The ‘R’

A new documentary tells only part of the story of Rebbe Nahman's journey to the heart of mainstream Israeli culture.

In March 2020 El Al, Israel’s national air carrier, sent planes to Peru—a country it doesn’t fly to usually—to repatriate the over 1,000 Israeli backpackers stranded there as COVID-19 spread across Latin America. Preparing for takeoff, the pilot on one of these flights tried to raise the spirits of his passengers by encouraging them to join him in singing the familiar song Kol ha’olam kulo. “The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is to have no fear at all.” The passengers obliged, and the mood was set for the journey.

These were the words that Rebbe Nachman of Braslav (1772–1810) spoke to his students at some point during the first decade of the nineteenth century, in today’s Ukraine. (Since the opponents of Hasidism controlled the institution of rabbinic ordination at the time, it would be imprecise to call him a “rabbi.” And yet he has been the spiritual leader of many for over 200 years. In the following pages, I will leave this tension in place by abbreviating his appellation as R. Nachman.) It is worth noting the journey that this pithy proverb has made since then: from early nineteenth century Yiddish-speaking Jews in Ukraine to early twenty-first century Hebrew-speaking Israelis in Peru. But how did these words travel from the minor Hasidic circle of R. Nachman and his disciples to become a mainstream cultural reference in contemporary Israel?

KAN, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, tried to answer this question recently. In September 2020 it aired Rabeinu (literally “Our Rabbi”), a three-part documentary that “tells the story of a mysterious Hasidic rabbi… [and] tries to understand the significance of this ever-growing phenomenon in Israeli society, the diversity of its adherents…” The series is presented as a comprehensive biography of R. Nachman: an overview of his Hasidic teachings, the historical path introducing his ideas into mainstream Israeli culture and, most importantly, the impact of this phenomenon on contemporary Israeli-Jewish identity. Throughout, the narrator repeats the question (which doubles as the tagline for the show): “Who is Rabeinu?”

But despite its title and tagline, the Kan documentary series is not really about R. Nachman. Paradoxically, the documentary’s heavily decontextualized focus on R. Nachman produces a rather limited picture of who he really was. Watching the first episode, one might think he invented Hasidism and was its only prominent figure. Or that his only detractors were misnagdim (the Orthodox opponents of Hasidism), when in fact the main opposition came from contemporary Hasidic elites. This is in part the result of taking late hagiography as historical documentary. But more importantly, it makes clear that in the map of contemporary Israeli culture, the great historical courts of Hasidism are completely irrelevant. While other Hasidic groups have played significant roles in shaping Israel’s political, legal and economic spheres, Braslav has had a uniquely powerful and exclusively cultural impact. (The only exception to this is Chabad, which I will touch on shortly.) Case in point, there has never been in the history of the State of Israel a Knesset that did not have a Ger Hasid among its ranks, while there has never yet been a single Braslav representative to parliament. The choice to exclude other Hasidic groups from the documentary, together with the focus on R. Nachman in isolation from his own Hasidic context and orientation, underscores the narrative interest in Braslav—not as historical or political phenomena, but as a familiar feature of contemporary Israeli culture.

The documentary’s producers do not hide this fact. In each episode, the viewer is reminded of the central question, “Who is Rabeinu?” And in each episode, the narrator answers that it is impossible to answer. Viewers seeking to learn about the historical figure of R. Nachman and his unique Hasidic teachings will be disappointed with the polyphonic narrative about contemporary Braslav and its message. But this is also what makes the series a fascinating commentary on Braslav’s prominence in contemporary Israel. The many and varied answers the documentary provides for its pivotal question present the viewer with a rainbow of Israeli-Jewish identities. What comes through in every episode is twenty-first century Israeli society, grappling with the changing landscape of its identity.

This documentary is very much a history of the present, a documentation of the existential anxieties of Israeli society today. The series’ strength lies in the way it presents individual accounts of personal lived experiences, of Jews in Israel contending with identity concerns. “As the only Hasidim that don’t have a leader,” one interviewee explains. Braslavers don’t have a rabbi, only Rabeinu. And he accepts you the way you are: “he meets you at your level.” In this regard, the absence of any comparison to Chabad is striking, precisely for the instructive similarities between these two movements: their conscious outreach to non-Hasidic Jews, and the presence of non-Ashkenazi members and senior figures. Anathema in any other Hasidic court, the point is overlooked in the Kan documentary. The focus of its decontextualized narrative is squarely on the role that Braslav (and only Braslav) plays in forming contemporary Israeli identity.

The real story of this title doesn’t begin with R. Nachman or his students, or even the many dedicated followers that have kept his teachings alive for centuries without a central leadership. So how contemporary is the narrative of Braslav’s role in “contemporary” Israeli culture? Where does exposition end and the plot begin? By way of constructing a timeline, it is worth noting that the story does not extend far back enough to reference the longstanding relationship between President Zalman Shazar and the Braslav community; his friendship with Rabbi Yisrael Dov Odesser and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Bender, or when, in the early 1960s, Shazar would walk to “The Shul” (the Braslav synagogue in Mea She’arim) for High Holiday services. It doesn’t mention that in 1963, the Rosh Hashana after Shazar was elected president, a vitriolic peshkevil (printed public announcement) was issued against the welcome the Braslav leadership gave the Zionist president. Shazar never returned to “The Shul” for High Holiday services.

