Biti Roi and Zvi Mark
Rabbi Nahman of Breslav (1772-1810) was born in Medzhybizh, the birthplace of Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov. R. Nahman’s unique life was detailed by his closest disciple, publicist and advocate, R. Natan of Nemirov, in Hayei Moharan (The Life of our Teacher and Rabbi, R. Nahman). Here we find indications that already from his childhood he seemed destined for something special. From an early age he combined religious customs of asceticism with periods of intense solitary prayer in search of a connection with God. At the age of fourteen he married and move to his wife’s town, Ossatin. It was there that he first conceived of himself as a Hasidic leader. Five years later, he moved to Medvedka and started to attract his first students. At the age of 26 he left for a life-altering journey to Israel. Upon his return he settled in Zlatopol, then in Breslav, where his life’s work as a tsadik reached its peak. Over this period, he developed a strong messianic consciousness coupled with the yearning for redemption which would permeate his writings. Later, this would turn into disappointment and despair.
It was his faithful disciple, R. Natan of Nemirov, who recorded R. Nahman’s lectures to his students in the central Breslav work, Likutei Mohoran (Collected Writings of our Teacher and Rabbi, R. Nahman, abb. LM). The first section was published during R. Nahman’s life and the second posthumously, in accord with his instructions. These discourses evidence a uniquely creative spirit and depth of thought. Throughout them, R. Nahman wove together interpretations and novel readings of biblical verses, rabbinic midrash, sources from the Zohar, the mysticism of R. Moses Cordovero and R. Isaac Luria, and other Hasidic works. The nearly boundless creativity of his writing finds room to include such diverse subjects as politics, horticulture, medicine, science and folklore. Already familiar anecdotes are refigured and retold, and some of the most prosaic events—a student’s torn shoelace, a long journey, the view from his study—become springboards for contemplation and study.
Another way in which R. Nahman reached out to his students was through his telling of tales. Thirteen of them were collected in a bilingual (Hebrew/Yiddish) volume. These stories, which he began to tell some four years before his death, overflow with imagination and tend towards near surrealistic fantasy. They are complex compilations, often featuring a tale within a tale. The move from Torah-based discourses to story-telling, described by R. Nahman himself as “tales from previous generations,” was explained as a move towards older material. The notion of ancient sources, from “previous generations,” may very well be connected to an image of a more pristine reality, of God at the beginning of His emanation and of the soul’s very foundation. The fantastic, combined with the imaginative plot, allows for the careful and delicate exposure of subtleties. This all is meant to reach deep into the psyche of his readers.
R. Nahman ranks as one of the Jewish world’s greatest mystics. At the center of his thought and discourses stood the mystical goal of divine union: the ultimate aim of the religious individual. He not only pointed out the objective, but he offered a range of means designed to help his followers achieve it. Among them, he portrayed himself as part of the “mystical path.” His practice included two divergent poles: seclusion, ecstatic suffering and pleading on the one hand, coupled to a gentle connection with nature’s own voice—trees, flowers and grasses—on the other. Aside from theoretical discussion of mysticism, he also documented his own mystical experiences—sometimes plainly, sometimes esoterically. These experiences were wide-ranging and multi-faceted. They included both self-abnegation as well as visions wherein the self/ego remained quite present. From his own chronicling, it is clear that R. Nahman underwent powerful epiphanies. One of the pinnacles is related in his esoteric tale, “The Tale of the Bread.” Here R. Nahman envisions himself as Moses himself on Mount Sinai and merits granting the Torah to Israel, just as it was declaimed originally by Moses. It is here that R. Nahman perceives and presents himself as spiritually equal to the very founder of the Jewish religion. This explains both one of the reasons for his own persecution and his desire to keep this tale hidden (which met with success for nearly 200 years). R. Nahman’s genius is apparent in the virtuosity with which he operated in a variety of fields, as well as the stunning originality of his oeuvre—a literary corpus without precedent in the Jewish world. He lead a vibrant Hasidic court and offered them novel ritual and counsel with which to follow his own unique path. His end was in the town of Oman, to which he traveled a few months before he succumbed to tuberculoses. And so, after only a mere 38 years, the career of one of Jewish culture’s most exciting figures was cut short.
