Jewish Thought and History

Fed By the Waters of Controversy: R. Nahman of Bratslav on the Dynamics of Dispute

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Yehuda Fogel

The Rebbe said: “How could there not be opposition to me, seeing as I am traveling a new path which no man has ever travelled before. It is a very old path, in fact, and yet it is completely new.”
                                                                                                            – Hayyei Moharan

The creation of a new path in a past-centered community will invariably encounter opposition, and R. Nahman of Bratslav’s old-new path has indeed met with dispute from its 18th century origins until at least the 20th century[1]. Such opposition is notable even in the controversy-filled world of Hasidut, in which internal and external disputes have often led to attempted excommunications, financial persecution, political intimidation, and sometimes even physical threats.[2] Due to the intensity of the opposition, as well as the fact that much of Bratslav writing draws upon conversations or comments of R. Nahman, early Bratslav literature is replete with references to controversy. The views of R. Nahman on these debates, and on the very notion of debate or dispute, are particularly interesting as they feature an intentional internalization of challenging external circumstances in creating a theology of controversy.


R. Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810) founded Breslov Hasidut. A great-grandson of R. Israel Baal Shem Tov through his mother, Feige, Nahman was born into a Hasidic dynastic family in Mezhibyzh, Ukraine. His uncles, R. Barukh of Mezhibyzh and R. Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sudalkov, were two of the most important Hasidic leaders of the time, and his paternal grandfather and namesake, R. Nahman of Horedenka, was a student of the Baal Shem Tov and member of his inner circle.[3] As the younger Nahman grew up in Mezhibyzh, a city with strong Hasidic influence where his uncle Barukh held court, Nahman was raised with a strong education in both the revealed and hidden parts of the Torah. By some accounts, he studied Tanakh, Talmud, Zohar, ethical works such as Reshit Hokhmah, and Ein Yaakov.[4] He embarked on midnight meditations by the grave of the Baal Shem Tov, a pilgrimage tradition he continued upon his return to Mezhiybyzh.

Nahman entered an arranged marriage with a young woman named Sosia soon after his bar mitzvah, and, following the cultural norm, then moved to her father’s village of Usyatin, some 200 miles from Mezhibyzh. In his departure to this small town, he had the opportunity to leave the pure yet pressurized air of Mezhibyzh. He later ruminated fondly about his years in Usyatin, commenting, “How good it was for me here; with every step I felt the taste of Eden… [when I] had been alone somewhere in the woods or fields…[I] would come back to a completely new world.”

Much of what we know of Nahman’s adolescent years comes from Shivhei ha-Ran, a biographical work written by R. Nathan, R. Nahman’s leading student, most of which consists of quotes from R. Nahman about his early years and subsequent trip to the Land of Israel. Interestingly, although classic hagiographic writings in the Hasidic cannon tend to idealize the child tzaddik, often emphasizing early signs of future righteousness, this work instead emphasizes the struggles and challenges that marked Nahman’s childhood and adolescence.[5] For example, Nathan writes that

No act in the service of God came easily to him; everything can come only as a result of great and oft-repeated struggle. He rose and fell thousands and thousands of times, truly beyond all counting. It was terribly difficult for him even to enter into the service of God, to accept the yoke of His service. He would enter into worship for a certain number of days, then he would experience a fall.

Although wracked with failure, Nahman lived the dictum “the righteous fall seven times, yet get up” (Proverbs 24:16) on a constant basis, and the unending collapses didn’t deter the young Nahman from persisting. As Nathan writes:

He would go back, start over, and then fall again. Finally, after many such cycles, he would gain strength and decide that he would remain committed to God’s service forever, allowing nothing in the world to lead him astray. From that time forth his heart would be strongly with God, but even afterwards he would constantly undergo countless rises and falls.

It was his way to start anew each time… At times he had several such new starts within one day, for even within a single day he could fall several times and have to begin all over again.

This informs our understanding of the early roots of the ubiquity, or perhaps necessity, of inner struggle in spiritual growth in the thought and life of R. Nahman.