This noteworthy cultural episode and its elision in the documentary should not undermine the overall credibility of the narrative. Rather, this event helps date the beginnings of the Rabeinu story—like so many other trends, fissures and tensions in Israeli society—to the aftermath of 1967’s Six Day War. This was when Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was revolutionizing spirituality in the U.S., when a generation of young global Jewry marveled at the “miracle” of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War and the early waves of Jewish youth emigration from North America began. At the same time, a similar spiritual revolution was afoot in Israeli society. Rabbi Carlebach was not the only Hasidic Jew to step out of the Hasidic world to engage with the general Jewish population. Two charismatic Braslav leaders, Rabbi Yisrael Dov Odesser and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Bender, also stepped outside the Hasidic fold and began reaching out to young Israelis.

This trend was amplified after 1973’s Yom Kippur War, when a young generation who had experienced two major wars in less than a decade encountered embryonic New Age Braslav communities in neighborhoods across the country. For the documentary, this marks the start of Braslav’s entry into Israeli mainstream. We hear from several Braslav disciples, who describe joining various Braslav circles in the aftermath of their participation in the Yom Kippur War. This is a reflection of the success of Rabbi Odesser and Rabbi Bender. The next generation of popular Braslav leaders introduced by the series include Rabbi Eliezer Shik and Rabbi Shlomo Berland—both disciples of Rabbi Bender. By focusing on these figures, the narrative presents Braslav in Israel as a teshuva phenomenon, growing and expanding through the recruitment of non-observant Jews “back into the fold” of a religious community. Much of the focus is on men, with brief attention also given to the phenomenon of machzirot (female proselytizers who attract women to Braslav).

Rabbi Shalom Sabag, leader of a contemporary Braslav circle, states that “no one came here looking for God, but along the way they found Him.” So what is it that Braslav offered Israeli youth in the 1970s, and continues to offer today? The series proposes many answers to this question: existential comfort, spirituality, family, acceptance, New Age spiritual practice, a set of religious practices updated for the contemporary Israeli context (most notably pilgrimages to Mt. Meron and Uman), and more. It soon becomes clear, however, that “What does he offer?” is as difficult a question to answer as “Who is Rabeinu?” There isn’t one “Braslav.” There are many.

In the first part of the series, R. Nachman’s innovations in terms of Jewish faith are contrasted with his strict Jewish practice. But a few minutes on, the documentary turns to a Braslav women-only disco-trance party. In the third and final part, Dr. Asaf Leibovitz of Hebrew University states that Braslav answers “a feeling of orphanhood among many Israelis… who feel that Israeli identity politics don’t contain them… Braslav accepts you the way they are. You don’t have to define yourself.” Later in the episode, prominent contemporary Braslav leader Rabbi Ofer Gisin explains that Braslav is driving “a reconciliation between Jewish culture and Israeli culture”—implicitly referring to the topic of identity politics in Israel. These same identity politics get picked up again by the well-known journalist and Braslav follower Zvi Yehezkeli later in the episode: “there are many symbols of Israeliness… the most powerful symbol is Rabeinu.” At the same point, the series introduces the American businessman whose financial investment underwrote the first mass pilgrimages to R. Nachman’s grave in the Ukraine. Yet even as the documentary oscillates between the different—and contradictory—answers to these questions, the narrator continues to refer to the phenomenon that the series is documenting as “Braslav.”

This narrative is inconsistent because Braslav, as a contemporary social and intellectual phenomenon, is inconsistent. Within the sub-groups and personal lived experiences presented there is more clarity. But because the narrative continues to refer to this multiplicity of attitudes and practices as “Braslav,” the documentary stretches the limits of the viewer’s object recognition. What is the common thread that connects all these groups? Other than having taken the name “Braslav,” there is none. It’s an empty signifier, a blank screen onto which a variety of anxieties about identity are projected. Like the term “Jew” in debates about “who is a Jew,” the label “Braslav” is a mirror for modern identity concerns, in that it too doesn’t mean any one thing. In twenty-first century Israel, “Braslav” has become a metonymy for “Jew.”

The focus on documentary elisions helps in mapping out the borders of the Israeli cultural space that this series explores, and in which it finds fascinating multivocal expressions of identity. There is, however, an omission that makes this story more significantly incomplete. It doesn’t account for many people like myself; who have been deeply influenced by R. Nachman and his writings on both personal and professional levels, but who did not discover Braslav in the aftermath of the great Israeli wars and for whom this term does not primarily indicate a lived religious experience. Like the passengers on the El Al flight out of Peru, many Israelis first encounter Braslav in the frequent embeddings of R. Nachman’s texts in Jewish and Israeli culture. For us, Braslav is a textual phenomenon. The documentary follows several Braslav publication projects, noting the importance Braslav followers attribute to disseminating the texts of R. Nachman. And yet the documentary doesn’t offer a significant reading of any Braslav text. The significance of Braslav for the contemporary Israelis documented here is oral and charismatic, not textual. The series pays little attention to the text.

