Tag Archives: breslov

Zvi Mark – The Religious Thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav Part 1 of 3 updated

Next month is the scheduled release date Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books, his Nextbook work comparing Kafka and Nachman of Bratzlav. The book, as all other volumes in the Nextbook series, will be reviewed by every Jewish publication.

However, the innovative work on Rabbi Nachman that everyone should be reading and reviewing is Zvi Mark, Mysticism and Madness, The Religious Thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav which was translated last summer and attracted no reviews from editors.

Zvi Mark in Mysticsm and Madness shows that the Existential approach to Rabbi Nachman is incorrect. Rav Nachman is not a forerunner of existential doubt or living with the paradox of an absent God, rather he is literally stark raving mad in order to cast off his intellect to reach God.

Almost a century ago, the journalist Hillel Zeitlin went from atheistic Schopenhauer follower to Neo-hasidic theologian advocating the creation of an elite group of those who truly understood religion seeking religious experience, prophecy, and mysticism. For Zeitlin, neither the rationalism of secular materialism nor the vitalism of Nietzsche pointed to God, rather the madness, stories, and songs of Rav nachman offered a means of reaching God.

Joseph Weiss, Scholem’s student, presented Rav Nachman as living in paradox of the absence of God. The secret of Kabbalah is that the process is an illusion and that we don’t know if God really exists, so we cannot tell the common folk who could not bear the truth. Neither could Weiss, who committed suicide to escape the painful paradoxes of life.

Arthur Green continued the approach of Weiss and presented Rabbi Nachman as a non mystical approach based on expressing one’s existential needs in I-Thou dialogue with God, and the need to face the modern Enlightened challenges to faith by an Existential leap of faith. And in
Green’s brilliant excursive on faith and doubt in Rabbi Nachman, Green shows that the deep secret of creation is that there is ordinary heresy and a deeper heresy from God himself, implying that the secret of Kabbalah may be that God does not exist. Green further develops this absent God from one of Rav Nachman’s stories where the portrait of the King in the story is both found in a reflection in a mirror (implying to Green that it is our own projection) and that the King shrinks away (implying that there is no KIng). Green’s work has been translated in several languages and is taken as the actually meaning of Rabbi Nahman in academic circles and literary readers like Rodger Kamenetz.

Zvi Mark comes along and says No! No! No! Rabbi Nahman is not an existential, he is not waking close to heresy, and he is not suffering the paradoxes of modern life. Rabbi Nachman is a mystic. In Zvi Mark’s presentation, Rabbi Nachman is not fascinated by the Enlightenment and its heresies.

Rabbi Nachman thinks that the intellect can never reach God. A Litvak, a Maimonidean, or a Maskil are all the same in that they each, God forfend, use their intellect and the only way to God is by the imagination. One can only know God through song, story, and prayer. One must entirely cast off the intellect to be religious. Madness is a paradigmatic life of casting off the intellect. One can also use crying, joking, dancing, play or hand-clapping.

The goal of Rabbi Nachman is the creation of mystical consciousness. Mark states that previous studies “neglected the mystical goal at the center of his thought.” Imagination is needed for belief and mysticism, and prophecy. Revelation is not just without intellect but from the removal of intellect Therefore deeds of madness and casting away the intellect is good. There are many levels of mystical experience – highest is the stripping away everything including speech and belief.

In order to shorten the Hebrew edition for the English version, the discussions on the role of blood, humors, bile and biology were removed, these situated Rabbi Nachman in Early Modern views of knowledge, the soul and pnuma. (For me, some of this material were the best parts.)
When Rabbi Nachman says that “Every blame of grass has a song” to him it is a magical power known to shamans and baalei Shem. Rabbi Nachman removes our need to resort to sorcery to manipulate nature since we can use prayer and song. Following Moshe Idel, Reb Nachman is credited with an approach that treats Renaissance music as magical. So too, medicine and doctors work by magical and astrological influence, so Rabbi Nachman offers songs and prayers instead.

Hitboddedut, speaking at length with God is only the first stage of Rabbi Nachman’s full theory of hitboddedut , the higher stage and higher goal is the annihilation of self awareness into a mystical oneness. Joseph Weiss & Arthur Green treat hitboddedut as an i-thou relationship. Green states that an “inner openness and of a person’s speech with his maker are in a certain aspect all that is truly important.”

For Marks, Rabbi Nachman’s goal was cleaving to the light of the Infinite One. The goal is a unification with God but that unification was difficult even for Moses who could not completely overcome his intellect. Rabbi Nachman’s mysticism is not love or erotic. It is casting off of intellect.
For example, when Rabbi Nachman was in Istanbul on the way to the land of Israel, he performed foolish and childish acts in the marketplace. Regressive play is a means of casting off the intellect. It is a liminal return to a border of adult existence where one does not even know how to hold a book.

