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Reb Nachman Explains It All

The new modern translation of Likutey Moharan shows why the Hasidic master is relevant today

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Thousands of Breslov Hasidim make a pilgrimage to Reb Nachman’s gravesite in the Ukrainian town of Uman every Rosh Hashanah. (Kitra Cahana)
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Pilgrimage

Each year before Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jews visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Rodger Kamenetz joined them and brought along a friend: Franz Kafka.

Several years ago, I drove to a local bookstore in the eastern, Ivy-League college town where I lived and schlepped home copies of Tikkun and Commentary magazines, as well as piles of books on feminist re-constructionist Judaism, post-feminist Judaism, goddess Judaism, post-Hasidic Judaism, New-Age Judaism, Humanistic Judaism, green Judaism, and so on, most of which were based on the recommendations of the store owner. It was all disappointing and confirmed my fears: that what I had been taught in my childhood Hebrew school held true—Judaism was political and cultural (and intellectual), not spiritual, which seems to be a widely held belief. But in the pile of dismally doctrinal writings, there was one book, a tiny booklet really, called The Empty Chair, which spoke to my soul. It contained simple teachings, direct quotes from Rebbe Nachman, selected from several Breslov Hasidic texts.

This June, the 15th and final volume of the first English translation of Likutey Moharan (The Collected Teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov), the Rebbe’s greatest work, will be published. A great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the then-radical Hasidic movement, Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810) was recognized even in his day as a great teacher; he attracted his first follower at the age of 13. A great Torah scholar, mystic, adviser, and tzaddik, he electrified listeners with primordial stories, wowed them with his discourses, and encouraged even the average person to be on familiar terms with the Zohar. The translation is the work of Rabbi Chaim Kramer, who has dedicated his life to translating and distributing Breslov works through his publishing company, the Breslov Research Institute. Over 30 years in the making, and over 6,500 pages long, the commentary’s enormous scope is necessary for a 200-year-old text that addresses every aspect of life from the lofty ethereal to the brutally physical.

In Breslov there’s an emphasis on personal development and a refreshing de-emphasis on many types of group-imposed external manifestations of piety. This may be why Breslov has attracted such diverse seekers as Elie Wiesel, Matisyahu, Shuli Rand (of Ushpizin fame), and numerous others—artists, musicians, scientists, lawyers, athletes, and scholars.

Also, because the Rebbe didn’t shy away from boldly addressing popular modern topics, from sex and drugs to music and food, navigating familial and societal pressures, depression and anxiety, meditation and prayer, and of course, spirituality, birth, and death, Breslov is often cited as the body of Hasidic thought most essential to our times. The Rebbe’s trusted student and compiler of his works, Reb Noson Sternhartz, often kvells over the Rebbe’s universalism, as do his followers today.

One doesn’t have to be Hasidic (or even Jewish) to benefit from the study of Breslov Hasidus. About 12 years ago, I began asking “Jewish” questions: If there’s no such thing as a soul, then what’s the point of being a Jew? Is being Jewish about eating bagels, Israel (either for or against), and voting with the Upper West Side, where I was born?

As I read the distillations in The Empty Chair, I experienced déjà-vu, yet the teachings were unlike anything I’d seen before. I would read one simple line and then meditate on it, usually while doing yard work.

There’s nothing very mysterious about free will. You do what you want to do, and you don’t do what you don’t want to do.

Of course this is a minor, almost “folksy” example. But like the rest, it felt vitally important.

Talk to God as you would talk to your best friend. Tell the Holy One everything.

This stunned me. Until the age of 9 or 10, I had talked to God regularly in the woods behind my house, at which point I was informed by eye-rolling adults that God didn’t “really” exist. They explained that all the right people knew that God, if He existed, was a kind of general force, a creative energy beyond our comprehension—He made the Universe and now was taking a well-deserved vacation. I wasn’t special to God because no one was. God’s love was an illusion. I’d been talking to air.

Know! A person walks in life on a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid.

Why hadn’t I heard about Breslov before?

Fast-forward to spring, 2012. I’m a full-fledged Breslover Hasidic woman, now married and living in Brooklyn, having brought at least some of the mixed-cholent of my upbringing with me. And like assorted seekers from a variety of backgrounds, I’m finding answers to problems where I least expected to—in the 200-year-old Jewish teachings of a rabbi from a Ukranian shtetl.

The fact that several important texts, including this new translation and commentary of Likutey Moharan, are published in English, has definitely made it easier. Rabbi Chaim Kramer, who also published The Empty Chair, told me, “Each lesson in Likutey Moharan includes wisdom from the length and breadth of the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar, and the Kabbalah. The scholars who worked on this project had to be expert in all of these areas.”

The Rebbe, in Likutey Moharan and elsewhere, urged all individuals to focus on prayer, especially the personal prayerful meditation known as hisbodedus (a more sophisticated version of what I was doing in the New Jersey woods as a child). Although spiritual highs might be a by-product of the practice, Breslovers do hisbodedus as the means of both forging a healthy relationship with God and achieving a uniquely Jewish form of character refinement and self-actualization.