The conclusion of R. Nahman’s biography may leave the impression that with his death so too ended his influence—whether personal or literary. However, this could not be further from the truth. R. Nahman’s influence, especially over the past few decades, 200 years since his death, has spread apace. In fact, its growth has surpassed that of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, as well as that of any religious personality from his generation. R. Nahman’s works are constantly published anew in a variety of languages and formats, thousands fly annually to visit his grave in Oman, and hundreds of study groups, both actual and those facilitated by the internet, learn his magnum opus, LM (as well as his other books). Plays are staged to visualize his stories and important Israeli films refer, in one way or another, to his works. His writings echo throughout the major centers of Israeli culture, both religious and secular. Especially in the post-modern age, witness to the “end of ideology,” his words are like a refreshing spring to the parched 21-century soul. How ironic that the suffering tsadik, who ended his life so painfully and so young, and whose main disciple was even imprisoned for printing his books, has come back as a major influence throughout the Jewish world. Can it be that the reason behind this 18th-century rabbi’s ongoing influence lies in the type of genius which foresaw, already in his own day, the very challenges which would face post-modern society? If a religious genius is measured by his success in creating wide and long-lasting spheres of influence, then perhaps no one more than R. Nahman is worthy of this particular title.
R. Nahman of Breslav as a Religious Genius
The identification of R. Nahman as a “religious genius” rests upon recognizing the multifaceted nature of his spiritual personality and understanding its many parts as constitutive of that very genius. Within this larger framework, we have chosen here a number of characteristics made evident through his writings which clearly establish him as worthy of such a superlative.
Heightened Consciousness, Personal Exposure and Becoming: The Life of R. Nahman as the Center of Breslav Thought and Practice
The definition of R. Nahman as a religious genius devolves in large part on his heightened self-consciousness. He constantly discussed his spiritual state in writings and oratory while continually questioning whether he could adequately express its actual state. R. Nahman open himself up to his followers and shared with them his moods and personal feelings—both those past and those he was undergoing. He described feeling abandoned and rejected by God as well as his desire to attain mystical experiences, such as viewing the letters of the sacred esoteric name of God at all times. Other personal details about his inner struggle with his baser desires were also shared. He battled his hunger for food and, more importantly, his sexual appetite. Our religious genius lived an intense life, while opening it up to all his followers to see.
That R. Nahman’s private life serves as the center of Breslav praxis is made clear through the stress his followers laid on understanding the connection between certain discourses and stories and the particular circumstances under which they were originally taught. His feelings, his state of mind, religious visions to which he was privy—these are often considered to be central to the formulation and telling of the tale or discourse. For example, the news of Napoleon’s victories, a soldier who becomes a great military leader, lead to R. Nahman’s creation of his “The Switched Son”. His vision of an angel brought about his discourse in LM II, 88. A test he was given concerning the mystical combination of Hebrew letters causes him to write the discourse in LM I, 89. And his feelings of emptiness and smallness lead him to create one of his most important discourses, LM I, 20.
Despite the fact that R. Nahman’s principle disciple wrote an entire biography of his life, his personal history finds expression in his literary output, which often contains cross-references other writings. LM also offers biographical details which explain the reasons behind several of the discourses therein. But more than his writing, it is R. Nahman’s life itself which made him into a Hasidic religious genius. Using the language of existentialism, we can say that his life was not just “essence” but “existence” and “becoming.” He constantly “became,” recreating himself at every moment of his stormy life. It was this constant growth that stood at the center of his religious ideology. R. Nahman’s life itself was the ultimate religious creation. And it was laid open in his discourses, whether oral or written, his homilies, the secrets shared with his followers, the complex teachings which wove together disparate strands of Bible, Talmud and mysticism, his fantastic tales, his short aphormisms, the dreams he shared and even his everyday speech. All these give expression to his genius.
We can sharpen our observation here and point out that it was not only R. Nahman’s phenomenal intellectual prowess, coupled to his command of the traditional Jewish texts that made him worthy of the title religious genius, but rather the entire course of a life lived to the fullest. Fantasy and reality, the written and spoken word, comfort and pain, joy and despair, mystical ecstasy and spiritual emptiness—these are the life blood of Brelav Hasidut—and they all stem from the life of its founder.
