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The Mad Mystic of Bratslav

Bratslaver Hasidim, Uman.

The most bizarre pilgrimage in Jewish history now occurs each year on Rosh Hashanah in the southern Ukrainian city of Uman. There, a motley carnival of some 20,000 penitents and spiritual seekers, mostly from Israel and America, converges on the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1811). Himself the strangest and most paradoxical leader in the history of Hasidism and one of its most original, albeit mad, geniuses, Nahman has been an object of both literary fascination and considerable scholarly research. He also shares center stage with Franz Kafka (1888-1924) in the latest volume in the Jewish Encounters series, Burnt Books by Rodger Kamenetz.

Relevant Links
Nahman of Bratslav  Arthur Green, YIVO Encyclopedia. The life and teachings of the founder of a unique Hasidic sect: an overview.    
Yippee  Paul Mazursky, YouTube. The acclaimed director introduces his 2006 documentary of a field trip to Uman on Rosh Hashanah. (Video)

Who was he? A great-grandson of Hasidism's founder, Israel Baal Shem Tov (the "Besht"), Nahman believed that he possessed the reincarnated and refined souls of multiple forerunners: the biblical Moses, the first-century sage Shimon bar Yohai, the great 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria, and, finally, the Besht himself. Referring to himself as a cosmic hiddush, something entirely new under the sun, Nahman taught that his very existence was an unprecedented and miraculous phenomenon, and boasted that the "flame of my teachings will burn until the messiah arrives."

Simultaneously with this grandiosity, Nahman was a deeply tortured man, one whose teachings, largely based on personal experience, highlighted man's essential sinfulness, existential distance from God, and need for  constant, mournful penitence. This theology stood in dramatic contrast to classical Hasidism's joyful emphasis on the immanence of God and man's closeness to Him. Complicating matters further is that Nahman himself often emphasized the great importance of ceaseless joy in serving God: a paradox perhaps reflecting his own severe mood swings and emulated to this day by Bratslav Hasidim, whose bizarre "bi-polar" behavior alternates between somberly mournful private confessions of sin and raucously exuberant public singing and strange, trance-like dancing. 

Many of Nahman's more audacious mystical teachings earned him the contempt of other Hasidic leaders of his generation—of whom he was outspokenly critical. The Rebbe of Savran issued a harsh writ of excommunication against Nahman's followers, banning them from all synagogues, prohibiting marriage with their children, disallowing them to teach Torah, and in general insisting that "We must do all we can to break them." Other Ukrainian Hasidim considered the Bratslavers to be mad, possibly even evil. Many suspected them of antinomian leanings, a suspicion triggered by Nahman's obsession with "correcting" the sexual sins associated with adherents of the notorious messianic pretenders Shabbetai Tsvi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791).

The quarrels surrounding Bratslav Hasidism became even nastier after Nahman's death, and were marked by an unusual degree of internal Jewish violence. In subsequent generations, Bratslavers who undertook the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman did so at great personal risk, being commonly met with beatings and even hails of rocks by other Hasidim as they made their way to Nahman's mausoleum.

That trek demands its own explanation. Given Nahman's megalomaniacal persona and messianic fantasies, it is little wonder that his small handful of followers considered him literally irreplaceable. Just before his death, he offered them a path forward: by visiting his grave on Rosh Hashanah, they would remain in eternal communion with his soul. This earned the Bratslavers their most famous epithet as di toyte Hasidim, the dead Hasidim.  And thus was inaugurated what has become, since the fall of the Soviet Union (which had banned Jews from worshipping in Uman), the most extravagant of all ultra-Orthodox assemblies.

Finally, there is Nahman's literary legacy, and in particular his enchanting tales. These fables, unlike anything in earlier Hasidic literature, earned the admiration of some of the greatest Yiddish and Hebrew writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, from I.L. Peretz and Der Nister to S.Y. Agnon and Aharon Megged. Many Hebrew writers, Megged among them, would also note the uncanny commonalities between the stories of Nahman and those of Franz Kafka. In his masterful bibliography of Bratslav literature, the Israeli historian David Assaf lists more than twenty published works debating the extent of Nahman's influence on Kafka.

