Toward a Better Understanding of Rabbi Nachman: An Interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

(Excerpted from The Tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Jason Aronson, 1993)

Q: Rabbi Steinsaltz, you have written that "Nachman's stories include highly compressed and clearly defined Torah teachings - expressed in literary form." What is the advantage of this approach? Why doesn't Rabbi Nachman just state his ideas? Doesn't the "story" approach run a greater risk of misinterpretation?

A: Rabbi Nachman himself explained why he chose this particular format of storytelling, rather than direct statements of Torah teaching. In order to absorb knowledge and a message from well-constructed and direct Torah teaching, one has first of all to be knowledgeable to a certain extent. More than that, one has to make a conscious effort to learn while one hears any direct statements. At the same time, one has to have a willingness to accept what one hears. Rabbi Nachman stated in his symbolic form that the stories he was telling were even for people who had been sleeping, in a way, for seventy years, meaning that the message in the stories somehow gets to them, even when they are not consciously thinking about it as a teaching. Rabbi Nachman avoids the possibility of evoking antagonism from the reader who might react to or be unable to accept direct statements. His stories seep in and later on do the work. Because of that, even though the stories can be misunderstood, somehow the inner content does not get lost, and afterward, in one way or another, it has some impact on the reader.

Q: What do you mean when you write that Rabbi Nachman's stories contain "layer upon layer of unrevealed symbolic meaning?" Can't one say that all stories have these layers, or was Rabbi Nachman conscious of these layers as he was constructing his tales?

A: When I say that Rabbi Nachman's stories contain layers of symbolic meaning, I mean that these layers are conscious layers of the creator of the tales, rather than the unconscious work that people do with symbols somehow embedded in their minds. In many cases, the symbolic meaning that one may attach to a story is rather an illusion of the reader, the interpreter. In the case of Rabbi Nachman stories, the several layers of meaning are consciously put in by the author, and therefore they are not just literary interpretations, but rather a way of understanding what the stories are all about.

Q: Did Rabbi Nachman offer any teachings on how we are to approach these tales?

A: Indeed, Rabbi Nachman himself used to add, from time to time, some sentences (some of which are printed in the editions of Rabbi Nachman tales) in which he gave footnotes or remark about the tales. In the interpretations in this book, all these remarks were followed. Some of them are not just general remarks about the direction and meaning of a story, but footnotes showing how a certain chapter in the Bible, or a certain notion of Kabbalah, is embedded within the story. So Rabbi Nachman himself was, so to speak, the first interpreter of his own stories.

Q: If one of the strengths of Rabbi Nachman's tales is that they cast eternal teachings into a more familiar and effective format; should we encourage our teachers to write new tales with contemporary imagery and content?

A: Of course, the power of Rabbi Nachman's stories - being, on the one hand, literature that can be read and enjoyed as such, and on the other hand, a compressed set of meaning - is a great advantage in itself, and one would like to have more literature of this kind. But it has to be remembered that masterpieces are usually not written because they are needed, or because people think that they ought to be written. If one looks the world over to see how many cultural masterpieces exist that still can survive beyond their contemporary lifetime, one can see how hard it is to write really good literature that has meaning. Of course; if one could do it; it would be a great advantage to have this very powerful and influential format added to what we have now in our literature.

Q: You have written that "Almost all the tales - in terms of form and content, symbolism and imagery heroes and poetic touches - are taken from Kabbalah." How, then, are these tales useful to most Jews - who are not familiar with Kabbalah?

A: Indeed, the tales of Rabbi Nachman in many ways are taken from the Kabbalah, but that is the power of the medium that Rabbi Nachman chose - not a stating of kabbalistic thought, but rather a literary format, a tale, based on this material. Therefore, at some level one can understand the story perfectly, and even an explanation that goes into deeper layers still does not deal with Kabbalah per se, but rather with the way kabbalistic notions are depicted in literary form. Of course, a really deep understanding of the stories needs a great amount of Jewish background in general, and kabbalistic knowledge in particular. But, as it is with some great masterpieces the world over, the stories in themselves are powerful enough to explain the things with which they are dealing; leaving the feeling that there is something beyond that - the stories are tantalizing, the reader left with a sense of their depth. Because of that, the stories had a great impact on many people who knew very little, and not all of them Jews; for example, the Greek writer Kazantsakis (author of Zorba the Greek) wrote that Rabbi Nachman's tales were one of the most important sources of his inspiration.

