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In This Article Bratslav/Breslev Hasidism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Nahman’s Thought
  • The Land of Israel
  • Messianism
  • Nathan Sternhartz and Bratslav Hasidism After 1810
  • Studies of Nathan Sternhartz’s Original Works
  • Later Bratslav Sources
  • Portrayals of Bratslav Hasidism in Non-Hasidic Literature
  • Bratslav Hasidism in the Soviet Union and During the Holocaust
  • Modern Bratslav
  • Pilgrimage to Uman
  • Contemporary Reflections of Bratslav Hasidism in Literature, Art and Theology

Jewish Studies Bratslav/Breslev Hasidism
by
Ariel Evan Mayse

Introduction

The theology and history of Bratslav Hasidism are inextricably bound up with the life of its founder, Nahman ben Simhah (b. 1772–d. 1810). He was the great-grandson of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, and was born and raised in his illustrious antecedent’s town of Medzhibozh (Pol. Międzyboż). From an early age Nahman aspired to intense levels of piety and yearned for mystical experiences. He was married shortly after his thirteenth birthday, the traditional age of religious maturity, and lived with his wife’s family in a small village for the next five years. There Nahman enjoyed the freedom of the countryside while maintaining his commitment to rigorous asceticism. Throughout the 1790s Nahman led a small group of devoted disciples, but felt deeply ambivalent about his public role. In 1798 he left his family and embarked on a year-long pilgrimage to the land of Israel, a formative moment in his theological development and maturation as communal leader. After his return he began to function as a rebbe (Hasidic leader) in earnest, and became embroiled in bitter conflicts with two prominent masters: his uncle Barukh of Medzhibozh (b. 1756–d. 1811), and Aryeh Leib of Shpola (b. 1725–d. 1812). Nahman’s criticism of their opulent and populist style of leadership reflects the different understandings of Hasidic leadership emerging in the early 19th century, but was also fueled by competition for followers; the older leaders resented Nahman’s attempts to establish himself as a rebbe within their territorial boundaries. Two important events made 1802 a watershed year for Nahman. The first was his move to Bratslav (Bracław), where he enjoyed support of the city’s Jewish community and increased his circle of followers. The second was meeting Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov (b. 1780–d. 1844), who became his scribe and closest disciple. Nahman lived and taught in Bratslav until a few months before his death, at which point he moved to the small town of Uman. He was buried there after his death from tuberculosis on 16 October 1810, and his grave is now the most important site of Hasidic pilgrimage in Europe. Sternhartz became the leader of the Bratslav Hasidic community after his master’s death, spreading Nahman’s teachings and shepherding the community during its initial stages of growth. After nearly a century of intense mistreatment by other Hasidic groups, followed by persecution by the Soviet authorities and then the Nazis, Bratslav Hasidism has been reborn in North American and Israel and is now a strong and vibrant community numbering with thousands of followers.

General Overviews

Nahman’s life and teachings attracted the attention of a few scholars in prewar Europe, but the academic study of Bratslav Hasidism has blossomed during the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the United States and Israel. Hillel Zeitlin wrote the first biography of Nahman in 1910, which he followed with a series of articles throughout the 1930s. Zeitlin was himself inspired by Nahman’s religious teachings, and his studies are written in a style meant to engender similar feelings in the reader. His intellectual biography and perceptive readings of Nahman’s thought are of lasting academic value despite his sympathetic interpretation. Zeitlin’s work on Nahman was later collected and published by his son as Zeitlin 1952. Samuel Abba Horodetzsky also approached Bratslav Hasidism uncritically and romantically, but his studies lack the originality of Zeitlin’s. His work is of limited academic use, though Magid 2002 includes his interesting comparative study of Nahman and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Two Israeli scholars forged new ground and set the tone for the subsequent study of Bratslav Hasidism. Joseph Weiss was the first to examine Nahman’s teachings through the lens of modern scholarship. His pioneering studies range from biographical research about Nahman’s life to bibliographic notes regarding the formation and printing of his written works. Weiss also devoted special attention to the mystical and existential aspects of Nahman’s thought. Weiss 1974 is a posthumous collection that represents the fruits of his efforts. Mendel Piekarz published extensively on the literature of early Bratslav Hasidism and was the first to study contemporary Bratslav communities. Piekarz 1995 is a revised edition of his collected essays. Building upon the work by Weiss and Piekarz, Green 1992 paved new methodological ground in his biography of Nahman. This important study was published in 1979, and though Green has been criticized for focusing too heavily on Nahman’s psychological struggles at the expense of the mystical elements of his thought, this work remains the best biography. Kamenetz 2010 compares and contrasts the life and writings of Nahman with those of Franz Kafka, another creative and conflicted Jewish thinker. Magid 2002 pairs essays by contemporary academics with newly translated foundational studies by earlier scholars of Bratslav Hasidism. Mark 2011 brings together the studies of an important contemporary Israeli scholar of Bratslav Hasidism.

  • Green, Arthur. Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. Woodstock, NY: Jewish Lights, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Landmark intellectual biography of Nahman. This study examines all areas of his life and teachings, with a special attention given to the psychological aspects of his spiritual journey. An excellent point of departure for students. Also available in Hebrew as Ba’al ha-Yesurim (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2001).

  • Kamenetz, Roger. Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka. New York: Schocken, 2010.

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    Creative if eclectic literary biography exploring parallels in the lives and thought of these two interesting figures. The author’s personal account of his own pilgrimage to Nahman’s grave in Uman is spliced into the narrative.

  • Magid, Shaul, ed. God’s Voice from the Void: Old and New Studies in Bratslav Hasidism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of articles on Nahman’s life and teachings, including contributions by, inter alia, S. Magid, E. Wolfson, D. Roskies, and Y. Travis. Also included are first-time English translations of classic studies by S. Horodetzsky, Zeitlin, and Weiss.

  • Mark, Zvi. Hitgalut ve-Tikun be-Ketavav ha-Glui’yim ve’ha-Sodi’im shel R. Nahman mi-Bratslav. Jerusalem: Magnes, 2011.

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    Hebrew articles examining all aspects of the Bratslav Hasidism, including Nahman’s biography, mystical teachings, and stories, and the remarkably heterogenous nature of modern Bratslav communities.

  • Piekarz, Mendel. Hasidut Bratslav. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1995.

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    Foundational collection of articles examining Bratslav Hasidism from the time of Nahman to the late 20th century. Includes chapters dealing with Nahman’s biography, the evolution of Bratslav literature, structural and thematic analysis of Nahman’s stories, and the renaissance of “neo-Bratslav” communities. Updated from the first edition in 1972.

  • Weiss, Joseph G. Mehkarim be-Hasidut Bratslav. Edited by Mendel Piekarz. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of insightful Hebrew articles exploring Nahman’s thought and works from historical, philological, and psychological perspectives. An important chapter in which Weiss identifies and compares two devotional typologies, i.e. mystical Hasidic groups with those whose ideology is more grounded in simple faith (Bratslav), is translated in Magid 2002.

  • Zeitlin, Hillel. Rebbe Nahman Bratslaver: Der Ze’er fun Podoliya. New York: Farlag Matones, 1952.

    E-mail Citation »

    An updated and expanded version of a short Hebrew work from 1910, this Yiddish monograph was the first major biography of Nahman by someone outside of the fold. Includes analysis of Nahman’s teachings and descriptions of Bratslav Hasidism after 1810. Assembled from earlier articles and posthumously published by the author’s son, Aaron Zeitlin.

LAST MODIFIED: 10/29/2013

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199840731-0041

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