Revelation and the Practice of Prophecy: With Special Reference to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Dan Merkur. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 

The text of Jeremiah 33:2-3 states: “Thus says Yahweh who made the earth, Yahweh who formed it to establish it—Yahweh is his name: ‘Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known’” (all scripture citations in this chapter are the author’s own translation from the original Hebrew text). Revelation, in this formulation, is a divine response to a human practice; and many Jews over the centuries have agreed with the biblical author. Possibly in polemic against early Christian prophets, the Talmudic Sages claimed the historical extinction of prophecy during the Second Temple period; but many Jews in late antiquity and the Middle Ages continued to discuss prophecy as precedent for their own contemplative experiences (Heschel, 1996). In the twelfth century, Maimonides provided both rabbinical authority and practical advice concerning the achievement of “the rank of the prophets” (Guide 3:51; Maimonides, 1963, 620); and his point of view has since come down in a host of variants among the kabbalists and Hasidim.


The Hebrew word kawwanah, meditation (Scholem, 1981), derives from the verb kiwwen (from the root kwn), which means “to aim at, to face toward.” In Talmudic usage, kawwanah referred to the act of attending to the meanings of the words of prayer, while one was engaged in reciting them, in a manner that avoided distraction (Wolfson, 1996, 139-40). In contemporary usage, kawwanah during prayer refers to meaning or intending the words of prayer, as distinct from reciting them unthinkingly (Kaplan, 1985, 50). Jewish mystics have engaged in scores of meditative procedures, any or all of which may be termed kawwanah (Verman, 1996, p. ix).

In his codification of Jewish law, Maimonides addressed ordinary Jews when he explained: “Kawwanah means emptying the heart of all thoughts, and to think of oneself as if standing before the Shekhinah [Presence]” (Mishneh Torah: Book of Adoration, Laws of Prayer IV, 16). Maimonides was explicating the Talmudic teaching: “One who prays should perceive the Divine Presence before him” (Babylonian Talmud [BT], Sanhedrin, 22a). As precedent for their teaching, the Talmudic Sages had cited Psalm 16:8, “I have continuously placed (shiviti) the Lord before me; He is at my right hand so that I shall not falter.” Jewish mystics understood the verse literally, as a reference to mystical experiences of the divine presence. In the Talmudic period of late antiquity (300-600 CE), Jewish mystics employed mental images as part of their meditations in synagogue, in order to inculcate visions of the divine presence (Wolfson, 1996). More elaborate visions of the divine presence were also pursued outside the context of synagogue prayers by the merkabahmystics who wrote the hekhalot literature (Scholem, 1965; Merkur, 1993). Maimonides recommended the practice of the presence as a means for ordinary Jews to obey the commandments to love and fear God.

And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and his creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him…. And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil affrighted, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge. (Mishneh Torah: Book of Knowledge, Laws Concerning the Basic Principles of the Torah 2:2; Maimonides, 1971, 35b)

Maimonides (1963) called the Shekhinah a created light (p. 60; Guide 1:28) and asserted its abstract, conceptual character: “ ‘In Thy light do we see light ’ [Ps. 36:10] has the … meaning … that through the overflow of the [active] intellect that has overflowed from Thee, we intellectually cognize, and consequently we receive correct guidance, we draw inferences, and we apprehend the intellect” (p. 280; Guide 2:12). In this theory, the active intellect is an unconscious process that generates the intellectual light that is the Shekhinah, divine presence, or indwelling. The Shekhinah was synonymous with the Glory; both terms designated the manifest content of a vision of prophecy. In Maimonides’s use, the terms did not refer to specific contents. Maimonides allowed that prophecies might potentially have any manifest content. All were instances of the Shekhinah because the very occurrence of prophetic revelation presupposes the presence of God.

Because Maimonides subscribed to the medieval Aristotelian view, shared by Jewish and Muslim philosophers, that the prophecies of the scriptural prophets consisted of the actualization of their rational faculties by the Active Intellect (Blumenthal, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1999; Rahman, 1958), his instructions on the practice of the sense of presence were intended as instructions in the practice of prophecy. ‘Arba’ah Turim, a codification of Jewish practice by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1270-1343) that was similarly addressed to the general Jewish populace, provided further detail on the technique.

How has it been taught that the one praying must intend his heart, as is said, “[O Lord], You will make their hearts intend, You will incline your ears (Ps. 10:17)”…. As he brings the words out in his lips, he thinks as though Shekhinah were before him, as it is said, “I keep the Name before me always” (Ps. 16:8). When the kawwanah awakens, it will remove all distracting thoughts until his thought [alone] remains. When his kawwanah is successful in his prayer, he thinks as though he were speaking before a king of flesh and blood who is here today and tomorrow in the grave. He orders his words and intends them nicely in order that they not falter. How much more [must he do so] before a king, the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He! must intend even his thoughts because thought is as speech before Him, who examines all thoughts. The [medieval German] Hasidim and the practical [kabbalists] behaved in this way. They used to meditate and intend their prayers until they attained derealization of the body and the triumph of the Intellectual Spirit, and [so] arrived near the degree of prophecy. Should another thought come to him during prayer he would be silent until the thought ceased. He would not pray in a place where there was speech that invalidated his kawwanah nor in an hour that invalidated his kawwanah. (‘Arba’ah Turim, ‘Orah Hayyim 98:1)

The practical Kabbalah followed Maimonides in attributing the mediation of revelation to the Active Intellect (Idel, 1988, 125-32; Blumenthal, 1984).

Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) quoted this passage from ‘Arba’ah Turim verbatim in his Shulkhan Aruch, “Prepared Table” (‘Orah Hayyim 98:1), which superseded Arba’ah Turim as the most popular codification of Jewish law. The Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of the Hasidic movement, endorsed the passage on kawwanah as well (Jacob Joseph of Polnoye (1780), Toldot Taakov Tosef, Acharey, 88c).

Meditation on Shekhinah in the Zohar

The classical sourcebook of the Kabbalah, the thirteenth-century Sefer ha-Zohar, “Book of Splendor,” enjoined a derivative practice on kabbalists. The Zohar conformed with Maimonides’s advice to seek the Shekhinah. It also accepted his view that the visions are manifestations of the Shekhinah (Wolfson, 1987, 1994). Where, however, Maimonides had invested the traditional term with a metaphoric significance when he interpreted it psychologically, the Zohar reified it in a kabbalistic manner. For the Zohar, the Shekhinah was both a psychological phenomenon and a feminine hypostasis of the divine. In attributing gender to the Shekhinah, the Zoharinterpreted the soul’s conjunction with the Shekhinah during a vision as a hieros gamos, a “sacred marriage” of unio mystica between the male kabbalist’s soul and the feminine within the divine. This intellectual erotization of mystical experience permeated the Zohar’s worldview. A kabbalist was to perform kawwanah, so far as possible, during all waking hours, in order to attempt always to remain united with Shekhinah in perpetual spiritual intercourse. This intercourse took bodily sexual form when he happened to be with his wife. It was accomplished differently in her absence. The Zohar explained:

When a man is about to set out on a journey he should pray to the Holy One, blessed be He, so that his Master’s Shekhinah should come down to him before he leaves, while male and female are still together. Once he has said his prayer and his words of praise, and the Shekhinah has come down to him, he should leave, for then the Shekhinah will be united with him so that male and female may exist together. Male and female in the town; male and female in the country….

When he returns to his home he should give his wife great joy, because it was his wife who enabled him to have celestial union…. Should his wife become pregnant as a result, the celestial union will bestow upon her a holy soul…. Therefore he must direct his mind with joy….

Similarly, when scholars are separated from their wives on weekdays in order to study Torah, celestial intercourse is granted them and does not desert them, so that male and female may exist together…. Similarly, when a man’s wife has her menstrual period and he has proper respect for her, celestial intercourse is granted him during those days, so that male and female may exist together…. The principle is that all the sons of faith must direct their minds and their intentions during [intercourse]. (Zohar 1, 49b-50a; as cited in Tishby, 1989, 3, 1397-99)

The requirement that kabbalists should “direct their minds and their intentions” referred to the practice of kawwanah.The meditations had to be pious, reverent, and concerned with the fulfillment of divine commandments.

One should not act licentiously or obscenely, or with whorish intentions like animals…. For we have learned whoever has intercourse for immoral reasons, or with any of the intentions that we have mentioned, and does not pay heed to those matters that are essential, then, as the Mishnah says, the child that is produced will be wicked, licentious, impudent, and shameless, and will not be counted among the seed of truth. But if he has intercourse for the sake of fulfilling the commandment [of procreation], and sanctifies himself, and directs his mind to heaven, he will have worthy children, righteous and pious, holy children, full of the fear of heaven. (Zohar Hadash, Bereshit 11a-11b, Midrash ha-Ne’elam; as cited in Tishby, 1989, 3, 1394)

Not only was a kabbalist to venerate the act of procreation, but he was obliged to approach his wife with a reverence that was due her as a manifestation of Shekhinah.

“[Jacob] approached the place, and lay there …” (Genesis 28:11)…. This teaches us that when a man wishes to lie with his wife he must first of all coax her and persuade her with words, and if he is unsuccessful he should not lie with her, for they must share the same desire and there must be no compulsion. (Zohar 1, 49a; as cited in Tishby, 1989, 3, 1389)

The Zohar’s ethic of sexual behavior was consequently at odds with the joylessness of Talmudic tradition.

Rabbi Nachman on Hitbodedut

The great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), founded the Breslover sect of Hasidism, which continues to flourish down to the present time. Nachman used the traditional term hitbodedut in reference to his practices of meditation. Initially popularized in Bahya ibn Pakuda’s Duties of the Heart (1973) in the eleventh century, the term hitbodedut etymologically means “making oneself solitary” and literally denoted “isolation, seclusion, going on a retreat.” Moses Maimonides’ son Abraham Maimonides (1938), writing in the early thirteenth century, distinguished external and internal solitude. Internal solitude involved a considerable or complete inactivity of sense perception, and a withdrawal of emotion and action from worldly concerns. Both imagination and thought were to be devoted to the biological and celestial design of the creation and love for its creator (385). The term rapidly became a euphemism that simply meant meditating (Kaplan, 1985, 52), for example, in the passage from ‘Arba’ah Turim cited above.

Nachman engaged in a variety of meditations that he called hitbodedut, but his “most common practice” consisted of talking with God (Shevachay HaRan 11; Nathan, 1973, 12). Green (1979) remarked: “There is simply no other way to be close to God, Nahman taught, and nearness to God was the single ultimate goal that a Bratslav hasid was to allow himself” (145). Nachman cited the precedent of Maimonides, whose Code stated that prayer was originally personal and informal. Prayer only became formalized in the Second Temple era, but “the original form is still most beneficial” (Sichos HaRan 229; Nathan, 1973, pp. 364-65). Nachman taught:

The main thing is prayer. Accustom yourself to beg and plead before God. Speak to Him in any language you understand—this is especially important. Beg Him to open your eyes. Ask Him to help you along the path of devotion. Please that you be worthy of drawing close to Him. (Shevachay HaRan 27; Nathan, 1973, 30)

Make a habit of praying before God from the depths of your heart. Use whatever language you know best. Ask God to make you worthy of serving Him. This is the essence of prayer. (Sichos HaRan 229; Nathan, 1973, 365)

Nachman suggested setting aside “a specific time each day to calmly review your life.” “You may do this for days and years, apparently without effect, but in the end you will reach your goal.” He recommended that the meditations be spoken aloud. “You can meditate in thought, but the most important thing is to express it in speech” (Sichos HaRan 47, 68, 232; Nathan, 1973, 151, 175, 367). It was also important to be joyous. “It is … impossible to receive the spirit of prophecy, the divine spirit, except by means of joy” (Likutey Moharan 54:7; Nachman, 1999, 209).