Rebbe Nachman was also remarkably well tuned-in to what we view as specifically contemporary problems, like addiction. In the 1700s and 1800s, just about every Jewish shtetl-dweller drank schnapps. In Likutey Moharan II, Lesson 26, we find the Rebbe’s insights on the spiritually destructive potential of alcohol abuse (and by extension, any mind-altering substance). “He wasn’t into a person drinking to get a buzz or an externally induced feeling—simcha, joy, should come from oneself,” Yossi Katz, the director of the American office of the Breslov Research Institute, told me. The Rebbe also openly addresses other addictions and compulsions, everything from tobacco to self-destructive and de-humanizing sexual attitudes. He explains the power of the imagination and imagery and how they affect emotions and even reality, taking a close look at the potentially negative power of magical thinking. Depression, sadness, feeling that life is futile—Rebbe Nachman also offers insights into the tenor of our heads and hearts and advice on how to develop emotional fortitude in a world that often doesn’t make sense.

The foundational sources of Likutey Moharan are obviously traditional Jewish ones, but Breslov thought doesn’t shy away from dealing with practical topics, such as health and medicine, nutrition, clothing, and money management. I asked Rabbi Kramer how studying Likutey Moharan has affected his life, personally. “It opens up areas of understanding that are simply not found anywhere else,” he told me. “The profoundness of Rebbe Nachman’s statements, they force you to use your mind to explore everything—and I mean everything.”

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Wonderful article! My experience is very similar. When I first got into Judaism, I read all kinds of stuff. But what really struck me was the little book you mentioned — the Empty Chair! (And also another small Breslov book, The Gentle Weapon, which is also very nice.) I eventually read more and more of Breslov works, and what can I say…they are amazing. I get a special feeling while reading them, which I do not get when reading anything else, a joyful feeling that says, “This is truth!” People should certainly read Likutei Moharan, but some other wonderful books are The Essential Rabbi Nachman, which can be read for free here: http://www.azamra.org/essential.shtml, Advice (Likutei Eitzot), and also any of the books by present-day Breslovers Rabbis Lazer Brody or Shalom Arush (or for that matter Dovid Sears). You don’t have to be a chassidic Jew to study his works — I know there are all kinds of Jews (even non-Jews) who study his works, and try to practice his spiritual derech (hitbodedut, emuna, simcha, etc.) For example, people such as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler and the Chazon Ish have praised Rebbe Nachman’s works.

I wish to comment on Mrs. Zwolinski’s sentence, “They explained that all the right people knew that Gd, if He existed, was a kind of general force, a creative energy beyond our comprehension – He made the universe, and was now taking a well deserved vacation.” I guess I am one of “the right people”. I think Mrs. Zwolinski expressed our thinking very well. Very well. But this is the position of a Deist, not a monotheist – not, anyway, the traditional view of Jewish monotheism. The pivotal question, a question of ultimate concern is…is Gd taking a vacation? Or is Gd “doing His thing, albeit in His own incomparable way, a “mysterious way”? Because if He is…then He does “have a role to play” in our lives here on earth, and we, ideally, do have an “obligation” to act as His chosen people, His representatives, so to speak, here on earth – the covenant stands.

    chayar says:

    Mr. Aaronsmith,
    Thank you so much for your comments, you ask really important questions. 
    The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of the Hasidic movement and Rebbe Nachman’s great grandfather, was instrumental in awakening an awareness in the Jews of his time that God fills and encompasses the world, something which for many centuries had been relegated to the realm of the mystics.
    Perhaps an addendum to your questions might be: If God is great enough to have created the Universe, why isn’t He great enough to care about each and every one of his creations as well as continuously and “personally” be involved with each one of them/us? (In fact it’s a tenet of Hasidic teachings that God is constantly creating the world and that if he should decide to turn his attention away for a moment, it will be as none of “this” ever existed.)
    In this regard, we might perhaps also expand your last question and ask: If we can agree God created the Universe and the life force, and we can agree that He is great enough to be personally involved in each moment of our lives, do we have a sense of gratitude enough to live a life in consonance with this gratitude?
    I suggest that the details of how we choose to live our lives as members of the covenant, while I agree with you that they are extremely, even ultimately of great importance, rest on a foundation of awareness and profound thankfulness that we’ve been given the gift of life from God.
    Chaya Rivka

k56sf says:

Ms. Zwolinskki…thank you….for sharing, and strangely, mirroring my sentiments and experience.

ilona fried says:

I recently ordered “The Empty Chair” and “The Gentle Weapon”…wonderful books, I only wish they’d been designed a bit smaller so they’d fit in my purse.   While I don’t plan to adopt the Hasidic lifestyle, it’s comforting to know that Rebbe Nachman speaks to many of us at different points along the Jewish spectrum. 

