Shnei ha-Me'orot

BOOK REVIEW

Moshe Nahmani, Shnei ha-Me’orot [The Two Luminaries]: Rabbi Nahman of Breslov / Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook (2019)

Moshe Nahmani has distinguished himself as a foremost independent researcher of the annals of Rav Kook. Like Rav Kook, he has an affinity for Beshtian Hasidism (something which alienates him from some disciples of Rav Kook, who would wish to distance and disentangle the Rav from Hasidism.) The past several years, he has emerged as a most vocal and outspoken defender of animal welfare. (Again, this causes some friction between Nahmani and some representatives of Kookian tradition who regard the Rav’s writings on vegetarianism as a “hilkheta li-Meshiha,” something that awaits the Messianic Era.)

We are all indebted to Moshe Nahmani for his latest work, a carefully documented presentation of the overlap and spiritual affinity between the elder Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook (and his son Rav Tsevi Yehudah Hakohen Kook) on the one hand, and Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, on the other. Besides invaluable anecdotes provided by disciples,[1] there are at least two great finds in terms of archival material. First and foremost, are Rav Tsevi Yehudah’s notes in the marginalia of his copy of Likkutei MoHaRaN, Rabbi Nahman’s magnum opus. Second, is the lengthy letter Rabbi Avraham Sternhartz addressed to Rav Kook in the summer of 1934, seeking his assistance in easing his immigration from Soviet Russia to Erets Yisrael.

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Rabbi Avraham Sternhartz was the grandson of Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov and Breslov, who acted as Rabbi Nahman’s sofer (scribe). But Rabbi Nathan was much more than just an amanuensis. Rabbi Nahman believed that the soul-connection between the two, Nahman and Nathan, extended back in time. Rabbi Nathan would become Rabbi Nahman’s chief disciple and interpreter. After Rabbi Nahman’s passing, Rabbi Nathan became the leader of the Breslover Hasidim.

After Rabbi Sternhartz’s arrival in Erets Yisrael in 1936,[2] he transmitted the Breslov tradition to disciples, most notably Rabbi Gedaliah Kenig, who before his passing in 1980, initiated the establishment of the now thriving Breslov community in Tsefat.

What is most curious about Rabbi Sternhartz’s letter of introduction to Rav Kook (on pages 69-72) is that he presents himself as a grandson on his father’s side of the great Rabbi David Tsevi, Av-Beit-Din of several communities, and on his mother’s side of Rabbi [Nahman] of Tcherin, author of Parapara’ot le-Hokhmah [a commentary on Likkutei MOHaRaN]. It is definitely true that Rabbi Nathan’s father-in-law was the esteemed halakhist Rabbi David Tsevi Auerbach of Sharigrad, Kremnitz and Mohilev, but why not state the most obvious claim to fame, namely descent from Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz himself?

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I turn now to Rav Tsevi Yehudah’s notes to Likkutei MOHaRaN. Perhaps the most important contribution is Rav Tsevi Yehudah’s finding that an important passage in Likkutei MOHaRaN I, 6:3 has its antecedent in the classic ethical work by Bahya ibn Pakuda, Hovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart).

Rabbi Nahman writes:

Even if one knows in oneself that one did complete teshuvah (repentance), nonetheless, one must repent of the first repentance, because in the beginning, when one did teshuvah, one did [so] according to one’s understanding, and afterward, when one does teshuvah, one certainly recognizes and understands more Hashem, blessed be He. We find that according to one’s present understanding, certainly the first understanding was a corporealization. We find that one must repent of one’s first understanding for having corporealized the sublimity of the divinity.

Rav Tsevi Yehudah jotted down:

See Ho[vot] ha-L[evavot], Sha‘ar ‘Avoda[t] H[ashem], chap. 3, fifth advantage of arousal of reason: “they renew repentance” (“mehadeshim teshuvah”).

Nahmani unpacks Rav Tsevi Yehudah’s shorthand notation. In the aforementioned paragraph, Bahya recorded the practice of “some devotees[3] that spent their lifetimes doing repentance. Every day they used to find a new way of repentance,[4] as they increased their understanding of God’s greatness and their neglect of their obligation to obey Him in the past.”[5]

It is of course edifying to learn that Rabbi Nahman was preceded in his conception of ongoing repentance (perhaps “return” is the better translation of “teshuvah”) by the eleventh-century Spanish dayyan, Bahya ibn Pakuda. But it seems to me that there is an essential element in Rabbi Nahman’s teaching lacking in the earlier Hovot ha-Levavot. That is the element of “hagshamat Elohut” (corporealization of divinity). This is the revolutionary thought of Rabbi Nahman of Braslav. And it is this same daring that we will encounter in the writings of Rav Kook (the elder).

In Zer‘onim, one of the earliest collections of Rav Kook’s pensées, published in the literary journal Ha-Tarbut ha-Yisraelit in Jaffa in 1913, we find this striking statement:

From epoch to epoch, the mixture of pure belief in the Unity [of the deity] with the darkness of corporealization (hagshamah) is increasingly clarified . . .[6]

What Rav Kook has done in few words is to apply the method of Rabbi Nahman, previously reserved for the individual, to mankind as a whole. For Rabbi Nahman, spiritual growth consists of shedding puerile conceptions of the divinity for more advanced, more rarefied notions. And for Rav Kook, this evolution of consciousness is written not just on the tablet of the individual heart but on the tablet of the heart of collective mankind. And then, it is not just the individual Jew who is involved in an ongoing process of teshuvah, but Knesset Yisrael, and beyond that, the human race as a whole. In the writings of the two spiritual luminaries, Rabbi Nahman and Rav Kook, teshuvah achieves epic proportions.

