Messiah in all but name

"Megilat starim: hazono hamishikhi hasodi shel reb nachman mibratslav" ("Scroll of Secrets: The Hidden Messianic Vision of R. Nachman of Bratslav") by Zvi Mark, Bar-Ilan University, 253 pages, NIS 99

Haaretz, Israel/May 2, 2007
By Immanuel Etkes

The tension between the urge to reveal and publicize secrets, and the necessity of keeping them secret and concealed from the public eye is one of the dominant features of mysticism in general and Jewish mysticism in particular. In early Hasidism, there is nothing that embodied this tension more than the character and spiritual legacy of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810).

As Zvi Mark, author of "Scroll of Secrets: The Hidden Messianic Vision of R. Nachman of Bratslav," writes: "Secrecy plays a central role in the world of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav ... We know of one manuscript that Rabbi Nachman hid away, another that he burned, and tales that he forbade his disciples to reveal to outsiders." But it was the secret of redemption that he worked hardest to keep from the world, including most of his followers.

In the summer of 1806, as Rabbi Nachman sat in a carriage on one of his journeys in the Ukraine, he revealed to his closest disciples, Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov and Rabbi Naftali, "the whole order of the coming of the Righteous Redeemer." Rabbi Nathan wrote down his words, and the text became known among the Bratslaver Hasidim as "Megilat Starim," the "Scroll of Secrets."

While the prolific literature of the Bratslavers was influenced by the very existence of this scroll and allusions to what it says, the scroll itself has been a closely guarded secret for 200 years. Mark's impressive achievement starts with convincing the Bratslavers to show him the secret text and to allow him to publish it. No less impressive is his ability to recruit knowledgeable individuals to help him decode the scroll, which is written in enigmatic abbreviations and acronyms. The text is now presented in Mark's book, along with a detailed analysis of the messianic era as envisioned by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

Mark begins by tracing what became of the scroll from the time it was written until today, and surveying the various manuscripts that have survived. This discussion leads to the conclusion that the version of the scroll being published here for the first time is a faithful rendition of the text recorded by Rabbi Nathan. After presenting the decoded scroll, which is accompanied by a facsimile of the original, Mark launches into a meticulous analysis of the text, basing himself, in part, on the numerous references to the messianic era that crop up in Nachman's writings. The importance of Mark's book thus grows clearer as it is reviewed in the broad context of Bratslav literature. His interpretive strategy is grounded on a keen knowledge of this complex body of literature, and a careful, sensitive and creative reading of it.

'I can do it all'

Mark's first important conclusion is that the Messiah referred to in the scroll is a tzaddik (pious scholar) in Rabbi Nachman's own image. The messianic times portrayed here are "a perfect fulfillment of the Bratslav code of values." Indeed, Rabbi Nachman's personal messianic pretensions emerge loud and clear from various remarks attributed to him in his lifetime, particularly the statement that "everything the Messiah does for the benefit of the Jewish people, I can do, too. The difference is that the Messiah can carry out his mission ... whereas I do not yet have that capability."

Rabbi Nachman regarded himself as having all the necessary qualifications to be the Messiah. What kept him from fulfilling his messianic potential was a lack of recognition. The tremendous gap between his self-image and the public's failure to recognize his eminence was something that haunted Rabbi Nachman all his life. In his own eyes, he was not only the greatest tzaddik of his day, but the greatest tzaddik of all times. Even when his health deteriorated and he knew the end was near, he did not despair: He might not fulfill his messianic mission in his lifetime, but his teachings would continue to have influence after his death. "My fire will burn until the coming of the Messiah," he poetically put it.

As Mark points out, this statement was interpreted by his followers as more than a prophecy. It was a will and testament that they were obligated to fulfill. Another Rabbi Nachman saying that fueled the messianic mindset of his followers was "the whole world will be Bratslav one day." Recognition of Rabbi Nachman's supremacy and the importance of his message and messianic redemption are thus two sides of the same coin.

What will the world be like in the days of the Messiah, according to Rabbi Nachman? What kind of man will the Messiah be? What are the missions imposed on him, and how will he carry them out? One of the foundation texts for the messianic outlook in Jewish history is Maimonides' "Hilchot Melachim," chapters 11-12. In an attempt to establish criteria by which someone purporting to be the Messiah is measured, Maimonides writes that one qualification is "winning God's wars" - that is, wars waged to free the people of Israel and the Land of Israel from the yoke of the non-Jews.

'Without war or mayhem'

Rabbi Nachman's vision of redemption omits this category of war. His messiah has no need of wars, because "all will submit to him without war or mayhem." His charm and charisma will suffice. This is because "the Messiah's primary weapon is prayer." Prayer, which played a starring role in Rabbi Nachman's inner world and his legacy to his followers, is also the Messiah's foremost tool for winning hearts in the non-Jewish world.