Nachman recommended seclusion and meditation in grassy fields and meadows, away from human habitation. Alternatively, “hitbodedut should take place in a special place, namely, away from the city, on a secluded road, in a place not frequented by people.” In town, a special room might be set aside for “Torah study and prayer … secluded meditation and conversation with God.” In the absence of a special room, it is possible to drape a prayer shawl over one’s head and converse with God beneath it or to proceed in the manner of King David who referred to secluding himself in bed under the covers, when he wrote: “Each night I converse from my bed” (Ps 6:7; Likutey Moharan 52:3; Nachman, 1999, 123). Another possibility was to “converse with God while sitting before an open book. Let others think that you are merely studying” (Sichos HaRan 227, 274, 275; Nathan, 1973, 364, 401).

Nachman urged beginners to start speaking to God in any way that was heartfelt. “All Israel are called children of God. Therefore, you should pour out your thoughts and troubles before God, just like a child complaining to his father” (Sichos HaRan 7; Nathan, 1973, 112-14). Beginners were to seek to pray to know God and be motivated to repent. If they could say no more than “Lord of the World!” or repeat a single word over and over again, they were to persist until they could bring themselves to speak more fully and openly (Green, 1979, 146). Nachman’s encouragement of persistence should not be misconstrued as a reference to monotony as a means of hypnotic induction. He explicitly advised rapid movements of thought from one contemplative idea to another (Jacobs, 1993, 56).

More advanced practitioners might engage God in more sophisticated conversations, but to the same humble ends.

When the Rebbe was speaking before God, petitions and supplications would pour forth from his heart, and he would often bring up some particularly good argument, or compose an especially fitting and well ordered prayer. He would take the prayers he particularly liked and preserve them in writing. These he would repeat many times.

These conversations with God were the Rebbe’s most common practice. All his prayers had one single focus, that he should be worthy of drawing himself close to God. On many occasions he literally demanded this of God. (Shevachay HaRan 11; Nathan, 1973, 11-12)

Nachman’s general instructions to talk with God are less informative than might be hoped. As a practical endeavor, it may be a question, as it was in my own experience, of learning to recapture a state of mind whose first occurrence is spontaneous. In one of his discourses, Nachman remarked: “By means of the lasting impression which the body has because of the enlightenment with which the soul previously illuminated it, she can now recall and ascend and return to her level” (Likutey Moharan 22:5; Nachman, 1990, 343).

Ira Progoff’s “Inner Wisdom Dialogue”

A closely related, workable technique has been developed by Ira Progoff, an analytical psychologist who designed a program of self-therapy that involved keeping a journal. One component of his “Intensive Journal process” adapted Carl G. Jung’s technique of active imagination (see Merkur, 1993, 40-49; Miller, 2004) to the context of journal writing. Progoff (1992) explained that “many human beings know intuitively more than they rationally understand” (267-68). He designed his procedure of “Inner Wisdom Dialogue” to “actually gain access to the potentials of personal development and knowledge that are contained in the depth of us” (268).

A journal writer might choose, as a dialogue partner, any person or figure that represented wisdom for the writer. Some might be family members, teachers, or other real human beings. Others, whom Progoff termed “transpersonal wisdom figures … belong to history and the universe” (280). For Progoff, God was one among many possible dialogue partners. “God, in one aspect, is a transpersonal wisdom figure with whom we can establish a dialogue relationship, God by whatever name and in whatever form He is recognizable to us” (280-81). Progoff treated God in a Jungian fashion as a psychological component of the unconscious. He was speaking of the God-representation within the psyche, while leaving God, as understood theologically, out of his discussion.

Progoff was not interested, however, in a dialogue only with unconsciously held ideas that were associated with God. He sought genuine communication, original inspiration, and revelation. “We are not establishing contact by dialoguing with the personal side of these inner wisdom figures. We are reaching toward the transpersonal depth of wisdom within them seeking to establish a relationship between that and the corresponding depth of wisdom in ourselves” (281).

Progoff provided the following instructions concerning the conduct of the dialogue:

Our eyes are closed and we feel the presence of the wisdom figure with whom we wish to enter into dialogue. We feel its presence, but we do not think of it with conscious thoughts. We let our thoughts come to rest. Our breathing is slow. It becomes slower, softer. We are still. In the stillness we feel the presence of this person, this wisdom figure, this being. We are feeling its presence, feeling the inner quality of its being, feeling the deep wisdom, the unity and knowing of existence that is personified in it.

Sitting in quietness, we let images come to us. They may come to us visually upon our Twilight Imagery screen. More important, through our image of them we feel the quality of the person, its atmosphere, and especially its presence. We feel its life, its concern, its desires, and we speak to it. We greet it. We say what we feel of its life and of its quality of life. We say what we feel of our life, our concerns, and our questions. We speak of our relationship to it, why we come to it, why we call upon it, and what we have to ask.

All that we say we write as our part of the dialogue script. We return to silence and wait. When the Wisdom figure is ready, it speaks to us, and it is written. Whatever it says, be it casual or profound, we record it. We let the dialogue move along its own path, make its own turns, cover its own subject matter. We speak and the other speaks, and we let the dialogue continue as long as it wishes.

We are sitting in stillness, waiting in openness. We feel the presence of the person and its quality of wisdom. We speak and are spoken to. And we let it be written through our pen. Thus the dialogue script is written between ourselves and the person of wisdom. We sit in openness, enabling the dialogue to take form through us, in the silence, in the silence. (Progoff, 1992, 283)

As a criterion for choosing a dialogue partner, Progoff (1992) recommended the figure’s suitability as a confidant: “What is most important is that it be a person to whom we can open our hearts fully on any of our deepest concerns, and that we can do so with no reservations, knowing it will all be accepted” (282). Progoff was here echoing Freud’s basic rule—to tell everything honestly—but I suggest that applying the same criterion to the dialogue partner will explain the superiority of selecting God. Which inner wisdom figure can speak most openly and completely in response to a journal writer? God, who alone is omniscient!

In practice, of course, how one conceptualizes God places constraints on the unconscious inspirations that one will accept as coming from God. An inspiration that is doctrinally unacceptable will not be accepted as valid, but will instead be dismissed as temptation. The God-representation may be the potentially most versatile inner wisdom figure that may be used in meditation as a vehicle of the transcendent, but its function as a conduit imposes finite, psychological constraints on the experience of revelation.

Rabbi Nachman on Inspiration: Accessing the Paranormal in Prayer

By his practice of hitbodedut, Nachman sought to engage God in conversation. The conversations pertained to all manner of topics. There was no one mystical or paranormal experience at which Nachman aimed. He promoted the practice of literally speaking aloud to God as the technique most accessible to novices and most powerful even for experts. However, his practices of hitbodedut also included other techniques of meditation and visualization. The many and varied experiences that he discussed were consistent with the liberal attitude of Maimonides and the Zohar. An omnipotent God was not limited to a single type of mystical experience. Any and all manner of revelation merited treatment as miraculous creations by God. What was important was to interact with God by means of meditation, revelation, and human response.

In many cases, the revelations that Nachman sought would today be regarded in psychological terms as instances of creative inspiration. For example, Nachman adhered to a conventional Jewish regard for the revelatory character of dreams.

  • There is a type of grace (Chen) that enables a man to see the future in dreams.
  • If a man has this grace, he can ask for a vision and perceive the future in a dream.
  • The Talmud teaches us, “Just as grain cannot exist without chaff, so dreams cannot exist without nonsense” (Berachot 55a).
  • Dreams contain predictions of the future, but they are intertwined with much worthless chaff.
  • There is also the clear dream of the prophet, regarding which it is written (Num. 12:6), “I will speak to him in a dream.”
  • This is the dream of the man who has grace.
  • Such a man can also predict the future through the dreams of another.
  • When he hears the other’s dream, the worthless chaff falls away and only the clear vision falls upon his ears.
  • Joseph had such grace. (Sichos HaRan 262; Nathan, 1973, 393-94)

Nachman regarded creative inspirations during wakefulness as a further category of revelation that was available to any interested person.

Even an ordinary person, if he sits himself in front of a holy book and looks at the letters of Torah, he will be able to perceive new insights and wonders. That is, by his concentrating well on the letters of Torah, the letters begin to shine and come together in the aspect of “[the] letters stood out and came together,” as our Sages, of blessed memory, have said (Yoma 73b). Then, one can see wonders [in the] new combinations. It is possible to perceive in the book something the author did not think of at all.

Even an ordinary person can do this. A great person can perceive this without any effort, yet even a totally ordinary person can comprehend and perceive new insights, if he sits himself [in front of a book] and concentrates on the letters of Torah, as explained above. Nevertheless, a person should not put this to the test, for it could be that just then he will perceive nothing at all. But even so, even an ordinary person can achieve this, as explained above. (Likutey Moharan 281; Nachman, 2000, 405)

Nachman recognized that in other cases, considerable efforts were needed before inspirations occurred.

When you want to come up with new ideas in the Torah, you must concentrate on one particular subject. Take a verse or a subject, and review it many times, hammering on the door until it is opened for you. Sometimes a thought flashes through your mind and is then forgotten. You must be a man of valor, pursuing it until it is recaptured. (Sichos HaRan 58; Nathan, 1973, 165)

Nachman generalized that creative inspiration in every field of human endeavor owed its occurrence to divine revelation.

The Rebbe said that all scientific discoveries and inventions come from on high. Without such inspiration, they could never be discovered. But when the time comes for an idea to be revealed to the world, the necessary inspiration is granted to a researcher from on high. A thought enters his mind, and it is thus revealed. Many people may have previously sought this idea, but it still eluded them. Only when the time comes for it to be revealed can the inspiration be found. All inspiration comes from the place associated with the seeker. If one seeks secular wisdom, then it does not come from the Holy, but from the Other Side. The same is true when one discovers new meanings and ideas in his sacred studies. Were the ideas not granted from on high, it would never occur to him. All wisdom comes from on high, each thing emanating from its proper place. Each idea has its own place, and there are thousands and thousands of different levels. All discoveries, sacred or profane, have a root above, each in its own particular place. (Sichos HaRan 5; Nathan, 1973, 111)

Nachman’s psychological theories expanded on Maimonides’s medieval Aristotelianism and distinguished potential, actualized, acquired, and transcendent intellects. The intellect existed in potential when it was not in use. Rational thinking constituted the actualization of the intellect; and the acquisition of insights and inspirations comprised the acquired intellect (Likutey Moharan 25:1; Nachman, 1993b, 109-13). The transcendent intellect corresponded more closely to Aristotelian ideas of the active intellect (see Brentano, 1977) and similarly anticipated the modern concept of the unconscious. “This intellect is so very great that the mind is incapable of holding it. It does not enter the mind, but encircles it from without.” The transcendent intellect was the immediate source of revelation. “Inspiration of the heart is born out of the motion of the [transcendent] intellect.” “When this transcendent intellect is internalized in the mind … the intellect then expands and reveals to man the [understanding of] foreknowledge and free will” (Likutey Moharan21:1, 4; Nachman, 1990, 253, 261-63). Nachman possibly identified the transcendent intellect with the Shekhinah,(divine) Presence, of the kabbalistic system. “Know, there is an intermediary! This is the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence), which is a mediator between man and God, so to speak” (Likutey Moharan 159; Nachman, 1993c, 275).

Just as Maimonides (1963) had conceptualized revelation as a creation ex nihilo that was mediated to the soul’s rational faculty by the operations of the active intellect, so Nachman’s understanding that inspirations are mediated psychologically did not, in his view, detract from their revelatory character.

The Rebbe once spoke to me about innovating original concepts in the Torah. Speaking with wonder and awe, he said, “From where does one get a new concept? When one is worthy of innovation, his original thoughts are really very wondrous and mysterious. From where do they come?”

