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.

Upon his return to Breslov, Rebbe Nachman's fame spread.  At first, his illustrious Hasidic pedigree and innovative insights helped him gain the endorsement of other Hasidic leaders but soon his iconoclasm engendered much enmity.  Indeed, Breslov has always remained a camp of its own, proceeding on the margins of the dominant Hasidic movements.  In 1810, after a few months of moving to Uman, Rebbe Nachman died of tuberculosis. He was 38. 

Rebbe Nachman conveyed his approach to Judaism--"applied mysticism," one might call it--through all forms of human interaction: textual commentary, legal rulings, formal discourses, informal conversation, prayer, music, epigrams, and narrative. Along with his  signal lineage and creativity, he was fortunate to have an extraordinarily talented, loyal, and prolific disciple/amanuensis. Reb Noson, diligently transcribed Rebbe Nachman's work and talks and after the Rebbe's death, printed and disseminated his teachings. Reb Noson collected these lessons in a book called the Likutei Moharan, an anthology that is the central text of this sect and ranges from simple everyday advice to the Kabbalistic esoterica.

But for many, the easiest entry to Breslov is through the Rebbe's stories. Beginning with the Besht himself, storytelling has always been privileged in Hasidism, but nowhere more so than here. Rebbe Nachman considered storytelling as a form of prayer as well as a path to the soul: he reminds us, "While it true a story can put one to sleep, a story can also wake one up."

The typical Rebbe Nachman storyline has the structure of a fairy-tale. It features similar protagonists as well: banished princes and princesses, mysterious beggars, and poor men and women rewarded for their piety. The often enigmatic and surprising endings have led critics to posit similarities between Reb Nachman's fables and the 20th-century fables of Franz Kafka. (While it might seem a reach to suggest that Kafka was influenced by Hasidic stories, he did come into contact with Hasidism through his Hasidic friend and fellow writer, Jiri Langer, who certainly might have introduced Kafka to the tales of Nachman.)

The title story in this collection, The Seven Beggars, tells of beggars with a respective physical defect--blindness, say, or deafness--wherein each supposed blemish is presented as a gift--thus, one is deaf to the inanities of the world. The other stories in the collection are more straightforward, though even these get a particular mystical or Hasidic spin. One tale, for example, found in various versions and in various cultures, tells of a man who lives in a small hut in a small village who has a dream of a buried treasure in the big city. He goes to the city and meets someone who recounts his own dream of a treasure buried behind a hut in a small village, describing precisely the home of the poor visitor. The lesson? Each person owns a treasure but to discover it, he must travel to the Tzaddik. Rebbe Nachman said that all his stories were designed to instruct, not merely to entertain, and are laden with scriptural and Kabbalistic allusions and obscure meanings. These are fables that ask to be interpreted.

There is no better contemporary guide for this challenge than Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. His translation from the Yiddish and Hebrew of Rebbe Nachman's The Seven Beggars, and its companion book, The Lost Princess, offers an English-speaking audience a faithful rendition of the original's style and cadence. The copious footnotes provide a running commentary culled from traditional Breslover interpretations. Although many of these construals seem forced and fanciful, they are often intriguing in their own right.

Aryeh Kaplan had an interesting history of his own. He too died young, at 48, and also has also attracted a growing and appreciative audience since his death in 1983. Kaplan, who was born in the Bronx and studied in local Yeshivas before continuing his Talmudic education in Jerusalem, was an outstanding young scientist, described by Who's Who in America as among the most promising physicists in the country. But Kaplan decided to focus his skills in expositing Rabbinic Judaism and Jewish mysticism, and within a period of twelve years produced more than 50 books, and scores of scholarly articles and translations. His translations of these Breslov stories are among his finest contributions, and an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to learn more about the original and influential Hasidic mystic, Rebbe Nachman.

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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.