By stressing the individual spiritual life of its founder, not only did Breslov Hasidim accentuate his unique role, but they also underscored the notion that, ultimately, religious life is individual and fleeting. The Hasidim cannot duplicate their founder’s life, but they can search for a personal connection between their own personal history and their religion, as R. Nahman himself did. Exposing the failures of their rebbe paints him as an anti-hero. Both his highs and his lows formed the basis of his spirituality. These failures, which became an integral and well-known part of his life story, offer a model for his followers. The religious genius is not merely one to the manor born, but faces a lifetime of struggles to reach his special place. Religious genius is not a state, but a process.
High Self-esteem of Humility
Are humility and self-abnegation essential parts of R. Nahman’s characterization as a religious genius? The answer to this question rests delicately on the fine line between self-confidence and arrogance. We posit that R. Nahman was well aware of his outstanding personal abilities. And that this self-assurance was part of a venerable kabbalistic tradition found in the Zohar which taught that religious genius is connected not to humility, but rather to exceptional self-awareness.
R. Nahman demands from his followers a life of spiritual intensity, a process that requires their absolute attention and consciousness of spiritual growth. With such a lofty goal for a life’s work, obviously only the few could live up to these high expectations. Since R. Nahman is aware of his followers’ limitations and is also sure of his own spiritual strength, he offers to do their work for them while proclaiming that if they will hold him tightly they will be saved (Sihot Haran, 22) The religious genius is the one who believes in his outstanding qualities and abilities to bring a revolution. In his mind, change depends on his own power and relies on his outstanding qualifications. R. Nahman frequently speaks about the “true righteous one,” meaning in Hebrew both the truly righteous and the righteous of truth—directing this appellation to himself. This title stands in contradiction to those, who in his generation might be called the “false righteous” meaning either: pretenders to righteousness or just other righteous men to whom R. Nahman sees himself as superior.
R. Nahman does not refrain from using seemingly arrogant expressions to describe himself as the greatest wonder of all: “I am a great wonder, a wonder like me never have been in the world.” The religious genius cannot be described as humble. On the contrary, he is defined as such by his own proclamations regarding his exceptional merits. It is important to note that R. Nahman is not the first to do so. Rabbi Shimon Bar –Yohai, the hero of the Zohar (the main treatise of Medieval Kabbalah) glorifies himself as surpassing Moses. While Moses was unaware that his face glowed (a sign of his divine status) Bar-Yohai is deeply cognizant of his outstanding abilities. Humility may not be a clear and typical criteria for religious genius, but rather hightened self-esteem can also be considered characteristic of such a person. The portrayal of the religious genius as arrogant, and his appreciation of his own remarkable character and spiritual abilities, also has a prominent role in religious thought.
Self-awareness: The religious genius in the chain of tradition and his relationship to outstanding personalities from the past
R. Nahman’s well developed sense of self is directly related to a deeper understanding of his soul’s connection to other historical personalities with whom he felt great affinity. This type of connection is not found only with respect to R. Nahman. Many figures central to Jewish culture have often seen themselves as part of a longer human chain stretching back to the past. They feel spiritual affinity with them, sometimes even asserting that they are their actual reincarnations. The genius does not stand alone, inventing himself, as it were, ab initio, but rather by connecting his own self awareness with many of those figures from the past, he incorporates their strengths into his own spiritual powers. It should be noted that in accord with the messianic, progressive perception of history in traditional sources, this type of reincarnation may not merely be a repetition of the past, but rather a specific amelioration of a past mistake. The new soul is sent here to repair a past error or perform a task in which the previous iteration failed. This self awareness—as part of such an important chain—is greatly empowering and adds a measure of import to the self image. Thus R. Nahman’s own unique self-awareness is affirmed by the past, and his role as tsadik and saviour is reinforced in his own eyes and in those of his followers.
In this context another figure in this chain of souls deserves mention, one with whom R. Nahman feels great affinity and sees himself as his reincarnation: Moses. Already in medieval mystical works Moses is referred to as the “faithful shepherd.” The choice of this spiritual connection, opposed to that of King David, for example, reveals that R. Nahman viewed himself as a mystic persona second to none—on the same level as Israel’s original redeemer.
The Tsadik as Redeemer and Savior of Souls
R. Nahman saw himself not merely as a tsadik and hasid, as did other religious leaders of his time, but as a redeemer with messianic hopes. Despite the complexity of the his messianism—whether he saw himself as a potential or actual messiah and whether this role, regardless, required public recognition or even its opposite (a furtiveness which would in the end surprise the masses), it is impossible to ignore the many places where R. Nahman quite candidly refers to himself as a messianic figure.
