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Kamenetz Defended by Dead Subject

Reb Nachman of Breslov attacks bad review of Nextbook Press’s ‘Burnt Books’

Liel Leibovitz
February 07, 2011
Followers of Nachman at Breslov, Ukraine, in 2006.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Followers of Nachman at Breslov, Ukraine, in 2006.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Death might shield us from many things—federal taxes, say, or distant relatives—but book reviews, it turns out, reach beyond the grave. Just ask Rabbi Nachman, the renowned Jewish scholar, mystic, and founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement. Despite having died more than 200 years ago, the rabbi dispatched a sharp letter, appearing this morning on the blog of one D.G. Myers (and originally sent, according to Myers, to Nextbook Press editor Jonathan Rosen) and pertaining to a decidedly negative review by Myers published in the February issue of Commentary.

The book reviewed was Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books, a Nextbook Press title that argues that Nachman and Franz Kafka had lives that, while different in many ways, took on haunting similarities. Myers, however, did not find Kamenetz’s premise haunting, and judged Kamenetz an unworthy investigator into Jewish mysteries.

In response, and writing from the afterlife, the rabbi begins his letter by praising—sarcastically, one imagines—Myers’s decision to focus on Kamenetz’s last book, 1994’s The Jew in the Lotus, a manifesto on the intertwined nature of Judaism and Buddhism. “It is important to make Kamenetz’s seventeen-year-old criticism of Jewish institutions, which doesn’t appear in Burnt Books, seem like a modern American phenomenon born of ill will and ignorance and not part of the self-examination that is as old as the Prophets and really even older,” Nachman writes. “Only the very very learned can be critical of the very very unlearned. Dr. Johnson—who I’ve become quite friendly with here in the afterlife (what a head for Talmud!)—was wrong when he said you don’t have to be a carpenter to criticize a table.”

Other bits of Myers’s review similarly pleased, or rather “pleased,” the dead rabbi. “I’m also glad you didn’t mention in your excellent review the part of the book where Rodger K. feels shame at his own inability to read aloud from the psalms in Hebrew,” Nachman wrote.

Shrewd not to reveal his own dissatisfaction with his Jewish education, his own desire to know more, just as Kafka desired to know more and to learn more in a literal straightforward way alongside all his deeper spiritual struggles. It would only have stirred up misplaced sympathy for the author, who is describing his book as if it were the beginning of the journey and not the end of the journey—and what kind of guide admits he doesn’t really know the way? Sure Dante got lost in a dark wood, but he was Catholic.

A Letter from Nachman [A Commonplace Blog]
Related: Burnt Books

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.