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The Bratslav Theory of the Sacred Tale

by Arnold J. Band

The publication of Kinder und Hausmaerchen by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812 and 1815 should serve as a convenient if oblique point of departure for our discussion of the folktale as practiced by the Hasidim and by Nahman of Bratslav in particular. During the same years, but about 1,000 miles east of Kassel and Goettingen where the Grimm brothers lived, the first two collections of Hasidic tales, Shivhe HaBesht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov) and Sippure HaMaasiyot (The Tales) of Nahman of Bratslav were being collected and edited.

Just as there is no historical connection between the editorial activities in the West and those in the East (the identity of dates is purely accidental), so there is no similarity in the aims of the collectors. The Grimm brothers, as both scholars and romantic nationalists, were motivated by a desire to recover the authentic Germanic folk tradition. The two Hasidic editors, Dov Ber ben Samuel, the compiler of Shivhe HaBesht, and Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirow, Nahman of Bratslav's disciple and amanuensis, were both pious men anxious to present tales by or about their respective charismatic leaders, thus glorifying the name of the Lord and inspiring the Hasidim to emulate the ways of their masters. At issue here is the meaning of the term "modern": If we use the term generically referring to a period of time - the last two centuries, for instance - all the above-mentioned collections are of the "modern" period. If "modernity," however, is measured by the secular, inquisitive, and historic spirit, the Grimm brothers are modern while neither Dov Ber ben Samuel nor Nathan of Nemirow is. On the other hand, while these collections of Hasidic tales have not generally been included in histories of Modern Hebrew literature, the arguments Dov Sadan and others have proposed for their inclusion are quite convincing.

Both Yosef Dan and Mendel Piekarz contend that the Hasidim, certainly by 1780, had effected a radical change in the attitude toward the tale. Whereas the telling of tales had previously been frowned upon by Jewish authorities, it was regarded as a worthy pastime by Hasidic masters for a variety of reasons: Since God was immanent in this world, he could be present even in a seemingly idle tale which, upon examination, might contain a deep theological truth; the tale projected before the devout the image of the Hasidic hero, the zadik - more often than not the Besht himself; the tale was a effective means of communicating basic religious notions.

The Bratslav concept of the tale and its role was somewhat more complex and self-conscious. Apart from the Bratslav tales themselves, we have from the early 19th century three striking theoretical statements on the essence of the tale and its function in society: two sermons delivered by Rav Nahman himself at the end of 1806 and included in Likkute Moharan; and the first Introduction to Nahman's tales, Sippure HaMaasiyot, which was written by his disciple, Nathan of Nemirow, in 1814. Since Nathan's Introduction builds upon the sermons, we shall analyze the Introduction and later refer to the sermons. The composite theory of the tale is one of the most coherent and remarkable in the history of Hebrew literature.

Written about four years after Rav Nahman's death in 1810, the Introduction strikes a subtly balanced tone, fusing evangelic and apologetic overtones both couched in terms taken from Ecclesiastes, thereby suggesting the parallel between Rav Nahman and King Solomon, who, after all, "spoke in riddles and parables, and dressed the Torah in several garbs." The note is evangelic since it heralds the first publication of this new, sacred text, the formal publication of the great tales delivered "from his holy mouth," from the holy mouth of Rav Nahman, the "perfection of mankind, our honorable lord, teacher, and master, our glorious and mighty pride, the holy and awesome rabbi, the great light, the supernal light, the precious and holy light, blessed is his name, Rav Nahman (the memory of the zadik is a blessing), the great grandson of the holy, awesome, and god-like Rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov (the memory of the zadik is a blessing)." In these stories - authentic since actually heard from his holy mouth - the master "pondered, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs (Eccl. 12, 9) and garbed and hid lofty and mighty concepts in tales (Sippure HaMaasiyot) in marvelous and wondrous ways." Though new, the book followed the legitimizing precedent of the ancients who "would speak in riddles and parables and garb the Torah in several different garments when they wanted to talk of divine secrets." These sacred texts were being published primarily for the benefit of the faithful followers of Rav Nahman who wanted to know the precise text of these awesome tales since "our master has told us that every statement in these stories contains a potent meaning and he who changes one statement of these stories omits much of the meaning."

