from Mysticism and Madness (translator).
Chapter Eight: Silence and Melody in the Presence of the Void
The topic of the voidis undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and important subjects in the thought of R. Nachman of Breslov. In particular, R. Nachman’s teaching, Bo El Paraoh, which focuses on the topics of the void and constriction has engaged the interest of many scholars.
Hillel Zeitlin speaks of “the great value that R. Nachman ascribed to the subject of the void, a topic to which he continually returned.” Weiss sees Bo El Paraoh as expressing the ontological basis for the central place that the topic occupies in R. Nachman’s thought, and considers it to be the foundation stone of the paradoxical nature of Breslovian faith. Arthur Green, who deals extensively with this teaching, describes it as “perhaps the most important single statement of Nachman’s thoughts on the themes of faith, doubt, and reason.”
Weiss finds in Bo El Paraoh a clear expression of R. Nachman’s existentialist conceptions—conceptions that, Weiss contends, stand in stark contrast not only to the world of mysticism but also to that of Hasidism. Green, although conscious of R. Nachman’s “mystical side,” argues that “the definition of faith emerging from his teaching on the void seems to be one that perforce must reject mysticism as the basis of religion.” However, since he is aware of the presence of mysticism in R. Nachman’s world, Green offers three explanations to reconcile this apparent contradiction.
The present chapter will demonstrate that mysticism occupies an important place in Bo El Paraoh, and that without comprehending of this we cannot understand the task that R. Nachman assigns to the zaddik of struggling with heresy and questions that have no answer. The concept of faith that emerges from Bo El Paraoh corresponds closely with that expressed by R. Nachman in other teachings. Not only does R. Nachman’s concept of faith not reject mysticism, but it is embedded in a system at whose apex stands the mystical experience; faith itself possesses a distinctly mystical cast, its very existence being dependent upon the prophetic spirit.
Since Bo El Paraoh has been discussed at length by Weiss and Green, I shall concentrate on the specific elements that they did not examine in their studies, a lacuna that led them to a faulty understanding of the main principles of R. Nachman’s teachings.
Likutei Moharan (with alternative readings and notes from our master and rabbi, R. Nathan, prepared for publication by N. Z. Koenig) (Jerusalem, 1985), Kamma (Part I), Teaching 64.
For constriction in Hasidism, see: R. Schatz Offenheimer, Quietist Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought (Jerusalem, 1968), pp. 121-28 (Hebrew); T. Ross, “Rav Hayim of Volozhin and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi: Two Interpretations of the Doctrine of Zimzum,” JSJT 2 (1982), pp. 153-69 (Hebrew); M. Idel, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany, 1995), pp. 89-95.
For constriction in Lurian Kabbalah, see: G. Scholem, Elements of the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 104-8, 207-9.
For the historical context of the emergence of the concept of constriction, see: idem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1941), pp. 244-86, esp. 260-64; I. Tishby, The Doctrine of Evil and the ‘Kelippah’ in Lurianic Kabbalism (Jerusalem, 1992), pp. 52-61 (Hebrew).
For a different interpretation of the concept of constriction, see: M. Idel, “On the Concept of Zimzum in Kabbalah and Its Research,” in: R. Elior and Y. Liebes (eds.), Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on the History of Jewish Mysticism: Lurianic Kabbalah, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 10 (Jerusalem, 1992), pp. 59-112 (Hebrew).
H. Zeitlin, R. Nachman of Breslov: His Life and His Teachings (Warsaw, 1910), p. 14 (Hebrew).
J. G. Weiss, “The Question in the Teaching of R. Nachman,” Studies in Braslav Hassidism, ed. M. Piekarz (Jerusalem, 1975), pp. 109-49, esp. 121-41 (Hebrew).
A. Green, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (University, Alabama, 1979), esp. pp. 311-17, but also additional discussions for background.
Green, Tormented Master, p. 311. For an additional discussion of Teaching 64 and the void in R. Nachman’s thought, see: S. Magid, “Through the Void: The Absence of God in R. Nachman Breslov’s Likutei Moharan,” Harvard Theological Review 88 (1995), pp. 495-519; Y. Liebes, “Nachman of Breslov and Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Dimui 19 (2001), pp. 10-13 (Hebrew); M. Gafni, “To Live with the Empty,” Dimui 19 (2001), pp. 54-57 (Hebrew); D. Nov, “The ‘Void’ and the Existential Emptiness: Between R. Nachman of Breslov and Existentialism,” Dimui 19 (2001), pp. 58-60 (Hebrew). See also the important article by M. Pachter, “Faith and Heresy in the Doctrine of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov,” Daat 45 (Summer 2000), pp. 105-34 (Hebrew).
Weiss, “The Hasidism of Mysticism and the Hasidism of Faith,” Studies in Braslav Hassidism, pp. 87-95.
Green, Tormented Master, pp. 318-19.
Green, Tormented Master, p. 317.
Green, Tormented Master, pp. 322-30. Saul Magid, who develops R. Nachman’s statements in Bo El Paraoh in a different manner, also accepts Weiss and Green’s basic interpretation of this teaching (see Magid, “Through the Void”); see below for a detailed explanation.
For the mystical strata of R. Nachman’s concept of faith, see: T. Mark, “Madness and Knowledge,” esp. 69-74. For the concept of faith in R. Nachman’s thought, see: Pachter, “Faith and Heresy,” pp. 105-34.