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.
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.