Friday, December 23, 2005

Hanukkah (Hasidism)

Nahman of Breslav on Hanukkah

In turning from Habad to Bratslav, we find ourselves encountering an almost diametrically opposed religious mentality. Habad, as we discussed last week, emphasizes intellectual knowledge of the cosmic God, without much relation to the individual’s needs and emotions. It cultivates a type of deep meditation on profound truths that take a person far away from his own concrete situation; its ideology, at least in principle, strives for negation of the self, promulgating the idea that earthly life doesn’t matter much and is ultimately unreal (inviting comparison to Buddhism and other Eastern religions). Classically, the rebbe was a teacher and guide in Avodat Hashem (“Divine service”), not one whom one turned for advice and blessing concerning matters of banei, hayyei, umezonei—children, health and livelihood, i.e., the three areas of every person’s existential concern.

In Bratslav, by contrast, everything seems to start from the situation of the individual. There is little theology, but much psychology and discussion of how a person is to deal with his life problems. His message emphasizes the existential angst of man, his basic insecurity and neediness—something which R. Nahman seems to have experienced more strongly than his others in his own life (see, e.g., Arthur Green’s biography, Tormented Master, in which he suggests that R. Nahman tended to suffer bouts of depression and guilt)—and appeals directly to the emotions.

The Bratslav practice that is perhaps paradigmatic of this approach is hitbodedut—direct, vernacular, personal prayer to God. Every day, or at least once a week, on Thursday night in preparation for the Shabbat, each hasid is supposed to go to an isolated place—a forest, an open field, a deserted beach or mountain top, or even an empty room—to speak to God “as he would to a friend” about whatever is troubling him, in his own language, feeling free to shout, to groan, or to weep, all without inhibition. (This practice also reflects a feeling that statutory prayer had become too ritualized).

R. Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1809) was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov; he left no heir to continue his position of Rebbe, albeit he had his ”Boswell” in the person of R. Nathan of Nemerov, who recorded many of his teachings and is in practice responsible for much of the extant written material in R. Nahman’s name. Hence, Bratslaver Hasidim are at times referred to as “Toiter (i.e., dead) Hasidim,” because they follow a long dead leader. Indeed, there is a certain latent messianism in some of R. Nahman’s teaching, such as his statement that “my fire will burn till the coming of the redeemer,” but he does not seem to have viewed himself as Messiah in any literal sense. In the absence of a living rebbe, Bratslaver Hasidim are thus those who follow the teachings and study the writings of R. Nahman, including certain specific practices he introduced, such as the hitbodedut mentioned above, a dance of fellowship at the end of prayer and learning sessions, the recitation of a group of ten psalms known as Tikkun ha-Kellali, and visiting the grave of R. Nahman in the Ukrainian city of Uman—until recently, an enterprise involving no little danger. They also feel a certain “connection” (hitkashrut) to their long-gone teacher.

In recent years Bratslav has enjoyed a certain revival, enjoying especial popularity among many ba’alei teshuvah, who are no doubt attracted by the freedom he gives to uninhibited emotional expression. In some such circles, one can find wild, ecstatic, almost crazy dancing and singing. Some Hasidim also popularized the conversion of his name into a mantra, so that posters, graffiti and bumper stickers containing the legend “N-Nah-Nahma-Nahman me-Uman” appear ubiquitously around Israel.

Another well-known aspect of R. Nahman’s Torah is his story telling. During the last years of his life, he used stories as an alternative vehicle for conveying his teaching. These are collected on a group of thirteen stories known as Sippurei Ma’asiyot, filled with fantastic imagery, at times compared to Kafka, but all of which ultimately bear a religious message. There is a man who sets out to get a portrait of a “truthful and upright” king who turns out to rule over a kingdom of lies; a princess who becomes lost; a prince who goes into exile; a prince and a pauper who exchange places; a heart and a well that long for one another; seven holy beggars who tell stories at the wedding celebration of a pair of orphan children; and more.

R. Nahman’s more formal sermons are gathered in the volume entitled Likkutei Muharan, which is divided into two sections: the first, published during his lifetime; the second, posthumous part, known as Likkutei Muharan Tinyana (“the Second”). Unlike most books of Hasidic homilies, the teachings are not arranged by Torah lections, and only occasionally take the Torah portion as their point of departure; they are identified simply by number, and occasionally by title.

Hanukkah was one of the three times during the course of the year when the Hasidim would gather at Bratslav, the other two being Shavuot and, especially, Rosh Hashana. These festive assemblies quite naturally served as the occasion for some of R. Nahman’s lengthier and more important sermons. The following Torah, Likkutei Muharan, §8, was delivered on Hanukkah 5563—exactly two hundred years ago:

“I saw a menorah of pure gold, with a bowl on top of it” [Zechariah 4:2, which is the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah]

I) See how precious are the groans (called krekhts) of the Jewish person, for it is the fulness of the lacks. For by means of breath, which is the spirit of life, the world was created, as is written, “and with the breath of His mouth [He made] all their host” [Ps 33:6]. And the renewal of the world will also be by means of breath, as is written, “You send forth Your breath [or: Spirit], and they are created; You renew the face of the earth” [Ps 104:30]. And it is also the vitality of a person, for the life of a person is in his breath, as is written, “and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” [Gen 2:7]; and it is written, “all which had the breath of life in their nostrils” [Gen 6:17]. And as the wise men wrote, if breath is absent, than life is lacking.

We find, that the main vitality of all things comes from the aspect of breath. And when there is a lack in some thing, the main lack is in the aspect of life of that thing, which is the aspect of the living spirit of that thing, for the breath/spirit is that which sustains that thing.

