Review of A Permanent Beginning: R. Nachman of Braslav and Jewish Literary Modernity by Yitzhak Lewis

Marek Tuszewicki

Yitzhak Lewis, A Per­ma­nent Begin­ning: R. Nach­man of Braslov and Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Moder­ni­ty. (SUNY Press, 2020). 242 pp. $32.95, paperback.

Reb Nachman of Braslav was in the prime of his creative activity when the Ashkenazi world faced unprecedented challenges in the early nineteenth century. The age of revolution was making its way to the provincial areas of eastern Europe. 1 1 It must be noted, however, that the revolutionary atmosphere had been already brought about by the Polish-Russian War of 1792 and the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794. Both events left a trace in the collective memory of Jews living in the ethnically Polish areas. The storm heralded by the drums of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army was heard loud and clear both in the palaces of prominent aristocratic families and in the synagogues, houses of study, and kloyzn. The flashes on the horizon threw new light on the questions of tradition, authority, and identity. For some, the future appeared posed to allow people to break through previously unbreakable barriers. Others trembled in fear that the very foundations of the social order were shaking. Faced with a crisis of traditional social structures, many found the ideas of the Haskalah to be increasingly attractive. Individuals inspired by that movement achieved social positions beyond the reach of their fathers’ generation, established close relations with the ruling elite, and even obtained institutional support from state authorities.

The success of these proponents of the Enlightenment has long dominated Jewish historiography, overshadowing the fate of many groups of Jews who remained outside the Haskalah. Among these neglected groups were the many followers of Reb Nachman of Bratslav. Indeed, it has taken some time for the scholarly community to recognize the importance of Reb Nachman (1772-1810), who is arguably one of the most important figures not only in the history of Hasidism, 2 2 Ada Rapaport-Albert, who discussed the figure of Nachman in the context of the centralized Hasidic leadership, has drawn attention to the messianic dimension of his actions, which - although they put him in the role of a messianic leader - did not undermine the position of other tsadikim, Ada Rapaport-Albert, Hasidism after 1772: Structural Continuity and Change, in: A. Rapaport Albert (ed.), Hasidism Reappraised (Oxford: Liverpool University Press, 1996), 112-119. but also in the development of modern Jewish literature. This discovery of his literary output has proved critical for historians of Hasidism and modern eastern European Jewry. Reb Nachman did not leave behind a dynasty of successors that would testify to the endurance of his teachings, and his followers (“Dead Hasidim”) were pushed to the margins of the movement. Perhaps that is why the first generations of researchers failed to appreciate his heritage. Simon Dubnow, whose criticism of Reb Nachman’s stories relegated them to the category of mental disorders, 3 3 Simon Dubnow, Toldot ha-Hasidut, 3 vols. (Devir: Tel-Aviv 1944), 307. or Martin Buber, for whom they were testimony of a mystical detachment from reality, 4 4 In the introductory note to Die Geschichten des Rabbi Nachman, Buber reserves the right to interpret the stories within their mystical spirit. In the first edition of Die Legende des Baalschem he also criticizes Dubnow’s (and Shmuel Aba Horodezky’s) positivist approach to Hasidism. See: Martina Urban, Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber’s Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 190. represent two sides of the same coin. It is also now clear that Reb Nachman’s contemporaries were not passive figures in the tragedy of history but rather active agents involved in shaping the future. Hasidism owed its success (at least in the nineteenth century) to its sustained dialogue with modernity. This dialogue often took the form of an open argument, but was also conducted like political marketing in close contact with Jewish elites and government officials. 5 5 It is worth mentioning the research by Marcin Wodziński (Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: A History of Conflict, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford and Portland, 2005) and Glenn Dynner (Men of Silk. The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 2006), which show the deep entanglement of Hasidic promoters in the political realities of the Kingdom of Poland. On the other hand, David Assaf pays attention to political initiatives taken by Hasidim during crisis (Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, 2010). Jonathan Meir 6 6 E.g. Yonatan Meir, Literary Hasidism: The Life and Works of Michael Levi Rodkinson (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2016.) and Ken Frieden, 7 7 Ken Frieden, Travels in Translation: Sea Tales at the Source of Jewish Fiction (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2016.) among others, have studied Hasidism’s contribution to the development of modern Yiddish writing, particularly through the legacies of Reb Nachman and his “secretary” Nathan Sternharz. Yitzhak Lewis’s book reevaluates the impact of Reb Nachman’s stories on Jewish literature and, in so doing, raises questions about the tzadik’s intellectual horizons and the motivations behind his creative undertakings.

