The Tragic Heroes of Bratslav: R. Nathan Bratslaver on Dispute and Multiple Truths

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Yehuda Fogel

EDITORS NOTE: In this piece, Yehuda Fogel considers R. Nosson Bratslaver’s understanding of controversy, in contrast to R. Nahman. You can find Yehuda’s earlier piece that considers R. Nahman’s view on controversy more fully here

“The true tzaddikim depart, due to our great sins… and I wander to and fro, like a body without a soul, like a lump without thought, like a ship lost in the depths of the sea without a captain, while the storm wind rages at every moment.”[1]


R. Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780-1844) was the primary scribe and student of R. Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810), and was essential to the expansion of Bratslav Hasidut after the death of R. Nahman at the untimely age of 38. Although R. Nathan wasn’t formally considered a Rebbe in the traditional sense, he led the Bratslav community at a pivotal moment from an upstart movement centered around the charismatic personality of R. Nahman, to an established community now centered around the charismatic ideas of their deceased leader.

As non-Rebbe leaders, following the path of R. Nahman while offering contemporary interpretation and application of R. Nahman’s thought, Bratslav leaders followed in the tense continuum between old and new championed by their dead Rebbe, who thought of his approach as a “very old path that is nevertheless completely new.”[2] However, at times R. Nathan deviates from R. Nahman’s thought. One such area regards the topics of truth and controversy. To better understand the disparity between the relationship of the teacher and the student to dispute, we will consider R. Nathan’s biography, look to the texts of each thinker, and turn to Hegel’s paradigm of the tragic hero.[3]


R. Nathan was born in 1780 to R. Naftali Hertz and Hayeh Laneh Sternhartz in the town of Nemirov, Ukraine. His father was a well-off businessman and Torah scholar, and belonged to the Mitnagdic camp. R. Nathan was married off at thirteen to Esther Shaindel, the daughter of the Mitnaged Rabbi David Zvi Orbakh. Although R. Nathan began a devoted student and dedicated Mitnaged, the anti-Hasidic attitude with which he was raised slowly softened as he studied with a Hasidic havruta, R. Lipa, who opened R. Nathan’s eyes to his need for increased spirituality. After this realization, R. Nathan first visited a litany of Hasidic Rebbes but was left unsatisfied[4] until, in 1802, he went to Bratslav, only nine miles away from Nemirov. After hearing R. Nahman speak, R. Nathan was enraptured, and so began one of the great teacher-student relationships in the Jewish tradition. R. Nahman passed only eight years later, and during that time R. Nathan recorded his master’s teachings, conversations, stories, and dreams.[5]

R. Nathan’s relationship with R. Nahman caused severe tensions in R. Nathan’s family, as his father-in-law, father, and wife were all opposed to his changing lifestyle, particularly the challenges that arose from his desire to spend time in the company of R. Nahman for Shabbat and holidays. Much of his life was spent navigating these complex waters, although he notes that later in his life his family accepted his decision to become Hasidic.

Although R. Nathan is now remembered as the dominant student and scribe of R. Nahman, his path to ascension wasn’t simple. Tensions arose soon after he met R. Nahman,[6] and intensified in the wake of R. Nahman’s untimely death in 1810, upon which Bratslav Hasidim were thrown into confusion. Some of R. Nahman’s Hasidim followed other Hasidic leaders, and others wanted R. Nathan to become the second Rebbe of Bratslav in his own right. Amidst the storm, without a captain, R. Nathan established himself as a sort of speaker for the deceased captain, albeit not a captain in his own right. Jonatan Meir argues that R. Nathan attempted “to formulate a cohesive theology that would bind Bratslav Hasidism into a living movement, [with the hope that this activity would preserve the tradition of his teacher, and perhaps even broaden its influence,] despite its founder’s demise.”[7]