An original idea is a revelation from God, bringing something from nothingness to existence. At first you do not know the idea at all. It still exists within the Infinite in a state of nothingness. This is the source of all wisdom. Every new idea is drawn from this source. We therefore see God’s revelation in each new idea. (Sichos HaRan 245; Nathan, 1973, 378)

Nachman also experienced creativity as revelation in connection with his tales, which are kabbalistic allegories that he designed to resemble folktales. Nachman stated that each tale was inspired by a contemporary event.

Each tale came to be told because of a conversation regarding current happenings in the world. A news item would contain some idea related to a story the Rebbe had in mind, and would lead him to tell it. The news would be the “awakening from below,” (Zohar 1:35a, 82b, 210a, 3:8b) drawing an aspect of Godliness down to be clothed in a particular tale. This was true of every single story. It was also true of many lessons that the Rebbe revealed when it was not a regular time for followers to come together with him. (Sichos HaRan 151; Nathan, 1973, 291)

Nachman apparently experienced the composition of the tales as something over which he had no control. His disciple, Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov, stated:

On Wednesday morning I … brought up the subject of the story he had begun the previous Friday night. The Rebbe said that he was anxious to know how the story continues and what happened on each of the seven days of the wedding feast. He also wanted to know what happened to the prince who inherited his kingdom during his father’s lifetime, the episode that introduces the story. [Even though the Rebbe was telling the story, he spoke as if he was hearing it himself.] (Sichos HaRan 149; Nathan, 1973, 287)

Nachman was also attentive to more informal and momentary inspirations. To illustrate, he told a story of his paternal grandfather:

My grandfather, Rabbi Nachman Horodenker, of blessed memory, told the following story:

I was once travelling on a ship. We ran out of provisions and were without food for several days. Finally we reached an Arab city, where there were no Jews. An Arab took me in and offered me food. I had not eaten for several days, and quickly washed my hands and said the blessing for bread. I was just about to take a bite, when a thought entered my mind: “Do not eat the bread of one with a mean eye.”

A random thought is not without meaning, and I did not know what to do. I had already said blessing, but I realized the significance of this thought, and was determined not to eat anything of this Arab. Just then another thought entered my mind. “I have commanded the Arabs to feed you.” [1 Kings 17:4, with a wordplay on the Hebrew word ARV, “raven” or “Arab.” When the Rebbe told this story, he commented how proper it was for his grandfather to insist on acting according to this thought. Every thought entering the mind must contain some element of truth.]

You must learn a lesson from my grandfather. A confusing thought may enter your mind, but if you stand firm, God will send you another thought to encourage you. (Sichos HaRan 7; Nathan, 1973, 112-14)

Nachman’s belief in the divine creation of original inspirations coincided with his belief that God responds to prayer with miracles.

And [prayer] corresponds to miracles, the supernatural. For prayer transcends nature; the natural course dictates a certain thing, but prayer changes nature’s course. This is a miracle. And for this, one needs faith. A person has to believe that there is a M’chadesh (an Originator) with the power to originate as He sees fit.(Likutey Moharan 7:1; Nachman, 1993a, 3 and 5)

Whether a miracle proceeds within the soul as an inspiration, or in the perceptible world as an event outside the course of nature, it is a work of divine creation.

Nachman’s ambition to engage God in a dialogue of prayer and miracle, inspiration and devotion, will account for his attitude toward himself. Where many rabbis were content with themselves as learned authorities, Nachman approached everything as though he were a novice.

As soon as he achieved a new level, he would immediately begin anew. All his effort would be forgotten, as if he had not yet even taken the first step. He would then begin afresh, like one taking his first steps into the realm of holiness. (Shevachay HaRan, Pilgrimage 33; Nathan, 1973, 98-99)

Like a painter who completed one canvas only to begin again by going on to the next, Nachman “would … fall and begin anew several times each day” (Sichos HaRan 48; Nathan, 1973, 152).

Hitbonenut, “Self-Understanding”

Another basic use to which Nachman put hitbodedut was an approach to self-analysis. In its simplest form, it entailed pouring one’s heart out to God as a means to clarify what it was that one was seeking. Nachman remarked that attempting to meditate would immediately encounter resistance.

All the confusions of the mind and all the disturbances and all the foolishness which we at times experience, are all drawn into our prayers. For all the disturbances, etc., and all the thoughts which a person occasionally thinks, all come to mind precisely at the time of prayer. Precisely then, when he gets up to pray, he hears them all. (Likutey Moharan 30:7; Nachman, 1993b, 305-7)

To manage confusions, a meditator was to focus on the divine wisdom that manifests as the “wisdom and inner intelligence”—the virtue or essential nature—of whatever phenomenon his meditations might consider. “The power of the letters of the Holy Tongue … are in each thing in the world” (Likutey Moharan 19:6; Nachman, 1990, 155).

The Jew must always focus on the inner intelligence of every matter, and bind himself to the wisdom and inner intelligence that is to be found in each thing. This, so that the intelligence which is in each thing may enlighten him, that he may draw closer to God through that thing. (Likutey Moharan 1:2; Nachman, 1995, 17)

Nachman also applied his quest to appreciate the essences of all things in a reflexive manner, to his own circumstance. He advised: “Speak to God and understand your purpose in life” (Sichos HaRan 68; Nathan, 1973, 174-76).

“I commune with my heart, and my ruach [spirit] searches”—Through this he is roused to speak with his heart about his eternal purpose, that being the World to Come, and to search and seek to find the good points, the aspect of the good ruach he has within him, in order to return to God through this. For the essence of repentance is subduing the evil ruach and extracting the good ruach, as is known. (Likutey Moharan 54:9; Nachman, 1999, 223)

Breslover tradition refers to this aspect of meditation as hitbonenut, “self-understanding,” and credits its introduction to Maimonides. Aryeh Kaplan, one of the pioneers of the contemporary revival of Jewish meditation, explained hitbonenut as follows:

Normally, we look at things dispassionately and objectively. I may look at a leaf and even examine it very closely, but it does not affect me in any way. I am exactly the same person after as I was before. It does not change my state of consciousness at all. My mind is the same looking at the leaf as it would be otherwise. However, I may also look at the leaf with the aim of using it to attain a higher level of consciousness or a greater degree of self-awareness….

Maimonides … speaks about using hitbonenuth meditation while contemplating God’s creation. One can achieve a profound love for God through such contemplation. This is effective precisely because it is not merely a simple contemplation of various aspects of God’s creation, but is understanding oneself as part of this creation. When one sees God’s creation, and understands one’s own role as part of it, one can develop a deep and lasting love for God. Who has not gone out into the fields on a clear night and gazed at the stars, yearning to unlock their secret? One thinks about the vast, unfathomable reaches of the universe and stands in rapt awe. For many people, this in itself can be a “religious experience.” It is an experience that can bring a person to feel a profound humility before the infinite vastness of the universe.

The next step is to go beyond the physical and contemplate the fact that this vast universe, with all its countless stars and galaxies, was all created by God. One ponders the fact that one ineffable Being created everything. We realize how different this Being must be from us, and yet we feel a certain closeness.

The final step is hitbonenuth, understanding oneself in the light of this vast creation. At this level, one asks the questions, “If God created this vast universe, then who am I? How do I fit into all of this?” At the same time, one may feel privileged that God allows us to have a direct relationship with Him. Imagine that the creator of all the stars and galaxies deigns to listen to me! Not only that, but He is concerned about me! Realizing God’s greatness, and at the same time contemplating the closeness to Him that He allows us to enjoy, is precisely what can bring a person to profound love for God….

Hitbonenuth meditation can be focused on anything—a stone, a leaf, a flower, or an idea. One allows the subject to fill the mind and then uses it as a means to understand the self. It is a type of mirror in which one can see oneself in the light of true Reality. Using this mirror, one can see the Divine within oneself…. When one looks into this mirror and sees the Divine within oneself, one can also communicate with the Divine. (Kaplan, 1985, 50-52)

The technique of hitbonenut takes for granted that God’s power is omnipresent, that His purposes in creating all the many features of creation are omnipresent. Each and every individual created thing embodies a divine intention at each and every moment. Human beings are no exception to this rule. The self-understanding designated by the termhitbonenut consists of the understanding that the meditator seeks to gain regarding God’s purposes for him- or herself, in the details and particulars of his or her life. The practice requires an individual to engage in teleological reflection, by adopting God’s point of view, as it were, and empathizing with God in thinking about created things, including oneself (compare Blumenthal, 1982, 113-14, 116-22). Constantly thinking beyond one’s own motives, to consider the place of one’s motives and actions in the divine scheme of things, may simply result in an increased attentiveness (Bindler, 1980). However, the practice may instead induce a creative process that issues in realizations or inspirations on the desired topics.

Breslover tradition gives, in the name of Maimonides, what is perhaps better treated as Nachman’s interpretation of Maimonides’s thinking. Mai-monides (1963) followed Aristotle in treating the soul’s rational faculty as the distinctive and essential nature of man. He maintained that a person fulfills his purpose by perfecting his rational faculty, through its actualization by the Active Intellect—which is to say, by engaging in prophecy. Maimonides wrote only of the general principle of revelation; but Nachman presumably assumed that Maimonides knew, from personal experience, that there is no general revelation, that each revelation is particular, finite, momentary, occurring at a specific time and place, and addressing a specific circumstance, with a specific purpose. Accordingly, for a person to fulfill the general purpose of being human by attaining prophecy, as Maimonides taught, was always to be concerned with the particular purpose of the moment. What is one’s present purpose? What might one best do under the circumstances of the moment? What does God intend for one to do? What is one’s best course of action? “The Rebbe himself said, ‘When the day begins, I surrender my every movement to God. I ask that every motion that I may make be according to God’s will’” (Sichos HaRan 238; Nathan, 1973, 374).

The procedure of hitbonenut, self-understanding, aimed to discover the immediate, momentary purpose for which one was being created at the moment. It was an effort to understand the potential for virtue that one could presently actualize, that is, the divine service to which one was presently being called. Nachman summarized: “Through himself, by engaging in private conversation with His Maker in hitbodedut, he can also inspire his own heart by means of ‘My mouth utters wisdom’” (Likutey Moharan 34:8; Nachman, 1997, 79).

A principle that governed Nachman’s practice of hitbodedut was his concern to achieve peace. The Mishnah teaches: “Be one of the disciples of Aaron, a lover of peace, following after peace, loving mankind, and drawing them to the Torah” (Pirke Avot 1:12). Nachman applied the teaching to intrapsychic as well as interpersonal conflict.

The principle is that a person should pursue peace. [He should see] that there is peace between Jews, and that each person is at peace with his attributes—i.e., he should not be conflicted within himself or over what happens to him. It should make no difference to him whether he experiences good times or bad; he always finds God in it. (Likutey Moharan 33:1; Nachman, 1997, 3)

The criterion of seeking peace led Nachman, for example, to make a lifelong habit of owning his disaffections with God as his own chosen actions.

It always seemed to the Rebbe that all his prayers were being disregarded. He was sure that he was not wanted at all, and was being pushed further and further from any true devotion. For he saw the days and years passing, and he still felt far from God. After all his prayers, he felt that he had not been worthy of drawing close to God at all. It was as if his words were never heard, and he had been totally ignored all this time. It seemed as everything was being done to push him away from God.