Into these complex and treacherous waters now wades Rodger Kamenetz in Burnt Books, the subtitle of which is "Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka." The author of The Jew in the Lotus (1994), an effort to meld Judaism and Buddhism, Kamenetz is here attempting a mind meld of a different sort. As in the earlier book, he also has a personal story to tell, documenting in detail his voyage to Uman on Rosh Hashanah to effect a spiritual "shiddukh" between his two title figures. Many of the book's chapters are in fact better characterized as memoir-cum-travelogue than as literary or theological analysis, and the book as a whole is at least as much about Rodger Kamenetz as it is about either the mad mystic or the modernist master. 

Kamenetz's escapade begins in Prague, where he is teaching a summer course about Kafka. While communing in his apartment with the ghost of the great writer, who has appeared to him like a genie from a coffee mug picked up at a souvenir shop, he is given his mission. That mission will end with the wide-eyed Kamenetz in Uman amid the throngs of pilgrims, yearning for mystical communion with Nahman. In a final moment, we see him fondling the Kafka coffee mug at Nahman's grave while meditating ecstatically on "Jews who believe and Jews who can't believe, and Jews who want to believe, who come in hope and despair, and I came to Uman for them."

The almost 300 pages that separate the events in Prague and Uman comprise a rambling, subjective exposition in which Kamenetz meanders between charming if unoriginal renderings of some of the most famous passages in Kafka's oeuvre and what strike him as related themes and passages from Nahman's tales, which he approaches as a complete novice.

Indeed, when it comes to the Bratslav phenomenon as a whole, Kamenetz disdains the fruits of modern critical analysis, preferring to take the internal Hasidic hagiographical accounts at face value. So deliberately naïve an approach is especially problematic when addressing the most cult-like and self-censoring Hasidic sect in history. Concerning attempts to understand Nahman through the use of psychoanalytic tools, Kamenetz declares grandly that the rabbi's "own vocabulary of the soul is more profound and nuanced than modern psychology or contemporary cognitive science." This may or may not be so, but the fact remains that Bratslav today—precisely because its mystical theology is so intricately entwined with Nahman's biography and with his worshipful devotees' attempts to imitate him—is a magnet for many people who are obviously in need of psychiatric treatment.  

What of the fact that both Nahman and Kafka asked their closest friends to burn their writings, which for Kamenetz not only provides a title but establishes some deep affinity between the two figures? In fact, their respective motivations were diametrically opposed.

Toward the end of his life, Nahman had come to the heartbreaking realization that the world was not ready for him and had proved unworthy of the "holy fire" contained in his esoteric teachings, with its power to inaugurate the final redemption. His instruction to burn these writings was a symptom both of his megalomania and, paradoxically, of his intuition that, were they not destroyed, his subversive messianic agenda would be exposed as heresy in the eyes of the pious and as scurrilous foolishness among the enlightened.

Kafka's motives could hardly have been more different. Filled with a deep personal self-loathing combined with a fatal literary perfectionism and an array of neuroses, he wanted his works destroyed because they were unworthy of existing in the world, as unworthy as he believed he himself was.

To all this, the credulous Kamenetz is blind. And on top of his credulity he has piled ignorance. Among his many speculations, he introduces readers to Nahman's tale of the prince who became convinced he was a turkey, for which the obvious parallel in his mind is Kafka's Metamorphosis. Not only is this a pure guess, but of far greater interest is that Nahman plagiarized the tale almost entirely from Jacob Frank. That lifting, one of many such, dramatically highlights Nahman's conflicted admiration of and contempt for the apostate failed messiah, extensively documented by the Israeli scholar Yehudah Liebes but unrecognized by Kamenetz.

Another howler derives from Kamenetz's personal "roots" voyage to the Ukrainian town of Kamenetz-Podolsk, where he fancies his family originated. Excitedly noting that Nahman had also traveled to Kamenetz, he devotes a whole chapter to this episode. Along the way, he once again misses the main point, which is that Nahman's messianic purpose was to perfect the souls of Frankists who were openly debating the local rabbis and thereby causing the bishop to conduct a public burning of the Talmud.

Without a shred of evidence connecting his family to Kamenetz-Podolsk, Kamenetz is reduced to pleading that "the name had to come from somewhere." He then compounds his cluelessness by expressing bewilderment that his grandfather was said to have been raised in Lithuania, not the Ukraine. Why, then, did he fail to "discover" the Lithuanian town of Kamenetz—Kamenetz-Litovsk, today in Belorussia—which boasted a major Jewish community and one of Europe's most prestigious yeshivas (and also forms the setting for a celebrated Yiddish memoir recently published and easily available in English)? As it happens, the memorial (Yizkor) book for Kamenetz-Litovsk records the names of numerous members of the Kamenetzki family (in the Polish rendering of the name) who perished in the Holocaust. One of the survivors is listed on the memorial book's editorial committee.  