There is a famous maamar of Rav Nachman called “Bo el pharaoh” where Rabbi Nachman discusses the void of creation. Arthur Green explains it as the end of our seeking reveals a paradox at end, that the whole process is illusory and we have a doubt about God existence at the core of faith. Zvi Mark states that Green neglected the parts of the passage where Rabbi Nachman writes that the heresy is raised by song. And song as a form of casting off the intellect can solve problem and lead to a union with the Divine. Mark notes that in this case, Zeitlin was more correct than later scholars in that he understood the role of song as mysticism in the passage. For Green, –we cannot know if there is a God.To reach the highest level we ask God to have our faith shaken. For Mark, not knowing is not a lack of knowledge of God but the wondrous nature of God, a mystical union from casting off the intellect.

Continue reading part II here in which I give links to some of the reviews in the Hebrew Press

Zvi Mark also edited, deciphered and published Rabbi Nachman’s lost book of secrets as well as working to recover the content of the lost teachings. I will deal with some this in later posts.

Update from Rodger Kamenetz
In Burnt Books, I view Kafka not as an existentialist but as Scholem did, a possible kabbalist. That is my investigation. And also, just as Alan Brill asks, I too ask, what is the role of imagination in mysticism, how fundamental is imagination and more particularly literary imagination to the Jewish mystical experience?
Very I would say. That is my book.

I am glad to see here a review of Zvi Marks’ very important study. It came to my hands as I was just finishing
Burnt Books but I was eager to learn from it and include some of his comments on Rabbi Nachman’s mystical
practice of “smallness.” It is a book that any serious student of Rabbi Nachman’s work will want to read.

Sufi Story in Breslov: Transmigration of a Mystical Story

Here is a guest post, using his pseudonym Eiver LaNahar. He is a renowned Haredi teacher of Breslov Chassidus. Here he lets his hair down and starts with a trans-personal psychology quotation from the 1975 classic of Charles Tart. From my historical approach this dates his approach to a pre-new age, pre-spirituality era- when it was still countercultural and transpersonal. The goal is to awaken to the richness of experience despite our 1960’s culture having no ability to discuss these experiences. (Courtney Bender’s New Metaphysics don’t have these problems). Our blog post is willing to let down his hair and note a similarity to a Sufi story, quote Aryeh Kaplan on LSD imagery in Hasidic texts, and explain Breslov as offering non-dual states of perception.

I (AB) have a worksheet where I show how a single line of Breslov gets interpreted in the last 20 years as transpersonal psych, as 12 step, as primal emotions of depression, and as postmodernism. The story is indeed sufi, but that is a topic for another post.

Transmigration of a Mystical Story by Eiver LaNahar

Transpersonal psychologist Charles T. Tart observes:
“…[A]ttention/awareness energy is constantly flowing back and forth, around and around in familiar, habitual paths. This means that much of the variety and richness of life is filtered out. An actual event, triggering off a certain category of experience, activating a certain structure, is rapidly lost as the internal processes connected with that structure and its associated structures and prepotent needs take over the energy of the system… (“States of Consciousness,” Chapter 19 (“Ordinary Consciousness as a State of Illusion,” pp. 269-270),
“ if your cultural conditioning has not given you any categories as part of the Input-Processing subsystem to recognize certain events, you may simply not perceive them… so the wheel of your life rolls over these events hardly noticing them, perhaps with only a moment of puzzlement before your more ‘important’ internal needs and preoccupations cause you to dismiss the unusual…
“If you experience such an event, though, the cultural pressures, both from others and from the enculturated structures built up within you, will probably force you to forget it, to explain away its significance. If you experience something everybody knows cannot happen, you must be crazy; but if you do not tell anyone and forget about it yourself, you will be okay.”

Tart goes on to cite a Sufi story from Idries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes (pp. 21-20), “When the Waters Were Changed,” to illustrate this idea:

Once upon a time Khidr, the Teacher of Moses, called upon mankind with a warning. At a certain date, he said, all the water in the world which had not been specially hoarded would disappear. It would then be renewed, with different water, which would drive men mad.
Only one man listened to the meaning of this advice. He collected water and went to a secure place where he stored it, and waited for the water to change its character.
On the appointed date the streams stopped running, the wells went dry, and the man who had listened, seeing this happening, went to his retreat and drank his preserved water.
When he saw, from his security, the waterfalls again beginning to flow, this man descended among the other sons of men. He found that they were thinking and talking in an entirely different way from before; yet they had no memory of what had happened, nor of having been warned. When he tried to talk to them, he realized that they thought he was mad, and they showed hostility or compassion, not understanding.
At first he drank none of the new water, but went back to his concealment, to draw on his supplies, every day. Finally, however, he took the decision to drink the new water because he could not bear the loneliness of living, behaving and thinking in a different way from everyone else. He drank the new water, and became like the rest. Then he forgot all about his own store of special water, and his fellows began to look upon him as a madman who had miraculously been restored to sanity.

