Nahman of Bratslav

Hasidic master whose disciples refuse to appoint a successor--even two centuries after his death.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1811), a Hasidic master and religious thinker, was a great-grandson of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov. Nahman sought to reinvigorate the movement which he saw as having lost its original impetus. 

He gathered around him a small number of chosen disciples, among them Nahman of Tcherin and Nathan Sternhartz, the latter acting as his faithful Boswell, recording his life and teachings. Nahman undertook a hazardous journey to the land of Israel (1798-9). A year or two after his return he settled in Bratslav where he remained until 1810. The last year of his life was spent in the town of Uman in the Ukraine where he died of tuberculosis at the early age of 39. 

nachman kippah

Photo courtesy of Sheynhertz-Unbayg.

In Uman, Nahman became friendly with followers of the Haskalah movement of enlightenment. Although he is extremely critical of all secular learning, some of the ideas he seems to have obtained from these Maskilim do occasionally surface in his own works. Nahman's grave in Uman is a place of pilgrimage for his Hasidim to this day. The veneration in which the Bratslaver Hasidim hold Nahman is unparalleled even in Hasidic hero-worship. In the Bratslav synagogue, in the Meah Sharim district of Jerusalem, Nahman's original throne-like chair stands next to the Ark. Nahman promised his followers that he would be with them even after his death, so that no successor to him has ever been appointed and the Bratslaver are called the "dead Hasidim" in that, unlike all others, they have no living master.

Nahman's Thought

Nahman's ideas on the Jewish religion were conveyed verbally, in Yiddish, to his disciples but were later written down by them, under the heading Likkutay Moharan, "Collection of Sayings by Our Teacher Rabbi Nahman." Basing his theory on the doctrine of Isaac Luria that the En Sof [the infinite God in kabbalistic thought] withdrew into Himself leaving an "empty space" into which all worlds could emerge, Nahman draws the conclusion that, in a sense, the world is void of the full presence of God. That is why, he affirms, man is bound to have religious doubts and all his attempts at proving the existence of God are doomed to failure from the outset. The only way to find God is through faith which alone can raise the human soul beyond the void.

Nahman seems to have had the kind of mind in which faith and reason cannot exist side by side. One of the two must yield totally to the other so that Nahman, similarly to his contemporary, Kierkegaard, is a religious anti-rationalist, critical of the attempts of the medieval philosophers to work out a faith based on reason. Nahman speaks often of the "true Zaddik of the generation," which is understood by both his disciples and modern scholars as referring to himself. Obviously alluding to his own struggles against more conventional Hasidic leaders, Nahman remarks that God gives a man the desire to journey to the "true Zaddik," but then he meets with obstacles; these obstacles are presented to him in order to awaken his desire, since whenever a man meets with obstacles in his desire to achieve something, the obstacles he has to overcome strengthen him in his resolve and his desire to becomes even more powerful.

Nahman encouraged his followers to practice "solitude." Solitude is defined by Nahman to mean that a man sets aside at least an hour or more during which he is alone in a room or in the field so that he can converse with his Maker in secret, entreating God to bring him nearer to His service. This pouring out of the heart in solitude should be in Yiddish, the ordinary language of conversation. Nahman also stresses the value of worshipping God in man's present circumstances. Too much planning for the morrow is inadvisable even in spiritual matters. "For all man has ill the world is the day and the hour where he is, for the morrow is an entirely different world."

Nahman's famous Tales (published by Sternhartz in 1815) are unique in Hasldic literature. The historian of Hasidism, Simon Dubnow, dismisses these as "fairytales" and certainly on the surface that is what they are: "The Loss of the Princess"; "The King Who Fought Major Wars"; "The King's Son and the Maidservant's Son Who Were Switched," and so forth. Naturally, Nahman's followers read all kinds of mystical ideas into the Tales. Whatever their meaning, the Tales are admired for their literary merit.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.