If you were to organize a graduate seminar around a single text what would it be?

Shaul Magid

Indiana University

This is an interesting exercise for a variety of reasons. First, it allows us to ponder what might be the goals of a graduate seminar more generally. Second, it enables us to explore the singularity of a text, removing it from its embedded and contextual place as part of a book or compilation in order to see whether and how one text can carry the weight of an entire semester.

I have chosen Nahman of Bratslav's Likkutei MoHaRan I:64 as my text. Many of the col lected homilies of Nahman (this one included) are fairly detailed examples of hermeneutic virtuosity focused around a narrow theme, often veering far afield to include many other subjects that are then swept back, through the warp and woof of midrashic/kabbalistic read- ing, to the central question. Written in a loose, proemic style whose focus is often a personal rather than textual subject, Nahman's work offers students exposure to a variety of textual and theological issues. It exposes students to the world of rabbinic/kabbalistic texuality while simultaneously offering them a window into the personalistic and devotional focus of Hasidic and pietistic Jewish spirituality.

The themes of lesson #64 are doubt and heresy framed around Moses' confrontation with Pharaoh and Pharaoh's "hardened heart" (Exodus 10:1–4). What is so intriguing about this homily is the personal notion of self-doubt, the existential anxiety where belief and un-belief each occupy space in the psyche of the adept. Nahman's ability to locate human doubt in the metaphysical "empty space" (halal ha-panui) God creates to set the conditions for creation reifies human anxiety as a condition for, and endemic to, creation itself. The questions that are raised in this homily extend from the hermeneutical to the existential, from the kabbalistic to the psychological. For those interested in Jewish heresiology from a psychotheological perspective, this text produces seemingly endless fodder for reflection.

Addendum: When I was a graduate student at the Hebrew University in the 1980s I had the honor of studying with David Flusser. We had an evening seminar and a few of us would walk Professor Flusser to the underground garage where a taxi would take him home. During one of these walks he asked me what I was studying, and I told him Nahman of Bratslav. He said, "Nahman was the only one who truly understood the crisis of human existence (mashber be-hayyim). More than Maimonides, more than Kook, more than anyone." Trying to be clever, I responded, "Do you mean the personal crisis (mashber perati) or the collective crisis (mashber klali)?" He stopped and stared at me and asked, "Are you married?" to which I responded "yes." "Then," he said, "you know that they are both the same thing."