On a brighter note, Tart concludes, “Fortunately we do make contact with reality at times. There are forces for real change in culture so the conservative forces do not always succeed. I have great faith in science as a unique force for constantly questioning the limits of consensus reality (at least in the long run) for deliberately looking for cracks in the cosmic egg that open onto vast new vistas. But, far more than we would like to admit, our lives can be mainly or completely tightly bounded wheels, rolling mechanically along the track of consensus reality.”

One of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s enigmatic parables is remarkably similar to this Sufi story. (I have no idea which came first, nor if the connection is causal or merely serendipitous; tzorekh iyyun.) Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates it in his collection, “Rabbi Nachman’s Stories” (Breslov Research Institute, p. 481). Although the primary source isn’t given, I tracked it down to Ma’asiyos U-Meshalim (pp. 27-28), a group of stories discovered in the the notebook of Rabbi Naftali of Nemirov (and later, Uman), a member of Rabbi Nachman’s inner circle. These stories were later appended to Kokhvey Ohr, Breslov oral traditions compiled by Rabbi Avraham b’Reb Nachman [Chazan], and edited and published by Rabbi Shmuel Horowitz before the outbreak of World War II.

A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend, “I see in the stars that whoever eats any grain that grows this year will go mad. What is your advice?”
The prime minister replied, “We must put aside enough grain so that we will not have to eat from this year’s harvest.”
The king objected, “But then we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad. Therefore, they will think that we are the mad ones. It is impossible for us to put aside enough grain for everyone. Therefore, we too must eat this year’s grain. But we will make a mark on our foreheads, so that at least we will know that we are mad. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine, and when we see this sign, we will know that we are both mad.”

In a footnote, Rabbi Kaplan observes that “there are fungi of the ergot family that attack grain and can cause hallucinations and other bizarre experiences when ingested. These fungi contain substances very similar to LSD.” However he doesn’t offer any key to unlock the secret of Rabbi Nachman’s story.

Perhaps Tart’s quasi-Buddhist explanation of the Sufi story may be applied to the Chasidic one. The “corrupted” consensually-conditioned consciousness of those who partake of the new grain corresponds to samsara, ordinary dualistic (i.e., relational) perception. However, the pristine consciousness of the king and his royal minister corresponds to the enlightened mind, which is the ability to see things in their simplicity and utter newness—which Rabbi Nachman calls “sanity.”

The bottom line of both stories is the necessity of forgoing enlightenment in order to participate in the world. But the difference between Rabbi Nachman’s parable and the Sufi one is that the king and his friend make a sign on each other’s forehead to remind them that they are mad.

Is this an allusion to Tefillin, “…they shall serve as a reminder between your eyes…” However, Chazal give us hope, too: “In the future world, the tzaddikim will sit and their crowns [i.e., nondual states of perception] will be in their heads (ve-atroseihem bi-rasheihem) [i.e., internalized]…” (Berakhos 17a; and cf. Likkutei Moharan I, 21:4)

What does this mean when our leadership is anything but non-dual states of perception? In the 1970’s once could think that leaving the Jewish middle class and entering the social imaginary of the frum world would be like the spiritual awakening in a Sufi tale, what do we do now when the community does not seem anything like a source of enlightenment? Forty years after the counter-culture’s critique of society have we learned anything that offers new insight to Eiver LaNahar’s tales? Has spirituality with its quest for wellness killed the crazy wisdom of awakening?

Why does Breslov Attract crazies?

No, the question is not my question. However, Mispachah magazine had a positive feature article on Breslov Hasidus two weeks ago. This article was followed by a bevy of published letters critical or nasty toward Breslov. Among the letters was one that claimed that they get all the crazies.
So this week, the noted Breslov author and teacher Ozer Bergman blogged a letter that he sent in defense of Breslov to Mispachah. He writes as follows:

Lastly, insofar as “crazies” (a word that may be accurate, but is certainly loathsome) are concerned, may I suggest two reasons why there seems to be a preponderance in Breslov. First, since so many communities insist on keeping them out, lest those meshugaim spoil their sheine image, the “crazies” go to the only place open to them—Breslov. Second, nowadays when a bit of nevuah has been bestowed upon the insane, perhaps the “crazies” intuit that of all the rebbes and all the seforim, only Rebbe Nachman is great enough to heal them. for the full letter – see here

I am not sure most of us would have used the same line of defense.