It is obvious from the first section of the Introduction that Nathan was fully conscious of the novelty and daring of this publication, since these tales are sacred scripture, "worthy to be expounded in public and told in the synagogues, and whosoever is expert in sacred texts, especially in the Zohar and the Lurianic writings can understand some of the allusions in this text." Nathan also realizes that much of the impact of the stories was due to the charisma of the story teller, Rav Nahman. "It should be clear to any intelligent person that he who hears statements from the very mouth of the sage is not like he who sees them in a book, especially in such allusory matters as those which cannot be understood without the movement of the limbs and the nodding of the head and the wink of the eye and the inclination of the hand etc." Ever conscious of his mission, Nathan brings as support of his project the striking statement of his master Rav Nahman himself:

Before he told the first tale of this book ("The Loss of the Princess"), he said: "In the tales which other people tell are many secrets and lofty matters, but the tales have been ruined in that they are lacking much. They are confused and not told in the proper sequence: what belongs at the beginning they tell at the end and vice versa. Nevertheless, there are in these tales which other people tell lofty and hidden matters."

The "tales which other people tell" are obviously universal folktales culled from many sources, some even Gentile. Nathan is defensive about this point since he asserts several times that most of Rav Nahman's stories are original, that when he did use these stories of foreign provenance he added to, modified, and improved them. Normally, his stories are really original ideas "garbed" in story form. Time and again, we encounter the three terms: hasagah = concept or idea; maaseh = the tale; and some form of the root lbs = to garb. The Bratslav story is supposed to be the garb in narrative terms of a theological concept. The mundane or Gentile origin of the story should not disqualify it for sacred usage once the material has been transmuted by the inspired master storyteller.

The following passage in the Introduction seems at first to be a digression to the source of historical legitimization of the Besht, but, as Joseph Dan has pointed out, it forms with the first passage an integral theory of literary composition:

And the Besht (may his holy memory be a blessing), could "unite unities" by means of tales. When he saw that the upper conduits were ruined and he could not repair them through prayer, he would repair and join them by means of a tale.

Basing his reasoning on the pervasive Lurianic terminology, Dan explains the Bratslaver (a composite of Nahman and Nathan's ideas) theory:

  1. The "lofty and hidden concepts" found in tales other people, be they Jews or Gentiles, tell are parallel to the "holy sparks" that fell into the created world at the time of the cataclytic act of creation.

  2. The tales themselves underwent a process similar to the Lurianic "breaking of vessels" at the time of creation; they are therefore confused, ruined, disorderly, and their original meaning has been lost.

  3. The inspired zadikim, in this case the Besht, is endowed with the power to reveal the holiness hidden in the stories by restructuring them according to their original, proper order. In this sense the zadik "repairs" the story.

  4. Once the story has been repaired, it assumes enormous religious, even theurgic power and a zadik like the Besht can use the story to "unite the unities," that is, to reunite the sefirot (tiferet and malkhut), which had split asunder in the act of creation.

Dan's explanation derives from Rav Nahman's own theory concerning the relationship between the telling of stories and the details of sefirotic structure, a theory fully yet circuitously expounded in the famous sermon "Patah Rabbi Simeon" (Likkute Moharan I:60), a classical Bratslav homily based on the introductory passage of the Idra Rabba of the Zohar to Parashat Naso of the Book of Numbers (128). The gist of this sermon is found in Nathan's Introduction to the Sippure HaMaasiyot, which we have been analyzing. Nathan tells us that his master turned to the telling of tales in a deliberate attempt to achieve by this new method what he had failed to achieve by more conventional methods: the repentance of his flock, their return to the Lord - as he, Rav Nahman, understood it.

When our master, blessed be his memory, began to engage in the telling of tales, he stated explicitly as follows: "I am about to begin to tell tales," by which he meant that since he could not help them return to the Lord by means of Torah lessons or holy discourses . . . he is beginning to engage in tales. In the same period he delivered the sermon, "Patah Rabbi Simeon . ." At the end of that sermon it is explained that by means of tales "the true zadik" awakens from their sleep those human beings who have fallen asleep and sleep away their days.

