Reading for Abramelin & Kabbalah: Likutey moharan, Crossing the Narrow Bridge

Friday I got the first volume of Rebbe Nachman’s Likutey Moharan [Gleanings of Our Master Rabbi Nachman], a work which dates from 1811, although this is a recent English translation with Hebrew side-by-side and copious footnotes for us Kabbalistic ‘tards. This first volume is just an introduction to the twelve-volume work and was written by his disciple, Reb Noson. It includes nifty charts of the sefirot, associated colors, expansions of the names of the Nameless One, biographies, and whatnot. I bought a used copy and deliberately went for cheap, since it was the intro, and got a heavily highlighted copy, which lets me know this book was thoroughly read. I feel unaccountably excited to be starting this work.

What inspired me to get into this work was Crossing the Narrow Bridge by Chaim Kramer. This writing in this book constantly offends against the rules of grammar, but it’s nevertheless well organized. It describes in very straightforward language the important points of the Breslover perspective of Hasidism. Reading it is part of my sacred study for Abramelin, and I have been looking forward to that each day. So I figured I might as well go deeper into Breslov teachings, and you don’t get much deeper than the thoughts of their founder, Rebbe Nachman. But there are a few flies in the flying ointment.

One of the aspects of Hasidism, to which movement Breslov belongs, is the whole tzaddik thing, a concept which I personally find troubling, to put it nicely. Although the word just literally means “righteous one,” a tzaddik is more like a guru or master, someone with authority and who has certain powers above and beyond those of others–mystical, spiritual, and/or magical (miracle-working).   While I can certainly believe in a hierarchy of skill levels, I say no to a hierarchy of worth. And the concept of the tzaddik as above the rest of us mortals has led in the past to all sorts of really smarmy behavior, such as grabbing food off the tzaddik’s plate and asserting that he is the reincarnation of a famous holy person. I bring this up because this is the essence of the very first lessson in the book Likutey Moharan–the commentator on the first lesson states that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, an individual who lived in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, was the reincarnation of Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in Roman-ruled Israel in the 2nd century and who was the alleged author of the Zohar, a 14th century text; the painting depicts him writing the Zohar in the cave he retired to. (Re the Zohar, the only people nowadays who believe that Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar are very fundamentalist Jews. Everyone else has noted that the language of the Zohar has nothing in common with the language of 2nd-century Israel. On a magical note, Shimon bar Yochai appears to be the source of the idea that Moses had a magical sword upon which God’s name was inscribed. I am not sure if this concept is the basis of the grimoire of the same name. I have never much looked at “The Sword of Moses” since I read that Gaster deliberately did not translate the magical names correctly. I keep meaning to see if I can find a copy of this book up at Cornell when I go up to use their library.)

Why is it necessary to believe that Rebbe Nachman was anyone’s reincarnation? Wasn’t he good enough to listen to just on his own? IMO, he was, not only for his mystical stories and his teaching of the centrality of joy in our daily life but because of his very human struggles with depression and self-hate. IOW, one of the things that attracts me to his teachings is his humanity, not his saintliness.  I also appreciate that Breslov is the only Hasidic movement with no “dynasty,” wherein saintliness is supposedly inherited in a direct familial line and where such saints usually go around embarrassing themselves hugely by vicious fighting over who will be top dog or allowing their followers to believe they are the Messiah (yes, for some reason the latter must have their own flag, shown here), etc. Vanity makes fools of us all, and sycophants don’t help. I am not sure how much Rebbe Nachman believed himself to be the reincarnation of Shimon bar Yochai or if that idea was created by his followers, so I don’t want to tar him with that. I am interested in him for what he can teach about one’s relationship to the divine and about Kabbalah.

All that hemming and hawing aside, it is thrilling to be reading a serious religious work that casually references the sefirot, for instance, which come up immediately in Lesson Two. I look forward to delving further into Breslov teachings and into Kabbalah.

4 comments to Reading for Abramelin & Kabbalah: Likutey moharan, Crossing the Narrow Bridge

  • Sean

    I always find it interesting when claims of reincarnation are made, particularly because of the teachings about reincarnation in (what seems to be) 90%+ of the mystical schools and literature, including Alchemy. I always understood that our various incarnations are by design to advance us spiritually until we are at such a level we are beyond the process… so why would anyone want to assume an incarnation of someone they were prior? It is almost like going backwards. Assuming the process is accepted in such fashion, of course. I guess I find myself puzzling over the topic often, both in terms of facing my mortality and in terms of wondering if after my demise, I will ever refer to another human body as “me” again. In any event, I do see that making claims to be the reincarnation of “so and so the awesome” would mean that the one claiming was “once so and so the awesome, now even more awesome.” I can almost hear the movie announcer, “He’s back! He’s better than ever! He’s even sporting a new spray-tan!”

    I’m with you completely on this. It completely rubs me the wrong way. I’d rather just be the reincarnation of me… repeatedly … until I get it right.

    Much luck and blessings to you.

  • herba15

    Thanks, Sean! “He’s back, better than ever!” does seem to be the take of this particular group when it comes to reincarnation. One of the things I have noticed about “gilgul,” as it’s called, is that much of the time, it’s not for everybody, just tzaddikim or saints. They come back to teach us more and they know more each time. Where the rest of us go seems unknown.

    I myself would like to believe in reincarnation because I think it would be a comfort–for the same reason you mention, in terms of my own mortality. And it would help with grief. But mostly it just doesn’t work for me.

  • I am still trying to fit my wee brain around the idea of a saintly dynasty. There is something that many just seem to fall helpless before, insofar as lineage. Actually, the first thing that came to mind was the idea of witch-blood. (Feel free to toss tomatoes, I was thinking to make a margherita pizza for dinner…)

    In terms of reincarnation, I like the idea of ‘well, maybe this time I will be able to learn the ____ and ____ lessons of mindful living and conduct’. It isn’t that I like the idea of foibles being rewarded, but that one can still get a crack at doing it better the next go. It appeals to my sense of fairness.

    Sean, how about next time he comes back, better than ever and with a spray tan, maybe he can bring Elvis with? (I busted a gut at the thought of the even more awesome w/ the spray tan…)

  • herba15

    It DOES sound like witch blood. As far as I know, the idea that especially saintly people reincarnate or that saintliness is somehow inherited is pretty much peculiar to the ultra-Orthodox in Judaism. Maybe it is a distortion of hereditary jobs like priest and Levite.

    I would like to believe that at some point in time, maybe in the world to come, if it exists, we would all be equal. These guys obviously don’t like that idea.

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