R. Nathan published books of R. Nahman such as Sippurei Ma’asiyot and an expanded version of Likkutei Moharan, and wrote books of his own based on R. Nahman’s teachings, such as Likkutei Tefilot and Likkutei Halakhot. However, R. Nathan was insistent that everything he wrote “flowed from the incredibly exalted and awesome source… R. Nahman himself.”[8] R. Nathan’s efforts paid off, and the floundering Bratslav movement attracted new, young Hasidim, and was cemented into an established Hasidic community that survived the death of its Rebbe and founder. However, R. Nathan’s role was definitely in question, and he had to navigate the tension in his identity as he transitioned from student to student-as-teacher. R. Nathan found himself in the challenging position of being stuck between those that wanted him to formally accept the role of Rebbe of the Bratslav community, for living Hasidim need a living Rebbe, and those that rejected the possibility of any leader taking the mantle from the deceased R. Nahman.

In his tendency to be surrounded by controversy, R. Nathan continued the path of his master, R. Nahman, who was tangled for most of his tragically short life in constant mahloket. David Assaf notes that although disputes between Hasidic groups, as well as between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, were common in the nineteenth century, the controversy around Bratslav is notable both for the consistency and intensity of the disputes.[9] Assaf identifies three major waves of opposition to Bratslav.[10] The first was led by R. Aryeh Leib (1724-1811), better known as the Shpole Zeide, whose opposition to R. Nahman was an early motivation for the theologizing of dispute in Bratslav thought. The second wave began in the 1830s, and was spearheaded by R. Moses Tzvi Giterman of Savran. The third was led by the Twersky families, whose Tolne Hasidim were particularly violent in their persecution of Bratslavers praying in Uman on Rosh HaShanah. While the persecutions of the third wave were cruel, it was the Savraner’s censuring of the Bratslav community still reeling from the death of R. Nahman that was the most aggressive.[11] Bratslavers were also targeted by maskilim, who created a satirical literature that often critiqued Bratslav.[12]

In the twentieth century, the embattled community faced the same existential threats[13] as the rest of the Jewish community, but ultimately the Bratslav community survived the harsh years of the Soviet Union and the Holocaust, shifted to Israel, and has since enjoyed an explosion of popularity, thanks both to the Ba’al Teshuvah movement and the increasing place of spirituality in the Orthodox communities in America and Israel. Although there has been no Bratslav leader with the caliber or centralized support of a R. Nahman or R. Nathan in centuries, there has been continued communal leadership. Ariel Burger theorizes that the ongoing communal continuity of Bratslav Hasidut is due in part to following the leadership model of R. Nathan: in marrying extreme fidelity to the thought of R. Nahman with creativity and newness, Bratslav leaders succeeded in bringing the Rebbe-less community to the twenty-first century. 

R. Nathan on Dispute

R. Nathan’s considerations of dispute are complex, and are intricately connected both to his understanding of truth and his own life. In a portion of his Likkutei Halakhot that is ostensibly on Hilkhot Ribbit, R. Nathan dedicates a lengthy analysis to the subject of truth. One primary anchor text for R. Nathan’s analysis is the midrashic tale that discusses a dispute that occurred between God and the angels about whether man should be created:

R. Simon said: In the time that the Holy One Blessed be He created the first Man, the angels gathered in groups, clusters. Some said “Do not create” and some said “Create.” This is what is written (Psalms 85:11), “Charity and Truth meet, Righteousness and Peace kiss.” Charity says to create, for he [man] will do kindness. Truth says not to create, for he is entirely falsehoods…What did the Holy One Blessed be He do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground, as it is written (Daniel 8:12), “And truth was cast to the ground.” The servicing angels said before the Holy One Blessed be He…”Let truth rise from the earth,” as it is written (Psalms 85:12), “Truth from the ground will grow”… R. Huna the Rabbah of Tziporen said that as the servicing angels were adjudicating and dealing with each other, the Holy One Blessed be He created him. He said to them, “What are you adjudicating? Man was already created!”[14]