The sleep mentioned here is a specific spiritual sleep, the period of spiritual obtuseness when the true essence of one's soul, which should properly be connected to the upper world of sefirot, is dormant, hence disconnected from the source of illumination. The tale is a particularly convenient vehicle for the awakening of the soul from its dormancy since it is, by its very nature, a "garb" (levush) and can transmit the supernal illumination subtly, gradually, thus avoiding the risk of blinding the human being with the brilliant light from above.

Nathan's Introduction includes one more intriguing notion culled from the sermon "Patah Rabbi Simeon": there are tales that are in the category of "in the midst of days" and there are tales in the category of "the years of antiquity." Nathan refers here to a threefold classification of tales found in the sermon:

  1. standard tales with no specific sefirotic association;

  2. tales classified as "in the midst of days," thus connected with the lower seven spheres;

  3. tales classified as "of the years of antiquity," thus associated with the three upper spheres.

Tales in the second group recount great acts of divine beneficence in the past, such as the stories of the Patriarchs or the exodus from Egypt; tales in the third group predict the great act of redemption in the future. Tales of the second group are connected with the lower spheres since they present accounts of incomplete redemption, a fact attested to by our experience of this imperfect world. Tales of the third, redemptive group are logically associated with the upper three spheres, but since the final redemption has not yet taken place and the messiah has not yet come, these stories are usually left unfinished, for example, "The Loss of the Princess" and "The Seven Beggars."

The Bratslav theory of literature, its concept of the utilization of folktales, would be incomplete without reference to the notion of the zadik, especially as it appears in the model sermon "Bo El Par'oh," also delivered toward the end of 1806. After two introductory paragraphs describing the Lurianic cosmogony - tzimtzum, shevira, and tikkun - and two types of heresy, Nahman approaches his main theme: the nature and function of the zadik. Nahman refers not to the zadik generically, but to "the Great Zadik of the category of Moses." (Those who know the secondary literature on Bratslav Hasidut are familiar with Yosef Weiss's now widely accepted contention that when Nahman speaks of "the Great Zadik" or "the Zadik of the Generation" he refers to himself. Weiss bases his argument both on the original texts and the commentary of Nahman of Cheryn, one of the leading 19th-century Bratslav exegetes.) The Great Zadik must investigate the words of the heretics who have fallen into the "empty space" opened up in the previously harmonious cosmos when the infinite God contracted himself in order to create the world we live in. Since the empty space implies total absence of all divine presence, it is the locus of all evil. As such, it is the domain of silence, particularly since its opposite, the created world, was brought into existence by divine speech. The letters of the Holy Tongue by which the world was created and in which divine law is revealed comprise the border between the created world and the empty space. The Great Zadik, in that he belongs to the category of Moses, partakes of the paradoxical nature of Moses: He is both a great leader and "heavy of tongue," that is - interpreted by Nahman - a man of silence, hence the only man capable of descending to the realm of silence, the empty space, to redeem the souls that have fallen there. The zadik does this by means of the nigun (melody) or the zemer (the song) which is peculiar to him, a manifestation of his essence as a man of faith.

Though this sermon does not mention the telling of tales as such, the literary implications of this adaptation of the Lurianic myth are far-reaching. Our teller of tales, Rav Nahman, is the Great Zadik who, by his very nature, is distanced from his audience, his Hasidim. The gap between him and his audience, however, can be bridged through the telling of tales which are a garb of his divine concepts. The tales have a specific therapeutic, cosmic function: They redeem souls from the empty space. In this sense, the tales are marvelous and the telling of tales, a redemptive act. But, following the usual Bratslav sense of paradox, the tales are an impure mode of expression, and the telling of tales is a "descent of the Zadik" into a lesser realm of existence for, as Nahman and Nathan tell us, the master resorted to this medium of communication after he felt he had failed miserably in his other modes of communication: prayer, homilies, and Torah lessons.

The paradox inherent in the telling of tales is a reflex of the remarkable analogue Nahman repeatedly draws between the God's relationship to the created world and the zadik's relationship to his Hasidim. In both cases, the sense of vitality emanating from the source is so overwhelming, so far beyond the capacity of ordinary human beings, that special means are required for transmission of the illumination: In both cases "garb" must be used. God uses the letters of the Torah or the Shekhinah, the lowest sphere of the sefirotic system; the zadik uses his tales to talk to his Hasidim. The Torah of the zadik, like the Torah of the Creator of the universe, is garbed in tales since it would be impossible to transmit it as it is. For God, as for the zadik, the telling of tales, the contact with the created world, is a deliberate, willed act of descent motivated by compassion. It is no coincidence that one of the leitwoerter in the sermon "Bo El Par'oh" is rahamanut (compassion).

