‘Rabenu’ looks at Rabbi Nahman and his followers

More than 200 years after his death, Rabbi Nahman still wields an enormous influence over his followers.

SHULI RAND appears in ‘Rabbenu.’ (photo credit: KAN 11)
SHULI RAND appears in ‘Rabbenu.’
(photo credit: KAN 11)
Breslov Hassidim, who venerate the late Rabbi Nahman and make a yearly pilgrimage to his grave in Uman, Ukraine, on Rosh Hashanah, have been in the headlines a great deal recently, because, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel’s coronavirus “czar,” Prof. Ronni Gamzu, has tried to stop them from heading there.
This struggle is ongoing as of this writing – some Israelis were not allowed to enter the Ukraine, but others have managed to get in – but however the news story develops, one thing is clear: more than 200 years after his death, Rabbi Nahman still wields an enormous influence over his followers.
Those who see his followers dancing to trance music outside of bus stations and other spots around the country may be curious to learn more about him, but their curiosity will only partly be satisfied by the documentary series Rabbenu (Our Rabbi), the first part of which will be broadcast on KAN 11, the government broadcasting network, on September 2 at 9:15 p.m. There will be two more parts broadcast in the following weeks, and all will be available on the KAN 11 website.
Through interviews with Breslov hassidim and experts – some interviewees fit into both categories – the series probes Nahman’s appeal in various ways.
Prof. Arthur Green, a professor emeritus of Brandeis University and a founding dean of the nondenominational rabbinical program at Hebrew College in Boston, said that Nahman was essentially a modern thinker and is not surprised that his teachings have great appeal to this day.
“He understood the reality of a world without God... and it is the reality of the modern world... Overcoming the challenge of doubt and emptiness was unique to Rabbi Nahman” as compared to other religious authorities of the period, he said. He also compared the rabbi’s writings to Kafka and Borges.
Rabbi David Menahem, rabbi of the Heichal Uriel congregation in Mevaseret Zion, said that there is an intimacy to Nahman’s teachings that is attractive to contemporary believers. “Man and God go together, they need to speak to each other,” he explains.
Series creator Or Yashar misses no stylistic tricks in illuminating the rabbi’s life and teachings. And actor/playwright Shuli Rand, who did a show about Nahman, as well as other celebrities, describe what the rabbi’s teachings mean to them.
But, at least based on the first episode released to the press, it’s mostly hagiography. Rabbi Nahman was a great, original thinker, and his teachings encourage people to live life to the fullest and search for true meaning – that’s the main take-home message. I would have liked to have seen some more nuanced exploration of Nahman’s philosophy. At times, this documentary makes the rabbi’s writings sound like a New Age self-actualization cult.
The series shows the pilgrimage to Uman and interviews many who make it, without even addressing the existence of rumors that it’s a kind of hassidic Burning Man festival, with heavy drug use and visits to local prostitutes. Nor does it bring up criticism of the yearly Ukrainian journey from contemporary religious authorities, such as the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said many times that Jews should stay home and celebrate the new year with their families.
The closest the series comes to saying anything other than that Breslov Hassidism is the grooviest thing in history is this quote from Tomer Persico, the Shalom Hartman Institute Bay Area scholar in residence and the Koret visiting assistant professor of Jewish and Israel studies at UC Berkeley: “The idea that there is a righteous man and he takes care of you spiritually, and he is the pipeline through which you connect to God is very Christian...” and aroused opposition on the part of more traditional Jewish leaders.
The documentary explains that the rabbi broke with convention by encouraging his followers to find a quiet place, in nature if possible, where they could engage in personal spiritual reflection and not to honor God only through synagogue attendance.
While the groups of dancing Nahman followers tend to be all male, the series reveals that many women find inspiration in his teachings and celebrate at all-female raves.
Those who are not old enough to remember when every job interview in Israel required a handwriting sample that was examined by a graphologist may be surprised that the series features a handwriting analysis of one of the few samples of the rebbe’s writing that still exists. But no one will be surprised to learn that his every pen stroke reveals how special he was.