But the Rebbe’s resolve remained firm and he did not abandon his ground. It was not easy, for there were many things to discourage him. He prayed and pleaded before God, begging to be worthy of true devotion, and still he saw no results. He felt as if he was being totally ignored. There were times when he became discouraged and let his conversations with God lapse for several days. But then he would remind himself that he should be ashamed for criticizing God’s ways. He said to himself, “God is truly merciful and compassionate…. He certainly wants to draw me near to him …” He was then able to again strengthen his resolve. He would again begin anew, pleading and speaking before God. This happened very many times. (Shevachay HaRan 12; Nathan, 1973, 12-13)

Theological reflection on God’s mercy and compassion permitted Nachman to recognize his projections as his own, and to correct his emotional deportment. Nachman’s recognitions of his negative transferences onto God (Merkur, in press) did not entail their psychoanalysis, but successfully enabled him to remain at peace with God. Interestingly, his experience of hitbonenut was reflected in a teaching about self-sabotaging behavior:

Whatever lack a person experiences—be it children or livelihood or health—is entirely from the side of the person himself. For the light of God flows upon him continuously, but the person, because of his evil deeds, makes a shadow for himself so that God’s light does not reach him. And, commensurate with his deeds, so the shadow is cast which blocks God’s light. Thus, the lack which he experiences is in accordance with the deed through which the shadow was cast.(Likutey Moharan 172; Nachman, 1993c, 339)

In several passages, Nachman used the term hitbodedut in connection with the practice of bitul, “negation” or “annihilation” of the self, a meditative technique that induced mystical experiences of ‘ayin, “nothing” (Likutey Moharan 52:3-4; Nachman, 1999, 121-27). “Know, the essence of bitul—that a person negates his corporeality and becomes ayin (nothingness), becoming encompassed in the oneness of God—is achieved only through hitbodedut” (Likutey Moharan 52:5; Nachman, 1999, 129). Although Hasidim generally regard the achievement of ‘ayin as the principle goal of the religious life, Nachman instead privileged conversations with God. “This claim that the core of religion lay in the inner life of the individual and in the impassioned outpourings of his innermost thoughts before God is quite unique in the history of Judaism” (Green, 1979, 146). In this respect, too, Nachman followed Maimonides (1963, 518; Guide 3:29), who had been vehemently shouted down when he asserted that meditation that enabled a practitioner to “come near to this true deity and to obtain His good will” was a complete and sufficient program of divine worship.

Biblical Theories of Revelation

The biblical concept that miracles are revelatory is expressed by several biblical terms. The Hebrew word ‘ot, “sign, omen, miracle” also means “letter, mark, sign, signal.” The biblical term nes, “miracle, wonder, prodigy, marvel” also means “flag, banner, standard, pennant, sign, signal.” The word mofet, “portent, wonder, miracle, marvel” also means “sign, token.” Each of the terms denoted a type of communication—letter, flag, token—and had metaphoric use in reference to miracles, which were understood as communications, revelations, messages.

Deuteronomy expressed a simplistic version of the theory. Obedience to the covenant would be rewarded with progeny, agricultural and pastoral wealth, health, and success in warfare (Deut. 7:12-16; 11:13-17; 28:1-14). Disobedience would be punished in an equal and opposite manner (Deut. 28:15-46), “as a sign [‘ot] and a portent [mofet] forever” (v. 46). The book of Job tells the story of a man who adhered to a strict belief in divine reward and punishment, only to enter spiritual crisis when he met disaster despite his righteousness. Three of his friends, who similarly advocated the Deuteronomic theory of miracles, insisted that Job could not have been righteous and must instead have been guilty of sins. Eliphaz explicitly asserted that suffering was disciplinary (Job 5:17). Job’s young friend Elihu offered a more sophisticated theory. He asserted that God speaks both in dreams and visions (Job 33:14-18), and also by means of somatic complaints (Job 33:19-22). He explained the miracles as educational:

He opens the ear of men,
and terrifies them with warning,
to deter man from his deed,
and annul pride from a man. (Job 33:16-17)

According to Elihu, God was not punishing Job. God was instead engaged in teaching, when, by frightening a man, “he keeps back his soul from the Pit” (v. 18). Having received divine rebuke either in a dream or vision (v. 15), or by means of bodily infirmity (v. 19), a person might learn from an angel the right things to do (v. 23). If the angel graciously commanded the man’s restoration, he recovered (vv. 24-25). If the man prayed, and God accepted the penitent, he would enjoy the divine presence, envisioning the face of God (v. 26).

Elihu’s speech referred repeatedly to the theory that miracles are educational in purpose. They are signs simultaneously in the sense of miracles and indications.

But none says, “Where is God my Maker,

who gives songs in the night,
who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth,
and makes us wiser than the birds of the air?” (Job 35:10-11)

And if they are bound in fetters
and caught in the cords of affliction,
then he declares to them their work
and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.

He opens their ears to instruction,
and commands that they return from iniquity.

If they listen, and serve him,
they complete their days in prosperity,
and their years in pleasantness. (Job 36:8-11)

See, God is exalted in his power;
who is a teacher like him? (Job 36:22)

Elihu did not deny the Deuteronomic association of righteousness with advantageous events, and sin with adverse events. He declined, however, to interpret reward and punishment as God’s purposes. Miracles provided confirmation that good was good and evil was evil. Reward and punishment were not ends in themselves. They were object lessons that advised people regarding their own behaviors.

The concept that miracles are communications was developed into a general theory through its application to the first and greatest of all miracles, God’s creation of the universe. In the first chapter of Genesis, God spoke, and things existed. In this narrative, creation is, above all, a linguistic event. It is God speaking through the medium of all of the many things that he creates. The Mishnah, Pirke Avot 5:1, integrated the creation narrative’s concept with the doctrine of reward and punishment:

With ten sayings was the world created. And what does this teach? Could it not have been created with one saying? But [it was done] to punish the wicked that destroy the world that was created with ten sayings, and to give the good reward to the righteous who establish the world that was created with ten sayings.

The ten sayings in the first sentence of the paragraph refer to the number of times that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 describes God as speaking in order to create the universe and its contents (Dan, 1984, 20). However, the ten sayings that have reward and punishment as their consequences refers to the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses at Sinai in Exodus 20. It is the Ten Commandments whose performance is rewarded and whose violation is punished. The Mishnah’s assimilation of the Ten Commandments to the ten creative sayings implied that God’s creation of the universe as a linguistic event coincided with the educational function of miraculous rewards and punishments. In this way, the Mishnah expressed much the same teaching as did the character of Elihu in the book of Job.

Sefer Yesirah, “Book of Formation,” an esoteric text of uncertain date (Wasserstrom, 1993, 2002), built on the Mishnah by treating the 10 numbers of the decade and the 22 Hebrew letters as the elementary building blocks of creation (Hayman, 2004). Sefer Yesirah’s account of the numbers and letters was further developed in Sefer Ha-Bahir, the twelfth-century foundation text of the Kabbalah (Abrams, 1994). These esoteric sources were reflected in Nachman’s presentation of the general theory.

The creation came into existence by means of the spoken word, as it is written (Psalms 33:6)“By the word of God the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth their entire host [was created].” The spoken word contains wisdom, because the whole of speech is but the five articulators of the mouth. Through them all the things of the entire creation came into existence, as it is written (ibid. 104:24), “You created them all with wisdom.” (Likutey Moharan 64:3; Nachman, 2003, 407)

Nachman owed his concept of “the five articulators of the mouth” to Sefer Yesirah, which had categorized the sounds of the Hebrew consonants into five groupings. Nachman’s point, that the physical aspect of speech, its production by mouth as sound, is the seat or vehicle of wisdom, was paradigmatic. All physical existents, the whole of creation, has wisdom. Nothing in creation is devoid of meaning, indeed, of divine wisdom.

Rabbi Nachman on Responding to Miracles

Nachman considerably expanded the biblical theory that miracles serve the ends, not only of reward and punishment, but also of teaching. He placed the human capacity to choose between good and evil at the center of his understanding of creation. “Everything you see in the world, everything that exists, it is all a test to give man freedom of choice.” Everything is “either a test, or else a disgrace…. If you do not pass the test, you will come to disgrace.” (Sichos HaRan300, 304; Nathan, 1973, 415, 416). All choices ultimately concern a person’s relationship with God.

Even today you have free will. You have the power to escape from these painful discussions and worries. You can flee from them and trust in God, abandoning the struggles of this bitter world and involving yourself in the struggles of the Torah. God will certainly sustain you. Does He not sustain all the world, now as always? And now God directs the world better than ever before. (Sichos HaRan 308; Nathan, 1973, 422)

Evildoers were confronted by different choices than the righteous encountered. Sinners needed to repent. When sinners did not choose to repent, all manner of events in the world communicated the revelation that they needed to repent.

When a person does not evaluate and judge himself, he is then evaluated and judged from Above. This is because “when there is no judgment below, there is judgment Above” (Devarim Rabbah 5:4). And when a man is judged with the judgment of heaven, then justice becomes clothed in all things and all things become God’s messengers for executing “the written judgment” (Psalms 149:9) upon this man. (Likutey Moharan 15:2; Nachman, 1993a, 345)

Miracles called people to repent in many different ways.

There is a great difference in the sin a person commits, God forbid, whether he is stirred immediately to repentance, in which case it is easy for him to return to his place, since he has not yet moved far from the good road. The reason is that when someone commits a sin, God forbid, he then turns from the straight road to another path, which is crooked. That road leads into a number of other paths and roads that are particularly misleading and tortuous, such that when people start to go on that evil road, God forbid, they stray and get so confused on these [other] roads that it is difficult to return and get out from there.

But God’s way is to call to the person immediately when He sees him straying from the way of the intellect. He calls to him to turn back. And [God] calls to each person according to his aspect. To one He calls with a hint, and to another with an actual call. There is also one whom He tramples down and punishes, and that is his call. For the Torah calls to them, “Fools, how long will you love being misled?” (Proverbs 1:22) …

Therefore, if one has not yet strayed far from the straight road it is easier for him to return, since he still recognizes the voice and is familiar with it; for it was not so long ago that he was with God and heard His voice, the voice of the Torah. He has not yet forgotten the voice or strayed far along these other misleading and confusing roads. Therefore, he can easily repent. (Likutey Moharan 206; Nachman, 2000, 43-45)

The miraculous revelations that encourage repentance included the phenomena of parapraxes—Freudian slips. The following example involved a kabbalistic pun, with regel, “leg” but also “pilgrimage,” taking a different value in connection with moed, “festival,” and moad, “shaky.”

Know! someone who slips and falls while walking, and as a result people laugh at him and he is embarrassed because of this, this came about because he degraded the joy of yom tov (the festivals). For a festival is called both regel and moed. As a result of his having degraded the joy of yom tov it becomes regel moad (a shaky leg). Therefore, his leg gave way and he fell.

The laugh that people have [at his expense] is the aspect of the fallen joy that comes from degrading the joy of the festivals. Therefore, he is embarrassed…. Sometimes, [the fall] serves as his atonement. At other times, he is not atoned thereby; rather, it serves him as a reminder to repent. (Likutey Moharan 235; Nachman, 2000, 181)

In other contexts, revelations are accomplished by phenomena that we would today consider psychosomatic. Nachman adhered to the traditional secrecy of Jewish esotericism. On different occasions, he remarked, “I know wisdom that cannot be revealed” and “All my teachings are introduction” (Sichos HaRan 181, 200; Nathan, 1973, 321, 341). On one occasion, he felt confirmed in his practice by a miracle.

The Rebbe began the explanation, but as soon as he started speaking, blood began to pour from his throat. He said, “Now you see with your own eyes that I am forbidden from on high to reveal anything to you.” (Shevachay HaRan, Pilgrimage 31; Nathan, 1973, 94)

Nachman also recognized divine miracles in the punitive character of obstacles to repentance. Even the obstacles constitute divine revelations.

When the attribute of judgment denounces someone who is not worthy of drawing closer to God and prevents him from entering the path of life … God is obliged, as it were, to agree to arrange obstacles for him so as to keep him from the path of life. [These obstacles are] commensurate with what he deserves based on his evil deeds, in accordance with judgment and justice. For the Holy One cannot disregard the judgment, because God loves justice….

However, since in truth God loves Israel, and that love for Israel is greater than the love for justice, what is the Holy One to do? … God grants permission for obstacles to be arranged for him. But He Himself hides Himself, as it were, within the obstacles. And one who is wise will be able to find God within the obstacles themselves. For the truth is that there are no obstacles whatsoever in the world. In the very force of the obstacles themselves, God is hidden. Thus, specifically through the obstacles themselves one is able to draw closer to the Holy One, for God is hidden there. (Likutey Moharan 115; Nachman, 1993c, 57-59)

Although it may be extremely difficult to overcome obstacles to repentance, their revelatory character guarantees their potential for spiritual use.

