Some Thoughts on Breslev Hasiduth

By HaRav Mikha Lindenberg

Like most things, Breslov Hasiduth is a mixed bag. There are elements of Rebbe Nahman’s teachings which are of great value and others which ought to be rejected. In this short article we shall engage in a critical analysis and discuss several salient aspects of his teachings and statements, “sifting the chaff from the wheat”. As with any philosophy within Torah Judaism, the intelligent, truth-seeking person need not feel obliged to accept everything that is said or written. One can and should approach such a system with honesty and a critical eye, extracting what is truthful and correct and rejecting what is false and pernicious.
It is obvious that Rebbe Nahman’s teachings resonate with a great many Jews. This is to a large extent because of the major theme in his writings of focusing on the positive points of oneself and of the value of joy. Many are attracted to the value Rebbe Nahman placed on sincerity in one’s dealings with God and men. Many are also simply dazzled by the elegance and artistic creativity one finds in Liqute Moharan.
It is indeed in the area of earnestness where one of the most positive and valuable of Rebbe Nahman’s teachings can be found: Rebbe Nahman wished for a Jew’s relationship to God to be sincere. He wished to peel back the layers of abstraction in one’s conception and service of God; he wished for avodath Hashem (Divine service through Torah and miswoth) to be real. In this respect Rebbe Nahman is entirely in line with what our Sages (Hazal) say: “God desires the heart”—”Rahmana liba ba’e”.
Rebbe Nahman must have looked around him and seen much avodath Hashem as stiff and lifeless, as devoid of inner devotion and excitement. Much of his teachings can be seen as his remedy for this widespread malaise. His teachings regarding “hithbodeduth” can also be seen in such a light; Rebbe Nahman perceived, correctly I might add, that a real personal relationship with God is greatly enhanced by speaking to God in one’s own words. This is, admittedly, a most efficacious and powerful idea. And even if one can find precedents for this idea in earlier works—he did not create something from nothing—nevertheless it is certainly fair to say that he shone the spotlight on it, making it central to his teachings.
One can also appreciate the emphasis Rebbe Nahman put on being competent in halacha. This is especially important in light of other strands of Hasiduth which existed and were developing in his time; for example, Rebbe Nahman had no patience for the widespread Hasidic practice of ignoring the times ordained by Hazal for tefilla. This enjoinder has served as a powerful anchor to the inspirational and creative elements of his teachings and Hasiduth in general, and is why serious Breslovers unto this very day tend to be competent in halacha, at least in the texts conceived of as authoritative by mainstream Orthodox Judaism.
It must be said, however, that if one carefully and critically studies Rebbe Nahman’s teachings, one finds things which range from the dubious to the absurd. For example, the idea that no matter what one has done previously, one can go to Uman, give some money to sedaqa, say a particular ten chapters of Tehilim, and be pulled out of Gehenom by one’s peoth is, it must be unequivocally stated, outrageous. Such a notion has no basis in traditional Judaism and even smacks of Christianity.
The Question is: why would Rebbe Nahman have said such a thing? The Answer, I believe, leads us to a psychological profile of Rebbe Nahman which we can reasonably construct from a broad and penetrating analysis of his teachings and statements. Rebbe Nahman was certainly a genius; of that there can be no doubt. He was undoubtedly extremely imaginative and creative, and it should be added thoroughly conversant with traditional Jewish sources, as a perusal of Liqute Moharan quickly reveals. However, he seems to have been motivated by a very pervasive central desire: to make an enigma of himself. This emerges as a central theme running through virtually all his writings. He wished to establish himself as the pre-eminent sadiq, the unique sadiq without equal and parallel. In many places we find echoes of a drive to present himself—his true self, motivations, and perceptions— as entirely beyond the ken of those around him, even his closest student Reb Noson. He develops the doctrine of the sadiq beyond anything which preceded him, and clearly and unequivocally places himself in that role. There is a distinct self-obsession which clearly flows through much of his writings. When one reads about his relationship with others, one gets the impression that his regard for others and his relationship with them is always bound up in establishing his role as the enigmatic, unknowable, super-sadiq. Thus every innocuous, prosaic act of his is expressed as replete with hidden purpose and meaning.
It can truthfully be said that Rebbe Nahman, more than most, imprinted his complex psychological profile on his teachings. Furthermore, perhaps it can be stated that he himself was in a sense trapped by the enormity of the role he crafted for himself; he could not extend beyond it and as such it colors everything that came from him.
The picture which emerges is that of an extremely gifted and brilliant man with much of value to teach, but also a disturbed man given to a turbulent emotional inner life and plagued by depression, and one who wove a self-fulfilling prophecy of the enigmatic, ineffable sadiq.
One area in which it can be argued convincingly that Rebbe Nahman’s teachings have had a vastly detrimental effect is in the realm of sexuality. Certainly Hazal frown on masturbation, putting it mildly, but the inadvertent spilling of seed at night is a normal occurrence. In the Talmud Yerushalmi we find Rabi Yose ben Halphetha immersing on Yom Kipur day for an emission he had had the previous night, and this is presented as a normal occurrence. It is the Zohar and subsequent mysical writings which describe the effects of spilling seed as a spiritual calamity of major proportions; in short, as the seed has no vessel, the soul drawn down gets absorbed by the sitra ahara (“other side”) and becomes a sort of demon filled with malevolent hatred for the man who forced it to exist in such a deplorable state. This demon then siphons of the vital energy of its creator and diverts the “light” of his avodath Hashem to fuel the forces of evil. What Rebbe Nahman did was focus greatly on this already existing body of teachings and make them central in a systematic manner. Thus to a Breslover, a “wet dream” is a cardinal sin. It is noteworthy that Rebbe Nahman himself revealed the remedy to this calamity: reciting the ten chapters of Tehilim known as Tiqun Hakelali—the “general remedy”. Both the awareness of the disease and the remedy stem from him.
To summarize: Rebbe Nahman taught many things of great value. The emphasis on joy, the idea of enthusiasm, passion, and devotion in avodath Hashem, the idea of a sincere, personal relationship with God, the idea of questing for truth—these are all perfectly in line with traditional Jewish sources and of great import.
However, many of Rebbe Nahman’s teachings, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, are unacceptable.
The mature, responsible, thinking Jew must be able to recognize these elements for what they are, extract what is correct and beneficial, and reject that which is wrong and dangerous.