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Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav

Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav

by Arthur Green

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Judaic Studies

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Tormented Master

A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav

By Arthur Green

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1979 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-6907-1


Childhood and Early Years 1772–1798

The latter half of the eighteenth century was a time of great and radical transformations in the history of European Jewry. At the very same time that Western cultural 'enlightenment' and political emancipation were effecting a revolution in the lives of Jews in Germany and the West, the much larger Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, centered in Poland and the Ukraine, were being swept by a religious movement perhaps no less radical in its transforming character, but one that called for an 'enlightenment' of an entirely different sort. That movement, which came to share the name Hasidism with several other pietistic revivals in the history of Judaism, had emerged from small circles of contemplatives and enthusiasts who made their appearance in the Ukrainian backwater of Podolia in the seventeen-forties and fifties to become a dominant force in the lives of large sections of East European Jewry by the turn of the nineteenth century. At once mystical and popularizing, Hasidism sought, by means of a daring simplification of the long and often abstruse Kabbalistic tradition, to place the goals of contemplative religion within the reach of every Jew. While specific formulations of Hasidic teaching could vary greatly from one master to another, it may be said that the early movement was characterized by a sense of the presence of God in all places and in every moment, a belief that all of human life is a way to His service, and an emphasis on enthusiastic prayer (as opposed to study) as the central act of the religious life.

Though hardly the creation of a single individual, the forces that made for Hasidism crystalized around mid-century in the figure of Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba'al Shem Tov (1700–1760). The BeSHT, as he is also called, was the first widely recognized leader of the nascent movement, and all later Hasidic teachings claim to be authentic continuations of the path he had first proclaimed. Early Hasidism was characterized by a unique series of charismatic leaders, many of them disciples of the BeSHT or hisSuccessor, who were known as rebbes ("teachers" or "masters"), zaddiqim ("righteous ones"), or, especially among the folk, simply as gute yidn ("good Jews"). By the third or fourth generation of the movement, Hasidic leadership had tended to become dynastic, the son or leading disciple of the zaddiq automatically expected to serve as leader of an already established Hasidic community.

The year 1772 was for several reasons a crucial turning point in the history of Hasidism. It was early in that year that the first bans against the hasidim were proclaimed by the communal leaders of Vilna and Brody, marking the outbreak of a controversy that was to have a deep and lasting effect upon the inner life of the movement. It was the year of the first partition of Poland, by means of which the major Hasidic centers were to be divided between the Russian and Austrian realms. That year also saw the death of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Miedzyrzec, the successor to the BeSHT, and the last single figure whose authority was acknowledged by most of the Hasidic world. After 1772, each of the disciples of Dov Baer was free to teach and practice Hasidism as he saw fit, thus giving rise to the varied and often contradictory styles of Hasidic life as lived in such centers as Berdichev and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Lezajsk in Galicia, and Vitebsk and Karlin in White Russia. The group that had seen its center as Miedzyrzec was never again to organize under the leadership of any one man or to lend universal credence to any single religious path; each of the disciples was now on his own.

It was also in 1772, on the Sabbath, the first day of Nisan (April 4), that Nahman the son of Simhah, later to be known to the world as Nahman of Bratslav, was born.

The world Nahman first saw around him was little affected by the great events of that year. He was born in Medzhibozh, the home of the Ba'al Shem Tov and the original capital of the Hasidic world, and into the family of the Ba'al Shem Tov himself, a family still trying to maintain its place as the first family of the Hasidic community. Nahman's mother, Feige, was the granddaughter of the BeSHT, the daughter of his daughter Odel. Feige's two brothers, Moshe Hayyim Ephraim of Sudilkov (ca. 1737–1800) and Barukh of Medzhibozh (ca. 1750–1812), were among the important leaders of Ukrainian Hasidism in the latter decades of the eighteenth century.