R. Nathan displays dazzling intellectual scholarship and creativity in his analysis of this text, and is troubled by the possibility of a clash between the attribute of truth and God. How can God disagree with truth? Is God not true? What does it mean to have a truth separate from God? In considering truth, R. Nathan turns as well to the gemara’s (Sanhedrin 97a) discussion of the troubling future of truth in the (pre-)messianic era:  

And the truth will be lacking, as it is stated: “And the truth is lacking [ne’ederet], and he who departs from evil is negated” (Isaiah 59:15). What is the meaning of the phrase: And the truth is lacking [ne’ederet]? The Sages of the study hall of Rav said: This teaches that truth will become like so many flocks [adarim] and walk away. What is the meaning of the phrase: “And he that departs from evil is negated?” The Sages of the study hall of Rabbi Sheila said: “Anyone who deviates from evil is deemed insane by the people.”

In this clever reading, the Sages of the school of Rav read ne’ederet, which denotes lacking on the simple face of the text, to denote flocks, which has the same ayin-dalet-reish root. Within this framework, the truth deficit of the end of days is a breakdown of the singularity of Truth into multiplicity.

In interpreting these provocative texts, R. Nathan distinguishes between two forms (or elements) of truth. One truth is eternal, divine, unified, and objective, the other limited, partial, this-worldly, and subjective. In his words, there are “two types of truth: there is ‘truthful Truth,’ in which one grasps the matter as it is, and there is another truth, which has intentions in truth, but in which one errs.”[15] The limited truth was “cast to the ground” during the episode of the creation of man, and will “walk in flocks” in the pre-messianic era. This is to say that the truth as we perceive it is limited, as “the real Truth is impossible to know,” and as such is claimed to be different by many. The issue that arises is when we confuse the two truths, and think that the limited, subjective perspective with which we see is the fuller objective Truth[16]:  

the foundation is that truth shouldn’t get in the way of the truthful Truth, because the distance that each one has from the etzem ha-emet la-amito is due to truth itself, just as we see that the entire dispute is through truth, that the Mitnagdim say that they have the truth. And so it is in every generation, and especially in the generations that are close to us, as the dispute of the Mitnagdim on the Hasidima debate that touched the heart, and many souls were stuck in this, and how many husbands and wives separated due to it, and how many people lost two worlds through this, as is known to those that know that which happened in these generations…

and the foundation of all disputes is through ‘truth’ itself, because we know that that great ‘learners’ that argued on the great Hasidim, were also righteous and truthful tzaddikim, and their entire debate…was only because of truth, that the great learners said that they have the truth and the great Hasidim are far from truth, because they violate the Torah of truth, just like I personally heard many times from their objections (and particularly from my father-in-law the Gaon ha-tzaddik Moreinu ha-Rav Dovid Zvi zt”l, who was a great tzaddik, as is known, and disputed the great Hasidim, and all was because of the ‘truth’ of his)…[17]

R. Nathan identifies the cause of the incendiary and damaging conflicts between the Hasidim and Mitnagdim as this misunderstanding of the partiality-in-multiplicity of mundane truth claims. Both groups think themselves to have the Truth, while in reality each has only truth. R. Nathan sees this narrative in the account of the creation of man as well:

And all of this happens because of the argument between the groups of angels, that the attribute of truth itself was against the creation of man… Because even truth itself can’t grasp the truth of the essence of God, and the same way that it [truth] can’t grasp God’s essence, so too it can’t grasp the depth of His knowledge, because God and His knowledge are One, and there is the foundation of emet la-amito.

