Can you please explain the difference between the Vilna Gaon and the Ba’al Shem Tov?
To do that question justice, I would have to be a big man. I would have to be somewhere near one of them. But I’ll try to explain it superficially.
The Vilna Gaon, zichrono livracha, was a follower in the footsteps of his great teachers. He lived by the ideals of the Gemara and the Rishonim in whose footsteps he walked. And he wasn’t interested in making any novelties. And the Ba’al Shem Tov, zichrono livracha, in general also did that. Of course, in scholarship, the Ba’al Shem Tov wasn’t as famous as the Vilna Gaon was. He wasn’t as famous as the Vilna Gaon as a Torah scholar but he devoted himself to an entirely different field! His field was to awaken devotion in the hearts of the multitude. And therefore he used different methods. They weren’t methods that were opposed to the Torah, but they were different methods however.
For instance, the Vilna Gaon had no need to sing a melody. And that’s because he dealt only with the intelligentsia. He didn’t have any direct contact with the masses. He had an influence on the masses, but it was only indirectly. The Vilna Gaon was one of the top scholars, not only of his generation but of any generation. And therefore, he dealt only with great men. Whereas the Ba’al Shem Tov, he dealt also with the general masses. Even with very ignorant people too. And therefore, he had to use those expedients that are necessary to interest even the lower people. And that’s why they lived in two entirely different environments and they had two entirely different forms of endeavor.
TAPE # 18 (March 1973)