Lewis employs approaches and discusses perspectives taken from both historical research and literary studies. He engagingly discusses the repercussions of historical events (especially in the opening chapters), analyzes literary texts, and questions the validity of the dominant contemporary periodization of Jewish literature. The author puts himself in the role of a guide who, rather than trying to question authorities, patiently explains the factors that have shaped the academic discourse on Hasidism during the last century. Embedding his research in the extant scholarship enables Lewis to offer a number of interventions that give fascinating depth to the history of nineteenth-century Jewish literature as a multidimensional phenomenon. Of course, the author is closer to contemporary researchers—Chone Shmeruk, David G. Roskies, Marc Caplan—than to Simon Dubnow’s preposterous criticism of Reb Nachman’s output, but the closeness in question does not erase differing opinions. For instance, Lewis remains critical of comparisons made between Nachman’s stories and contemporary European literature (Shmeruk). In Roskies’s polemic with Buber on Reb Nachman’s position within the history of Jewish culture, he notices a lack of historiographical dynamism. He is also much more cautious about presenting the tsadik as a modernist (Caplan). In the same way, the discord between the fields of Jewish thought (e.g., Ada Rapaport-Albert) and literary studies (Ora Wiskind-Elper) regarding the innovative nature of Nachman’s texts does not prevent Lewis from seeking questions and answers across both.

Before the author examines literary questions, however, he clarifies the historical background in the first part of the book. The 1804 statute of tsar Alexander I, which regulated the way Jews were to function in the public space of the Russian state as citizens, guild members, artisans, etc., provides a point of departure for a deeper understanding of the Maharan (Nachman)’s creative output. This new law had great significance for the tsar’s subjects, even though it did not interfere with religious issues or with the Jewish private sphere. However, its regulations shaped the economic and social character of the Pale of Settlement, the western territory of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live that corresponds to parts of modern-day Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus. The regulations created the framework within which Jews lived and functioned until the collapse of the policy of enlightened tolerance in the early 1880s.

Nowadays, there is no need to convince anyone that the Hasidic elites were largely aware of living in a breakthrough period that changed the face of the diaspora for centuries. 8 8 The conflict between the tzadikim over Napoleon, which focused on the potential benefits and dangers stemming from the idea of the French Revolution or the possibility of the rebirth of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a “Jewish paradise,” seems to be especially interesting here. Reb Nachman—himself one of the most influential tzadikim of his generation due to his ancestry and personal activity—was at the same time open to contact with otherness. His journey to Eretz Israel turned out to be a foundational experience that enabled him to familiarize himself with international politics and, to some extent, technology. His interests were also revealed by the tzadik’s contacts with the maskilim, which became a part of his everyday life especially in Uman.

These historical circumstances allow Lewis to draw conclusions by analyzing Reb Nachman’s literary output through the prism of his extraordinary personality. Lewis interprets the corpus of Reb Nachman’s stories alongside the tzadik’s other teachings. He finds a voice of a person deeply concerned about the future of the Jewish people in these texts. Lewis’s Nachman of Braslav is a creative person who seems to be well-versed in socio-political mechanisms and makes an effort to communicate with his audience in an understandable manner.

This is particularly evident in Lewis’s interpretation of “The Tale of a King Who Decreed Conversion.” The story alludes to the history of the Marranos. A certain king orders the Jews to convert or leave the country. However, instead of shaping a new society without differences, he creates a society with an enduring, albeit hidden, difference. The fourth king, his direct descendant, also attempts to eradicate differences by creating an idol made of seven metals. He seeks to unite the world through recognition and tolerance of diversity, again to no avail. Lewis points to the relationship between the fate of the world presented by Reb Nachman and the events that affected Russian Jewry in his own time. The first king resembles Spanish rulers, and the fourth one is similar to… Alexander I. Even if Nachman does not give an unequivocal answer to the question of the visibility of differences, he makes it the subject of his literary deliberations. Within the story, the relegation of Jewish rituals to secrecy ultimately leads to the fall of the dynasty in an era of tolerance and enlightenment.