But once truth descends from God to the angels, the depth of His knowledge is hidden, because the depth of His knowledge in emet la-amito is hidden from all… and only the souls of the true and great tzaddikim merit through their actions and worship to grasp the knowledge of God in truth, as is their primary reward.[18]

The angelic attribute of truth understood only a portion of the full Truth, and was thus capable of disagreeing with God’s decision. In order to avoid the easy error of over-valuing our own truths, R. Nathan advises that we too “cast truth to the ground,” and realize the fallibility of what we think of as truth. In a gorgeous hermeneutical move, R. Nathan aligns this with Moses’s breaking of the lukhot at Sinai. Facing the betrayal of the Jewish people at a most critical juncture for their relationship with God, truth would seem to dictate that there could be no possibility of return, that God’s anger would overwhelm the nascent nation. At that perilous juncture, Moses threw the apparent truth to the ground, and prayed to God on behalf of His people. In this, Moses was able to connect to the elusive ‘truthful Truth,’ which R. Nathan sees as paradoxically inaccessible and accessible:  

And then God taught [Moses] the order of the prayer, and organized before him the thirteen attributes of mercy, and there He revealed to him the ‘truthful Truth’ (emet la-amito), that the essence of His Truth is the abundance of mercy and compassion and great is His kindness for eternity, that it never stops, for this is the essence of the Truth, as it says there “God, God, Merciful and Compassionate Lord… and Truth.” The aspect of “merciful and compassionate”… this is the essence of the truth of God, that His mercy never ends, no matter what happens, prayer, pleading, screaming, and supplication will always work. For all this is the opposite of the truth of the angels, who according to their own truths spoke…[19]

Faced with some of the vicious internal ideological opposition, R. Nathan chose not to demonize the other, nor to ‘other’ the other. In fitting with his admonitions to his followers not to place his persecutors in herem, or to respond with violence to violence, R. Nathan sought to take the high road by transcending dispute.

In order to fully appreciate the uniqueness of R. Nathan’s approach, it is important to consider how his teacher, R. Nahman, related to the controversy surrounding him. In facing the persecutions of the Shpole Zeide, R. Nahman equivocated. At times, he talked about the importance of ongoing mahloket to motivate growth, likening controversy to water that feeds the tree of growth.[20] At others, he seemed mired in self-doubt, indulging in ‘either-or’ considerations of his righteousness.[21] He saw controversy as ubiquitous to the world and endemic to the reality of the true tzaddik, 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.”[22] R. Nahman punned on the name of the Shpole Zeide, and often discussed what he called mefursamim shel sheker or tzaddikei sheker, the false leaders who seem righteous to the outside observer.

In his discussions of truth in Likkutei Moharan 51, R. Nahman also struggles with the relationship between unity and multiplicity, repeating again and again that “in truth all is one,” even among the seeming many-ness of this world. Truth is thought of as being part of an obliterative unity, one in which there is no deviation of time, of space, and of matter, all of which are part of a greater unity. The very perception of difference occurs because of the exile of truth, which results in things seeming different. R. Nathan cites this teaching as an anchor text for his teaching, but is notably different in both form and content. R. Nahman focuses on the unified aspect of Truth, an aspect that is in intimate conversation with the multiplicity it unites, but is a unity nonetheless. This unification is rooted in a pre-creation order of existence, in which there was no discrimination in time, place, or substance, a pre-multiplicity unity that then devolved. In contrast, R. Nathan deigns to focus instead on the fragmented nature of truth, in which there are multiple truths, albeit limited truths.

Broadly, I see three broad deviations in which R. Nathan diverges from R. Nahman: the inaccessibility of Truth, the place of faith, and the singularity of truth. For R. Nathan, the inaccessibility of truth is a fundamental aspect of truth, and the awareness of this is key. R. Nahman has no such emphasis. For R. Nathan, one overcomes the limitations of subjective, fragmented truth and reaches the unity of the full Truth only through radical faith, a faith that God’s mercy overwhelms the indications of His Torah about the many seeming truths of the limits of His mercy. For R. Nahman, truth leads to providence, which leads to the unified truth. And although both R. Nahman and R. Nathan agree that ‘in truth all is one,’ R. Nathan continues to draw complicated webs of association and distinction between different layers and configurations of truth, between objective and subjective truth. In contrast, R. Nahman is consistent in his continued emphasis on the unity of all truth.