Beyond understanding himself as a tsadik in its plain, limited sense—a master who functions as the mediator between God and his disciples, one who lives in both worlds and is the connecting link between them—R. Nahman saw himself as “the soul of the people,” the savior of his generation. In this revolutionary vision, R. Nahman is a redeemer could fully heal this broken world.
These aspirations were expressed in the way R. Nahman described his role metaphorically: “My fire will burn until the coming of Messiah.” Although R. Nahman does not explicitly believe that he himself is the Messiah, this enigmatic statement conveys the self-awareness that R. Nahman brought to the Messianic process. He offered his own perpetual contribution to the messianic redemption that will arrive, if not now in the future. The image of the burning fire is a metaphor for the eternal light of R. Nahman. This fire may be understood as a torch leading the following generations to the messianic era, as well as a symbol of R. Nahman’s self-sacrifice and his own consumption as a precondition to the messianic era or even as its essence.
One example of his messianic awareness was his son’s name: Salomon Efraim (a combination of two well-known names of the Messiah in the Jewish tradition: Messiah ben Joseph or Efraim and Messiah ben David. Efraim was the biblical Joseph’s son and Salomon was the son of David). He placed his messianic expectations on his son`s shoulders, and then, with the early death of his infant, moved from belief and hope to angst and despair.
Even after Salomon Efraim`s death, R. Nahman continued to believe that his fire will burn until the messianic age. His teaching, stories and advice, through his disciples and followers, will allow it to burn and thus prepare the world for the coming of the redeemer .
In his esoteric work “The Scroll of Secrets,” written after R. Nahman had given up hope of seeing the messiah in his time, and from his own seed, he nevertheless describes the Messiah as the ideal Breslav tsadik, made in R. Nahman’s own image. The Messiah would open new horizons not just for the Jewish people but for the entire world. He articulated the Messiah`s mission using universal expressions from the Hebrew prophets such as “he will legislate and prepare new liturgy for all, until all are united with one clear tongue….”
Along with this strong messianic self-perception and the superlatives he used to describe himself, R. Nahman also promoted the idea of self-abnegation. R. Nahman saw the importance of developing humilty, certainly in a case of public disgrace. In his sixth discourse, R. Nahman develops the ideal of humility. Identifying himself with Moses, he claims that the actual moment of humility is enfolded in the commandment by God to Moses to call upon Joshua (“And God said to Moses: Behold your days approach that you must die, summon Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting that I might give him charge” [Dt. 31, 14]). According to R. Nahman at this moment God called upon Moses to internalize humility, all the while knowing how difficult it would be for him to give up his remarkable, singular position. R. Nahman understands that this is a universal call to practice humility.
“For each person is required to minimalize his own (kavod) honor, and work instead to increase the honor given to the Holy One. Because anyone who pursues fame will not attain (kavod Elohim) spiritual glory, instead he will achieve only (kavod melachim) the glory given to kings of which the verse says: “and the honor of kings is to investigate the matter” (Prov. 25, 2). Everyone inquires about him and asks, “Who is he and what is he?” (Esther 7, 5) to be deserving of such honor. They oppose him saying that he is not worthy of such honor.” (LM, 6)
In this discourse R. Nahman detailed an ideal of humility that entails running away from personal honor and worldly gain. He advises his disciples to practice the art of silence—to not reply in kind to the ridicule of others. R. Nahman himself developed this very faculty when he was chased by another Hassidic leader (Rabbi Arye of Shpoly, 1724-1811 ) who oppressed and humiliated him.
In addition to his social and moral teachings on humility, R. Nahman bequeathed to his disciples a complex mystical-religious world view. R. Nahman offers a mystical path that moves between mystical nullification of self and mystical self-empowerment. The former requires a suppression of the ego and absolute annihilation of one’s personality in order to achieve an experience of absorption within divinity. On the other hand, the latter offers an active mystical praxis comprising singing out loud, dancing, clapping of hands, and shouting. All of these practices were suggested in order to enhance one’s personal importance while standing upright before God. This complicated path towards attaining a mystical experience is revealed, for example, in LM I, 52. R. Nahman interprets the Mishnah Avot 3:5:
R. Hanina son of R. Hahinai says: One who is awake at night, walks alone on the path, and turns his attention to “batala”, is creating “obligation for his soul”.