Q: It is known that Rabbi Nachman had his share of conflicts with other hasidic groups and had a particularly well-known struggle with the Shpoler Zaide. Were these conflicts similar to those we see in the Jewish world today? Are we to accept these conflicts as a natural part of family business?

A: Rabbi Nachman, and also his followers, had a great many clashes with other Jewish leaders, especially hasidic leaders. Some of these clashes were typical clashes of personality. The Shpoler Zaide was such a different person from Rabbi Nachman that it was no wonder that they didn't find much in common. In fact, they found many reasons for antagonism. But there were also other reasons, right or wrong, for such clashes. The teachings of Rabbi Nachman, even though always contained and confined within Jewish religious thinking, in many cases verged on dangerous subjects and themes. Rabbi Nachman was aware of the chasms that bordered Jewish inner life, and he was possibly overexplicit sometimes in mentioning and dealing with them. Other leaders thought that such an involvement, even from a certain distance, was still very dangerous, and they were afraid that dabbling with these matters would endanger the spiritual safety of those dealing with them. So in addition to what could be called the normal interfamily clashes that people have, there were also some objective reasons for these clashes with Rabbi Nachman.

Q: It appears that Rabbi Nachman taught his disciples to throw away their seikhel (intelligence and common sense) when it comes to following a tzaddik. How do we reconcile this with Rabbi Nachman's own misunderstandings when it came to science?

A: The whole problem of the relationship between wisdom, knowledge, and faith is very complex in the writings of Rabbi Nachman. In fact, his continuous stress on simple faith has a meaning only for a person who is himself complex, complicated, and very conscious of problems of the mind. But Rabbi Nachman's basic advice of trying to get away from involvement in philosophical discussions, because of his belief that they don't lead anywhere and that the only result of them is confusion, is again a part of his general writing, which is, on the one hand, surely an attempt to get away from the intellectual, and, on the other hand, always a structure built and understood by intellectuals. Rabbi Nachman, in one of his most powerful and direct sources, Likutei Moharan, writes that there are always certain people who need to go into the depths of questions and questioning and intellectual work, because that is a part of the work of redemption for them and for their disciples. He warned, though, that for most people, going to the brink is very dangerous and will lead to dangerous results in the lives and minds of people.

There is no clear way and there are not enough sources to define Rabbi Nachman's stance toward science. He was, in some ways, interested and, generally speaking, not so very negative. He disliked medicine and doctors (and possibly, for very good reasons - clearly, in his time it was well justified). The fact that the science that he had to deal with was an eighteenth-century science - the collapse of Aristotelian formats and the beginning of new formats that were in many ways as dogmatic, theoretical, and not well founded - was possibly a good reason for his suspicion of dealing with science as a speculation that does not seem to lead anywhere. It is interesting to note that even a person so very different from Rabbi Nachman - Jonathan Swift - deals with science in his writings in almost the same way, and for reasons that are not entirely different, even though they draw from very different sources and make different conclusions.

Q: Some have observed that Rabbi Nachman was a troubled person, disturbed or manic-depressive. Is there true reason to believe that Rabbi Nachman was not an emotionally healthy individual? How are we to understand these aspects of his biography?

A: Much of what has been written about Rabbi Nachman is connected with the fact that he was, on the one hand, very open to describing his moods, his thoughts, and his ideas to the people around him, and the fact that his disciples wrote down almost anything they could remember of his utterances. That created, in itself, a very uneven picture, because obviously, any person who reveals his inner life to some extent will show conflicts, problems, and pain within his life. So one has to remark that the amount of autobiographical writings in Jewish literature is astonishingly small, and the number of autobiographies, or - so to say - confessions of Jewish literary figures can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Therefore, comparisons and estimates are in a way very biased, as people do not have enough material with which to make a comparison. On the other hand, one has to remember one thing: any genius is almost by definition not a healthy, normal person; had he been such, he would possibly have become a successful salesman or dealer in real estate. The fact that he was a genius means that his mind was different from that of other people, having heights, and possibly depths, that other people don't have.