Although the full picture of R. Nahman’s perspective is as complex and triple-sided as the man himself, it clearly differs from the understanding presented by R. Nathan, in which there is theological space for the rightness of both sides. In R. Nathan’s challenging web of associations, truth is subjective and limited, multiple and exiled, and can be equally held (although in partiality) by multiple parties of a conflict.[23] However, the time will come in which the underlying unity of all truth will become clear, and until then  

The main thing is to fill the blemish of the moon, which is to connect and unify the sun and moon together, which is to connect the two names, the Tetragrammaton and Elokim…to connect the two aspects of truth, which is to elevate and clarify the truth clothed in this world, which is a behinah of the light of the point of truth of each person of Israel, which is an aspect of ‘window’, ‘moon’, and malhut, to connect, attach, and unify with the essence of the light of the Truth, because in truth of truths all is one… Then the truth will be totally complete.[24]

Between R. Nahman and R. Nathan

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger appreciate this gap between the teacher and student, and consider the disparity through the use of differing intellectual frameworks. Goshen-Gottstein considers R. Nathan’s theory of multiplicity of truth as a potential source text for the possibility of interfaith dialogue:

Both R. Nahman and R. Nathan provide us with approaches that can be translated to the concerns of truth and the interreligious situation. For R. Nahman, truth is grounded in the order beyond creation. As such it transcends all multiplicity, including the multiplicity of religions. Where through reflection and mystical experience one can rediscover this higher metaphysical ground is where religions can meet…

R. Nathan offers us another lesson. For R. Nathan, it is not the quest for the highest truth-the Truth beyond- that could provide the formula for interreligious harmony. Rather it is the recognition that truth cannot be attained and that other values are superior to truth-beyond truth. It is God’s will that we live in peace and compassion with one another, and focusing on truth ultimately goes against the very foundations that make it possible for humanity to exist, imperfect as it is. God does not will truth, nor can we attain it. God’s highest purpose, the ultimate truth, points to compassion and to peace as the guiding values of life, and consequently these should also govern interreligious situations.[25]

As Goshen-Gottstein is the director of the Elijah Institute, and a leading thinker on the crossroads between Judaism and other religions, the lens through which he views this text is particularly significant. Goshen-Gottstein also sees this piece as a test case for a broader model of R. Nathan’s deviations from R. Nahman, which he thinks is largely identified by an increased “emphasis on faith, rather than truth.”[26]

Burger looks at this piece not through the lens of interfaith relationships, but that of conflict studies. Burger is an artist, author, and teacher, and received his doctorate on R. Nathan working under Elie Wiesel. Fascinatingly, in that dissertation, Burger looks at R. Nathan’s theorizing about truth and conflict as reflective of a Hasidic model of “spiritual non-violent protest.” Burger more broadly sees the emphasis in R. Nathan’s works to be on hithazkut, or encouragement:  

An extensive examination of the many examples of R. Noson’s departures from the original lessons in Likutei MoHaRaN reveals a common pattern. The value that informed his presentation of his teacher’s thought was compassion. Whereas R. Nachman presented his lessons for people on many spiritual levels, R. Noson tailors his prayers and commentaries primarily for those in moments of “return,” a fallen state, and so he begins with those aspects of R. Nahman’s teachings which can most readily be absorbed by one who is in such a state.[27]

Although Burger identifies in R. Nathan multiple individual approaches to conflict resolution, he sees in R. Nathan’s distinction between subjective truth and objective truth, or the ‘first truth’ and the ‘second truth,’ a method of conflict resolution that allows space for communal hithazkut, encouragement in the direction of their path, while still allowing space for the other. In this, R. Nathan avoids the dangers of triumphalism and ideological over-confidence, and instead invests his Rebbe’s erstwhile followers with a sense of humble confidence. As a religious model of non-violent conflict resolution, R. Nathan invests theological meaning into the contraction of truth claims and recognition of the broader, unifying, divine Truth. In considering the analyses of Burger and Goshen-Gottstein, I find Hegel’s portrayal of the tragic hero to be a meaningful lens through which to better appreciate R. Nahman and R. Nathan.

