Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), great-grandson of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the East-European Hasidic movement, is considered by many the “genius of Hasidism.” His mysteriously allusive lessons and stories have invited numerous studies, both by his followers, the Breslov Hasidim, and by academic scholars of various stripes. Needless to say, modern spiritual teachers such as the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and the contemporary Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz have written commentaries to Rabbi Nachman’s stories. Somehow, until now, the one poem from the hand of Rabbi Nachman —ShirNa’im, translated as Song of Delight— has escaped notice.
In 1666, the mystic Shabbetai Zevi of Izmir (Smyrna) convinced most of the Jewish world that he was the righteous Messiah come to redeem his people Israel. Much of the Christian world, particularly Protestants in Western Europe, were equally fascinated by the tidings from the East (though they might have cast Shabetai Zevi in the role of Antichrist). All this came to a dramatic end with the Messiah’s forced conversion to Islam by the Sultan in Edirne (Adrianople). Was this truly the end? Does a Messiah ever truly end?
Reuven Alpert has doggedly tracked the remnants of Shabbetai Zevi’s followers in Greece and Turkey. A highlight of his journey is a visit to the home of this controversial personality in Izmir. Caught in the Crack is a search for the Messiah in time and space. Beyond that, Caught in the Crack has some disturbing things to say concerning Messiahs—Bar Kochba, Shabbetai Zevi, Jacob Frank—and the entire phenomenon of Messianism.
Reuven Alpert describes himself as a “spiritual anthropologist.” He has devoted several years to exploring exotic Jewish communities around the globe. He studied Talmudic law and Jewish philosophy in yeshivot and universities in the United States and Israel. His travelogs have appeared in Lifestyles magazine and elsewhere. Most recently, Mr. Alpert authored God’s Middlemen: A Habad Retrospective (White Cloud Press, 1998).
“On our globe, perhaps no rift is so profound as that separating Jew and Muslim. This is the story of a sect of some 25.000 souls who for over three hundred years have lived a double identity of Jewish Muslims. It is also the story of intense longing for the Messiah, of the apocalypse, of deep disappointment, and of faith beyond faith.”
In the Desert–a Vision (Midbar Shur) is Rav Kook’s own record of his derashot or talks over a span of two years, 1894-1896. This book, which should have been the author’s literary debut, is the last of his works to appear in print. The reason for the delay, is that the manuscript disappeared in mysterious circumstances. The book may have arrived a century late; its message is uncannily timely. Beside their visionary quality, Rabbi Kook’s talks are remarkable for their encyclopedic knowledge. A typical derasha will start with a verse in the Torah or passage in the Midrash. From there, Rabbi Kook will weave a rich tapestry encompassing the breadth of Jewish literature: Bible, Talmud, philosophy, and Kabbalah.