    Miha Ahronovitz says:

    You may want to order Rabbi Nachman “Advice” and “Rabbi Nachman Wisdom”

Miha Ahronovitz says:

I own the 14 volumes Likutey Moharan and the notes on each lesson and there is nothing to replace the original. I am surprised Tablet did not write more about Rav Nachman.  The discovery of the “creative life ” – where failure is part of  success – and  Liel Leibovitz article complaining of the trivialization of  great ideas in PEN lectures – is nothing new to a reader of Rabbi Nachman.

The merit goes to Chaim Kramer, the modern day Rabbi Nosssom. He refreshed the modern translation, and kept intact the spirit o of Rabbi Nachman. One can not simply read Rabbi Nachman. I incorporated into my life.  I communicate often Rabbi Yossi Katz and Rabbi Meir Elkabas in Israel. Rabbi Elkabas lessons are on home page of breslov.org . He is my mentor and keeps me going across the narrow bridge.

In addition to Likutei Moharan, I’ve gotten a lot from the short Breslav pamphlets based on it (e.g. “Azamra”).
1 – Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say: Everyone has 2 rebbes — his/her own, and Rebbe Nachman.
2 – G-d “on vacation”? Actually, the traditional prayers say “Ha-m’chadesh b’tuvo b’chal yom tamid” — G-d renews Creation daily; moment to moment really, while remaining within the things created (as the HaBaD text, “Tanya,” teaches).
3 – I’ve also gotten a lot — very in line with Rebbe Nachman’s teachings — from the 20th century writings of Rabbi and Mrs. Morris Lichtenstein.

41953 says:

How about a few more excerpts from Likutey Moharan?  I can’t get a feel for its contents from the ones provided.    

    chayar says:

    41953: 
    Quotes were limited in the interest of space, but here are a couple: 

    From Likutey Moharan:

    By eating propersly –that is, by eating slowly and moderately, not gulping down one’s food –the intellect is thereby enhanced and foolishness is suppressed. But when a person eats like a glutten and a drunkard, this strengthens the hold of foolishness over the intellect…LM, V.I, Lesson 17

    …the enormous benefit of conversing with one’s Creator. Specifically, a person must express himself and speak to his Creator, and he must articulate his good yearnings in speech. LM, V.I, Lesson 31 

    Thoughts are in a person’s power to direct as he wishes to the place that he desires: and it is impossible for two thoughts to exist simultaneously in the mind. Even if at times his thoughts do fly off and wander into other, foreign matters, it is still in a person’s power to forcibly direct them back to [the most beneficial path]. It is exactly like a horse that turns off one path and strays onto another-the person takes him by the reins and forcibly brings him back to the straight path. In just the same way, a person can grab his thoughts… LM, V.II, Lesson 50.(Many people feel that they have no control over their thoughts or that their emotions control their thoughts. The Rebbe says, “no”, we actually are able to control our thoughts. His imagery, of the horse and rider, is quite powerful.)If you’d like to read a bit more, here are some articles which explore Rebbe Nachman’s teachings on individual subjects such as self-esteem, the desire for honor, good-shame vs. bad-shame, the importance of eating, the power of speech. 
    http://breslov.org/author/chaya-rivka-zwolinski/ 

      41953 says:

      The comment on eating properly is sound, but I do not think psychologists would agree that a person can control his thoughts the same way a rider controls a horse.
      As for conversing with one’s Creator, what is novel about believers seeking to communicate with God? Must these thoughts be expressed in words to be heard? That makes no sense to me.

        chayar says:

        Some psychologists might agree that a person has no choice but to be a victim or pawn of his thoughts, however, many don’t. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for example, is an evidence-based therapy method which helps patients gain a measure of direction and control over their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It actually teaches them techniques to do so.
        However, it’s important to be honest: Breslov thought is often in direct  contradiction with many psychological tenets. It’s also important to note that each year, many ideas which were believed to be psychological truths, get overturned, for example the new DSM which is a diagnostic manual for the mental health profession, unleashes tsunamis of debate each time it is updated. (I’m a contributor to PsychCentral.com and am somewhat familiar with this topic.)

          41953 says:

          My point is that controlling one’s thoughts is way harder than Breslov makes it out to be. He just says it can be done, without providing any clues. And many of us do hold contradictory thoughts in our mind at the same time. Sometimes it just can’t be helped and our minds are complex enough to handle it.
          I am afraid Breslov’s wisdom is overrated. Let us remember that the author of the article is a fervent Hasid who reveres the Hasidic rebbes.

          chayar says:

          Thank you for the compliment! I can only hope to live up to it.
          Meanwhile, you asked for quotes. What I posted re: one’s thoughts,  was a tiny excerpt from one longer lesson in a body of work that comprises thousands of pages (some of which, like other great works, presuppose a basic familiarity with foundational concepts). As a method for self-improvement, Breslov most certainly does provide details, even techniques, not mere clues, far beyond the scope of a short article, let alone a comment box. 
          There’s a grand beauty in the ancient teachings of Judaism (as well as the insights of Hasidic thought). 

          41953 says:

          And a great deal of bigotry, misogyny and ignorance too.

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Reb Nachman Explains It All

The new modern translation of Likutey Moharan shows why the Hasidic master is relevant today

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