R. Nathan and R. Nahman as Tragic Heroes

In his Aesthetics, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) suggests that the tragic hero is one torn between tension-inducing opposing claims.[28] This is a conflict between right and right, moral claims of equal weight, and not between right and wrong. The issue stands in the rigidity and exclusivity of each claim, with neither accepting or limiting their own truth claim to make room for the possibility for the other. For Hegel, the debilitating tension is due to the rigidity and exclusivity of each side:  

Tragedy is the conflict of two substantive positions, each of which is justified, yet each of which is wrong to the extent that it fails to either recognize the validity of the other position or to grant it its moment of truth…[29]

Thus, for Hegel, the paradigmatic tragedy is Sophocles’ Antigone, in which Antigone seeks to bury her brother Polynices, whom King Creon, the successor to Polynices’ throne, decreed may not be mourned. Antigone is thus torn between the human law of King Creon, and her sense of morality, which demanded a proper burial for her brother. In R. Nathan’s life, this tragedy of right vs. right is expressed through the competing claims of Mitnagdim and Hasidim, of R. Nahman and R. Nathan’s own family. The issue isn’t in the moral ambiguity of rightness, but rather the abundance of rightness, in that all sides that pull at the hero are true and right. But if the Greek tragedy is marked by the fundamental flaws of the operating actors, doomed to live the mercurial decisions of plotting deities, the tragic heroes of Bratslav choose to live differently. Hegel’s framework enables us to more vividly portray the broader contours of the difference in persona between teacher and student.

R. Nahman’s double-guessing presupposes a singularity of rightness, in which R. Nahman is either completely right or completely wrong, and at no point countenances the possibility of multiple rights. But R. Nahman’s double-guessing also indicates a deep humility of position, a humility that allows that perhaps, just perhaps, he may yet be wrong. R. Nathan cuts a stunning contrast in his deep appreciation for the multiplicity of possible rights.

As tragic hero, R. Nahman lives in the tension, lost and found in the constructive power of conflict, but ultimately elevated in the process.[30] R. Nathan is a tragic hero in that he is also pulled between right and right, but in contrast to his teacher, R. Nathan chooses to self-contract and “recognize the validity of the other position.” R. Nathan resolves the tension between multiple sides in affirming the partiality of his truth claim, which like all truth claims of this world, is lacking, and portrays only a part of the picture. However, R. Nathan then transcends the possibilities considered by Hegel, in rejecting the terms of dispute. Instead of only delimiting his own claim, or dying by force of the tension, he chooses to reshape the discussion, away from truths, all of which are limited and partial, in favor of faith, through which one can possibly come to Truth. Instead of demonizing the other, like R. Nahman, R. Nathan chose instead to broaden the terms of conversation, allowing equal space for the truth claims of Savran and the truth claims of Bratslav to coexist. R. Nathan transcends the tragedy, but R. Nahman lives it.

In dealing with Bratslav Torah, we consider the wishes of R. Nahman, for his torot to be translated to practice, to be thought about along with the proper niggun and dance. We consider his wish that Torah not remain locked in the intellectual prison of the mind, but reach the heart as well, and therefore consider the human impact of the above set of teachings. In conflicts with others, and the self, it is often much easier to accept the theoretical possibility of duality in narrative from afar. Two hundred years after the conflict, it doesn’t take much courage to consider the truth of the Savraner’s claims, but within our own conflicts this is often much more challenging. When facing conflicts in the home, in the stunning immediacy of our own relationships, it takes humility and courage to move past a discourse of truth and falsehood, of rightness, to relationships of faith and trust. May we be blessed with the paradoxical faith in our own truths, along with the humility to realize the partiality of our truths, and the possibility of the truths of others, to ultimately make way for the coming of the great peace, one that is “not the peace of a cease-fire, not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb, but rather as in the heart when the excitement is over[31]

[1] R. Nathan’s Likkutei Tefilot, part 1, 26a–b, prayer 13.