The ever-present specter of struggle in Nahman’s life crystallized in the event of Nahman’s journey to the Land of Israel in 1789-1790, an endeavor in which he encountered astounding challenges, and that was later portrayed by Nahman as paradigmatic of all spiritual journeys.[6] The obstacles Nahman met weren’t simple spiritual dilemmas or pitfalls, but fantastically complex impediments such as shipwrecks, kidnapping, pirates, storms, and wars. Commenting later on the trip, Nathan notes that

the power of the great obstacles which he had to overcome in going to the Land of Israel cannot be imagined, measured, or told… As he said, it would have been impossible for him to get to the Land of Israel without these degradations and this smallness (katnut)…the smallness and degradations saved him.

His appreciation of the necessity of obstacles was so extreme that he desired to put himself in danger: “Know that I want to place myself in danger, even great and terrible danger.”

In 1790, following his return from Israel, Nahman moved to Medvedevka and began to function more formally as a rebbe to local admirers. Here his renown grew, and he accepted the stipend that many Hasidic leaders took from their followers. In 1800, he moved to Zlotopolye, and so began what was perhaps the most conflict-ridden era of his life. Nahman’s primary antagonist was R. Aryeh Leib of Shpole, or the Shpole Zeide, as he was affectionately called, who had served in the synagogue of Zlotopolye before moving to the nearby town of Shpole. After a Yom Kippur argument in which Nahman berated the hazan for praying with improper motivations, the Zeide entered Zlotopolye and condemned Nahman, setting off a battle that would result in attempted excommunication of Nahman and persecution of anything associated with him or his followers. While both the actual content of the debate and its underlying factors are widely contested, it is clear that this oppression influenced many Bratslav Hasidim and Nahman.[7]

After just two years in Zlotopolye, Nahman moved to Bratslav, and felt impacted by the difference between an accepting spiritual environment and a hostile one.[8] Here many of his most idyllic and optimistic thoughts were stated, such as:

[If] the world…were to hear but a single one of my teachings with the melody and dance that belong to it, they would simply pass out: their souls would just leave them in this great and wondrous joy. Even the animals and blades of grass would be affected.

Although Nahman lived in Zaslowe and Uman for short periods of time, he mainly remained in Bratslav for the remainder of his life, until moving to Uman in 1810, a move that came in the wake of a house fire and a worsening medical condition. It is surprising that Nahman chose to live in Uman, a city with a strong maskilic influence, and in the former residence of a well-known maskil, Nathan Rapoport. Nahman’s disciples questioned his decision to live in a city and house of such impure enlightenment influence, and Nahman responded, noting that “since tzaddikim won’t come near me, I must draw these others near. Perhaps out of them I’ll make truly good people.” As so much of Nahman’s life was spent deriding maskilic thought, intellectualism, and the medical profession,[9] his choice to live in a place of such rampant intellectualism, and to seek medical attention, is certainly perplexing. Nahman’s rapid and radical shift in approach may indicate a need for newness and conflict that Nahman felt at this stage. After a life of conflict and ever-shifting frontiers, Nahman may have felt understimulated by the accepting environment of Bratslav. The tale of Nahman’s life had been marked by emotional and spiritual extremes, often in the form of growth birthed by opposition and conflict, and the end of his life was to be no different. With this historical background in mind, we now turn to Nahman’s writings on controversy. Although conceptually varied, these writings indicate that Nahman’s broader views on the importance of controversy and conflict are rooted in his biography, both in his emphasis on struggles in early childhood, and on disagreements with other rabbinic leaders. His theology of conflict sees struggle as essential on the personal and cosmic planes. It is necessary both for the individual to experience inner conflicts and for these conflicts to play out on a global stage. I will present three distinct approaches of Nahman towards the necessity for mahloket and, using Arthur Green’s model of Bratslavian psychoanalysis, will seek to understand the deeper roots from which Nahman’s appreciation for mahloket arise.