  • Wherever you are, you can be near to God.
  • You can approach God and truly serve Him even in the deepest pit of hell.
  • The Rebbe remarked that for this one needs tremendous effort or God’s help.
  • Sometimes one needs both. (Sichos HaRan 51; Nathan, 1973, 161)

Where sinners encountered miracles that called them to repentance, the righteous met and experienced God’s approval. Their observance of the Torah did not require correction or comment. Revelations attended their lives, as we have seen, in response to their practices of hitbodedut; but meditations were only one category of human initiative to which God responded with miracles. In Nachman’s view, adversity was sometimes a divine reproof, but in other cases, it was an obstacle that God created in order to test faith. “When a person wants to do something holy, he must face great barriers” (Shevachay HaRan, Pilgrimage 28; Nathan, 1973, 90). Nachman’s interpretation of adverse circumstances as positive opportunities to exercise spiritual initiative formed the cornerstone of his theory of wonder working. Whatever miracles occurred, subsequent to his active initiatives, were divine responses to his actions that would not have occurred had he not acted to provoke them. In this manner, Nachman conceived of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1798-1799 as a prophetic mission that advanced the world’s redemption by trailblazing a path in virtue. Buber (1946) explained:

In Rabbi Nachman’s teaching as it has come down to us … we meet the “Obstacles” in connection with Palestine again and again. The obstacles have, according to this teaching, a great significance. They are put in the way of the man whose yearning and destiny impel him into the Holy Land, so that he may overcome them. For they excite and exalt his will and make him worthy to receive the holiness of the land. Whoever intends to be truly Jewish, that is to say, to climb from step to step, must “smash” the obstacles. But in order to conquer in this fight, “holy boldness” is needed, the kind in which God delights, for He praises Israel because of the holy boldness and obstinacy of the Israelite man for the sake of which the Torah was given. This struggle is ultimately a spiritual struggle; for the powers of evil increase the obstacles in order to confuse the understanding, and fundamentally it alone is the source of the obstacles. But the greater a man is, the greater are the obstacles before him, for an all the more intense struggle is demanded of him in order to raise him on to a higher level. (188)

Implicit in Nachman’s biography is the belief that by making certain choices, he was able to engage God in a dialogue of human action and miraculous providence. Because both Nachman and his community were confident of his virtue, he did not experience adverse events as punishments. Discounting the possibility that he merited divine rebuke, he interpreted misfortunes as divinely intended opportunities. Surmounting the obstacles called for “holy boldness.”

A man who is lowly and abject, without any holy boldness, … has no share in the Torah. As our Sages teach: Why was the Torah given to Israel? Because they are bold (Beitzah 28b). For it is necessary to possess holy boldness. As our Sages teach: Be bold as a leopard (Avot 5:20). Through the holy AZut (boldness) which he possesses, he receives holy boldness from God. This corresponds to (Psalms 68:35,36), “Give AoZ (strength) to God…. The God of Israel, he gives aoz and might to the people.”

“Give strength to God” corresponds to arousal from below. By virtue of our having holy boldness to oppose all those who rise up to prevent us from our service, Heaven forbid, we overpower them with great boldness, i.e., holy boldness. As a result, we give strength and power Above, so to speak. This corresponds to, “Give strength to God.”

Through this, the aspect of holy boldness is aroused Above and is bestowed upon us, corresponding to, “The God of Israel, He gives strength and might to the people.” The Holy One bestows upon us holy boldness and gives us strength and might to oppose the brazenness of the Other Side, of all the brazen of the generation. For it is only possible to oppose them through holy boldness. (Likutey Moharan 147; Nachman, 1993c, 211-13)

Nachman regarded his journey to the land of Israel as an opportunity to perform tikkun, “correction, repair”—a work preparatory to the future Redemption.

Wherever you travel, there are things you must correct. You must only be careful not to sin while you are there. If you do not sin, you can correct things wherever you travel. Even if you are an average person, you will do holy things in each place. You will pray, say a blessing over food, and many similar things. For even the lowliest Jew does holy things wherever he goes. Each man is destined from on high to be in a particular place at a given time. At that time and place there is something he must correct. (Sichos HaRan 85; Nathan, 1973, 196-97)

Nachman believed that any person who was willing could interact with God with holy boldness, could accomplishtikkun. “He said, ‘Every man can attain the highest level. It depends on nothing but your own free choice. You must truly care about yourself and carefully decide what good truly lies before you. For everything depends on a multitude of deeds’”(Shevachay HaRan 26; Nathan, 1973, 29). Holy boldness did not require exceptional courage. It required a confident joy in the dialogue with God. “Holy boldness is achieved through joy, as in (Nehemiah 8:10), ‘For the delight in God is your boldness’” (Likutey Moharan 22:9; Nachman, 1990, 359). Nachman did not think choice to be limited to the inner life of the individual. Rather, he maintained that God creates the world on a moment by moment basis, in such a way as to confront each individual with ever new opportunities to make spiritually significant choices.

Martin Buber’s Dialogue with God

Martin Buber (1878-1965) first brought the teachings of Hasidism to public attention in modern Western culture. Although he has been criticized for misrepresenting Hasidism by deleting its scrupulous concern with Jewish ritual and its otherworldly, theosophical gaze (Scholem, 1971), his generalizations about Hasidism are considerably valid for the teachings of Rabbi Nachman and the Breslover sect that he founded (see Weiss, 1953; Magid, 1995). Buber’s portrait of Hasidism fails, however, because Nachman was “very unconventional, even from the Hasidic point of view” (Jacobs, 1993, 123). Buber’s own contributions to philosophy, as expressed in I and Thou (1958), Between Man and Man (1965), and other works, are in many ways a contemporary, liberal Jewish presentation of a similar religious sensibility. Buber presumably recognized a kindred spirit in Nachman and erred in thinking Nachman normative rather than a rarity among Hasidism. Buber (1990) described his point of view as “a believing humanism” (117). Much as it was schooled in biblical and postbiblical studies, it was based, I suggest, on Buber’s independent witness to the dialogue of divine revelation and human response. “I am no philosopher, prophet, or theologian,” Buber (1973) stated, “but a man who has seen something and who goes to a window and points to what he has seen” (4).

Extending the traditional Jewish conception of creation as a linguistic event, Buber characterized God’s relation to humanity as a dialogue.

Judaism regards speech as a happening which reaches out over the existence of mankind and the world. In contradiction to the static of the Logos-idea the word appears here in its full dynamic as that which comes to pass. God’s act of creation is speech; but also each lived moment is so. The world is spoken to the human beings who perceive it, and the life of man is itself a dialogue. What happens to a man are the great and small, untransmittable but unmistakable signs of his being addressed; what he does and suffers can be an answer or a failure to answer. And thus the whole history of the world, the hidden, real world history, is a dialogue between God and his creature; a dialogue in which man is a true, legitimate partner, who is entitled and empowered to speak his own independent word from out of his own being. (Buber, 1946, 4)

In many passages, Buber’s references to “the dialogue between God and man” can be understood in very general terms to pertain to divine and human actions in history: “the divine voice speaking in what befalls man, and man answering in what he does or forbears to do” (Buber, 1988, 17); “the dialogical principle … the dialogical relation between a divine and a human spontaneity” (76). In other passages, Buber referred explicitly to the minute particulars of the historical dialogue. Divine signs were involved when the events of one’s life were taken personally as important. The signs were denied when events were instead treated impersonally, as natural, accidental, or otherwise unimportant.

Each of us is encased in an armour whose task is to ward off signs. Signs happen to us without respite, living means being addressed, we would need only to present ourselves and to perceive…. The signs of address are not something extraordinary, something that steps out of the order of things, they are just what goes on time and again, just what goes on in any case, nothing is added by the address…. What occurs to me addresses me. In what occurs to me the world-happening addresses me. Only by sterilizing it, removing the seed of address from it, can I take what occurs to me as a part of the world-happening which does not refer to me. (Buber, 1965, 10-11)

Anything and everything in creation could function as a sign. The most auspicious signs, those that lead to immediate recognition as miracles, that is, those that access the transcendent and paranormal, are the coincidences, great and small, that are found meaningful (for a comparison with Jungian synchronicity, see Merkur, 1999, 139-57). Like writing in an unknown language, a coincidence may be self-evidently meaningful without the meaning being known. In other cases, the meaning of the sign is immediately intelligible (Merkur, 2006). All manner of phenomena and events that are not themselves coincidental may have a depth of meaning that is not intrinsic to them but is instead imparted by the personal encounter with them. Whether or not coincidental, spontaneous discoveries of meaning can be denied as illusions or errors: a meaningful coincidence can be dismissed as an accident, a random event, a superstitious interpretation. But meaning is first discovered, disclosed, revealed.

Only secondarily, as critical thinking questions how the meaning can have come to be and what the precise meaning is, does the question of doubt arise. By far the majority of signs in Buber’s discussions are everyday occurrences: contacts with other people that led to profound realizations, frequently of ethical character, and demanded responses of the human spirit. Signs are experienced by all human beings on a continuous basis. Theoretical reflection on their occurrence, which leads to conscious recognition of their intrinsically and inalienably religious character, is less frequent. Theories about the interpretation of signs are many and varied cross-culturally: animisms, polytheisms, monotheisms, parapsychologies, solipsisms—the list is endless.

In Buber’s view, the modern Western assumption that signs are not omnipresent, but are instead human projections, facilitated the pursuits of science and philosophy. At the same time, these advances of human knowledge also facilitated abdications of moral responsibility.

From generation to generation we perfect the defense apparatus. All our knowledge assures us, “Be calm, everything happens as it must happen, but nothing is directed at you, you are not meant; it is just ‘the world’, you can experience it as you like, but whatever you make of it in yourself proceeds from you alone, nothing is required of you, you are not addressed, all is quiet.” (Buber, 1965, 10)

Buber offered only general remarks about the content of the dialogue by means of signs. “Revelation is continual, and everything is fit to become a sign of revelation” (Buber, 1990, 113).

It by no means needs to be a man of whom I became aware. It can be an animal, a plant, a stone. No kind of appearance or event is fundamentally excluded from the series of the things through which, from time to time, something is said to me. Nothing can refuse to be the vessel for the Word. The limits of the possibility of dialogue are the limits of awareness. (Buber, 1965, 10)

Buber suggested that the experience of dialogue with the inanimate was notable for its power to encourage recognition of the unity of the dialogical process.

When a man draws a lifeless thing into his passionate longing for dialogue, lending it independence and as it were a soul, then there may dawn in him the presentiment of a world-wide dialogue, a dialogue with the world-happening that steps up to him even in his environment, which consists partly of things. (Buber, 1965, 37)

The dialogical process implied a source, a speaker, who caused but was not present in the signs themselves.

When we rise out of it into the new life and there begin to receive the signs, what can we know of that which—of him who gives them to us? Only what we experience from time to time from the signs themselves. If we name the speaker of this speech God, then it is always the God of a moment, a moment God. (Buber, 1965, 15)

The most that could be inferred about God from the dialogical process was the dialogical relationship itself. “What is disclosed to us in the revelation is not God’s essence as it is independent of our existence, but his relationship to us and our relationship to him” (Buber, 1990, 113). Buber claimed that the dialogical process is common to all humanity. All religions are based upon it, but human communities have each understood it in their own ways. Judaism is distinctive only in making it central to its teachings (p. 115). The Jewish practice of yikhud, “unification,” asserting “the divine unity in the manifold-ness of the manifestations” (Buber, 1946, 3), was integral to the Jewish approach to the dialogical process. “In such a way, out of the givers of the signs, the speakers of the words in lived life, out of the moment Gods there arises for us with a single identity the Lord of the voice, the One” (Buber, 1965, 15). Buber asserted, however, that participation in a dialogical relationship with God did not require any historical designation of God. “He who practices real responsibility in the life of dialogue does not need to name the speaker of the word to which he is responding—he knows him in the word’s substance which presses on and in, assuming the cadence of an inwardness, and stirs him in his heart of hearts” (Buber, 1965, 17).