We merit re-absorption into our spiritual roots, once again becoming part of the Unity of God, whose existence is necessary, only by means of self-annihilation. It is impossible to attain self-nullification without solitude. Only in solitary talk with our Creator can we abolish all our lust and evil traits to the point that we completely negate our material existence and are reabsorbed into our roots. The best time for such solitude is at night, when the world is quieted. Daytime, the time of worldly pursuits, is distracting and confusing, preventing us from becoming attached and reunited with God. Even if one is not personally occupied, it is hard to achieve self-nullification when the rest of the world is busy pursuing this-worldly vanities….during these solitary sessions, empty your head and mind of all worldly interests negating everything until you truly attain self-annihilation. In your loneliness at night in a secluded area, begin by reciting prayers and conversing frequently [with God] until you have succeeded in abolishing one or another lust or bad habit. Then continue your solitude until another of your passions and evil traits is voided. And continue in the same way for a longer time, until you have rid yourself of all them… until there is nothing left of you… and only then, when you have attained true self-annihilation will your soul rejoin its roots—namely Him Whose existence is necessary. Then all the world is included with your soul (as it reabsorbed in the divine) root, whose existence is necessary for everything depends upon it. Thus is the whole transformed into necessary existence.
A necessary condition for re-absorbtion by God is the nullification of the ego, but it can be accomplished only by empowered praxis such as speaking and shouting out loud. In a surprising way, we should note that God`s existence becomes necessary through human beings spiritual`s experience and not the other way around.
One central characteristic of R. Nahman’s religious genius, as I understand it, is his “enlightened” state. Like the Buddah (whose title is Sanskrit for enlightenment), so too did R. Nahman constantly examine his own spiritual state. Renewal, enlightenment and heightened awareness are oft-mentioned in R. Nahman’s writings. It is worth noting that the Hebrew root ayin-vav-resh (found in aware, enlightened, etc.) is one of the most frequently used in medieval mystical literature. R. Nahman was influenced by this and identified stongly with this idea.
I would dislike myself if I would find myself today in the same place where I was yesterday.
A good Jew should not stand on one step but rather be constantly moving forward.
These are two common statements of the Breslav movment.
R. Nahman describes life as a constant process of loss, search, discovery and loss again—a continual dynamic struggle. The process of coming to know God is unending and therefore enlightenment is a necessity for religious life and development. Stale bourgeoisie religious stasis was hated by R. Nahman and he saw it as a degradation of religion and as spiritual stagnation. In accord with his interest in religious renewal, he offered a novel understanding of a central tenent of religion—repentance. For him it was not a solution to or repair of sin, but was rather an ongoing process in which the individual constantly sought to better himself. “To repent for one’s repentence” sums up R. Nahman’s understanding of the concept not as a one time solution which brings the sinner out of the cold, but as an evolving life-project of spiritual yearning. This conception is critical of the complacency felt by the penitent in his religious accomplishment and urges him to move further on in his spiritual work.
The centrality of religious renewal is conspicuous not only in the praxis of penitence and purification, but also in the written word itself. The importance of Scripture in Jewish culture and the sophisticated hermeneutic tools with which it is interpreted were adopted by R. Nahman as part of his deep study of renewal in religion. To renew and regenerate, according to R. Nahman, was not only the purview of scholars, textual experts or community leaders. Every individual must search for new meaning. This is understood as an inner movement of the religious spirit intent on constantly rediscovering itself and its connection to God and religious life. Thus, textual discovery is part of the struggle against the winds of doubt and modernity which began to blow over the walls of the religious establishment in the late 18th century and led many to abandon their faith. As there it is impossible to offer intellectual proof for religious values, individual creativity was understood as the only path to religious affirmation. But therein lies the rub: since such creativity is essentially personal and subjective, what is new for one, may be old hat for another. Thus R. Nahman points to the importance of the tsadik personalizing his message to each of his followers in a way that will be sure to disturb his equanimity and spur him forward (LM II, 7). If one is convinced of God’s transcendence, His imminence must be stressed and if one feels too close, one must be asked, “where does His glory dwell?”. Not infrequently does R. Nahman depict his followers as asleep; his role is to awaken them. R. Nahman’s figure of the venerable elder who is revealed as an infant whose strong point is that he has not yet even begun to live symbolizes this idea.