Nathan's claim that these stories are original even when they utilize "tales other people tell" is correct to the extent that the master's intention - and his audience's understanding - was the presentation of a theological message in a carefully contrived garb. Though one might assign motif-numbers taken from Stith Thompson's Motif Index to parts of these tales, one is dealing only with a garb. In this sense, the Bratslav tales differ radically from the Beshtean tales, for instance, which do not pretend to be a garb (though Nathan does introduce this notion) of a preconceived theological message. The Bratslav tales conform to the known pattern of allegory in that they embody an obvious and continuing reference to a system of ideas (or events). Behind the stories stands the elaborate system of the sefirot with all its dynamic, cosmic implications. Unlike Philo and many medieval interpretations of scriptures, the reader of the Bratslav tales - which are, indeed, scriptural - does not engage in allegorical interpretation because the plot and figurative languages of the text are embarrassingly frank and concrete, too much like the life of ordinary human beings as we know it. The reader of the Bratslav tale is presented an allegorically structured text. Within the conventional categories of modes of allegorical interpretation best summarized by Dante in the 10th Epistle to Can Grande, the meaning called for in the Bratslav tale is anagogic in that it illuminates the entire scheme of creation, the governance of the universe and - most important - of redemption.

Given the amazing self-awareness of Nahman and Nathan concerning the nature of "garbing" - really the allegorical technique - it is surprising that they did not succumb to a mechanical equation of narrative and ideational systems. One can, perhaps, ascribe this deliverance from potentially tedious contrivance to several features unique to Rav Nahman, the teller of tales, who, as Yosef Weiss would argue, identified with the redemptive heroes of his own tales, be it the mishneh lamelekh or the zadik emet., and thus suffused his tales with an anxious immediacy. Furthermore, Nahman, as we have stated, conceived of the telling of tales as an act analogous to the redemption of the cosmos by God at the end of days. This concept of narrative, coupled with his identification with his heroes, prevented the dissociation of sense from sensibility, of idea from image, which critics from Coleridge on have assailed so relentlessly. The narrative concretization of his ingenious concept of the narrative art is to be found in what we - parodying Frank Kermode - would like to call "the sense of a non-ending": When one tells a tale involving the third, redemptive group, those of "the years of antiquity," one does not finish the tale since the very act of fiction and the dynamics of the cosmos are concomitant. While we, today, often tend to glorify fiction as the consummate and characteristic human activity, Rav Nahman considered the proper telling of his tales of such cosmic import that only "the Zadik of the generation" or his authorized disciples should perform this act.

Whether or not the thirteen canonical Bratslav tales actually conform to the theory expressed in these three early and authentic Bratslav documents - and there is good reason to state that many of them don't - the very self-consciousness of the theoretical statements betrays an awareness of an implicit crossing of genre borders. Nathan knows that there is a difference between the telling of tales and traditional Torah literature, homilies, commentaries, and so forth; he also knows that there is a difference between traditional Torah literature, however sacred it might be, and these stories which were uttered "by the holy mouth" of the zadik of the generation. While these three genres are not at all similar to the three genres we have referred to earlier, we should at least share Nathan of Nemirow's consciousness that there are genres with their implicit assumptions even when the borderlines are blurred. Not all genre borders, finally, are equally distinct. The crossing of the border from folk literature to "literature" might raise serious problems of definition, but not grave concerns of intentionality. The crossing from folk literature or literature to scripture does raise the problem of intentionality; the scholar dismisses with peril to his perspective the notion that these utterances were regarded as scripture by their audience.

Excerpt from Nahman of Bratslav, translation, introduction and commentaries by Arnold J. Band (Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, © 1978).
Used by permission of Paulist Press (997 Macarthur Blvd., Mahway, NJ 07430. Phone 201-825-7300, fax 201-825-8345).



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