Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hasidism for Everyone

In Martin Buber’s early career, he set about to translate (into German) tales from Hasidic masters. His translations were later heavily criticized as re-renderings. Buber felt that the stories the Hasidic master’s told had become garbled and corrupted and needed to be cleansed and made viable.  This is probably no more than a half-truth.

In the process of doing this work, Buber became one of the founders of the Neo-Hasidic movement, which sought to bring the treasury of Hasidic stories and lore to modern audiences. He attenuated Hasidism, showing those parts he found decorous and meaningful, and leaving a great deal he did not like out.

This is evident in his “The Tales of Rabbi Nachman” where he presents six stories from the master Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlav. The framing technique is evident. The first 43 pages are Buber’s reflections on Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Nachman, and the stories themselves. The final chapter is an essay by Buber on Rabbi Nachman’s voyage to Palestine and its positive implications for Zionism.

All and all, Buber presents a great deal of material we no longer care about. We can now see it for what it is , Buber’s attempt to create a “cultural” Judaism divorced from Jewish religious practice. But in an odd and fitting way, Buber is doing nothing more than other Jewish writers and interpreters (even Rabbi Nachman himself).  He is taking sources and intentionally bending them to his own view of Judaism. He tries to create a new type of Judaism from old building blocks.

Buber is in very good company here. So although his rendering of Rebbe Nachman’s tales should be viewed with suspicion, we should no longer single him out for a sin shared by many others.

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