The obsession with Rabbi Nachman and Uman is the new idolatry

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Absurdly, Reb Nachman’s memory is now an engine not of Exile’s ending, but of its renewal.

JEWISH PILGRIMS pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah in September 2017. (photo credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)
JEWISH PILGRIMS pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah in September 2017.
Having debriefed emissaries he sent abroad to study several religions, Vladimir the Great, ruler of Kievan Rus’, rejected Islam because it banned drinking alcohol, Catholicism because its shrines were not beautiful enough and Judaism because its loss of Jerusalem meant to him that God abandoned the Jews.
That left him with Orthodox Christianity, which his emissaries encountered in Constantinople’s sumptuous Hagia Sophia cathedral that so dazzled them with its size, icons and liturgical echoes that they “no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth.”
His choice thus made, Vladimir assembled the population of Kiev and had its chief idol, the silver-headed Perun, dragged by a horse’s tail, thrashed with rods and dumped into the Dnieper before the astonished masses were ordered into the river, where they were duly baptized. That is how paganism was evicted from what today is Ukraine.
That was in 988 CE. Now, with a dead man’s grave attracting thousands of worshipers not far from the same Kiev, paganism is making a grand comeback to the Ukraine, and its bearers are Jews.
THE PILGRIMAGE to Uman, which this week made headlines because of the effort to suspend it due to the coronavirus pandemic, has become a display of religious absurdity, social escapism and national dishonor.
Traffic around the burial site of hassidic sage Reb Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) is lively throughout the year, but the big influx – some 50,000 Jews – flocks for Rosh Hashanah due to his request of his followers, as his death of tuberculosis approached, to join him for the holiday in that town.
The scene in Uman is chaotic, grotesque and surreal, attracting a colorful mixture of ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and secular Israelis with Ashkenazi, Middle Eastern and Ethiopian roots.
Stalls offering dubiously hygienic Israeli food have sprouted in Uman, as did several kosher hotels and restaurants, interspersed with Jewish missionaries, beggars and peddlers offering memorabilia like jewelry “for the woman of valor waiting back home,” as Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer reported two years ago.
Secular Israelis come for the exoticism, avoiding the holiday prayers and also holding trance parties where drugs, alcohol and prostitution abound. Observant pilgrims also reportedly rent prostitutes, although outside Uman. The common denominator is the urge to flee routine, family and social norms.
The commotion attracts thieves and troublemakers. Brawls involving locals erupt occasionally, including one in 2010 in which 19-year-old Jerusalemite Shmuel Tubul was stabbed to death, an incident after which police presence was multiplied, fortified by Israeli cops.
Back when Israelis began journeying to Nazi death camps in Poland, some warned the trips would ultimately produce a new Jewish community in Auschwitz.
In Auschwitz this has yet to happen, but in Uman such a community has already sprouted, thus mocking Reb Nachman’s famous statement “my place is only the Land of Israel.” The slain Tubul’s brother, Rafael, was part of this budding community, running a grocery store for the dead Reb Nachman’s guests.
The stabbing happened on the 200th anniversary of Reb Nachman’s death, which made the victim’s friends tell ultra-Orthodox Website Kikar Hashabat that “his murder near our holy rabbi’s tomb, on the day of his passing, is a sign of the size of his [Tubul’s] soul.”
It wasn’t. The murder was a sign that something very bad is happening around Reb Nachman’s grave.
THE LIFE and legacy of Reb Nachman, a great-grandson of hassidism’s founder Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, have been the subject of much mystery and research. Several things, however, are clear.
First, his self-aggrandizement posed a threat to other rabbis, some of whom accused him of secretly following the false messiah Shabtai Zvi. Second, he journeyed to the Land of Israel, was in Acre during Napoleon’s siege of the city and returned to Europe soon afterward without reaching Jerusalem.
Lastly, Reb Nachman was deeply imbued with messianic tension, perceiving himself as a player in the Messiah’s emergence, and depicting the messianic age as a matter of all mankind, while making no mention of the Temple or of any wars.
The pilgrimage, according to his biographer Zvi Mark, was Reb Nachman’s own design, conveyed shortly before his death, when he told his disciples to mend their souls by reciting various texts and giving charity at his graveside.
Whatever he intended, and regardless of whether he deserves the personality cult that the hordes of ignoramuses at his graveside are now cultivating, Reb Nachman clearly yearned for Exile’s end. That is what his theology and his arduous journey to the Holy Land were all about.
Absurdly, Reb Nachman’s memory is now an engine not of Exile’s ending, but of its renewal, while his memory’s industry fosters a new idolatry, a fetishist necrophilia that explains better than a thousand commentators why Moses chose to leave his own place of burial unknown.
Politicians, like Aaron by the Golden Calf, are joining the psychosis, ignoring Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s express ruling to avoid the pilgrimage to Uman, because “a good Jew... dedicates Rosh Hashanah eve to his family.” Instead, Shas’s Arie Deri and United Torah Judaism’s Ya’acov Litzman are laboring to make the pilgrimage happen, even now, when it will obviously help spread COVID-19.
This is mad. What happens in Uman is an affront to the Jewish state, which must bring it to an end. Reb Nachman should be brought to rest, by the government of Israel, in the land of which he dreamed.
If told about what happened since his death – that in the very town where he is buried thousands of Jews were machine-gunned by the Nazis, that his grave pulls Jews from the Land of Israel to a land of Exile and that in the Promised Land millions of Jews live under a Jewish government defended by a Jewish army – wouldn’t Reb Nachman demand to be reburied in the Jewish state?
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.