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Reb Nachman Explains It All

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

Chaya Rivka Zwolinski
May 25, 2012
Thousands of Breslov Hasidim make a pilgrimage to Reb Nachman's gravesite in the Ukrainian town of Uman every Rosh Hashanah.(Kitra Cahana)
Thousands of Breslov Hasidim make a pilgrimage to Reb Nachman's gravesite in the Ukrainian town of Uman every Rosh Hashanah.(Kitra Cahana)

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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Chaya Rivka Zwolinski, a Brooklyn-based writer and editor, is the co-author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On. She currently writing a book on Breslov thought and addiction.

Chaya Rivka Zwolinski, a Brooklyn-based writer and editor, is the co-author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On. She currently writing a book on Breslov thought and addiction.