R. Nahman’s Writings on Controversy

Although rabbinic and Talmudic traditions affirm the necessity of healthy debate, R. Nahman’s perspective is significant both in the degree to which he spiritualizes debate as well as in his stated reasoning in doing so. A full analysis of the traditional approach exceeds the purview of the present essay, but a short survey of an oft-discussed Mishnah (Avot 5:17) and analysis thereof is in order:

Every controversy that is for the sake of Heaven will endure; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What kind of controversy is for the sake of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And [what kind of controversy is] not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korah…

The commentator Obadiah ben Abraham Bartenura defines an argument “for the sake of Heaven” as aiming for the truth, in contrast to an argument that stems from a “striving for control and love of victory.” Should their intentions be for truth, the argument will “endure,” in that those arguing will continue to exist, unlike the quick demise of Korah. Continuity of life is a worthy result of or possibly a reward for truthful debate, as the ability to continue with the creation of life amidst dispute speaks to the pure intentions of those engaged in such debate. As such, the Talmud points out that “even though these forbid and these permit, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, and Beit Hillel from Beit Shammai.” Within Bartenura’s scheme, the participants in the dispute will “endure,” though the dispute itself may not. In contrast, Rabbeinu Yonah comments that the state of dispute will continue forever, in that “today they will argue about one thing and tomorrow about another, and argument will endure and continue between them all the days of their lives.” However, Rabbeinu Yonah ultimately doesn’t indicate whether such a dynamic is optimal or otherwise. Yom Tov Lipman Heller has no such ambivalence; in his commentary, the Tosafot Yom Tov, he cites the Talmudic position that mahloket increased in the Jewish people because the students of Hillel and Shammai “did not study/serve as much as they needed.”[10] He then points out that the text lacks parallelism, in that the Mishnah gave examples to both sides of the former dispute, Hillel and Shammai, but only one side of the latter dispute, Korah. Tosafot Yom Tov explains that the Mishnah intentionally omitted Moshe and Aharon, Korah’s disputants, for “their intentions were for Heaven, and they had no element of acting not for the sake of Heaven.” Whereas Hillel and Shammai had relatively pure intentions in the broad sense, but not in every instance and context, Moshe and Aharon engaged in debate solely for the sake of Heaven, without any other motivation. Thus even the Mishnah’s paradigmatic participants in a debate of pure intent (Hillel and Shammai) are lacking in their purity of service.

This survey of interpretations indicates that the standard, traditional view is far from lauding mahloket as growth-inducing or faith-building! In fact, Reish Lakish is recorded in the Talmud as stating that “one shouldn’t perpetuate mahloket, as Rav says: ‘Anyone who perpetuates a mahloket violates a prohibition.’” Based on this Talmudic dictum, many early counters[11] of mitzvot include a prohibition of mahloket in their lists of the 613 biblical commandments. Maimonides may go so far as to say that disputed matters cannot be understood as stemming directly from Sinai to the same degree as undisputed matters.[12] In any event, the rabbinic image of debate is a far cry from Nahman’s portrayal of mahloket.

Nahman’s first and least radical approach addresses the potential for positive growth engendered by dispute. Due to the conversational origins of much of Bratslav literature, many of the comments attributed to Nahman about his disagreements are vague yet confident, such as when he says to his students “come and let us give strength to those deceptive ones, for through the mahloket that they have with us we arrive at great things, and they do us a great good. Through mahloket one comes to understand great things.” This portrayal of confidence allows Nahman to take control of the narrative of debate in his inner circle, where he casts the debate not as one castigating him but as a necessary step towards understanding. Elsewhere he says that mahloket elevates a person, because a person is like the tree of the field (Deut. 20:19), and as a tree in the ground cannot raise itself, or grow, unless water flows over it and raises and carries it, so too “mahloket is called ‘water’…”[13] This alternative to the more traditional rabbinic analogy of Torah to water perhaps reflects that mahloket, like Torah, is crucial not only for understanding, but for any growth.

