12/27/2005

3rd Candle: R' Nachman's Dreidel

I’ve only got a few pages left of Arthur Green's book “Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav”, and I hope to post a more thorough review when I finish and digest it. There’s one passage, Chanukah-related, that i really liked. It’s part of a segment on R’ Nachman’s critique of medieval cosmology, and is taken from Sichot HaRan #40, and p. 309 of Green’s book, whence the translation:

Their books contain questions as to the order of Creation: How is it that a star merited to be a star, or that a constellation deserved to be a constellation? What was the sin of the lower creatures, animals and all the rest, that consigned them to their lowly state? Why not just the opposite? Why is a head a head and a foot a foot?...

This entire pursuit, however, is a vain one. One should not ask such questions of God, who is righteous and upright. For in truth, the entire universe is a spinning top, which is called a dreidel. Everything moves in a circle: angels change into men and men into angels; the head becomes a foot and the foot a head. All things in the world are part of this circular motion, reborn and transformed into one another. That which was above is lowered and that which was below is raised up. For in their root all of them are one.


R’ Nachman locates the flaw of philosophy in its being static and bounded. In the real world, boundaries between objects are fluid, artificial, and often non-existent. Though R’ Nachman refers specifically to the cosmological world and its hierarchies, the same can be (and has been) said about social hierarchies. Medieval philosophy spent much time and ink justifying why kings are kings, nobles are nobles, serfs are serfs, women are women, and Jews are Jews. The real reason that nobles were superior to serfs is that a man on a horse can kill ten men on foot, but that wouldn’t pass muster with the morally-attuned folk, so a hierarchy had to be invented. This type of thinking (called essentialist in philosophical terminology) was the hallmark of philosophy from Plato onward, until it faded with the advent of modernity. Thus, R’ Nachman, a contemporary of Napoleon, is an early critic of essentialism.

A later but very well-known critic of essentialism in the social sphere wrote a passage which is strikingly similar to R’ Nachman’s in both content and literary power, though he saw an end to the non-stop ‘spinning’ that does not include God’s Unity:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
-Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto”, 1848
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