And so Kamenetz has managed not only to get Nahman's visit to Kamenetz-Podolsk all wrong but to get himself all wrong into the bargain. Perhaps one should expect no better of an author who starts out by proposing that "Franz Kafka actually influenced Rabbi Nahman," a chronological absurdity justified by a non-sequitur—namely, that "the kabbalah presents an expansive theory of the universe far beyond time and space"—followed by an irrelevancy—namely, that Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, was greatly enamored of his somewhat older contemporary Franz Kafka.

With Scholem and Kafka we may end. Learning from his sister that a group of young Berlin Jews had been roundly rebuked by Scholem for studying Martin Buber's German-language renderings of Hasidic tales, with Scholem "demanding that people learn Hebrew instead of occupying themselves with such literary twaddle," Kafka responded, in words quoted by Kamenetz: "Theoretically I am always inclined to favor proposals such as those made by Herr Scholem, which demand the utmost, and in so doing achieve nothing."

But Kafka added a final sentence: "Actually, Scholem's proposals in themselves are not impracticable." This, Kamenetz has mischievously omitted. And no wonder: had he himself heeded Scholem's and Kafka's shared endorsement of serious preparation before delving into difficult and arcane matters, Kamenetz—who cannot read, let alone decipher, either Hebrew or Yiddish—might have spared the world a great deal of self-indulgent twaddle. Instead, he has insulted his readers and the memory of both Nahman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, two great men who shared so finicky an obsession with their written words that they burned many of them.

Allan Nadler is professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.  Read his feature on latter-day Hasidism here.

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David on November 1, 2010 at 8:05 am (Reply)
Excuse me, Professor Nadler, but I think you could go back to reading a few books by insiders like Rabbi Shalom Arush who internalize the teachings of Rebbe Nachman from Breslov ... Maybe you ought to stop reading outsiders like Gershom Scholem ... are you seeking or are you observing ... Chassidus is alive and vibrant today after the Shoah threatened to destroy all of European Jewry, after the American trend to be assimilated ... The Jews have a strong ruchnius need to be reconnected to avinu shebashamayim. and Rebbe Nachman told us to do one thing to give us that emunah pshuto - being alone with the Unseen one ... and pouring out your heart to him.
chloe on November 1, 2010 at 9:36 am (Reply)
Is Kamenetz a scholar?
yehudah cohn on November 1, 2010 at 2:20 pm (Reply)
Great piece Allan. This may be the forum to reveal that I once encountered a couple of Bratslaver families from Israel at Moscow airport in the late '80s (a time when Israel and the USSR did not have diplomatic relations). They were on their way back from Uman, and on asking how they managed to obtain visas I was told that they had purchased them from Rakah - the Israeli Communist Party!
Anthony on November 1, 2010 at 9:14 pm (Reply)
I have many issues with this review, too numerous to mention. However a couple of points:

1. Firstly this reviewer is not only critical of Breslovers but also of the Chabbad Lubavitch movement as well (just think where world Jewry would be without them). There are many paths within Judaism and, in my humble opinon, one’s efforts should be focused on achieving unity –not disunity.

2. As someone who has personally experienced the power of being in Uman (I’m not sure if this reviewer has actually been there or spoken to many of the 30,000 Breslover chassidim who go there), I can tell you that it is a tremendously powerful experience that has the ability to raise an individual’s spiritual closeness to Hashem. I have also read & continue to study Rebbe Nachman's teachings, which are incredibly insightful and meaningful at every level you approach them.

3. Opposition to Chassidism does not suprise me, as there is a concept in Judaism that there is always initial human resistance to those areas that promise to elevate one’s soul. Often we experience negativity or reluctance to engage with important rituals and events centred around potential growth in our spiritual lives. Our initial resistance is even greater when confronting the wisdom of Rebbe Nachman whose teachings have the capacity to arouse individuals from their spiritual lethargy.