In this respect, there is a resemblance between Rabbi Nachman's messiah and Shabtai Zvi, who also spurned military activism in favor of prayer (unlike Jacob Frank, for instance, whose messianic vision was suffused with militarism). But while Rabbi Nachman leaves out the military component, he retains the universalist approach that underpins it. Maimonides writes that the Messiah will "repair the world and bring all people to worship God together." This vision of global redemption is anchored in the writings of the prophets. In the Middle Ages, however, Sephardi and Ashkenazi scholars differed on this issue. While the Sephardi thinkers continued to cultivate a view of the messianic era that was universal in character, the Ashkenazim adopted a particularist approach, one of whose components was divine revenge on the nations of the world for the suffering they inflicted on the Jewish people. Rabbi Nachman rejected the Ashkenazi approach in favor of Sephardi-style messianism.

For Rabbi Nachman, the Messiah's mission in the non-Jewish world is one of compassion and outreach. Once the Messiah is accepted as king by the Jewish people, he will turn to the leaders of the non-Jewish world and promote a code of behavior that is similar to the Jewish ethic. Furthermore, he will "repair their prayer," thereby fulfilling the vision of the prophets: "For then I will make the peoples pure of speech/so that they all invoke the Lord by name" (Zephaniah 3:9).

As we have said, Mark claims that the messianic figure described in "Scroll of Secrets" is a kind of reflection of Nachman himself. To be more exact, not only does Rabbi Nachman have a messianic mission, but the Messiah is an embodiment of all his qualities and abilities. It comes as no surprise, then, that the niggun, or Hasidic melody, that figures so highly in Rabbi Nachman's world, is slated to play a pivotal role in the messianic era.

One of the properties that Rabbi Nachman attributes to the niggun is the ability to bring back souls who have "fallen into apostasy." But the real role of the niggun, it seems, is to draw listeners into a dance so pleasurable and uplifting that they forget all else. The power of the niggun induces a state of mystical ecstasy. And here we find that the mission of the future Messiah will also be achieved through the niggun: "He will produce new musical instruments and melodies because he will be a great master of the niggun." These musical innovations will so charm and delight people that they will accept his authority.

Cure for every disease

Another special talent of Rabbi Nachman's, which he also ascribes to the future Messiah, is healing. According to his student Rabbi Nathan, Nachman had a book with cures for every illness in the world, but he chose not to use it. In the end, he had it burned. Rabbi Nachman's messiah, on the other hand, will plant a garden of plants and herbs for medicinal purposes, and supply each and every sick person with medicines providing a cure.

What will the world be like after the coming of the Messiah? Some have speculated that the natural order will change. Others have said that the only difference will be "shiabud malkhuyot" - political change (Brakhot 34b). Rabbi Nachman followed Maimonides, who claimed that the world would go on as before. Not only will the laws of nature remain the same, but also human nature and society. The quality of life will improve, and the world will be a nicer place, but the evil urge will not disappear. It will still be necessary to have courts and law-enforcement authorities. Differences in spiritual level will also remain, with each individual advancing on the spiritual scale at his own pace.

If the miraculous components of messianic faith are gone, there is a question of how the Messiah will bring about the redemption of the Land of Israel and rescue it from the hands of the non-Jews. Mark describes Rabbi Nachman's answer to this question as "political Zionism." In no Jewish source prior to Nachman had anyone ever suggested such a thing. The Messiah will restore the Land of Israel to the Jewish people "not by might, nor by power," but via a series of territorial exchanges based on financial transactions, thereby gaining possession of the land by right. Only then will the incoming of the exiles commence. At that time, all Jews will head for the Land of Israel and "a King of Israel will arise."

Perhaps the greatest surprise for readers of Megilat Starim lies in what is missing from it: the Temple. Rebuilding the Temple and reviving the custom of sacrifices have always been perceived as essential to messianic redemption. But the Temple is totally absent from the messianic vision of Rabbi Nachman. To explain the significance of this omission, Mark emphasizes what the scroll does contain: The Messiah as a key figure in the messianic era. The role that the Temple was meant to play is taken over by "melekh hamashiah" - the Messiah king.

What motivated leading figures in the Bratslav community to disclose the whereabouts of this hidden scroll and allow it to be brought into the public eye? Presumably, they felt that publicizing Rabbi Nachman's messianic vision would make it happen sooner, although it seems doubtful that all members of the community were comfortable with that decision. One way or another, many readers will be happy to hear about the pacifist, humanist and universalist nature of the Messiah as envisioned by Rabbi Nachman. It is a refreshing break from the militaristic messianism spouted by extremist groups today, from the territorial-nationalist messianism of Gush Emunim to the personal messianism promoted by certain messianic streams in Chabad.

Prof. Immanuel Etkes teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Department of the History of the Jewish People. His book "The Besht: Magician, Mystic and Leader" was published by Brandeis University Press in 2005.

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