Although disputes between the Hasidim and Mitnagdim, as well as between Hasidic groups, were ubiquitous in the early 19th century, Bratslav is notable for the intensity and persistence of these disputes. The Zeide’s opposition was only the first major stage of controversy for Bratslav Hasidim; a second stage began in the 1830s with the opposition of R. Moshe Tsvi Giterman of Savran, in what may have been an even more extreme conflict. The Savraner, as he was referred to, castigated R. Nathan, the student-scribe of R. Nahman and subsequent leader of the Bratslav movement.[14] The third stage was spearheaded in the 1860s by the Twersky families, whose followers were also notably violent in their persecution of Bratslav Hasidim praying at Nahman’s grave on Rosh ha-Shanah.[15] In an attempt to explain the persistence of controversy surrounding Bratslav already in his day, Nahman explains that

all great tzaddikim reach their stage and stand there, and I, thank God, at every moment become another person… a tzaddik is called a tree, and has roots and branches, etc. Before he reaches his stage, he needs mahloket, as mahloket is like water… but I need for there to always be constant mahloket, as I move at every time and every moment from level to level. If I knew that I stand at this moment as I was in the hour before I wouldn’t want myself in such a world, whatsoever.

While some might see controversy as necessary for a particular stage of growth, for Nahman it is an eternal necessity, propelling one’s dynamic and ever-changing identity forward. In order to be forever different, forever growing, there must be constant dispute. This is tied to Nahman’s deep need for newness, as is apparent in the stunning declaration attributed to Nahman that “one should never be an old person (adam zaken). Not a righteous old person nor a pious old person, for a person must constantly renew oneself, start anew again and again.”[16] This conceptual link between constant renewal and dispute is the background for Arthur Green’s claim that the underlying motivation in the debate between Nahman and the Zeide was a struggle in leadership of the new path of the young Nahman as opposed to the established leadership of the aged Zeide.[17] Green sees the dispute as a generational battle between a young upstart and the elderly holdovers of the mainstream. In any case, it is clear that Nahman understood mahloket to be crucial to the dynamism of his growth.

Although Nahman established the necessity of dispute, the mechanics through which dispute catalyzes progress demand attention. Nahman outlines two different ways in which controversy effects growth. One way in which dispute advances growth appears later in Likkutei Moharan. Nahman says pithily that

When they object (holekin) to a person, they chase after him, and he runs away each time to the Blessed God. And with all that they oppose him more, he comes closer to the Blessed God, for He is in every place… it emerges that every place he runs to the Blessed God…

In this poetically powerful piece, Nahman paints a picture of an individual running from the world towards the embrace of an all-present immanent good. The very act of running away brings one closer to God, and thus objections present the motivation to run.

In a second description of the process of growth catalyzed by dispute, Nahman continues the mahloket-water analogy, describing the process through which disagreement leads to growth in the entity of Torah and its scholarship.[18] “From every mahloket, a book (sefer) is made,” for responsa literature are legalistic works in which questions and answers are exchanged.[19] Through disagreements between Torah scholars, more Torah is created. However, in these circumstances mahloket results from a lack of faith in scholars, and is thus remedied by according honor to religious scholarship.[20] While this element of mahloket is birthed by a lack of faith in Torah scholarship as a whole, Nahman then speaks of a different mahloket that affects tzaddikim, or righteous people, whose lack of faith isn’t in Torah as a whole, but rather in their own individual Torah. He writes:

There are those that have mahloket due to the fact that they lack faith in themselves, and they don’t believe in the originality of their own Torah… and they don’t believe that God takes great pleasure from their original ideas, and through that with which they don’t have faith in their own originality. They are lazy in their originalities, and therefore they have mahloket and through this they repent and return to consider their own originalities and make from this a book…

The process of repentance entails the tzaddik returning to the belief in his (or her) originality, and in the creative brilliance of his own Torah insights, followed by the further production of more Torah as a result of this newfound belief in self. Through self-doubt and controversy, the tzaddik thus comes to believe in himself more, and create more books.

This process fits well into Nahman’s larger stress on the importance of belief in the self, as is expressed in the powerful declaration that:

You must have faith in yourself. You must have enough faith in God’s goodness to believe that you are important to Him. Have faith that you too are precious in God’s eyes. So great is God’s goodness that each and every person is great and important in His eyes. Being humble does not mean you must put yourself in a state of constricted consciousness. Constantly ask God to bring you to true humility and to have faith in yourself. Some righteous people suffer opposition only because they do not have faith in themselves!