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In 1978, newlywed and newly arrived in Jerusalem (we made ‘aliyah upon completion of our “Sheva‘ Berakhot”), I was privileged to meet several times with Rav Tsevi Yehudah Kook in the privacy of his home at 30 Ovadyah Street in the Ge’ulah section of town. On one of these occasions, the octogenarian sage shared with me impromptu some of his reflections on Breslov.

Rav Tsevi Yehudah recounted in a humorous vein his experience with a certain unnamed rabbi from America who would daily stroll with him. This regimen of the daily walk went on for some time. Then one day during their outing together, Rabbi Tsevi Yehudah mentioned Rabbi Nahman of Breslov. The next day, the man did not arrive for the walk. So ended this “havruta.” (Nahmani has the story on page 112 sans the “American” identity of the mystery man.)

The elder Rav Kook wrote a by now famous letter to his adolescent son Tsevi Yehudah,[7] advising some caution when studying the works of the “great man,” Rabbi Nahman. Basically, the father communicated to his son that there is required “a healthy soul in a healthy body.” Rav Kook also recommended that the study of Rabbi Nahman be balanced by studying opposed views.[8]

Perhaps it was for the sake of providing balance that Rav Tsevi Yehudah dropped on me that the wondrous Sippurei Ma‘asiyot, the tales of Rabbi Nahman, were looked at askance both in Gur and Habad.

I later fact-checked this with Breslover Hasidim who informed me that indeed the Hiddushei ha-RIM (Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg-Alter, the founder of Gerrer Hasidism) had made a study of the stories of Rabbi Nahman. The RIM was able to follow the storyline as far as it was based on the Kabbalah of the ARI (Rabbi Isaac Luria). But it seems that at a certain point Rabbi Nahman left the ARI behind and ventured out on his own, and there the RIM was lost.

As for Habad’s rejection of Rabbi Nahman’s stories, to this day I have no idea to what Rav Tsevi Yehudah z”l was alluding.

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Moshe Nahmani has put together a wonderful collection of anecdotes and documents (including a facsimile of Rav Kook’s own copy of Likkutei MOHaRaN on page 16). Much maligned during their lifetimes and even after, these two great luminaries, Rabbi Nahman and Rav Kook, are now shining brightly. And we can rest assured that their lights will glow ever brighter with the passage of time.

 

 

 


[1] I wish to correct a slight imprecision of language in one of these quotes. Nahmani quotes Rav Kook’s disciple, Rabbi Israel Porath. The latter’s testimony is of paramount importance for the reason that Rabbi Israel Porath was one of three major Torah scholars who would journey from Jerusalem to study under Rav Kook in Jaffa, the other two being Rabbi Tsevi Pesah Frank and Rabbi Ya‘akov Moshe Harlap. Eventually, Rabbi Porath went on to become Rabbi of Cleveland, Ohio, where he was esteemed by all members of the Jewish community, regardless of their affiliation. He also authored a multivolume work on the Talmud, Mevo ha-Talmud, whose peculiar methodology was inspired by Rav Kook.

In Shnei ha-Me’orot (p. 14) we read:

According to what [Rav Kook] communicated to me in private…his heart was drawn to the ways of [spiritual] service of Hasidism, and especially devoted himself to the mysticism of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov. He read and studied much his books and conversations, and delved deeply into his thoughts.

The quote is taken from Hayyei ha-RAYaH, a biography of Rav Kook by a later disciple, Rabbi Moshe Tsevi Neriyah.

However in Rabbi Porath’s original appreciation, which appeared in Sefer ha-Do’ar, there is a slightly different wording:

According to what [Rav Kook] communicated to me in private…his heart was drawn to the ways of [spiritual] service of Hasidism. He especially devoted himself to the mysticism of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov. He read and studied much his books, and delved deeply into his thoughts and conversations.

(Rabbi Israel Porath, “Harav A.Y. Kook z”l,” Sefer ha-Do’ar: Mivhar ma’amarim la-yovel ha-shishim 5682-5742, ed. Miklishanski and Kabakoff, p. 199, col. 1)

[2] For more details of Rabbi Avraham Sternhartz’s narrow escape from Soviet Russia, see Bezalel Friedman’s biography of Rabbi Levi Yitshak Bender, Ish Hasidekha (Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 178-179. (It includes a photo of Rebbetzin Sternhartz’s Soviet passport of December 1935.)

[3] Judah ibn Tibbon translated into Hebrew as “perushim” (ascetics). The reference is probably to Sufi ascetics.

[4] In Ibn Tibbons’ Hebrew translation (as that of Kapah): “mehadeshim teshuvah.”

[5] Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart (Al-Hidaya ila Fara’id Al-Qulub), transl. Menahem Mansoor (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 184 (the fifth reason).

[6] Reprinted in Orot (Jerusalem, 1950), p. 127.

[7] On page 25, Nahmani writes that the letter was sent in 1906. As Tsevi Yehudah was born in 1892, he would have been aged fourteen when he received the letter.

[8] Nahmani bemoans the fact that the manuscript of the letter has gone missing. See Shnei ha-Me’orot, p. 94.

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