Alt+SHIFT: Journey to Uman

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | January 26, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew.

Moshe Weinstock, Uman: HaMasa ha-Yisraeli le-Kivro shel Rabi Nahman mi-Breslov (Yediot, 2011), 399 pp.

When I was a child, Breslov Hasidut was not an influential cultural force and few people studied the Torah of Rebbe Nachman. Things changed drastically; today, almost any stroll through a Hesder yeshiva or midrasha beit medrash will reveal copies of Likutei Moharan, R. Nachman’s most important work, among the student sefarim collections. The best example of the transformation may be Israelis flying to Uman for Rosh Hashana to pray near the grave of R. Nachman. The range of people traveling to Uman includes secularists, National Religious types, Sefardim, Haredim, and Hasidim of nearly every variety. In this volume, Dr. Moshe Weinstock analyzes this phenomenon and provides important insight to help understand how the Uman pilgrimage is a reflection of trends in Israeli society.

Weinstock outlines four different motivations for why people make the trek. Many are seeking an impactful religious experience. Others, suffering from personal dilemmas, hope that visiting the Rebbe will lead them out of the abyss. A third group, perhaps representing the majority of the secular, travel out of anthropological curiosity – the way they might want to witness Mardi Gras or Bloomsday. The final category, actual faithful Breslov Hasidim, go simply because the Rebbe Nachman said to do so.

The phenomenon of a religious pilgrimage transcends any individual religion and seems to speak to deeper recesses of the human spirit. Muslims travel to Mecca, Christians set forth towards Bethlehem, and Judaism once practiced a thrice-yearly aliya la-regel. The pull toward Uman might be viewed within this broader framework while still leaving us puzzling what makes this journey different or even unique.

Clearly, a feeling of entering a different world enhances the experience. The third-world conditions of Ukraine (plumbing not guaranteed) contributes to the experience,  as do the presence of Ukrainian security guards reminding the pilgrims of a more anti-Semitic era. The unusual experience of tens of thousands of Jews from all different walks of life joining together for a grand communal experience also differs greatly from normal Jewish living. Where else might one observe Satmar Hasidim praying alongside secular Israelis?

Breslov sets the tone for this massive gathering but cannot fully control it given the sheer range and number of participants. Nevertheless, we see the presence of Breslovian ideas or ideals in different phenomena present in the mass gatherings. For example, many emphasize the theme of overcoming sexual temptation, something for which R. Nachman established the Tikkun Klali. R. Nachman also stressed radical reliance on God and some participants arrive at the airport without an airplane ticket, counting on generous travelers to provide the necessary funding. Other pilgrims attempt to explain to airline workers that overweight luggage could not possibly be a danger on such a journey.

Many raise religious concerns about this endeavor. Are individuals praying to R. Nachman more than entreating God? Many participants go to the mikveh to immerse themselves before visiting the Rebbe’s grave. Is this attributing excessive holiness to the location? Weinstock notes how this issue bothers Sefardim less since they come from a culture more accustomed to venerating rabbinic gravesites.

Others express ambivalence about leaving the Holy Land for a holiday in search of spirituality. Would we not better find sanctity in the land chosen by God, in the holy city of Jerusalem, at the Kotel, in the country where our forefathers walked? This issue, for obvious reasons, likely bothers the Religious Zionist public more than the secular or Haredi communities.

Finally, some complain about the lack of domestic responsibility in departing from the country for the holiest holidays of the year while leaving wife and children behind. Surely, Rosh Hashana, like other holidays, is a time for beautiful family meals with parent-child discussions about the themes of the day. How does a father justify leaving his children without his example and guidance during the long High Holiday davening? Isn’t it selfish to temporarily abandon one’s family in search of personal fulfillment? To be fair, a small number of wives do come along (R. Shalom Arush, a well-known Breslov rabbi, always travels with his wife). However, this is the exception; indeed, the accommodations are mostly designed to house large numbers of men traveling alone. The fact that many men return each year makes this question even more significant since wives may go a decade without enjoying a full family Rosh Hashana.

I would raise one more problem beyond the three Weinstock lists. R. Nachman said that the fate of the entire world rests on his Rosh Hashana (Hayye Moharan 405). He also asserted that he will extract from hell, grabbing them by their peyot, anyone who visits his gravesite. I am not sure how to say this softly, and no doubt I will be criticized by the faithful, but Rebbe Nachman’s assertion, if taken at face value,  simply seems arrogant to me. R. Nachman was a great man of spirit, but how could he assert that the world’s fate depends specifically on him? I believe this connects with the first concern raised above. This kind of discourse would potentially raise R. Nachman beyond the mortal realm, no matter how great he was; we can understand the fear of his followers misdirecting their worship to him.

Weinstein’s book was published before the COVID pandemic and the current war in Ukraine. Naturally, since 2020 we have seen a downturn in the numbers who have made the pilgrimage because of the logistical difficulties and peril to life and limb involved in getting to Uman. The fact that, nevertheless, thousands have still gone, often finding bizarrely ingenious ways of sneaking one’s way to the town, only sharpens many of Weinstein’s points.

Many good people, including some of my own Alon Shevut neighbors, find these trips incredibly meaningful and impactful. We should not cavalierly dismiss them—but we should continue to ask some challenging questions.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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