and the movement his teaching would spur in Judaism did not come without enemies.  

The main source of inspiration in the Jewish communities of that era was the maggidim, preachers, who were skilled narrators of Torah and religious stories. The maggid’s mission was to preach morality, and to awaken the dormant spirit of          Judaism in the hearts of the masses. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, a  new “fire and brimstone” school of maggidism became popular, one that preached moral and religious conduct as a safeguard against the terrible         punishments of the      Day of Judgment…The Baal Shem Tov opposed the methods of these maggidim, who criticized and demoralized the Jewish masses in an attempt to motivate them…Although such   admonition may have its time and place, as may be seen     from    the       harsh admonitions issued by some of the Biblical prophets, the   Baal     Shem Tov taught  that the Jew who has suffered nearly two millennia of exile  and persecution needs not to be further broken by     chastisement and rebuke. [11]



No revolution comes about easily. Another contemporary was Rabbi Moses Mendelsohn of Germany. Far from a propeller of Chassidism, he was the founder of what is called Reform Judaism. This Judaism also introduced music and choirs in worship, but not the way the Chassidim did. Also, the Reform movement was inspired by the rational philosophy that was prevalent in this era of the Enlightenment. The allegories and Kabbalistic studies of Chassidism are opposed to such scientific and rational reasoning, though in the end they really become reconciled.


The rational philosophy of the Reform Judaism movement is more evocative of the First Great Awakening as helmed by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’s theology contrasted two things. First, the secular and sometimes atheistic philosophy of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the Cambridge Platonists, et cetera. Second, whereas Edwards could buy into the ethics of such progressive thinkers, libertarian or otherwise, he had to protest their atheism. He used their rational proof and natural science to prove the opposite, that indeed God exists. But Jonathan Edwards’s brand of Puritan Christianity was more relaxed than other famous Puritans such as William Bradford, say. There was more stress on music and harmony, on happiness and individualism than as in the version of Puritanism that Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’s grandfather preached.


This reminds us of the maggidim, who disagreed with the BESHT’s Chassidism. They were more serious in their worship, or claimed to be. Theirs was not worship of joy but of fear and emotional submission to the Creator. However, for the most part the maggidim left the BESHT and his congregation alone. In Jonathan Edwards’s case, he was expelled from the pulpit and the First Great Churches as a result of his beliefs and attempts to alter the liturgy.






[6] ibid.




[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for The Times of Israel since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others.