Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The critical theory presented in the introduction to The Tales, culled from Rabbi Nahman’s sermons, defends storytelling as a redemptive act. By engaging their imaginations, storytelling awakens listeners from their spiritual slumber. It lifts them up out of their fallen state, inspiring them to participate in the world’s salvation. The interpretive strategies to be used for these charming fairy tales are anagogic; the plots are really revelations of the dynamics of the universe. The characters are figurations of the sefirot, the emanations of God, by means of which the world was created. The story form garbs these truths which would, in their naked form, blind and dazzle the mind, so they are “clothed” as tales.

The Lurianic myth which gives the tales coherence tells how the fall and the creation were simultaneous. God was originally coextensive with the universe. In order to clear space for the world, He contracted Himself (this is called the “tzimtzum”), and in that void where God was absent, the earth was created. In the stories this empty space is represented by a desert. The next stage of creation is called the “shevirah,” the shattering of the vessels. The Divine emanations were too overwhelming to be contained in the earthly forms into which They had been infused, so these exploded into shards and fragments (“klippot”). In the universal cataclysm, the Divine Sparks became mixed with mundane evil. It becomes human beings’ task to lift up these fallen sparks by good deeds so that the cosmos can once again be restored to its primordial harmony. Until this reparation (“tikkun”) occurs, all mankind remains in a state of exile. The redemption is figured as a cosmic marriage because the lowest of the ten Divine Emanations, the Shekina, was expelled into the world by the violence of the “tzimtzum” and must remain in exile until the messiah, who is destined to be her bridegroom, brings salvation. This is the plot of the first of Rabbi Nahman’s tales, “The Lost Princess.”

“The Lost Princess”

In this tale, a king is deeply grieved that his beloved daughter has been banished from his kingdom. A viceroy offers to seek her out and bring her back. His search leads him to a desert, “the empty spot” devoid of God’s presence, where she is being held captive. She tells him that he must “yearn for her mightily” and fast. He fails. Repeating Adam’s sin, he is smitten with such a great craving for an apple that he cannot resist and falls into a deep sleep. She forgives him for having yielded to the evil impulse and gives him a second chance to redeem her. This time, she says, he must not drink or he will again fall into a spiritual stupor. Once again he succumbs to temptation as a spring gushes forth that looks red and smells like wine. By repeating Noah’s drunkenness he is condemned to seventy years of sleep. Sadly the princess tries to rouse him, but although she shakes him vigorously, he will not arise. So she unbinds the kerchief from her head and writes on it with her tears that she is being taken to an even more inaccessible place, to a pearly castle on a golden mountain.

Now determined to find her, the viceroy wanders many years through desert places, encountering, one after another, three giants. The first, who says he controls all the animals, insists that there is no pearly castle and summons the animals to testify to this; but the viceroy’s faith is undaunted, and he persists, even though the second giant summons all the birds to swear that they have never seen a golden mountain. His faith remains unshaken in spite of this evidence. The more obstacles he encounters, the more convinced he is that he will ultimately find the princess. Even when the third giant summons all the winds to witness, he does not give up. Just as the giant is reproving him—“Don’t you see that they have told you nonsense?”—a final wind blows in all out of breath. It apologizes for being late because it had to carry a princess to a pearly castle on top of a golden mountain. The story does not stipulate how the viceroy finally finds the lost princess because their reunion will not occur until the redemption of the world, which is not yet. Prophecy is characteristically open-ended, and the prophetic mode usually ends with a rhetorical question. The declined closure implies that the listeners must participate in shaping the desired ending and suggests that the conclusion is up to them. The tale is meant to move them to act.

The Bratslaver Hasidim, who worship in the synagogue in the Mea Shearim sector of Jerusalem beneath a sign inscribed with Rabbi Nahman’s motto, “Jews, never despair!,” say that “The Lost Princess” shows that they must sustain their faith in spite of all obstacles. In spite of gigantic doubts, offered with the marshaling of evidence, offered with such certitude and with such an appearance of reason, even if everything that swims, slithers, walks, and flies should testify to the contrary, the Jew must persist in his belief.

What is so fascinating about this narrative structure is the way in which content, rhetoric, and plot all mirror one another. Narratology and theology are self-reflexive. Furthermore, the language is so full of trance-inducing repetitions that it becomes numinous. Martin Buber’s 1906 German translation deleted these numinous repetitions in the interest of smoother reading that would be more appealing to impatient twentieth century readers; Meyer Levin’s 1932 rendering into English also took liberties with this aspect of the text; and Elie Wiesel’s 1972 version “re-creates” the original to speed up the pace. Only the translation of Arnold J. Band in 1978 pretends to be faithful to the slowness and repetitiousness of the orally transmitted Yiddish story as it was actually told.

For example, here is the contact with the first giant, totally structured in an excruciating number of reiterations:The giant said to him: “Surely it does not exist at all.”...

(The entire section is 2464 words.)