February 25, 2020

What Happens in Uman Doesn’t Stay in Uman

Photo from Jerusalem Post

I spent my Rosh Hashanah this year in Uman, Ukraine, where a remarkable Jewish phenomenon continues to unfold: the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It seemed clear to me there: What happens in Uman won’t stay in Uman, but it will have a far-reaching effect on the future of Judaism. 

Rabbi Nachman himself, great-grandson of Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, is the surprise hero of 21st-century Judaism. From a marginal, controversial figure whose followers were often ridiculed by other Chasidim as the irresponsible flakes of the Chasidic world, Rabbi Nachman has moved to the center of emerging Jewish spirituality. 

His Torah and stories were always known as masterpieces of religious imagination — creating a mystical poetics of personal and collective transformation unparalleled since the Zohar. The magnetism of the pilgrimage has brought together a startling array of Jews.

In Uman, I ate, slept, dunked, davened, shmoozed and danced with a kaleidoscopic cluster of Jewish groups: Satmar from Brooklyn, N.Y.; settlers from Bat Ayin, Israel; a turned-on group of Ethiopians from Ashdod, Israel; and the ragged followers of Rav Sabag, a Moroccan tzadik who transforms prayer into sacred play.

The streets were teeming with people. Hundreds of small groups who lodged together were glad to share their meals with all comers, and faucets with free coffee, milk and punch were to be found at strategic locations along the streets. An atmosphere of brotherhood and total acceptance prevailed. When a  worshipper who tried to start a tune was shushed by the minyan’s organizers, he exclaimed, “What? Is Uman over?” meaning that the possibility of one person being silenced by another is a dread violation of the Uman spirit. The rest of the minyan erupted in song, carrying its initiator on their shoulders.

Rabbi Nachman said that if people gathered at his grave on Rosh Hashanah, prayed and gave tzedakah (“charity,” in loose translation), then he would help them overcome Rosh Hashanah judgment: only joy would remain. If 20th-century ultra-Orthodoxy has been about strict adherence to obligations as well as deep learning of Torah, the shift here is to acceptance of and fellowship with others, and an ecstatic experience of God’s love.

In Uman, the ultra-Orthodox are coming out of their shells, mixing with other Jews and creating a tribal Judaism focused on expansive love. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is taking place outside of Israel, in a place where official institutions have no control over religion. Uman is what anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey called a Temporary Autonomous Zone — a place outside of normal time and space where the usual restrictions on imagination and feelings don’t apply. 

But Uman is also a place of struggle. More women are coming — still only a few hundred versus tens of thousands of men. But there is backlash, too: Signs are up asking that we boycott women vendors “to keep the holy gathering pure.” (There are women’s gatherings at the tomb at other times of the year.) Although most here are stalwart Israeli nationalists, hatred of the Arab other is never expressed, and there is no mention of politics (although someone has put up a huge sign in support of President Donald Trump).

But still, the many Ukrainians serving and cleaning are not part of the celebration; the word “goy” is often spoken. Can Uman Judaism evolve so as to integrate the intensive celebration of Jewishness with the passionate love of every human being, even in this place of Cossack and Nazi massacres? Can women be included in greater numbers? Could environmental awareness become part of the mix, responsibility for the earth coalescing with spiritual devotion? Can we avoid the blind spots of fundamentalism while harnessing the incredible energy and goodness of intense and focused faith?

I leave uplifted and suffused with joy, but also with a question: Where will Uman take the Jews?

Micha Odenheimer is a rabbi, writer and founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek, an Israel-based organization working on extreme poverty in South Asia and Africa.