I think reviews and articles such as this ultimately cause rifts among us and are destructive in nature. I think the author could serve us better by focusing on the tremendous positives & by acknowledging the revival of faith that the Chassidic movement has brought about among world Jewry.
Ami Silver on November 2, 2010 at 9:50 am (Reply)
Rabbi Nadler,

I have to say that I'm pretty disappointed with this article. It's not your review of Kamenetz's book that disappoints me (I just recently started reading it and haven't made enough headway to say anything about it), it's really what I sense to be a severe misrepresentation of Rebbe Nachman's core teachings.

You write: "Simultaneously with this grandiosity, Nahman was a deeply tortured man, one whose teachings, largely based on personal experience, highlighted man's essential sinfulness, existential distance from God, and need for constant, mournful penitence. This theology stood in dramatic contrast to classical Hasidism's joyful emphasis on the immanence of God and man's closeness to Him."

It sounds like this is based on reading a very selective reading from the beginning of Shivchei HaRan and Arthur Green's book on Rebbe Nachman that paints a certain picture of a "Tormented Master." However, based on your criticism of Kamenetz and your own scholarly approach, I assume that you have indeed read and studied enough of Rebbe Nachman's own teachings to speak on the subject, and that being the case, I don't understand how these are the conclusions that you come to.

You then write: "Complicating matters further is that Nahman himself often emphasized the great importance of ceaseless joy in serving God: a paradox perhaps reflecting his own severe mood swings and emulated to this day by Bratslav Hasidim."

I can't really do justice to Rebbe Nachman's teachings in this forum, but what I want to say here is that if this is how you truly understand his life and teachings, I think that you're sorely missing the point. Part of what I perceive in people's difficulty to make sense of Rebbe Nachman is that his teachings do indeed contain a lot of paradoxes. Not because he suffers from a 'bi-polar' manic condition, but because an honest look at life is full of paradoxes and conflicting desires, beliefs and realities at every moment. Part of the uniqueness and power of these teachings for those who try to apply them in their own lives, is that they bring to light the real struggles that lie at the root of our existence and are mirrored throughout the world and in our daily own emotions, thoughts and challenges. As someone who experienced the depths and heights of the human soul in his own life and strove to live every moment and every day with fullness and newness, Rebbe Nachman shares with us a way of entering into a relationship with these cloudy aspects of life, and of making more sense out of what oftentimes seems senseless, overwhelming and painful.

In this sense, Rebbe Nachman is a healer of the soul for those who seek healing. His teachings and life were driven by the radical faith in the greatness of the human soul and the real possibility of finding increasing intimacy and closeness with Hashem, and of finding joy and life in the face of the sadness and despair that we face in our mortality and humanness.

If you are trying to prove a point in an academic argument, you can obviously make what you want out of Rebbe Nachman's teachings. But if you are claiming here to give an accurate and honest portrayal of his Torah, I would take another look.
A. on November 2, 2010 at 6:08 pm (Reply)
Thank you for presenting us with such a well-written paper.
Danny Steinmetz on November 2, 2010 at 7:07 pm (Reply)
Thank you for another wonderful article. Alas you confirmed my first intuitions about the book.
meira on November 3, 2010 at 9:23 am (Reply)
Allan Nadler is one of the few Jewish Studies mavens today who has the erudition to distinguish good scholarship from bad scholarship, pseudo-scholarship, and outright nonsense, and the character to do so publicly.
Zalman Alpert on November 3, 2010 at 11:30 am (Reply)
I think the criticism of Braslov by "other Ukrainian Chassidim" needs some context.
The chassidim and rebbes of this region were, simply put , jealous of the growing power of Rav Nachman . In later generations they were upset by the unwillngness of the Breslover to take part in the new Zaddikism that marked Chassidism in that region. The chassidic movement in this region was marked by the institution of maggidus where a rebbe had towns that submitted to his rule (read monetary contributions). The movement here was marked by more nepotism , corruption and zaddikism than any other region in East Europe. The rebbes were by and large not scholars , nor communal leaders.
That is why by 1914 the Chasidic movement there was falling apart and Communism gave it a last push.
Its interesting to note that under Communism the only organized Religious resistance to Comunism came from Lubavitch and Breslov. The Twersky dynasty basically folded, and the same is true for the other local dynasties. True, individual rebbes and lay people continued, but they ahd no ability to organize any resistance.
Today the only Ukranian Chassidic group to survive is Braslov, Skver for its Ukranian origins is composed of 99%Hungarain Jews.
sfdrmarc on November 3, 2010 at 11:28 pm (Reply)
Prof. Nadler's incisive review— scholarly and positional— nevertheless misses the point of Kamenetz' book. Just as Nadler mistakes THE JEW IN THE LOTUS as a "mind-meld of Buddhism & Judaism," he ignores that earlier book's key subtitle: "A POET'S Journey...." His valuable comments are, alas, coming from another, quite linear 'operating system'.