[2] Hayyei Moharan 392.

[3] I’d like to thank Prof. Jonathan Dauber for his patient and thoughtful comments on my much-delayed first attempts at this paper, as well as Tzvi Sinensky for his critical editorial help.

[4] R. Nathan was particularly close with the Rebbe Reb Barukh of Mezhibyzh (who was R. Nahman’s uncle) and R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. However, although he was impressed by the spiritual worship he found in Berditchev, he remained unsatisfied with his own level of growth. The breaking point came when, one Saturday night, R. Nathan was at a Melaveh Malkah in Berditchev, when he was asked to purchase bagels for the rest of the hasidim. As he left, he wondered, “Is this why I was created? To buy bagels?”

[5] R. Elhanan Nir discusses the particular emphasis in Bratslav works on death awareness, and looks particularly at R. Nahman’s move to Uman at the end of his life. Among other reasons, R. Nahman explained his decision to move to this largely maskilic city as relating to his wish to be buried among those martyred in Uman in an earlier pogrom, and through this to “rectify the dead souls.” Nir sees in this move R. Nahman’s hope not only to rectify the “dead souls” but rather the idea of death itself. See Elchanan Nir, Yehuda Ba-Laylah (Yediot Sefarim, 2017).

[6] Although R. Nathan’s status as primary scribe is often thought to have developed naturally, R. Nahman had a scribe before R. Nathan, and Mendel Piekarz sees in this transition early tensions over the role of R. Nathan in the circle of R. Nahman. See Mendel Piekarz’s Hasidut Bratslav (Jerusalem, 1972).

[7]  Jonatan Meir, “R. Nathan Sternhartz’s Liqqutei Tefilot and the Formation of Bratslav Hasidism,” The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, (2016): 69.

[8]  Sternhartz, Alim L-trufah, 22b, letter 45; 100a, letter 230. 

[9] See David Assaf’s Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2012), 126. 

[10] Ibid, 126.

[11] The motivations of the Savraner are hard to precisely determine. Zvi Mark utilizes later oral traditions to argue that after the death of the Savraner’s first wife, the Savraner wished to marry R. Nahman’s daughter, but R. Nathan prevented this from happening. This marriage would have potentially had the effect of folding the Bratslav community into the more mainstream Hasidic community of Savran. See Mark’s “Why did the Rav of Savran Pursue the Hasidei Bratslav?” Sivan 69 (2004). The ferocity of the anti-Nathan opposition is acknowledged even by Hasidim of other traditions; Dr. Ariel Burger cites the comment of a twentieth century Rebbe that “no one experienced such persecution [by other Jews] as King David – and R. (Nathan) of (Bratslav)” (quoted in Burger, “Hasidic Nonviolence: R. Noson of Bratzlav’s Hermeneutics of Conflict Transformation,” Boston University PhD Diss. (2008): 193). Burger explores this comparison in great depth, and finds particularly ripe meaning in comparing R. Nathan to King David.

[12]  Joseph Perl was one such writer, and wrote a parody of the newly published stories of R. Nahman, addending R. Nahman’s “Tale of the Lost Princess” with a disguisedly mocking “Tale of the Lost Prince.” See Jeremy Dauber’s “Looking at the Yiddish Landscape: Representation in Nineteenth-Century Hasidic and Maskilic Literature” in Katz, Steven T. The Shtetl: New Evaluations. (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

[13]R. Levi Yitzchak Bender, a 20th century Bratslav leader, says: “There were many moments when the Bratslaver Hasidim thought that our Rebbe’s way was about to end, God forbid. For example, during the great conflict in the time of R. Nathan. Similarly in the time of R. Nahman of Tulchin, and when the communists took power and announced that anyone caught and identified as a Bratslav Hasid would be sentenced to death, and after the Second World War, when the majority of Bratslaver Hasidim were destroyed, both in Russia and Poland.” See R. Levi Yitzchak Bender, Siah Sarfei Kodesh, cited in Ariel Burger, note 19.