Buber characterized signs as a divine call for human action, an invitation for response, that could be declined, even when signs were recognized as revelations. In other cases, people respond, however haltingly or inadequately as they are able (Buber, 1965, 16-17). Responses to signs were always spontaneous, original, and individual.

The relation of faith is no book of rules which can be looked up to discover what is to be done now, in this very hour. I experience what God desires of me for this hour—so far as I do experience it—not earlier than in the hour. But even then it is not given me to experience it except by answering before God for this hour as my hour, by carrying out the responsibility for it towards him as much as I can. What has now approached me, the unforeseen, the unforeseeable, is word become word—and it demands my answer to him. I give the word of my answer by accomplishing among the actions possible that which seems to my devoted insight to be the right one. With my choice and decision and action—committing or omitting, acting or persevering—I answer the word, however inadequately, yet properly; I answer for my hour…. There is not the slightest assurance that our decision is right in any but a personal way. God tenders me the situation to which I have to answer; but I have not to expect that he should tender me anything of my answer. Certainly in my answering I am given into the power of his grace, but I cannot measure heaven’s share in it, and even the most blissful sense of grace can deceive. (Buber, 1965, 68-69)

Buber’s presentation was congruent with Nachman’s views, but deleted his concerns with the details of meditation and responses to revelation. Buber’s discussions of moments of revelation in his own life consisted almost exclusively of moments of realization, of suddenly deepened understanding, that occurred while he was interacting with another person. His biblical studies and his presentations of Hasidic legends discussed the variety of revelations claimed in those literatures, but typically emphasized the process of realization while downplaying the more fantastic tales of miracles and the paranormal or transcendental.

The Attitudes of I-It and I-Thou

Buber’s concern with the revelatory character of the natural and everyday permeated his philosophical writings. He offered a partly philosophical and partly psychological account of the validity of the life of dialogue. Buber was not content with the attitude, conventional in the modern era, that religion is a matter of private faith, whereas science deals with shared reality. Buber (1990, 34, 52) personally knew Max Weber, understood the Protestant roots of the “innerworldly” attitude, and unembarrassed, asserted a Jewish point of view. Buber made bold to claim that the dialogue with God is entirely real. Buber based his case on an epistemological observation (Friedman, 1986, 28). Everyone conceptualizes reality in two manners. “To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude” (Buber, 1958, 3).

William James (1950, vol. I, 21) had distinguished the two orientations as “knowledge by acquaintance” and “knowledge-about”; but Buber additionally referred explicitly to what is known in each instance. In one attitude, Buber (1958, 3) suggested, all relations are experienced in terms of “the primary word I-Thou.” In the other attitude, all relations are instead experienced in terms of “the primary word I-It.” It is not simply that people can experience all things either impersonally in the third person as It, He, or She, or personally in the second person as Thou. Each of these attitudes also involves a sense of self. “If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it. If It is said, the I of the combination I-It is said along with it” (3). In addition, the two senses of self differ. “The I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It” (3).

Science, philosophy, and theology depended alike on “the unlimited reign of causality in the world of It ”; but religion, the dialogical process of signs and responses, depends on “the world of relation” that is disclosed by the I-Thou attitude (Buber, 1958, 50). It was not a question of one attitude being correct and the other mistaken. Both are inborn, inalienable, and valid. We cannot know the world by means other than the two attitudes. Each discloses the world in a different way. Each disclosure is partial, and there are no criteria for privileging one attitude over the other. Knowledge depends on both. Each attitude and the knowledge that it discloses has its place in life. “Without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man” (34).

In Buber’s view, an excessive, would-be exclusive, validation of the I-It attitude is responsible for the eclipse of God that characterizes modern Western culture.

In our age the I-It relation, gigantically swollen, has usurped, practically uncontested, the mastery and the rule. The I of this relation, an I that possesses all, makes all, succeeds with all, this I that is unable to say Thou, unable to meet a being essentially, is the lord of the hour. This selfhood that has become omnipotent, with all the It around it, can naturally acknowledge neither God nor any genuine absolute which manifests itself to men as of non-human origin. It steps in between and shuts off from us the light of heaven. (Buber, 1988, 129)

It was nevertheless the case that the very concept “I” has its origin in an I-Thou relationship. “The ‘I’ emerges as a single element out of the primal experiences, out of the vital primal words I-affecting-Thou and Thou-affecting-I, only after they have been split asunder and the participle has been given eminence as an object” (Buber, 1958, 21-22). In Buber’s view, there can be no I-It attitude without a prior I-Thou relationship.

Psychoanalytic Approaches to the Two Attitudes

Buber first discussed the I-Thou and I-It attitudes in I and Thou in 1923, the same year that Sigmund Freud introduced his concepts of the ego and superego. There is no indication that Buber influenced Freud. Rather, both theories originated as reactions to the monstrosity of the First World War. Freud’s line of reasoning began in 1914 with the traditional duality of will; and when Binswanger (1963) mentioned the dialogical I-Thou relationship to Freud, Freud dismissed the notion as a projection of infantile dependency. We may consequently see a convergence of ideas in Freud’s attribution to the superego of a capacity to treat the ego, and be treated by it, as a Thou. It was not a function that Freud emphasized. It was a function that Freud took for granted and mentioned in passing.

The superego is, however, not simply a residue of the earliest object-choices of the id; it also represents an energetic reaction-formation against those choices. Its relation to the ego is not exhausted by the precept: “You ought to be like this (like your father).” It also comprises the prohibition: “You may not be like this (like your father)—that is, you may not do all that he does; some things are his prerogative.” (Freud, 1961, 34)

Another passage, written a decade later, is slightly less clear. Freud, deeply committed to impersonal scientific phraseology, routinely avoided the term person and instead used the term object, initially as an abbreviation for loved-object. To understand his superego concept, however, the following passage needs to be read with the word person substituted for each instance of object.

The ego can take itself as an object, can treat itself like other objects, can observe itself, criticize itself, and do Heaven knows what with itself. In this, one part of the ego is setting itself over against the rest. So the ego can be split; it splits itself during a number of its functions—temporarily at least. Its parts can come together again afterward. (Freud, 1964, 58)

Freud went on to describe the split-off portion of the ego as the superego and to characterize it as an “internal object” within the personality.

For the most part, the I-It attitude that dominates modern science permeated psychoanalysis; but object relations theorists have repeatedly confirmed elements of Buber’s epistemology (Oppenheim, 2006). D. W. Winnicott developed a way of thinking about the ego’s relations to its objects that closely agreed with Buber’s observations. Winnicott worked with the assumption, originating with Freud (1957), that the newborn commences life with a so-lipsistic outlook, in which all things are included in the ego, but later develops a realistic perspective, in which things outside the body are recognized as external phenomena. Winnicott (1974) introduced an intermediate phase in the developmental process, which he termed the “transitional stage”; and he developed a considerable variety of observations and theories about how to facilitate therapy with a patient who has never matured beyond the transitional stage. Although psychoanalysts have since abandoned the assumption of neonatal solipsism, Winnicott’s clinical observations retain currency.

Winnicott (1974) initially proposed the term transitional object to designate the type of object that belonged to the transitional stage. In other contexts, he replaced the stage-specific term with the more general concept of a subjective object or subjectively perceived object (Winnicott, 1965). “The term subjective object has been used in describing the first object, the object not yet repudiated as a not-me phenomenon” (Winnicott, 1974, 93). The term captured the paradox of the infant’s situation. “I have used this term, subjective object, to allow a discrepancy between what is observed and what is being experienced by the baby” (Winnicott, 1974, 152). To name the type of interaction that proceeds with subjectively perceived objects, Winnicott proposed the term object-relating.

In object-relating the subject allows certain alterations in the self to take place, of a kind that has caused us to invent the term cathexis. The object has become meaningful. Projection mechanisms and identifications have been operating, and the subject is depleted to the extent that something of the subject is found in the object, though enriched by feeling. Accompanying these changes is some degree of physical involvement (however slight) towards excitement. (Winnicott, 1974, 103)

“Object-relating” was Winnicott’s designation of the mentality that manifests, in Buber’s terms, in an I-It relation to another person.

Reasoning that conscious communication presupposes recognition of the object as a person in her own right, Winnicott imagined that the transitional stage involves no communication that is consciously recognized as such. Communication is possible only with objectively perceived objects, whose existence outside the ego makes communication with them necessary.

In so far as the object is subjective, so far is it unnecessary for communication with it to be explicit. In so far as the object is objectively perceived, communication is either explicit or else dumb. Here then appear two new things, the individual’s use and enjoyment of modes of communication, and the individual’s non-communication of self, or the personal core of the self that is a true isolate. (Winnicott, 1965, 182)

Winnicott spoke of the infant’s earliest achievement of conscience as a capacity for concern. Building on Melanie Klein’s (1975) theory of the depressive position, he associated the capacity for concern with the infant’s awareness of whole objects. “To reach the depressive position a baby must have become established as a whole person, and to be related to whole persons as a whole person” (Winnicott, 1992, 264).

We can say that at this stage a baby becomes able in his play to show that he can understand he has an inside, and that things come from outside. He shows he knows that he is enriched by what he incorporates (physically and psychically)…. The corollary of this is that now the infant assumes that his mother also has an inside, one which may be rich or poor, good or bad, ordered or muddled. He is therefore starting to be concerned with the mother and her sanity and her moods. (Winnicott, 1992, 148)

Winnicott’s speculations about the preverbal development of infants retrojected clinical observations that he had made with regard to adults. In addition to “personalization” and “the appreciation of time and space and other properties of reality” (Winnicott, 1992, 148), Winnicott suggested that “every individual who has reached to the stage of being a unit” has also “an inner reality … an inner world which can be rich or poor and can be at peace or in a state of war” (230).

A further consequence of unit status was its application in what Winnicott called the use of an object. Only when an object is known to be an object can the object be used as an object. “The object, if it is to be used, must necessarily be real in the sense of being part of shared reality, not a bundle of projections. It is this, I think, that makes for the world of difference that there is between relating and usage” (Winnicott, 1974, 103). Because it is conventional to speak of using people as a euphemism for their exploitation, it is crucial to appreciate that Winnicott intended the term usage in a literal sense. A person can be used as a person, but can only be related to when treated as a thing. Object usage, as Winnicott defined it, is the attitude that, when reciprocated, makes possible the relationship that Buber called an encounter of I and Thou.

Buber’s assertion that neither Thou nor It can be said in the absence of an I has similarly found psychoanalytic expression. A consensus has emerged that the internalization of object relations depends on the internalization of complete relationships and not on object representations alone. Fairbairn proposed that what is internalized includes three components having to do with one’s sense of self, the object “out there,” so to speak, and the consequent emotional response. Kernberg’s (1990, 250) spells this out by listing them as, “a self-image component, an object-image component, and both of these components linked with an early affect.” Laing (1967) emphasized that the internalizations consist of interpersonal dynamics.

What is “internalized” are relations between persons, things, part-objects, part-persons, not the persons or objects in isolation…. What is internalized are not objects as such but patterns of relationship between human presences. The more constant patterns of such relationships are what we call family structure. That is to say, the individual does not simply internalize or introject persons, parts of persons, objects or part objects, good or bad breast, penis, mother or father, but the individual incarnates a group structure…. It is relations not objects that are internalized. (111, 114, 118)

In both Buber’s philosophy and object relations theory, “there is no self, there is no such thing as a self, without the other” (Oppenheim, 2006, 103).

