Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art: A Journey to Your Soul

To read Ahron Weiner’s own words about his photographs, click here.

Have you walked into RS’ Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art in the last few weeks? The new PMJA show, “Next Year in Uman: A Journey to the Ukraine,” by Ahron Weiner, exhibits photographs of Jewish men who have made Rosh Hashanah Pilgrimage to Uman in the Ukraine, to the site of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav’s grave. As these photographs make clear, the spiritual pilgrimage happens within an Orthodox context. The beauty of these photographs lies in their subjects, who have traveled far and wide in search of spiritual community and closeness with God. The danger of the photographs is that one could misinterpret the message to be saying: This is what spiritual quest looks like; a spiritual journey is for men who look very different from you.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav’s teaching belong to people who are different as well. And yet, the spiritual quest belongs no more to Orthodox Jews than it does to Reform Jews, no more to men than to women. The challenge posed by these photographs, then, is the challenge of a spiritual quest here and now, in our own lives today. And Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav can teach us much about such quest.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav (1772-1810) was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the spiritual revival movement of Hasidism. From his childhood, Rabbi Nachman longed for and was devoted to closeness with God. He experienced tragedy and ailment during his lifetime, and his longing for God often brought him spiritual suffering and loneliness. Rabbi Nachman declared that when he died, no rabbi was to take on the legacy of leadership of the Bratzlavers. So Nachman remains the last leader of the sect, and its members continue to glean from his teachings.

Rabbi Nachman is known for the creative tales he authored. Often times involving magic, death, kings and journeys, the tales are what Arthur Green has called “mythical autobiography,” in which we can find Nachman’s tortured soul in many of the characters. Some of the tales are so imaginative that scholars question whether one can make sense of them. Others reveal aspects of a quest that we might relate to today.

In one of the tales, the two heroes each receive identical messages from the king. While the supposed simpleton responds quickly, and thus receives his due reward… The wise man said to the sage who brought his letter: “Wait here tonight and let us discuss this matter.” The wise man, with his philosophical mind, set to thinking about it and said: “Why should the king be sending for an unimportant fellow like me? Who am I that the king, out of all his vast kingdom, should send for me? Compared to the king I am a nobody; how can it possibly make sense that the king should send someone after a person as small as I am? If I were to say that it is because of my wisdom—certainly the king has his own sages, and he himself is also a very wise man. So what is this matter of the king’s sending for me?” He became very much confounded by it until finally he said: “It is now very clear in my mind that there is no king in the world at all. The world is full of fools who think there is a king. How is it possible that they should have subjected themselves to one man, thinking that he is the king, when in reality there is no king at all? The messenger answered him: “But I brought you a message from the king!” The wise man asked: “Did you receive that message from the king’s own hand?” The messenger was obliged to admit that he had not, but rather that someone else had given him the message in the king’s name. The wise man continued: “See how right I am—there is no king at all!” He said to the messenger: “You have lived all your life in the capital. Tell me, have you ever seen the king?” The messenger replied that he had not. (This is indeed the case. Not everyone merits to see the king, who reveals himself only on very rare occasions.) And the wise man responded: “Now see how perfectly clearly my position has been proven; there is no king at all, for even you have not seen him.” So the two of them decided that the king did not exist. They went to the market and there they came upon a soldier. “Whom do you serve?” they asked him. “The king,” he replied. “Have you ever seen the king?” “No.” “What a fool,” they thought… (from “The Wise Man and the Simpleton” reprinted in: Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, by Arthur Green).

What do we learn from Rabbi Nachman’s tale? On the surface, I think the story demonstrates that it is easy to use logic to disprove faith. But I don’t think Rabbi Nachman is engaging in a true debate here. I think he experiences God’s absence and doubts God’s presence. He is not always able to experience God directly and this leaves him with a feeling of emptiness.

Certainly, in my own spiritual quest, and perhaps in everyone’s quest, such doubt and even emptiness exist. To set forth on a journey, whether in Uman or in Philadelphia, doubt is real, spiritual absence exists, and not every moment is a profound one of connection. To such doubt, which Rabbi Nachman took very seriously, he offers deep and personal perspectives that might open the door to moments of faith. Nachman writes: “For I know that the Lord is great; He is our Lord above any God” (Psalms 135:5). Said King David: “For I know,” emphasizing the “I.” The greatness of God is something that no one can communicate to his fellowman, or even to himself from one day to the next. That which is brilliantly clear to him on one day is something that he cannot communicate to himself on the day that follows. That is why he said: “For I know”—because this cannot be told at all.

Our moments of clarity or of spirituality are here one moment, gone the next; we cannot even articulate the meaning to ourselves, much less to others. I agree with what Rabbi Nachman says here. Yet, I would say to Rabbi Nachman: we exist in community and aim to share something of the profound experiences of our lives.

When I recently studied these texts with some congregants, we agreed that the depth of feeling—whether love or faith—cannot be precisely communicated. Yet, there is meaning in the attempt to share our quest with someone else. These members of our community share some of their moments when they felt, like Nachman quotes from the Psalm, that they knew something of God’s greatness. One mentioned an experience in our RS worship services; another mentioned the experience of struggling through difficult times and surviving. Whether or not they would use the words of the Psalmist in these moments, they share the Psalmist’s meaning: When we are open to the quest, we might discover God in a profound moment.

Through our RS Visioning Initiative, our Face to Face conversations, and some of the study and committee work that has been impacted by the Visioning Initiative, I believe that more and more, we are sharing our profound moments in shared conversations. Although our words may never adequately describe our spiritual journey, may we always be engaged in the attempt to share our quest in this sacred community.

To learn more about Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, read Tormented Master: The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, by Arthur Green. To discuss your own spiritual quest with another congregant, sign up for a Face-to-Face with another member by contacting Catherine Fischer (215-627-6747 x46; cfischer@rodephshalom.org).

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