Podolia, the original central Ukrainian heartland of Hasidism, was already too deeply under Hasidic influence by 1772 for the bans to have had much effect. Even in Volhynia, to the north and west of Podolia, such large towns as Ostrog and Korets, not far from Brody itself, had become important Hasidic centers. This area was not dominated primarily by disciples of Dov Baer, who had chosen rather to conquer new territories for Hasidism. The spiritual leadership of Podolia and adjacent eastern Volhynia was left largely to the family of the BeSHT and to the disciples of such more-independent figures as Pinhas of Korets (1728–1791) and Yehiel Mikhel of Zloczow (1721–1784). The elder of Nahman's illustrious uncles served as rabbi in Sudilkov and was well known as a preacher. His collected homilies, published under the title Degel Mahaneh Ephraim (Korets, 1810), are generally considered, along with the writings of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, to provide the most nearly authentic source for the teachings of the BeSHT, free from the influences of the Miedzyrzec school. Apparently a scholarly and retiring figure, he was highly critical of those he considered to be false zaddiqim, a criticism that may have affected his impressionable young nephew. He left the personal and political leadership in the hands of his more charismatic younger brother, Barukh.

Barukh of Medzhibozh was neither an original thinker nor a particularly skillful preacher. Those of his teachings that have come down to us preserve the terse, epigrammatic quality of the sayings of the BeSHT and are unaffected either by the greater theological profundity of Miedzyrzec or the homiletical skill of the Toledot and the Degel. Their power lies in the new and often radical twist given to a Biblical verse or a rabbinic saying; one has the impression that their true power could only be appreciated in the setting in which they were offered, and that they do not well survive the transition into written record. Barukh was, from all reports, a towering figure in terms of emotional impact; he could arouse great love or strike terror in the hearts of those who drew near to him. Zevi Hirsch of Zhidachov (d. 1831) recalled once nearly going out of his mind when he was witness to the burning intensity with which Barukh recited the Song of Songs on the Sabbath eve. His style of Hasidic leadership emphasized those aspects of his grandfather's teachings that had been most important to the simple village Jews of the Ukraine among whom the BeSHT had achieved his first success: healing, for which he could use both amulet and blessing, an emphasis on the virtues of simple piety, ecstatic prayer, and a certain healthy acceptance of the foibles of ordinary humans. To these, Barukh added the establishment of an impressive princely court, complete to the point of hiring a well-known jester, Hershele Ostropolier, who perhaps served to offset the overbearing presence of the master himself. It was in this setting that Nahman had his first exposure to the Hasidic world.

Nahman's father's family was hardly less distinguished than that of his mother. His paternal grandfather Nahman of Horodenka (Gorodenka) (d. 1772), was a member of the original circle around the Baal Shem Tov. The fact that he is quoted by both Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye and Moshe Hayyim Ephraim of Sudilkov shows that he was held in high esteem in the Hasidic world. In 1764 he settled in Erez Israel, leading the first Hasidic settlement in Tiberias along with Menahem Mendel of Peremyshlyany. The family of Nahman of Horodenka traced its ancestry to the MaHaRaL of Prague (d. 1609), and through him claimed descent from the House of David, a claim that may have had some effect on the mind of his grandson. Nahman of Bratslav's own father, Simhah, who stayed behind when the elder Nahman went to the Holy Land, is described in late Bratslav sources as a saintly but retiring figure. Unfortunately, we know nothing more of Nahman's father.

Much of the information we have concerning Nahman's childhood falls within the domain of legendary account. Before retelling the legends of Nahman's early years, a few words are in order concerning the nature of this material and its value for the purposes of critical biography. We have already sought to explain why Nathan is so concerned with the fine details of his master's life, and have generally evaluated him as a highly reliable chronicler. In the case of these childhood tales, however, it is appropriate to recall that Nathan did not meet Nahman until 1802, when the master was in his thirtieth year. Anything he records from before that date is at best second-hand, told him by Nahman, by members of the family, or by long-term acquaintances. Nathan must thus in this case be seen as collector and editor, rather than actual recorder of the materials with which we are dealing, and his reliability is of a different sort than it is with regard to the later period in Nahman's life.

Legends surrounding the childhood of a future great rabbi or Hasidic master are by no means lacking in the folk-literature of East European Jews. Generally these followed rather standardized form, emphasizing precociousness in studies, a certain aloofness from the playful concerns of ordinary children, and the seeking out of the company of elders and scholars. Of Nahman's older contemporary we are told, for example:

The boy Shne'ur Zalman [of Liadi] was a wonder in his studies, outshining all his contemporaries, the wisest person of his generation ... when he was sixteen years old he had been through the entire Talmud with all its commentaries, as well as the earlier and later legal codes ...