The value of renewal is grounded textually for R. Nahman is the Torah itself, which he sees not merely as a canonical, sacred, authoritative corpus, but rather as the word of God—an expression of revelation. This revelation was not a one time occurrence, but serves as a source for continued renewal. The verse, “this book of instruction will not leave your mouth,” whose plain meaning is meant to admonish the believer against leaving the religious path and strengthen his commitment to it, is understood by R. Nahman (using a play on words based on the Hebrew mem-vav-shin for “leave”) as a command against reifying the Torah. Thus the Bible turns from an authoritative legal document into an eternally developing source of wisdom which can never be completely realized.
In another place, R. Nahman extols the virtues of forgetting—this in contradistinction to the usual favoring of memory. The advantage of forgetting is tied to the way in which it affords greater options for renewal—one who forgets can more easily move on anew.
R. Nahman’s chose to work in a literary genre, rather than the more familiar rabbinic homiletic style (especially over the last four years of his life). This expressed his commitment to enlightened awareness. This decision stemmed in part from his disappointment with the usual ways of reaching his followers. His turn to the fantastic story evidenced his believe that where he failed with his discourses, he might succeed by appealing to the unconscious level of the psyche wherein access to deeply anchored archetypes could be found. The world of myth and fantasy—the princess, the castle, eagles, rings and mountains—could, he felt, reach deeper into the soul’s core and there better effect change and renewal in his listeners.
Awareness here and now
`I would dislike myself if I found myself standing today at the same place as yesterday`. But for what kind of awareness does R. Nahman call? For what kind of consciousness would he like his disciples to strive? Indeed, R. Nahman’s consistent call for renewal and awareness was articulated both horizontally and vertically. His concern with the world-to-come was part and parcel of his daily life (increasing, not surprisingly, with the loss of his wife and children and with his terminal illness). Never the less, as part of the Hasidic tradition which views G-d presence in the here and now, R. Nahman does not see the world to come and this world as so different from each other.
“Paradise and the hell are part of this world” (Sihot Haran, 13). This world offers opportunities spiritual growth as it constantly challenges us. In R. Nahman’s words the world is full of “clues.” His call for awareness has to do not just with the afterlife, but also with the current mundane life – in studying, praying and every act that one does, one should worship G-d with vibrant and new ways.
R. Nahman was well aware of the difficulties that his call for constant renewal presented and he developed a method of dealing with them in the mundane world.
“So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was” (Exodus 20:18). …And one, who is not aware, when he sees the hindrance, immediately moves away from it. The hindrance is like a thick cloud, for a thick cloud is dark and a hindrance is dark. [The words “darkness” and “hindrance,” or that which holds back, share the same three Hebrew letters—het-shin-kaf], as it is written in Genesis 22:16: “You have not withheld [your son].” This is the meaning of the verse “So the people remained at a distance.” When they see the thick cloud, namely the hindrance, they remain at a distance. But Moses, who represents the quality of awareness for all of Israel, “approached the thick cloud, where God was,” namely: he approached the hindrance, where the blessed God is actually hidden.
In this source we find R. Nahman’s insights concerning the experience of distance from God. R. Nahman is willing to stress the doubt as an intrinsic\inherit part of faith not just after the end of the prophetic era, when God`s word was no longer easily heard—but as part of the revelation itself. Doubt was present n the very beginning, and in the paradigm of all revelation—at Mount Sinai. Describing faith like this enables us to understand religious decisions and spiritual life as an ongoing quest that requires continuous awareness. Faith calls us to see hindrances as part of the very core of religious life: sometimes the thick cloud is a trail that challenges, but it invites believers to ascend offering a starting point for renewal.
While R. Nahman was clearly embedded in the Jewish tradition and was a master of the conventions of the Jewish midrashic and mystical writings, his particular genius was the freedom with which he treated these materials, by using them as a platform for his own new ideas. This creativity made him one one of the most gifted commentators ever.
The Quality of Love in Reb Nahman of Braslav’s Rebuke
Goshen- Gottstein argues that love is a central and fundamental dimension of religious genius. While the resources and theological framework from which this recognition arose were Christian, he concludes, “We can recognize love as a central defining element in any portrait of religious genius and as a common denominator that emerges from all religious traditions.”