Can Reb Nachman be considered a Jewish intellectual? Did he consider himself the Messiah? Was his decision to take the literary path a conscious one and was he consistent in his choice? The most interesting parts of Lewis’s book set out to solve these questions and the answers he proposes demonstrate the author’s excellent knowledge of the source material and ingenuity. He is never satisfied with cliché observations, even if he finds some of them essentially true. On some occasions, Lewis undermines the validity of questions that have become standard in the field of Jewish studies, only to extract their most crucial aspect and discuss it thoroughly later. For example, analyses of “The Tale of the Lost Princess” usually focus on its ‘missing ending.’ Joseph Dan, as well as the aforementioned Shmeruk and Roskies, devoted much attention to the reasons behind this meaningful lack. Lewis agrees that this is a deliberate stylistic maneuver rooted in Kabbalistic visions of the messianic era. However, he proposes a different interpretation that goes against the Lurianic narrative 9 9 Lewis departs from the method of interpretation of R. Nachman’s tales as “Kabbalistic stories” (e.g. Marianne Schleicher’s Intertextuality in the Tales of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (Boston: Brill, 2007)), finding it too narrowing for literature studies. and emphasizes the importance of ‘anticlimax’, which in fact dominates the endings of most of the stories in the collection. Consequently, Lewis offers an innovative approach to one of the most widely read Hasidic texts.

Its interdisciplinary character notwithstanding, the book’s contributions to literary studies constitutes its essence. Lewis shows how Reb Nachman initiated a new era of Jewish literature that shaped nineteenth- and twentieth-century Yiddish and Hebrew writing. Lewis depicts the tzadik of Braslav and his initiative as very lonely rather than as simply independent. Was he the only one among his contemporaries who tried to reconcile the contradictory ideas of “the decline of generations” and of “the history of progress”? After all, Jewish doctors faced similar dilemmas much earlier, 10 10 The early 18th-century work Ma’aseh Tuviyah, which constitutes an attempt to combine science and rabbinic traditions, is a fascinating case in point, as is Pinhas Hurwitz’s Sefer haberit published in 1797. as did Jewish inventors living closer in time to Reb Nachman. 11 11 Perhaps the most famous among those was Abraham Stern, a brilliant inventor who lectured on mechanics and mathematics at the meetings of the Society of Friends of Learning in Warsaw wearing Orthodox Jewish clothing.

A Permanent Beginning invites new research which would fill the gap between Reb Nachman and Mendele Mocher Sforim. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, Reb Nachman’s contemporary, could serve as a fitting point of reference.

Lewis’s use of repeated quotations to aid his narrative structure runs the risk of redundancy. The juxtaposition of the late eighteenth-century and the late nineteenth-century crises also causes some confusion. Nevertheless, this juxtaposition enables Lewis to note not only two breakthrough points for the Jewish diaspora in Russia, but also the passage of time between the creation of Reb Nachman’s stories and the publication of Martin Buber’s interpretation, which still shapes the popular reception of the original (whether we like it or not). The clear-cut presentation of Reb Nachman’s literary output against the background of the Russian Empire gives the impression that the Pale of Settlement was the only area in which Yiddish and Hebrew literature developed. By marginalizing the experiences of Jews inhabiting Poland and Galicia (Buber included), we lose sight of the heterogeneous character of eastern Ashkenaz (and of Hasidism itself). Despite these issues, the book offers a satisfying, complex perspective on the history of Jewish literature, and new perspectives on the struggle between orthodoxy and modernity, where people “in between” like Nachman could dream of the future.

Tuszewicki, Marek. “Review of A Permanent Beginning: R. Nachman of Braslav and Jewish Literary Modernity by Yitzhak Lewis.” In geveb, March 2021:
Tuszewicki, Marek. “Review of A Permanent Beginning: R. Nachman of Braslav and Jewish Literary Modernity by Yitzhak Lewis.” In geveb (March 2021): Accessed Apr 20, 2021.


Marek Tuszewicki

Marek Tuszewicki is an assistant professor at Institute of Jewish Studies, Jagiellonian University in Kraków.