Originally published in Journal of Jewish Studies 31:2.
Arthur Green, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (Judaic Studies Series). University of Alabama Press, 1979. viii, 395 pp. $27.50.
Nahman of Bratslav, the eponymous hero of Arthur Green’s fine study, established a new branch of Hasidism in opposition, to some extent, at least to the teachings of his great-grandfather, the Besht, founder of the movement. The late J. G. Weiss, the outstanding exponent of Nahman’s philosophy, upon whom Green relies heavily but not uncritically, once said to me that in his opinion Nahman was the most penetrating religious thinker Jewry has produced in the last few hundred years. Whether or not this verdict is accepted, there can be no doubt that the struggle in the soul of this strange, extremely gifted man between traditionalism and the challenges of the new, between faith and reason, and between asceticism and passion, makes him surprisingly modern in spite of his belonging to the mediaeval world of religious discourse. Granted the many differences between the two, he reminds us more than anyone else of ‘the gloomy Dane’, Kierkegaard.
Green’s work is based on the most accurate scholarly research. Quite naturally he draws on Freudian psychology in trying to delineate this very complex character who can only be understood if the attempt is made to uncover the unconscious motivations behind the ideas and the stories for which he is famous. Green is not unaware that such an exercise is fraught with risk from the scholarly point of view, but rightly suggests that for all the problems to which it gives rise, this is the only approach suitable in such a case. (Some readers might conclude that ‘case’ is the appropriate word here.) He is careful, however, to avoid psychological jargon and writes so clearly and so well that Nahman emerges as a figure to be reckoned with by all who are interested in the vagaries and mysteries of the movement of the religious spirit. A man who dedicated his powerful mind to decrying the use of the intellect in matters of faith and who taught that religious doubts are endemic in the human condition (because, according to the Lurianic Kabbalah, God must ‘withdraw’ from the world if there is to be a world at all) certainly speaks to the religious perplexities of our age.
As Green points out, Bratslaver Hasidim are still active today, 170 years after the master’s death. Unlike other Hasidic leaders, Nahman founded no dynasty. On the jacket cover of this book a photograph is reproduced of Nahman’s chair which stands today in the Bratslav synagogue in Jerusalem as testimony of Nahman’s continued presence among his people. A sign warns the newcomer: “This is the seat of our master, of blessed memory. You are severely warned not to sit in it”. It is for this reason that the other Hasidim called the Bratslavers ‘the dead Hasidim’, that is, Hasidim without a Rebbe; to which, of course, the Bratslavers’ retort is that they do have a Rebbe, as much alive for them as he was during his stay on earth and perhaps even more so. All very odd and Jewishly unconventional but, as J. G. Weiss suggested in his inaugural lecture as Professor at University College London, if a Nahman of Bratslav could have won the loyalty of many thousands of devout Jews, it goes to show how precarious it is to speak of ‘normative Judaism’.
Leo Baeck College, London