The above definition of love poses some problems if it is to include Hasidic leaders such as the subject of this paper – R. Nahman. It would not be accurate to describe R. Nahman as a loving figure, at least not in a simple way. In fact, an outside observer might well have described him as a rough and tough character, a leader who did not mentor his followers with soft, gentle, and loving gestures, but rather through rebuke, anger, and dissatisfaction. In the Jewish tradition there is a unique connection between love and rebuke. The latter understood as modification or expression of the first, and as the deepest meaning of a father-son relationship at its best. As it says in Proverbs (3:12): “For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.”
Often R. Nahman mocked his closest students, claiming they were as “feathers on his coat,” calling them “desolate” or “stone hearted.” He admonished them, revealing his feelings of disappointment when they did not live up to his religious demands. Moreover, ignoring their pain, R. Nahman decided to leave his own family, in tears and poverty, to travel to the Holy Land. On the other hand, it would be misleading to see his behavior as cruel or the opposite of “loving,” for it is “love” in its deepest sense that seemed to motivate R. Nahman`s behavior. In fact one of his disciples described his feelings saying that his master does not rebuke them at all (like it was customary to do in the old European Jewish tradition), but then went further and said: “Everything he says is rebuke!” According to this fascinating statement, the student understood his master’s entire mode of behavior as rebuke in its deepest sense. Every word that R. Nahman speaks – even about himself – and every action is somehow aimed at the betterment of his students. These provocative statements, even the pejorative “names” he called them, were understood as a way to elevate his followers to a higher place in their spiritual and religious life. The master’s explicit show of discontent towards his students’ behaviors were all meant to raise their awareness of their laziness and motivate them to make greater efforts in order to achieve higher spiritual goals.
Well documented in the Hassidic tradition was the fact that R. Nahman treated his close disciples like his children, their needs his deepest concern. In that sense, there was a deeply rooted and serious caring by the master for his disciples, a kind of explicit and simple love to be sure, but expressed by anger, discontent and dissatisfaction.
Another way to examine the role of love in the portrayal of the life of a religious genius is to reveal the altruistic dimension in his life, and in his writing. Viewed from this perspective, R. Nahman`s life and works are filled with love, caring and education for altruistic behavior.
Dominant in his worldview and frequently found in his personal advice to his followers is the importance of performing good-works: charity, hospitality, and acts of loving–kindness. More demonstrative than in general statements of abstract love, R. Nahman calls upon his students to embody love by performing rituals directed to God and other human beings. He insisted not just on a loving state of mind, but called for actual love, expressed in actions and deeds. Therefore, in an attempt to include R. Nahman in the category of religious genius, we will offer a new definition of love pertinent to and characteristic of a traditional Jewish genius. In a reevaluated understanding of love we will include high standards of self-demands, self-improvement that involves discontent, and responsibility for others. A view of love that is regulated by action provides a better and more nuanced description of a Hasidic religious genius such as R. Nahman.
Purity and Asceticism
If purity is defined as distancing oneself from corporal pleasures and needs, then the characterization of the religious genius as pure holds true for R. Nahman, especially in his early career. There we find the severe asceticism of youth. R. Nahman vows to refrain from any culinary enjoyment, attempting to swallow his food without chewing, and turns from worldly pleasures, struggling as any growing young man with his ripening sexual drive. However, these practices mellowed some with his maturation. R. Nahman came to understood asceticism’s limits, he realized that such a path suppresses the spirit and can lead to depression. A life of dynamic creativity requires a great deal of psychic energy and empowerment of the ego, not repression.
Despite his reservations with asceticism, R. Nahman’s ongoing desire to distance himself from worldly pleasures and to clear his heart of sexual desire were an integral part of his search for religious achievement. His tikkun clali, a ritual practice entailing the recitation of ten psalms he established for his followers, was meant primarily to help repair sexual defects of a spiritual nature. One the one hand, it is clear that the repair of such faults is necessary for leading a religious life, and so sexual purity plays a central role in the path the R. Nahman lays out. On the other hand, R. Nahman offers a rather simple method for attaining such purity allowing one to move on towards worshipping God with a clear mind and heart. A pure individual does not pretend that such a pure state is a permanent condition, but rather acknowledges that it can be obtained and lost. One is not born pure, but purity is easily attainable. R. Nahman frequently writes about and discusses the world of physical desire and presents it as antithetical to the world of the spirit and religion. However, he also notes that the body’s own spiritual messages need to be heard and advises that desire can be harnessed to worship God. The key is to be filled with religious longing and desire. Thus purity is not simply a distancing from bodily needs and desires, but rather their sublimation in order to harness those energies in the service of God.