[14] Bereishit Rabbah 5:5. See also the Mishnah (Sotah 9:15), which says “In the ikveta di-meshiha insolence will increase… fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking…

[15] Likkutei Halakhot: Yoreh Deah, Hilkhot Ribbit 5:10.

[16] I have chosen to capitalize R. Nathan’s use of Truth when he refers to what we will come to understand as his “first truth”, which is the “truth as it is.” It is this singular Truth that R. Nathan identifies with the “truthful truth,” the divine truth.

[17] Likkutei Halakhot: Yoreh Deah- Hilkhot Ribbit 5:10.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Hayyei Moharan 401: “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 this 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.”

[21] Hayyei Moharan 262: “On several occasions he [R. 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.”

[22] Likkutei Moharan 61:5.

[23] In the kabbalistic framework the first Truth parallels the masculine Tiferet, and the second truth parallels the feminine Malkhut. As Malkhut is associated as well with the Shekhinah, the feminized aspect of God associated with the Earth, it comes as no surprise that R. Nathan cites the Zohar’s comment that God is known through the personal ‘evaluations’ that we make of Him. Based off the verse “and her husband is known in the gates,” the Zohar creatively utilizes the dual meaning in the word ‘sha’ar’, which connotes gate in Hebrew, but evaluation in Aramaic, to creatively state that the ‘husband’, referring to the masculine element of God, Kudsha Berikh Hu, is known according to the sha’ar, the evaluation, estimation, or perhaps even imagination, of each person. This is to say that God is known in the subjective experience to the degree that one knows Him, the relative quality of one’s God-consciousness. In the Zohar’s words: ““and her husband is known in the gates”: This is Kudsha Berikh Hu, that He is known and cleaved to each according to the evaluation of the heart, each one as is able to cleave spirit with wisdom. And to the degree to which one evaluates in their heart, so too He will be known in the heart. And due to this, ‘known in the gates’ refers to evaluations…”

[24] Likkutei Halakhot: Yoreh Deah- Hilkhot Ribbit 5:10. While there is a lot to unpack in this heavy associative web, this short passage gives some of the flavor of Bratslav teachings, which are often highly dynamic, associative, and complex, while simultaneously being affirming and inspiring.

[25] Goshen-Gottstein, Alon. “The Truth Beyond and Beyond Truth – Religious Truth in Teachings of the Breslav Tradition and Their Contemporary Interreligious Application.” Unpublished.

[26] “This move is representative of his position as the disciple who sees himself as secondary to the great master and his direct insights. It is also a position that serves a pedagogical function. It presents a virtue that an entire community can practice, even when they cannot attain the rare heights witnessed in the scriptures, that reflect R. Nahman’s own experiences. Thus if R. Nahman’s teaching… assumed truth was within reach and that one could somehow attain the pre-created state…this emphasis [of R. Nathan] gives way to the recognition that truth, in its higher sense of ultimate truth, is beyond us.” See Goshen-Gottstein, 22.

[27] Burger, 42-43. Burger turns as well to Likkutei Moharan 2:7, which discusses Joshua and hithazkut, and notes that this lesson was understood by the students of R. Nahman to be “a form of ordination for R. Nathan, thus formally, though implicitly, charging him with the work of strengthening and encouraging other Jews.”

[28] G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975).

[29] Mark W. Roche, Introduction to Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy, 12.

[30] In Hegel’s words (quoted by Roche, 13): “That is the position of heroes in world history generally; through them a new world dawns. This new principle is in contradiction with the previous one, appears as destructive; the heroes appear, therefore, as violent, transgressing laws. Individually, they are vanquished; but this principle persists, if in a different form, and buries the present.”

[31] Yehudah Amichai, “Wildpeace.”

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.