This emphasis on belief and appreciation of the self may help explain the relevance and popularity of Nahman’s teaching in the contemporary Jewish scene, as well as the broader autobiographical affirmation of the real and present struggles of religious life. This struggle is expressed by the complexity of Nahman’s thoughts on self-belief, as Arthur Green forcefully highlights the presence of Nahman’s own feelings of doubt and inadequacy that may shape the background for Nahman’s insistence on self-belief. As evidence, Green points to Nathan’s comment that:

On several occasions he (Nahman) himself repeated the words of those who say that here there is no middle path. Either he is, God forbid, just as those who oppose him say he is…or, if not, he is a true tzaddik. In that case he is uniquely awesome and wondrous, to an extent which cannot be encompassed by the human mind.[21]

As such, Nahman’s thoughts on the disputes that surround the tzaddik as stemming from the tzaddik’s self-doubt may be at least somewhat autobiographical in nature; perhaps the controversies are his own fault, the result of not engaging deeply enough in his own wellsprings. These disputes must in turn motivate further creativity in Nahman’s own Torah. This concludes the analysis of Nahman’s first approach to dispute; dispute necessitates growth, either through “running away” to God, or by strengthening one’s self-belief and Torah output.

In his second approach, Nahman describes mahloket as more than a catalyst of growth, but as a condition endemic to the life of the tzaddik, which demands misunderstanding in its very nature. Nahman says that

It is necessary that objections be raised with regards to the tzaddikim, for the tzaddikim are imitating God, as is known. Just as there are objections to God, so there must be objections to the tzaddik who imitates Him.

With regards to these objections to God he liked to say: Of course there have to be questions about Him; this is only fitting to His exalted state. For it is of the very nature of His greatness that He be beyond our minds’ grasp. It is impossible that we understand His conduct with our intellect. There must be objections raised to Him… for if He conducted Himself as our minds dictate, our minds would indeed be equal to His own!

Within this framework, the necessity for controversy is not due to the potential for growth fostered by mahloket, but rather is a result, or function, of the inherent incomprehensibility of the tzaddik. As a reflection or imitator of the divine, the tzaddik cannot be understood, and questions and objections will therefore be raised against the tzaddik as an expression of the misunderstanding fundamental to the tzaddik’s greatness. This understanding seems to be autobiographical as well, as Nahman says that “there are those who are against me yet they don’t even know me at all.” Throughout much of Nahman’s life, he maintained a preference for the unknown over the known, for the mystical over the rational. In a classically stunning formulation, Nahman said of himself that “his non-knowledge was a greater innovation than his knowledge.” This approach is founded upon the principle that ‘the purpose of knowledge is non-knowledge,’ a concept ubiquitous throughout Kabbalistic and Hasidic literature but emphasized particularly in Bratslav literature.[22] Nahman’s larger sentiment can be summed up in the statement that “I do not want to believe in a God I understand,” and, as such, objections are perceived as an outgrowth of essential incomprehensibility.[23] However, Nahman notes that even incomprehensibility is incomprehensible, as although one can realize his or her own ignorance in one area, there is always a higher level that has not yet been touched.[24]

Nahman’s third approach to dispute understands mahloket between scholars to be a crucial aspect of the creation of the world. Through the intellectual empty space, the vacuity of existence, that exists between Torah scholars in dispute, the world was able to be created, for if not for (perceived?) emptiness of divinity the world would be overcome with the Infinite Light. Similarly, Nahman says that

if all Torah scholars were as one, there would not be space for the creation of the world, but only through the mahloket between them, as they disagree with each other, and each draws himself to a different side, through this an empty space is created between them.

Unity of Torah understanding is thus parallel to the grand unity of Divinity that has the capability of overwhelming the world. In the separation of opinions, which parallels the constriction of light, the world is able to exist, and scholars are able to continue creating worlds through the words of their mouth.[25] This passage appears in Likkutei Moharan 64, a much-discussed piece in which Nahman discusses the Hallal ha-Panuy, the vacuity of existence in which God’s (non)existence is necessary for the existence of the world. As such, this approach to mahloket is the most theologically grand of Nahman’s, as mahloket is now important not only for the growth of an individual or of a group but for the creation of the entire world.

