The Mad Mystic of Bratslav

By Allan Nadler
Monday, November 1, 2010

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.

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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