Buber (1958) wrote of the infant’s inborn “longing for the Thou” (27), his “instinct to make everything into a Thou, to give relation to the universe” (27), as motivating his “effort to establish relation” (28). Actual relations are secondary: “The inborn Thou is realised in the lived relations with that which meets it” (27). This recognition of the priority of relationship was also fundamental to Fairbairn’s (1990) formulation of object relations theory. Fair-bairn maintained that “man is by nature object-seeking rather than pleasure-seeking” (132). “The ultimate goal of libido is the object” (Fairbairn, 31).

Buber’s claim that it is Thou addressing I that brings I to consciousness has also become integral to contemporary psychoanalytic thinking. The collapse of the theory of neonatal solipsism, which Freud and Winnicott wrongly assumed was valid, has brought prominence to alternative theories, including the argument of Wilfred R. Bion (1962, 1967, 1984) that an infant learns how to organize his or her feelings and conceptualize himself or herself, as a self, by observing his or her mother’s responses to him or her.

Coordinating these trends in theory with David Bakan’s (1966) duality of agency and communion and Neville Symington’s (1993) theory of narcissism, I have elsewhere proposed a distinction between self-focus and relationality as two concerns of conscious mental operation; and I have suggested that self-focus is accomplished by the ego, whereas relationality is a product of ego-superego integration (Merkur, 2007). The superego functions as a Thou to the ego’s I, and the ego responds in a considerable variety of ways. Sometime it denies the Thou. Sometimes it responds to the Thou; and sometimes it takes the Thou into consideration without responding directly to it.

In health, people oscillate continuously between self-focus and relationality. All pathologies inhibit relationality to lesser or greater extents (Merkur, 2007). Alternate states typically alter the proportions of the mixture of self-focus and relationality within consciousness. I have also argued that the superego is an inborn psychic function that accomplishes what used to be called object cathexis, the construction of objects as objects. Ex hypothesi the superego’s inborn function is to imagine the mother’s point of view, in order to facilitate empathy, communication, compliance, and survival. The superego’s default position, as it were, is consequently anthropomorphizing and personal, constructing objects as persons. Only secondarily, through reality-testing, does the superego learn to construct inanimate objects as things (Merkur, 2001).

These several formulations of psychoanalytic theory, by Freud, Fairbairn, Winnicott, Bion, and others, support Buber’s claim that the I-Thou and I-It attitudes are both primary. Because they are how the mind processes sense data, they have equal claims to knowledge. They are equally empirical, and truth is not the province of one attitude alone.

Heschel on Unio Stmpathetica

Rabbi Nachman was well aware of some of the personality dynamics that contemporary psychoanalytic formulations seek to express. For example, he recognized the need to move from depressive self-pity into relationality in order to accomplish hitbodedut successfully. Like Winnicott (1974), he suggested being playful.

When you are depressed, it is very difficult to isolate yourself and speak to God. You must force yourself always to be happy especially during prayer. The Rebbe said that true happiness is one of the most difficult things to attain in serving God. Another time he said that it seems impossible to achieve happiness without some measure of foolishness. One must resort to all sorts of foolish things if this is the only way to attain happiness. (Sichos HaRan 20; Nathan, 1973, 121-22)

As an alternative to foolishness, Nachman also counseled a strategy that was consistent with the approach of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

During prayer … be like the man who makes himself angry. Work yourself up and bring these emotions into your prayers. The enthusiasm may be forced at first, but it will eventually become real. Your heart will burst aflame with God’s praise, and you will be worthy of knowing true prayer. You can make yourself happy in the same way. You must pray with great joy, even if this happiness is forced. Happiness is always a virtue, but especially during prayer. If you are disturbed and unhappy, you can at least put on a happy front. Deep down you may be depressed, but if you act happy, you will eventually be worthy of true joy. This is true of every holy thing. If you have no enthusiasm, put on a front. Act enthusiastic, and the feeling will eventually become genuine. (Sichos HaRan 74; Nathan, 1973, 179)

Particularly important for community leaders, whose meditations sought revelations on public policy, Nachman recommended a practice of empathy. A person might initially be able to empathize only conceptually, but the intellectual achievement should also be augmented with heartfelt emotion.

You should be able to feel another’s troubles in your own heart. This is especially true when many are suffering. It is possible to clearly realize another’s anguish, and still not feel it in your heart. When an entire community is in distress, you should surely feel their agony in your heart. If you do not feel it, you should strike your head against the wall. You should strike your head against the walls of your heart. This is the meaning of the verse (Deut. 4:39), “Know this day and realize it in your heart.” You must bring the realization from your mind to your heart.” (Sichos HaRan 39; Nathan, 1973, 141-42)

Nachman’s practice of empathy may perhaps have inspired Abraham Joshua Heschel’s discussion of the biblical prophets’ subjective experience of prophecy. Basing himself on the biblical texts, Heschel suggested that prophets sympathized with the passions of God.

The prophet may be characterized as a homo sympathetikos…. The pathos of God is upon him. It moves him. It breaks out in him like a storm in the soul, overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world…. His sympathy is an overflow of powerful emotion which comes in response to what he sensed in divinity. For the only way to intuit a feeling is to feel it. One cannot have a merely intellectual awareness of a concrete suffering or pleasure, for intellect as such is merely the tracing of relations, and a feeling is no mere relational pattern….

The unique feature of religious sympathy is not self-conquest, but self-dedication; not the suppression of emotion, but its redirection; not silent subordination, but active co-operation with God; not love which aspires to the Being of God in Himself, but harmony of the soul with the concern of God. To be a prophet means to identify one’s concern with the concern of God. Sympathy is a state in which a person is open to the presence of another person. It is a feeling which feels the feeling to which it reacts—the opposite of emotional solitariness. In prophetic sympathy, man is open to the presence and emotion of the transcendent Subject. He carries within himself the awareness of what is happening to God.

Thus, sympathy has a dialogical structure. What characterizes prophetic existence is, indeed, an interpersonal relationship, either a relationship between the one who feels and the one who sympathizes with that feeling, or a relationship of having a feeling in common…. Sympathy always refers to a person or persons. Sympathy, however, is not an end in itself. Nothing is further from the prophetic mind than to inculcate or to live out a life of feeling, a religion of sentimentality. Not mere feeling, but action, will mitigate the world’s misery, society’s injustice or the people’s alienation from God. Only action will relieve the tension between God and man. Both pathos and sympathy are, from the perspective of the total situation, demands rather than fulfilments. Prophetic sympathy is no delight; unlike ecstasy, it is not a goal, but a sense of challenge, a commitment, a state of tension, consternation, and dismay. (Heschel, 1962, vol. II, 88-89)

The prophets were as profoundly aware of the reality of the divine pathos as they were of themselves and their own feelings. That is the true meaning of the religion of sympathy—to feel the divine pathos as one feels one’s own state of the soul…. There is no fusion of being, unio mystica, but an intimate harmony in will and feeling, a state that may be called unio sympathetica…. One does not feel united with the divine Being, but emotionally identified with divine pathos. This unity in the consciousness, the unity of will and experience, of personality and inspiration, express well the very essence of the prophetic spirit. (Heschel, 1962, vol. II, 99)

Although Heschel was a Conservative rabbi, his upbringing was Hasidic, and he was an academic scholar of early Hasidism. It is not necessary to accept Heschel’s thesis that biblical prophets experienced divine pathos to accept the thesis that at least some practitioners of the living meditative practice of hitbonenut experience divine pathos and understand their experiences as prophecy. The empathic function of the superego has its paradigmatic activity, I have suggested, in the infant’s communication with the mother (Merkur, 2001). The capacity for empathy presumably undergoes both healthy and pathogenic development. The function is applied to other people, as well as to sentient animals, no later than the onset of stranger anxiety around eight months of age.

The empathic function is an involuntary, constantly operating, unconscious effort to infer the motivation of others on the basis of their actions; the function includes but is not limited to social psychology’s “role-taking.” The unconscious application of the same empathic function, not to the motivation of this or that sentient creature, but to events in the world in general, is involved in the discovery and interpretation of the revelatory signs. Revelation is a question, as it were, of empathizing with God’s activities in the world; and the practice of prophecy is a deliberate inculcation of psychic states that enhance the operation of the role-taking function. Empathy with the world-process is a normal and healthy psychic function, although of course it may undergo pathological distortion, for example, into “ideas of reference” in paranoid schizophrenia, and the devastation of meaninglessness in depression. Empathizing with events in the world considerably resembles aesthetic appreciation of the world, except that empathy implies, and projects, an intentionality.

In a negative theology, everything that may be said about God must also be unsaid, through the recognition that the saying speaks from and of humanity, and not about God (Sells, 1994). A practice of hitbodedut may lead to creative inspirations of divine pathos that are rich in emotional and intellectual content. Critical theological reflection must nevertheless recognize the experiences as imaginations that project feelings and thoughts onto God. For a negative theology, the relevant question is not whether the feelings and thoughts are God’s thoughts, for they are not; yet they are inspired. The question, then, is the nature of the contribution to the world-process that the inspirations call the person to undertake.

Buber’s Philosophical Argument

Buber’s assertion is that the I-Thou attitude is not only psychologically necessary, as I have argued previously, but ontologically valid: that revelation is truly revelation. Buber contended, I believe correctly, that interpersonal I-Thou relations among human beings both form the basis for and, in some measure, participate within the I-Thou attitude toward God. “Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou; by means of every particular Thou the primary word addresses the eternal Thou ” (Buber, 1958, 75). “In every sphere in its own way, through each process of becoming that is present to us, we look out toward the fringe of the eternal Thou, in each we are aware of a breath from the eternal Thou; in each Thou we address the eternal Thou ” (6). Buber’s poetic phrasing should not be allowed to undercut the logical force of his argument. For relationality to exist interpersonally presupposes that relationality exists as such. Every relation with a particular human Thou presupposes and participates within relationality in the world. This conclusion is as necessary for an atheist as it is for a theist, but it falsifies atheism. One may choose between a pantheism, such as vitalism, and a creator God; but mere materialism cannot be allowed. “The aim of relation is relation’s own being, that is, contact with the Thou. For through contact with every Thou we are stirred with a breath of the Thou, that is, of eternal life” (63).

The same considerations preclude falsification of the dialogical relation with God. We may grant the inconclusiveness of philosophical theology, which deploys the I-It attitude, to demonstrate the existence of God; but the shortcomings of the I-It attitude are consequent to its inherent limitation. The I-It attitude is only one of two ways of experiencing reality. The I-Thou attitude is capable of equal realism, for example, in the experience of knowing another person in a deep, experiential, empathically attuned way. The I-It attitude of science is incapable of falsifying the I-Thou attitude, which discovers the dialogical process of divine signs as matters of realistic observation.

The Thou meets me through grace—it is not found by seeking. But my speaking of the primary word to it is an act of my being, is indeed the act of my being. The Thou meets me. But I step into direct relation with it. (Buber, 1958, 11)

Buber used the term spiritual to describe the relation between God and humanity. “Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou” (Buber, 1958, 39). Buber wrote similarly of love. “Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thouonly for its ‘content,’ its object; but love is between I and Thou” (14-15). Spirit is conceptual where love is emotional, but both have their exclusive existence within the I-Thou attitude, in the mutual interrelating of the I and the Thou. Spirit and love belong to neither I nor Thou, but are formed when I and Thou come into relation. “Spirit in its human manifestation is a response of man to his Thou” (39). The Holy Spirit is the reciprocal response of God to his creation.

At several points in his discussions, Buber mentioned the phenomenon of meaning, whose importance to philosophy and psychology has grown enormously in the interval since Buber wrote. If his references to spirit seem quaint to intellectual readers today, his passing references to meaning retain currency. In Buber’s view, meaning is relational. “We do not find meaning lying in things nor do we put it into things, but between us and things that can happen” (Buber, 1965, 36). The relation with God establishes meaning in general. “Meeting with God does not come to man in order that he may concern himself with God, but in order that he may confirm that there is meaning in the world” (Buber, 1958, 115).