Chilik Frank, the custodian of the Makor Baruch Braslav synagogue in Jerusalem, says he interprets R. Nachman’s teachings at face value, kipshuto—as not requiring interpretation. This would be inconceivable to anyone who has attempted to read the challenging text of Likkutei Moharan, the two volumes of R. Nachman’s collected teachings. At other moments, the documentary shows short, animated recaps of stories by R. Nachman, but doesn’t delve into these fascinating narratives in any detail. By foregrounding the multivocal reception of R. Nachman as a lived experience of identity in contemporary Israel, the narrative sidesteps questions of text and interpretation. While the documentary does include interviews with some of the leading researchers in the field of Hasidism, Braslav and modern Jewish religion (Arthur Green, Haviva Pedaya, and Zvi Mark, to name three), all of whom point to the textuality of Braslav’s centuries-long influence, the nuances of their comments are lost in the narrative flow of the documentary.

The Kan story is that nearly 200 years after his death, R. Nachman was rediscovered, and this explains his recent significance in Israeli culture. Downplaying R. Nachman’s footprint in Jewish culture over the two centuries between his death and the production of this series is the most glaring omission, and the most telling aspect, of this documentary. Since R. Nachman’s death, the great spiritual and cultural figures of Judaism from every generation have engaged with his thought and storytelling. Throughout the nineteenth century, figures such as Yosef Perl, I.L. Peretz and Sh. I. Abramovitch were in discourse with R. Nachman’s textual legacy. In the early twentieth century, leading Jewish thinkers such as Sh. A. Horodezky, Hillel Zeitlin and Martin Buber sought inspiration for a modern Jewish identity in his teachings and tales. Buber’s interpretation, early in the twentieth century, of R. Nachman’s texts paved the way for a new age of Jewish spirituality and identity, first in Germany and then in Israel. A. Y. Heschel did the same for Jewish identity in the Anglo-Jewish world in the middle of the twentieth century. Their contemporary S. Y. Agnon was likewise influenced by R. Nachman’s writings long before he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. None of these prominent Jewish voices are mentioned in the series.

That Zalman Schocken, Agnon’s publisher, also amassed a collection of Braslav texts at the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem, through his collaboration with Sh. A. Horodezky, is presented by the documentary as an archival project of historical value, rather than a living resource of intellectual renewal in mid-century Israel. Schocken was an important mediator of access to Braslav texts for the burgeoning Israeli community of researchers studying Hasidism and mysticism, including his friend Gershom Scholem. In the second half of the twentieth century, authors including Pinchas Sadeh, Haim Beer and Anton Shammas (a notable non-Jewish author of Hebrew literature) have made use of R. Nachman and his texts in their literary engagements with Israeli identity. And yet, despite stretching the meaning of this label to include so many idiosyncratic groups in contemporary Israel, none of these admirable figures are identified by the Kan narrative as “Braslav,” and most are not even mentioned. Why?

What is unique about the recent “rediscovery” of R. Nachman is that it is by individuals who demonstrate little knowledge of this rich cultural history of Diasporic and pre-Zionist Judaism, in a narrative that de-textualizes and decontextualizes the historical emergence of Braslav on the contemporary Israeli cultural stage. The young generation of Jews whose frame of reference is heavily influenced by the state orthodoxy of contemporary Israeli culture may not know about the broader legacy of R. Nachman’s texts. There have been two main channels for Braslav to enter Israeli-Jewish identity; this documentary is about one of these two and, for the most part, seems uninterested in the other—surprising, given that most of the academics interviewed for the series do point to this other channel. The very fact that the producers felt the need to interview academics, alongside rabbis, demonstrates some awareness of this unexplored dimension of Braslav. Nonetheless, the production is tone-deaf to the other, less markedly “Orthodox” avenue of introducing R. Nachman to Israeli-Jewish identity—via diaspora spirituality, modern Jewish literature, academic scholarship, and non-Hebrew language community projects.

What this documentary explicitly shows about contemporary Israeli culture is that Israeli-Jews are in search of a particularly Jewish response to twenty-first century modernity. Beyond New Age practices, there is a deep desire for a uniquely Israeli and broadly popular spirituality. The rainbow of “Braslav” identities presented in this documentary exhibits the post-modern fragmentation of historically orthodox categories of identity. And yet, what the documentary implicitly shows is that this fragmentation remains constrained by Orthodoxy’s enduring grip on Israeli-Jewish identity. The transgressive potential of Braslav is broadly acknowledged in this series; but yet, imagining its development in twenty first century Israel is constrained. In perhaps the most soul-bearing moment in the documentary, a man relates his decision to leave what he felt had become a Braslav cult. He offers a remarkable extension of the metonymy between Braslav and Jew, touching the limits of Braslav in Israeli identity: “For me, Rabbi Nachman was a narcissist, but he was a sacred narcissist.”

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