Posted by: Steve Coplan | October 10, 2006

Bratslav’s Tower of Babel

The web site of the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz (at one point the organ of the Labor Party) published this account of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, elsewhere described as a Hasidic rave or Woodstock for Jews (by which is implied observant Jews).

Rav Nahman of Bratslav (a town in the Ukraine not be confused with Breslau or Bratislava) is buried in Uman, and his grave is a site of pilgrimage, particularly at the time of Rosh Hashana. Tens of thousands of Jews (almost all men) now descend on a Ukrainian town of 90,000 people to honor the rebbe’s teachings, and participate in enormous communal expression of joy. But as the article illustrates, his remarkable appeal ironically serves to the highlight the divisions of Israeli society and streams of Judaism.

What is remarkable about the Breslover Hasidim is that in contrast to other Hasidic sects, it has no real political structure, no rebbe apart from Rav Nahman who passed away close to 200 years ago and no spiritual leader that is the final authority on halacha. By contrast, the dispute over the succession of the Satmar rebbe (the single largest sect in Williamsburg) has become a matter of public knowledge, including brawls in the main Satmar shul and involves substantial sums of money. The Lubavitcher sect has had no rebbe since the death of Menachem Mendel Schneerson since many believe that he was the messiah.

But apart from the differences in political organization, the sect is distinct for its ability to attract an ecumenical following. While the Lubavitchers have an active outreach program that is based on the rationale that the performance of mitzvot bring about harmony in the celestial spheres and hasten the arrival of the messiah, Rav Nahman’s followers have something of a reputation of rescuing lost souls — the economically marginalized, those struggling with substance abuse and those searching to fill a spiritual void. Followers hand out small books with the rebbe’s teachings at central bus stations across Israel, hoping to connect with some lost soul. The film Ushpizin, which was written, directed and starred a Breslover Hasid, revolves around the struggles of a new adherent who had previously lost his way. But equally, no other branch of Hasidut has had the same appeal for the acculturated and Mizrachi Jews.

Hasidut is an Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) phenomenon, based on the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov in the mid 1700s. The Baal Shem Tov emerged as a spiritual leader at the age of 36, after he had spent years in meditation in the Carpathian Mountains. Martin Buber is probably the foremost writer on the philosophy and ethos of Hasidut, but in brief the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings were notable both for their populism and emphasis on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, a major theorist of the Kabbala who lived in Safed and led a remarkably creative group of Kabbalists. By populist, I mean that the Baal Shem Tov taught that intensive learning was not the only path to enlightenment or please Hashem. Rather, it was through an emotional attachment (the kabbalistic notion of devekut or ‘clinging’) that the ordinary person could become closer to Hashem. By connecting emotionally with the divine, any individual could move to higher levels of personal spirituality and become more charitable to those around them. His philosophy was initially vehemently opposed by the establishment of the time – principally the leaders of the great Lithuanian yeshivot – who advocated excommunicating his followers. When it became clear that Hasidut was increasing in appeal despite the ban that the rabbis planned to impose (and possibly because of it), they relented. Although the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings emphasized the individual’s spiritual experience in a way that had been confined to scholars of the Kabbalah before, there’s also the possibility that his appeal to the impoverished masses was seen as a political threat especially since he and his followers rose to prominence outside of the established rabbinical hierarchy.

Despite a common emphasis on the teachings of Luria and his interpretation of kabbalistic works from 13th century Provence and northern Spain, Hasidut has not attracted much in the way of a following amongst the Jews originally from Arab countries which now form the the numerical majority in Israel. So why is Rebbe Nachman alone in attracting interest from across the aisle, so to speak? For one thing, the Mizrahi Jews have a longstanding tradition of visiting the graves of great rabbis or tzaddikim (which literally and not figuratively is translated as ‘saints’) as sites of elevated spirituality. But as the personal trajectory of Rabbi Shalom Arush illustrates, it’s the ability for the Breslover Hasidim to absorb into the community without judgment, make spirituality accessible and provide a path for growth. There is also the appeal of his teachings to consider — although most novices or those without a broad understanding of the kabbalah find his central work Likutei Moharan largely impenetrable.
More prosaically, many Hasidic communities have become ossified and can’t accept outsiders – even Hasidim from other sects – which tends to result in walled gardens with little transfer of the core teachings of Hasidut. The Lubavitcher Hasidim are an exception here and have enormous outreach programs across the world, but their missionary zeal has become a problem in of itself, and there’s more emphasis on practice than the individual experience. I can’t help thinking that absence of an official hierarchy has played a role in the attraction of Breslover Hasidim in the sense that decentralizing allows for a pluralistic approach.

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