The Man Who Forbade Sadness

Kabbalistic tales of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

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Reprinted with permission from Jbooks.com.

Every day at the Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, New York, a stream of petitioners wends its way to the gravesite of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, seeking his blessing. Although the Lubavitcher Rebbe died in June 1994, no new Rebbe has replaced him, and many in the community prefer it that way: for them, the seventh Rebbe of the dynasty was the last of the line--he is the precursor of the Moshiach, if not the Moshiach himself.

The Hasidism of the Dead

This is not the first time a Hasidic group has maintained fealty to a deceased Rebbe. When Rebbe Nachman of Breslov died in 1810, his adherents declined to install a successor and thereby became known as the "toite Hasidism," the Hasidism of the Dead [Rebbe]."

Unlike other Hasidic groups, whose communal activities center around a living Rebbe and shared institutions, the Hasidism of Breslov affirmed their identity through study and practice of their Rebbe's teachings. But Breslovers too were, and are, "religious" about visiting Rebbe Nachman's grave in the Ukrainian town of Uman, especially on Rosh Hashana; the Rebbe himself declared that those who pray at his burial site would merit great blessings.

Most of the previous generation of Breslovers was murdered in the Shoah, along with the vast majority of other Hasidism, but Breslov Hasidism is undergoing a remarkable resurgence. The Breslov movement is growing by spreading its teachings, attracting Jews across the spectrum, from other Hasidic communities to the formerly secular and recent converts. The flourishing of Breslov is especially pronounced in Israel, where Breslov posters adorn the city walls, and devotees dance on hilltops across the country.

Much of Breslov's appeal traces to its deep mystical orientation, an interest in much evidence these days. And in many ways, it is easier to become a Breslover Hasid then it is joining any other Hasidic sect. There is no Breslover-centralized neighborhood comparable to Satmar or Bobov, in which one is expected to live, and no reigning Rebbe around whom that community adheres and to which one pays homage--one becomes a Breslover by studying and practicing the 200-year-old precepts of Rebbe Nachman.

Unlike other Hasidic groups, there is also no dress code that marks membership--some Breslovers dress in traditional garb, but many, especially recent affiliates, wear clothes that would be more at home in hippy San Francisco of the 1960's than Hasidic Galicia of the 1860's. And while Rebbe Nachman values community, he also stresses the importance of a personal approach to God. The notion of hisbodidus, private prayer and meditation, is a key practice in Breslov Hasidism, and many contemporaries find this individualistic-spirituality compatible with their own religious inclinations. No doubt, too, many appreciate the Breslov insistence on joy--in Rebbe Nachman's succinct formulation, "It is forbidden to be sad."  

Rebbe Nachman was born in 1772 in the Ukrainian town of Medzoboz, the cradle of the Hasidism. He was the great-grandson of the movement's founder, the Baal Shem Tov, also known by the acronym the Besht. Although it is difficult to substantiate the claims of his followers, it seems the future Rebbe Nachman demonstrated a mystical proclivity even as a child. Married at 13, he nonetheless spent much of his time secluded, praying in fields and mountains. In his 20s he became an itinerant teacher and undertook an arduous trip to Israel--a rare expedition in those days; after taking four steps in the Holy Land, he declared his mission accomplished and his readiness to return home, though, in fact, he remained there for a half year.

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Dr. Joshua Halberstam

Dr. Joshua Halberstam has been writing and teaching philosophy to college and general audiences for two decades. He taught at New York University, and is now adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University where he teaches courses in social theory and the philosophy of technology.