Nor does association [with the divine Thou] make life any easier for us; it makes life heavier but heavy with meaning … the inexpressible confirmation of meaning. It is guaranteed. Nothing, nothing can henceforth be meaningless…. What could it intend with us, what does it desire from us, being revealed and surreptitious? … The meaning we receive can be put to the proof in action only by each person in the uniqueness of his being and in the uniqueness of his life. (Buber, 1958, 158-59)

The existence and reality of the dialogue with God guarantee that meanings are discovered and not merely imagined.

One can believe in and accept a meaning or value, one can set it as a guiding light over one’s life if one has discovered it, not if one has invented it. It can be for me an illuminating meaning, a direction-giving value only if it has been revealed to me in my meeting with Being, not if I have freely chosen it for myself from among the existing possibilities and perhaps have in addition decided with some fellow-creatures: This shall be valid from now on. (Buber, 1988, 70)

Meaning is an illusion, but it is an inevitable, necessary, and healthy one. Freud considered skepticism pathological: “The moment one enquires about the sense or value of life one is sick, since objectively neither of them has any existence” (Freud, letter to Marie Bonaparte, August 13, 1937; cited in Jones, 1957, 465). The experience of meaning or value depends on an attribution of intentionality—technically, mentalization (Fonagy, 1989, 1991)—to the phenomenon that embodies it. For the world to be found meaningful, for values to exist in general, the world must logically be the product of an intention, hence a work of divine creation.

In the absence of a creative intentionality, meaning cannot exist at all. Although it has never been as popular as the argument from design, what may be termed the “argument from meaning” is a classical gambit in theology that Hasidim repeatedly made the basis of explicit meditations (Merkur, 1991). It is also a natural and inevitable bit of healthy human reasoning. The unconscious projection of meaning onto the world, so that intentionality may be discovered in it, is a normal and wholesome mental operation. Mentalization is integral to how a healthy human mind thinks. Its absence or diminished capacity is currently understood as characteristic of autism. It is, I would suggest, a superego function that manifests consciously in the I-Thou attitude.

Signs are a subcategory of meanings. Both external, material and internal, mental phenomena can function as divine signs. They can be found personally meaningful as revelations, because they communicate intentionality. Certainly meanings can be considered psychologically as projections; but the fact that meanings are projected does not bear on their validity. The case with signs is the same as the case with meanings in general. The operations of the I-Thou attitude discover signs as realities that convey meanings that God intended for them to have. One knows the meaning of a sign as surely, and in the same way, that one knows the love of another person. It is immediately present to the mind, as a certainty, a conviction.

Concluding Reflections

Buber was keenly aware of the inconclusiveness of his teaching. “If one were to exist, there would no longer be any difference between belief and unbelief; the risk of faith would no longer exist. I have dared to believe … and I cannot bolster my faith with arguments.” “The question ‘How do you know?’ is answered of itself in the personal experience of the believing man and in the genuine living-together of men who have analogous experiences; rather, there it is not asked. I give no guarantees, I have no security to offer. But I also demand of no one that he believe. I communicate my own experience of faith, just as well as I can, and I appeal to the experiences of faith of those whom I address” (in Rome and Rome, 1964, 96).

Buber’s appeal to faith was not unreasonable. Buber (1951) brilliantly recognized that particularly Christians and Jews have explored different aspects of faith. Christians and Jews experience both aspects, but historically articulated divergent doctrines. For Christianity, faith is pistis, a question of assent to a theological proposition. It is an instance, in Winnicott’s (1965, 93-94, 100-101) phrase, of “belief-in.” For Judaism, faith is emunah, a matter of trust, confidence, and reliance. The doctrinal emphases of the two religions should not be allowed to create pernicious stereotypes: every human person experiences both pistis and emunah, in varying proportions, on a continuous basis. It is only that like shame and guilt, pistis and emunah are distinctive aspects or registers of faith. Each merits attention. Psychoanalytic discussions of religion have repeatedly considered faith in the sense either of “belief-in” (Meissner, 1969, 1987; Bion, 1970; McDargh, 1983; Ward, 1993; Britton, 1995, 1997, 1998; Gerard, 1997) or belief-in admixed with trust (Eigen, 1993a, 1993b; Charles, 2003; Figueiredo, 2004; Neri, 2005; Tracey, 2007). However, Buber’s view of emunah is better understood with reference to Erikson’s (1963) discussion of “basic trust” and Bowlby’s (1981) discussion of a “secure base.”

The trust involved in recognizing both revelatory signs and values in general does not differ epistemologically from the trust that we have in written words. Shapes of ink on paper are interpreted as words when a reader projects meanings onto them. Again, the conscious experience of sense perceptions depends on projections that interpret mental phenomena as representations of a physical world that is external to the mind. The spontaneous treatment of mental phenomena as sense perceptions does not involve “belief-in,” but it does involve trust. Just as we naively trust sense perceptions and only exercise doubt as a secondary and occasional mental operation, so too we naively rely on our concepts (Gerard, 1997). The pleasure ego does not yield to the reality ego until around age six; creative inspirations initially seem certain, and are only submitted to critical examination after the moment of inspiration has passed. Both developmentally and in creativity, disillusionment, skepticism, and reality testing are belief-in secondary and optional processes.

Trust in the intentionality of revelatory signs has an epistemological status that is consistent with sense perceptions. One can prove neither the world’s externality to the mind nor the divine intentionality of signs. Both sets of meanings are projections, mentalizations, whose validity rests on faith. But why should one doubt? People ordinarily consider trust in the externality of the world to be sane. Doubt in its reality is generally considered pathological. The logical question, as Buber appreciated, pertains not to the mental operation, but to reality. How are we to judge the real? What is the actual case? Buber maintained that the two epistemic attitudes have differing but equally defensible consequences for the evaluation of reality.

What is here apparent is the double structure of human existence itself. Because these are the two basic modes of our existence with being, they are the two basic modes of our existence in general, I-Thou and I-It. I-Thou finds its highest intensity and transfiguration in religious reality, in which unlimited Being becomes, as absolute person, my partner. I-It finds its highest concentration and illumination in philosophical knowledge. (Buber, 1988, 44-45)

Buber suggested that choice, with its opportunities and responsibilities, is a reality of the I-Thou attitude. “Human choice is not a psychological phenomenon, but utter reality, which is taken up into the mystery of the everlasting” (Buber, 1946, 5). God’s production of signs is similarly a reality that is appreciated empirically by means of the I-Thou attitude. “The religious reality of the meeting with the Meeter, who shines through all forms and is Himself formless, knows no image of Him, nothing comprehensible as object. It knows only the presence of the Present One” (Buber, 1988, 45). In this the finite human mind participates in the transcendent and the paranormal, in which state the miraculous seems normal and is normally expected.

Buber maintained that revelation’s reality is to be transformative. A sign communicates something wholly new, wholly originary and creative, that transforms the recipient.

What is the eternal, primal phenomenon, present here and now, of that which we term revelation? It is the phenomenon that a man does not pass from the moment of the supreme meeting, the same being as he entered into it…. The man who emerges from the act of pure relation that so involves his being has now in his being something more that has grown in him, of which he did not know before and whose origin he is not rightly able to indicate. However the source of this new thing is classified in scientific orientation of the world, with its authorized efforts to establish an unbroken causality. We, whose concern is real consideration of the real, cannot have our purpose served with subconsciousness or any other apparatus of the soul. The reality is that we receive what we did not hitherto have, and receive it in such a way that we know it has been given to us. (Buber, 1958, 109-10)

Fackenheim (1967) appreciated the force of Buber’s epistemology. “In the committed I-Thou relation there is knowing access to a reality which is inaccessible otherwise; … uncommitted objective knowledge which observes as an It what may also be encountered as a Thou is a lesser kind of knowledge, and … the most profound mistake in all philosophy is the epistemological reduction of I-Thou to I-It knowledge, and the metaphysical reduction of Thou to It” (281). Contemporary psychoanalysis, with its contributions by Winnicott, Fairbairn, Bion, and others, confirms Buber’s epistemology not only theoretically but as a matter of daily clinical experience. Every form of psychopathology that we know involves an unwarranted expansion of the domain of I-It to a point that the mind is sickened with self-focus (Farber, 1967; Symington, 1993). And the therapeutic procedures of psychoanalysis, from Freud onward, have consisted precisely of freeing the domain of I-Thou—the domain of love, of Eros, after all—from the repressions and displacements that trauma, folly, and ill will have imposed.

The life of dialogue is not a question of interpretation that is placed on the natural world. Psychoanalysts do not choose love to be therapeutic, nor do the religious choose to interpret nature as miraculous. There is no option. What is at stake is an immediate, empirical perception of reality. In postmodern psychoanalytic terms, we can say: there is here no conscious pistis, no taking a chance on an intellectual possibility. There is emunah, trust, and it is unconscious. Meaning is found, and having been found, is reality-tested and trusted—all unconsciously, prior to its presentation to consciousness as an empirical perception. Unconscious trust can be denied, but only at the self-traumatizing and crazy-making expense of denying reality itself. Buber (1958) sagely appreciated: “All modern attempts to interpret this primal reality of dialogue as a relation of the I to the Self, or the like—as an event that is contained within the self-sufficient interior the life of man—are futile: they take their place in the abysmal history of destruction of reality” (85).

The human inability to remain constantly within the I-Thou attitude, the continuously oscillating fluctuation between I-Thou and I-It in the course of each day, gives faith its tenuous quality. We go back and forth from the knowing emunahof I-Thou, to the hopefully believing pistis of I-It—and in the I-It attitude we must also inevitably confront the end of our strength, and suffer the anxiety of doubt, of disbelief, of having to extend faith, rather than simply to know it.

How did Buber reconcile his trust in revelation with his scientific knowledge of the world? He was aware, as Nachman had not been, that the psychologically naive can mistake products of the unconscious for signs. He insisted, however, that signs were not products of the unconscious alone. They are not “just the monologue of man with his own projection” (Oppenheim, 1985, 79). Projection is the vehicle of all communication; mentalization facilitates interhuman conversation and reading no differently than it supports the dialogue with God. The contents of revelation are not reducible to the media—variously mineral, vegetable, animal, interhuman, and introspectively psychological—that momentarily function as intelligible signs. Buber conceptualized revelation as a rearranging of existent mental elements—unconscious ideas and emotions—in unprecedented patterns that convey original insights or inspirations.

In revelation something happens to man from a side that is not man, not soul, not world. Revelation does not take place in man and is not to be explained through any psychologism…. Revelation does not gush forth from the unconscious: it is mastery over the unconscious. Revelation comes as a might from without, but not in such a way that man is a vessel that is filled or a mere mouthpiece. Rather the revelation seizes the human elements that are at hand and recasts them: it is the pure shape of the meeting. (Buber, 1990, 135)

In this theory, which may be found in Maimonides as well as Buber, the physical elements that come together to construct a meaning are to be explained in neuroscientific and psychological fashions, but their particular occurrence at a particular time in a particular gestalt, when any of a multitude of other gestalts would have been equally physically possible, is an event of “pure shape,” a purely spiritual phenomenon by which meaning is conveyed to the mind in which the shape takes form.

A parallel theory can be developed for signs that proceed externally in the perceptible world. Rearrangements of physical substances in patterns that are revelatory to a human mind do not differ ontologically according to whether the substances belong to a human nervous system or occur instead in matter outside the human body. Such meaning-producing signs may be miracles in the mind or miracles in the objective material world. In both cases the signs are revelations to be attended seriously.

We need to treat seriously Buber’s concept of religion as a self-evident truth that has its basis in a lived relationship with divine signs. Most of humanity is religious in Buber’s sense of the term, but woefully inefficient in responding to revelations. Manic defenses and negative transferences both misconstrue the signs (Merkur, 2006, in press), displacing the unobjectionable-positive-transference-onto-God into idolatries that are undeserving of trust. The therapeutic challenge—the holy boldness of tikkun—awaits interested practitioners.