As so much of Nahman’s life was replete with debates, disputes, and controversies, it is no wonder that the topic appears so extensively throughout Bratslavian literature. In the following particularly powerful piece in Sihot Ha-Ran, Nahman discusses the cosmic ubiquity of mahloket. He points out that

The world is full of mahlokot. These disputes are between the nations of the world, as well as between cities, between houses, neighbors, and every man and his wife…Know that every debate between man and his family, etc., is also the very mahloket that is between kings and nations…and even if one doesn’t want to dispute and wants to sit in silence and serenity, he is forced to be as well in mahloket and wars.

This is also true of a nation that wants to sit in peace, and doesn’t want any war, still, it is forced into war against its will, for [other nations] claim it is on their side, until it is in the war…

And therefore at times when a person sits alone in the forest, it is possible for him to go crazy. This happens because he is alone, and he contains all of the nations of the world inside himself, and they are fighting with each other, and he has to change at every time to the aspect of each nation….and because of this it is possible to go completely insane…

However when one sits among people, there is room for the war to express itself in others, in his house and neighbors… And when the messiah comes, speedily in our days, then all types of mahloket will be nullified, and there will be great peace in the world…

In this unifying cosmic vision of mahloket, all disputes are played out in every possible dimension. A given conflict can be an inner conflict, as well as the dispute between nations. Because of this, conflicts that remain internal, bottled up, can cause insanity. Mahloket demands expression, and is endemic until the Messianic age, at which point it will be annulled. In his assertion that peace will eventually prevail, Nahman shifts our understanding of mahloket from a cosmic necessity of eternal proportion to one of temporal proportion. None of the various approaches to the benefits of controversy surveyed above assert that dispute is temporally bound, or is fundamental only in exilic life. Rav Nahman introduces the understanding that mahloket will eventually give way to peace. As ever-important as mahloket may be in this stage of the world, on the personal, national, and cosmic levels, Nahman claims that peace will yet prevail. Nahman says that it is only

Through the spread of peace the whole world can be drawn to serve God with one accord, because when people are at peace with one another they talk to each other about the true purpose of the world and its vanities…

But when there is no peace in the world, and worse still, when there is strife, people are not open with one another and never discuss the true purpose of life. Even when someone does discuss it, his words do not penetrate the hearts of others, because they have no interest in discovering the truth but only in winning the argument. They are aggressive and full of hatred and envy. When a person wants to win an argument, his ears are not open to the truth. The main reason most people are so far from God is that divisiveness and strife are so widespread today through our many sins.

The cosmic necessity of disputes mandates controversy, but at the time of messianic peace, harmony and amity will reign supreme, with a renewed possibility for true conversation. The appreciation Nahman developed for mahloket over his short, but intense, controversy-filled life bows before his dream of the open communication and universal worship of God that peace brings. Perhaps Nahman, from within his own introjections and intentionalizations of the struggles that defined his life, was conscious of his barely whispered hopes and dreams of a simple peace, for a life free from argument, dispute, and inner struggle. Perhaps Nahman, the complex figure that urged simplicity, prayed for the controversies of his own disputes and struggles to be forgotten in the arrival of the universal peace of the messiah.

In line with Nahman’s request for his Torah to be tied to prayers, let us connect his dreamful prose of peace to the poetry of a later dreamer, to whom the hope for realized unity in a world of mahloket is called for with powerful urgency; “let it come, like wildflowers, suddenly, because the field must have it: wildpeace.

[1] I’d like to thank Shlomo Zuckier, Tzvi Sinensky, and Dr. Elisha Russ Fishbane for their many thoughtful comments and valuable insights on this piece.

[2] See David Assaf, Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012).

[3] Arthur Green, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, 25.

[4] Green, 30.

[5] See Shivhei ha-Rav, 3, for an example of such descriptions of a youthful Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

[6] See Green, 63-93, for a psycho-spiritual analysis of Nahman’s pilgrimage to Israel, and an astute analogy between Nahman’s trip and coming-of-age narratives.