And the groan is the extension of breath, and that is the aspect of “long suffering” [erekh apayim]—that is, that he extends His [his] spirit. Therefore, when a person moans due to a certain lack and draws out his breath, he extends the breath of life to that lack. For the essence of the lack is the removal of the spirit of life. Therefore, by means of the groan, he completes that which is lacking.

Who but Reb Nahman would write about the krekhts as a religious gesture? Who but he would make the saying of ”oy” into a holy, world significant act? (Philip Roth, seeing the “oy” as a quintessential Jewish gesture, once quipped that he’d like to say “the oy put back into Goy, and the id back into Yid.”) One can see this passage as almost emblematic of Bratslav: the verbal expression of human pain, of lack and frustration, as an important religious moment.

On another level, this is typical R. Nahman in its seeing symbolic, archetypal meaning within every thing, even the most seemingly mundane gesture, which he then links to central cosmic and religious ideas (the Divine breath animating Adam, and the breath sustaining the life of every living creature) through a series of word associations and biblical verses. We continue:

II) But from whence does one receive the spirit of life? One should know, that the main spirit of life is received from the Tzaddik and Rav of the generation. For the main spirit of life is in the Torah, as is written, “and the spirit of God hovered over the water” [Gen 1:2], which is the Torah. And the Tzaddikim are attached to the Torah; therefore, the main spirit of life is with them. And when one is attached to the Tzaddik [righteous man] and rabbi of the generation, then, when one groans and draws out his breath, he draws [in] the spirit of life from the Tzaddik of the generation who is attached to the Torah, where there is the spirit. And this is why the righteous is called “a man in whom there is spirit“ [Num 27:18]: one who understands the spirit of each and every one (as Rashi explains there), for the Tzaddik draws down and completes the living spirit of each one, as said above.

A central point in Rav Nahman’s teaching generally is the idea of the tzaddik, and the need for the individual to attach himself to “the tzaddik of the generation,” as a kind of conduit for Divine life and blessing. There is probably no concept in Hasidism that is as problematic for modern people as the idea of the tzaddik, and the demand that one, in one way or another, subjugate oneself to the spiritual guidance and authority of another human being. After all, the idea that another person is somehow “closer” to God, uniquely capable and suited to instruct one in his religious life, is downright undemocratic! What follows is part of my own attempt to answer this question; not necessarily an apologia advocating the idea of a rebbe (after all, in my own life I never fully adopted the yoke of a rebbe in the Hasidic sense, but sought out an alternative model of teacher—those teachers who left the individual greater latitude and autonomy, and ultimately taught one to think independently within Torah), but to at least understand the rationale and inner coherence of the idea, rather than to see those who adopt it as simply seeking an “escape from freedom.”

My answer is begins with the recognition that people differ vastly in their innate qualities, and even more so in what they accomplish in life. The Tzaddik is one who has worked on himself to achieve holiness and purity, spiritual insight and closeness to God, as well as cultivating the intuition and insight into people that enable him to be a spiritual guide. Connection to a Tzaddik helps one to attain “Torah,” “the living spirit,” “fear of God” (as in his “Yemei Hanukkah,” II:2), etc., in several ways. First, on a natural level, he may inspire one in one’s own avodat hashem. Prayer with someone who is on a high spiritual level generates a certain energy that uplifts others. At times, in such situations, one can feel a certain electricity in the air, just by watching and feeling the intensity that radiates from such a person, the mere memory of which may help to lift up ones own prayers and mitzvot for some time hence.

Beyond that, Hasidim believe that the Tzaddik is in a certain mystical, metaphysical sense, literally a conduit for yirat shamayim, etc. This idea is implied in the above passage by the emphasis that there is one “Tzaddik hador,” a single individual in each generation who is the vehicle for channeling Divine grace to all Israel. Obviously, such influence is not dependent upon regular, or even any personal contact. To some, this may seem “Christian,” smacking of intermediaries between God and man but, without going into sources, it has more than ample precedent in Jewish tradition as well. Third, and related to that, is the idea that the Tzaddik has certain theurgic powers—the ability to intervene and influence Divine action, using extraordinary powers (and here, we are on the border of magic; see the subtitle of Idel’s book, “Ecstasy and Magic,” in which he contends that these two elements were inextricably mixed in early Hasidism). Here, too, there is precedent; see, for example, the series of aggadot in the first chapter of Ta’anit about such holy men as Honi the Circle Drawer and Rabbi Akiva, who would merely say the words “Morid hageshem” and the rain would fall.

Together with that, they are obvious dangers in the cult of the Tzaddik. There is always the danger of people who are not on this sublime level claiming the title, or being adulated by the ignorant masses—whether cynical charlatans, or simply mediocre but good-hearted people who have inherited the mantle of rebbeship. From my perspective, it is important to emphasize the humanity, mortality and fallibility of the tzaddik, and the free-will and moral choice that is ultimately the responsibility of each individual.

What I have translated above is only the first section and half of this teaching, which continues over many pages, through a long series of associative chains of ideas, verses, Rabbinic aphorisms, and key words. Along the way, he offers a symbolic interpretation of the adventures of Rabba bar bar Hanna, a group of fantastic aggadic “tall tales” from the Talmud, Bava Batra, Chapter 1, which Rav Nahman makes the subject of his own homilies in the first fifteen chapters of Likkutei Muharan. Ultimately, he ties everything up, relating it all to the title verse, and through it to Hanukkah, as well as to many other matters along the way. Hanukkah Sameah to all.


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