In BURNT BOOKS Kamenetz again writes as an emissary of his own Imagination, reporting the personally registered impact of two brilliant Jewish souls whose lives and tales intermingle within his own creativity. To [obviously] call out Kamentetz' juxtaposition of Kafka influencing Nachman as "chronological absurdity" belies Nadler's disinterest in what IS a 'memoir-cum-travelogue': precisely what many of us admirers of Kamenetz' writings savor....

Let me ask each reader here to pause for a question: What IS the actual, felt experience of an American Jew, generations removed from the geographical shtetl ghost-land of his Jewish ancestors, when he journeys back in time to truly foreign lands, bereft of languages or living guides? If experienced holistically and deeply, before words, the experiences are processed in the Heart— processed with wonder— processed with one unanswered question after another— processed as an unfolding story.... 'Stories'— Kafka's, Nachman's, Kamenetz'— ARE the inter-penetrating matrix of this book's tales, that ask us to temporarily suspend our familiar categories of 'how things are supposed to connect.'

To me it matters not if Kamenetz' attempt to commune with his generational and ethnic heritage was in Podolsk or Lithuania... What engages me is the traversal of his own soul's dream-like journey: to ingest the multi-dimensional stories of Jewish masters whose words fully live for him; to attempt to anchor the fragments of family memories in some palpable landscape; to honor the jumble of disparate identities that jostle in our contemporary modern consciousness, the voices within us as "Jews who believe and Jews who can't believe, and Jews who want to believe." It is a certain kind of embodied knowing that is assembled here: not superior to academic, informational-displayed knowing.... just different.

Nadler indeed learnedly points us to resources of "literary or theological analysis", beyond Kamenetz' ken (or interest), that illuminate the historical dimensions of Nachman and Kafka. Yet the Professor's dessicated erudition sputters in his punchline-wish that would have spared "the world a great deal of self-indulgent twaddle" that 'insults memories', had Kamenetz' book never been written. Heavy.

In truth, though,'memories' are hardly proprietary, and certainly not so uni-dimensional that they need pass the approving muster of just one kind of rabbinic or academic intelligence... Though dazzled by Nadler's erudition, I was left saddened by his mis-reading of Kamenetz' efforts: but a gratuitous denigration of a "poet's journey"....
TomS on November 4, 2010 at 10:53 pm (Reply)
I thought something was fishy about a review titled "Mad mystic" that accuses the author of denigrating Rabbi Nachman. But I had to get Kamenetz's book first and read it to understand how mendacious and inconsistent this review truly is. I loved the Jew in the Lotus & I know that book was well-researched. Prof. Nadler implies that Kamenetz did not consult contemporary scholarship. That's just plain false. But Burnt Books, while clearly well- researched, is also an extraordinary, imaginative piece of writing & in no way denigrates the memory of Rabbi Nachman or F. Kafka. It celebrates their work and will bring readers to read them side by side. It's a book about the conflict many Jews feel between a secular, ironic sophistication (represented by Kafka) and the religious intensity of our past. Kamenetz sets it up as a provocative imaginative dialogue, deeply felt and deeply imagined. Burnt Books brings hope that such intensity might yet be lived. R. Nachman wrote, "The grestest sophistication is to learn how not to be sophisticated." Kamenetz understands this. Prof. Nadler is too busy trying to be the smartest guy in the class to even grasp what the book is about.The book must have touched something in him he can't admit to because this angry and venomous review has nothing to do with the book. It is a self-portrait of an angry man-- the reviewer. The editors should be ashamed for publishing it.
Moshe on November 11, 2010 at 6:05 pm (Reply)
The Kaminetz-litvosk yiskor books contain no record of "numerous members of the Kamenetzki family.....".

If there is please enlighten me.

Another point:
People were usually called by the name of the city, only after they had left that city and moved away...
Therefore it would make sense to say that most people with the surname Kamenetz or Kamenetzki have not lived in the cities of Kamenetz, Litvosk or Podolsk for at least the past 2 or 3 hundred years.

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