[7] For perspectives on the disagreement, see J. Weiss’s “R’ Nahman M-Bratslav al ha-mahloket alav”, in Mehkarim, 42, who argues that the Zeide’s criticisms exacerbated or led to Nahman’s feelings of inadequacy. See also Mendel Piekarz’s Hasidut Bratslav (Jerusalem, 1972), 72, and Arthur Green’s Tormented Master, 103-110.

[8] Hayyei Moharan 2, 3:99.

[9] For more on R. Nahman’s treatment of medicine and doctors, see Likkutei Moharan II 1:9, much of which aligns medical treatment with a lack of faith or prayer, parallel to the rationalism and philosophy that is disapproved of throughout much of Nahman’s canon.

[10] See Sotah 47b, which states that “From when the students of Shammai and Hillel who did not serve their Rabbis sufficiently proliferated, dispute proliferated in Israel, and the Torah became like two Torahs.” Compare to Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:77, in which a parallel language is recorded concluding with “and they will not return to their place until the son of David comes,” connoting an eventual unification of the divided nation of Israel.

[11] For examples, see Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot 156-157 and Sefer Mitzvot Ketanot 132.

[12] See Maimonides’ Introduction to the Mishnah, 11. Part of the debate on the meaning of Maimonides here relates to the available translations, as the translation of R. Kapach and Shilat are understood to support this view, but traditionalists have interpreted Maimonides to be deriding the above view. See Chaim Be-Emunatom, chapter 10.

[13] Likkutei Moharan I 161, ‘For Mahloket Raises a Person’. Interestingly, Nahman utilizes the human-tree imagery in other circumstances as well, such as in Hayyei Moharan 245: “I am a tree, pleasant and extremely wondrous, with wondrous branches, and below I am in the earth.”

[14] In historian Raphael Mahler’s surprising words, “the persecution of the Bratslav Hasidim by the Savran Hasidim was crueler even that the mitnagedic persecution of Hasidim in the previous century.” Quoted in David Assaf’s Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism.

[15] See Assaf, 126.

[16] Sihot Ha-Ran 51.

[17] Tormented Master, 104.

[18] Likkutei Moharan I 61:5-6.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] See Hayyei Moharan 262. Contrast this with other statements of Nahman indicate that Nahman thought of himself as wondrous, such as Hayyei Moharan 245: “I am a tree, pleasant and extremely wondrous, with wondrous branches, and below I am in the earth.” However, in line with Joseph Weiss’s assertion that Nahman may have introjected the Zeide’s claims about him, the presentation of both options may reflect a deep ambivalence about whether Nahman was indeed the tzaddik he purported to be. See J. Weiss’s “R’ Nahman M-Bratslav al ha-mahloket alav”, in Mehkarim, 42.

[22] See Tzvi Mark’s “The Ultimate Purpose of Knowing is that We Do Not Know”, in Mysticism and Madness: The Religious Thought of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, (London and New York: Continuum, 2009), for a thorough analysis of this term in Nahman’s thought. This set of ideas relates to fideism, literally ‘faithism’, the doctrine that maintains that faith is superior to rationalism in reaching truths, which fits with Nahman’s insistence on simple faith over rationality. However, non-knowledge as telos deviates from fideism, as the goal is not a knowledge/truth attained via faith/belief, but rather attaining a sort of impossible non-knowledge.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Sihot Ha-Ran 3. Nahman writes that He writes that “the ultimate goal of all knowledge of God is to realize that one knows nothing. Yet even this is unattainable…He does not know enough about the next level to begin to realize his ignorance. No matter how high he climbs, there is always the next step. A person therefore knows nothing: he cannot even understand his own ignorance. For there will always be a level of ignorance beyond his present level of perception.”

[25] Ibid.

Yehuda Fogel is a doctoral candidate at LIU Post, where he studies clinical psychology. Yehuda is an alumnus of Yeshivat Sha’alvim and Yeshiva University, has presented at the Undergraduate Judaic Studies Conference, and is passionate about bringing ideas across oceans and denominational lines.