Such was the ideal male child of Polish-Jewish society: a miniature of the ideal man. The great revolution in consciousness wrought by the Hasidic movement is nowhere more clearly seen than in the portrayal of the Ba'al Shem Tov's childhood in the Shiv ey ha-BeSHT. The young Israel ben Eliezer is there depicted as one who had little use for formal education. He had to be forcibly kept in school, and when the teacher's back was turned he would flee the schoolroom, only to be found later wandering in the woods. Thus is the anti-intellectual strain of early Hasidism lent respectability: even in his childhood the master was one who knew that God was not first to be sought in the world of books.

Had the tales of Nahman's childhood followed either of these established patterns, we would tend to dismiss them as merely imitative fabrications. The fact is, however, that neither of these strains is dominant in the Bratslav legends, and the young Nahman here portrayed emerges as a quite distinctive and rather troubled person, neither the little scholar nor the romantic wanderer in the forest. The childhood depicted here is that of a pained young ascetic, one who at an early age knew the difficulties of the religious life and struggled with all his strength to overcome them. This image, standing in direct contrast to the counsel offered by many other teachers of early Hasidism, is as much a pronouncement of the new path of Bratslav as is the Shivhey ha-BeSHT depiction an announcement of the Ba'al Shem's teachings. Here it is suffering that is to serve as the mark of the zaddiq; only a childhood filled with pain and inner torment could create the man around whom Bratslav was to be fashioned. To state it differently, one might say that this is a childhood which totally fit the very particular adult Nahman of whom the tales were told; to what extent they actually record the events that led to the formation of that adult and to what extent they are backward projections, reconstructing the child on the basis of the man, is something we will never fully know.

Externally, we are told, Nahman was a happy and even playful child. To all eyes he seemed to enjoy the games of his companions. This, however, was but a cover intended for public view; within himself he was concerned only with a constant search for the nearness of God. The true focus of his life was to be found neither in childish play nor in the books of the schoolroom; his energies were all centered around a life of intense and pain-filled prayer. The young Nahman was not satisfied with the prescribed prayers of the liturgy; he would compose his own prayers, in the Yiddish that he spoke, and through them he would plead to God to draw him near to His service. Alone in the attic of his parents' house, he poured out his heart in insatiable longing, a longing filled with an overwhelming awareness of his distance from his Creator. This longing was always to remain with him and was to become a cornerstone of his unique religious path. Of these childhood years in Medzhibozh Nathan writes:

He would often speak to God in heartfelt supplications and pleas ... but nevertheless he felt he wasn't being noticed or heard at all. On the contrary, it seemed to him that he was being pushed away from the service of God in all kinds of ways, as though he were utterly unwanted. Days and years passed by, and still he was far from Him; he had not attained any sense of nearness at all ... Despite all this, he would fortify himself and refuse to leave his place. At times he would become depressed, when he saw that despite all his begging and pleading to draw near to God's service, no attention was being paid him at all. At such times he would cease his private prayers for a number of days. Then he would catch himself and be overcome with shame for having called the goodness of God into question ... and he would begin again to plead before the Lord as before. All this happened to him any number of times.

Not surprisingly, the young Nahman's prayer life seemed to center particularly around the Psalms. He would go through the Psalter and seek out all those passages that reflect a sense of crying out to God. He trained himself to recite all the outcries of the Psalms in one sitting, leaving aside all the rest. The very terms which are so frequently used to characterize Nahman's devotions, hitqarevut and hitrahaqut ("nearness" and "distance"), and so fill the literature of Bratslav Hasidism, are hardly to be found in the writings of other Hasidic masters in the eighteenth century. They are rooted directly in the Psalter, and in those very passages the child Nahman chose for his private prayers.

The life of prayer was supplemented by various ascetic practices, acts at which the founder of Hasidism might have looked askance. When he was six years old (if we are to believe the reports), Nahman would go out in the midst of cold winter nights to visit the grave of the Ba'al Shem Tov "to ask of him that he might help him draw near to God." He would then go and immerse himself in the outdoor miqweh in order to chastize himself. In this same period of early childhood, we are told, he sought to overcome the pleasure he took in eating. Realizing that he could not do without eating altogether, he began to eliminate chewing, swallowing his food in large pieces so that he should not enjoy the taste. He was forced to abandon this practice when his throat became swollen and presumably the matter caught the attention of his mother's watchful eye.


Excerpted from Tormented Master by Arthur Green. Copyright © 1979 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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