Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Don't Go to Uman!

Originally published in The Jewish Press: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/the-cult-of-uman/2014/09/12/0/

Disclaimer:My motivation behind this article is love for misguided Jews. I have no desire to needlessly upset people before the chag, but the troubling issue I raise in this article cannot be ignored. It represents the death of the Jewish mind, and every Jew who is drawn to this nonsense is another soul that has forsaken common sense and chochmah for a new age experience.
 
Craziness is contagious in the world of the non-thinker. Tragically, if someone in the Jewish world creates some new religious rite or practice, it doesn’t take long before the non-thinking masses get caught up in the hysteria. And then it spreads like a virus. Within a few years, it attains the status of an ancient tradition, particularly when there is money to be made.

In Israel we see this in the prevalence of miracle shrines such as Amuqah, or the infamous “wonder workers” of Jerusalem who allegedly manifest your “ayin horas” as bubbles in a pot, and then magically make them disappear. Not only does the latter ridiculous practice encroach on a myriad of prohibitions, it also takes the real but terribly distorted concept of the “evil eye,” ayin hora, (a philosophical concept relating to human psychology which chazal understand), and distorts it into a primitive spell that a shaman might cast onto a frightened native.

The modern cult of Uman is another prime example of this frightening phenomenon, where un-Jewish practices are given the status of mitzvah. I was initially going to avoid this topic, since it encroaches on the complicated halachic/hashkafic issue of visiting/praying at graves which I already addressed several weeks back in my article “Talking to the Dead.” I only reconsidered after being inundated on Facebook with more evidence of this troubling annual event. And the trip to Uman entails other problems as well.

Going To Graves
The basic issue regarding the phenomenon of Breslover chasidim traveling to Uman to pray at the grave of their deceased Rebbe relates to the obvious halachic question of the permissibility of praying at graves. As I noted before, this is a complex halachic issue that is the source of Jewish debate. What is not debated is whether praying to the dead is permitted. This act is a biblical prohibition related to necromancy. Without a doubt most of those who travel to Uman are actually praying to “Rebbe Nachman.” Some of them may actually try to convince you that they are praying there in his merit, or asking him to intercede, but their words betray their true intentions. Their motivations and expectations are such that it is clear that they have come to Uman to “speak” to Rebbe Nachman. Many of them will tell you this outright. They believe that he has the power (and indeed, that he has given his promise) to answer their prayers! These misguided Jews will tell you, that Rebbe Nachman informed his students prior to his death that he would answer the prayers of those who came to daven at his grave. “It’s all in Rav Nachman’s hands,” they explain.

On the web at breslov.com, one can find such views explaining the “custom”:
“Rebbe Nachman made a promise that no other Tzaddik in the whole of Jewish history has ever made. Taking two of his closest followers as witnesses, he said: “When my days are ended and I leave this world, I will intercede for anyone who comes to my grave, recites the Ten Psalms of the General Remedy – the Tikkun HaKlali (The 10 specific chapters in the book of Psalms are: 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150. For further details, see Rabbi Nachman’s Tikkun, Breslov Research Institute, 1984.) – and gives some charity. No matter how serious his sins and transgressions, I will do everything in my power to save him and cleanse him. I will span the length and breadth of the Creation for him. By his payos I will pull him out of Hell!” (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #141). “It makes no difference what he did until that day, as long as he undertakes not to return to his foolish ways from now on” (Tzaddik #122). This is avodah zarah (idol worship)!

Such views are anathema to yahadut because only Hakadosh Baruch Hu can guarantee forgiveness. Oftentimes, there is onesh, punishment, as a requirement for repentance. For some sins, one only receives atonement after death. No man on earth has the ability to make such a promise. And repentance does not come in the codified formula of simply reading specific verses of tehillim, as if they were a magical chant. (The reading of psalms as a means of drawing near to tshuvah is something entirely different, hence the popular and accepted practice of reading tehillim when the nation is in trouble.)

Unfortunately, such people are so removed from proper notions of tefilah and fundamentals of yahadut, that one cannot even have a reasonable discussion with them. It is important to note that this mentality goes well beyond any halachic position which might allow one to visit a grave for inspiration, or to facilitate a commitment to tshuvah. It even goes beyond the problematic issue of a meilitz yosher (intercessor). This jumps right into the biblical prohibition of consulting the dead (Deuteronomy 18:11). You will recall that Maimonides prohibits even appropriate manifestations of prayer in a cemetery (Avelus 14:13), and other Rishonim agreed with him. Clearly, the dangers of praying in such an environment, even for a sophisticated individual who has no interest in communing with the dead, are too real to subject oneself to this psychological pitfall. Certainly, the pilgrimage to Uman does not even fit the criteria for appropriate prayer, since it is clearly directed to the deceased.

Unfortunately, it is not only die-hards who make the trek to Uman. Many non-Breslovers also make the trip, if not on Rosh Hashanah, then on some other occasion during the year. They come to Uman to revel in what they hope will be a spiritually liberating environment. Inevitably they will dance like deranged marionettes with thousands who have also forsaken rationality for magic. They will try to experience an otherworldly experience that has nothing to do with Halachic Judaism and has much more in common with an aboriginal dance. For too many Jews, Uman has become a kind of “Burning Man” festival.

Leaving Eretz Yisroel
For those who live in Israel there is the real Halachic problem relating to the permissibility of leaving Eretz Yisroel. While there are specific allowances for which the Halacha permits one to leave Eretz Yisroel, (parnasa, finding a marriage partner, Torah study, etc.) going to the grave in Uman for Rosh Hashanah is not one of them. No non-Breslov Rav would ever permit this.

A Jewish Home
On top of these very problematic halachic points, these people are so fundamentally detached from reality they don’t even consider the effect on their family life.
• These men abandon their families on the chag!: The bedrock of a normal Torah home is the ideal setting of a loving home headed by a caring mother and father. To leave one’s wife and children on the chagim is beyond sick. It disregards the mesora and its perpetuation, betrays an infantile ignorance of the stability that is essential to a Jewish home, and exhibits a lack of sensitivity to one’s wife and children, all on the altar of magic and mysticism. Many wives support their husbands since they also believe that visiting the grave of Rebbe Nachman will guarantee them a good year. What happened to Hakadosh Baruch Hu? Not good enough?
 
While Rosh Hashanah in Uman is exclusively for men, there are special trips just for women during the year. It has now become a “thing” that Breslov women can also partake. Unscrupulous “religious” Jews are raking in the dough because they have created an “industry” which can pull in the shekels throughout the year. The possibilities are only limited by their imaginations. Here again we have the vultures who prey on the vulnerable and profit from it.

This is not Judaism. The cult of Uman has much more in common with the “Mary-ology” of devout Catholics who believe in the worship of shrines, icons, relics, and saints, with the fervency of a hoodoo/voodoo practitioner. They have designated forbidden conduits to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. I have not even touched on the issue of the physical dangers of visiting Uman, both on a larger regional scale, and the dangers of local anti-Semites who have a history from the not too distant past of butchering Jews. In recent years, at least one Jew was killed by a gentile, and I recall reading more recently about a Jew in Uman who was severely beaten.
 
Then there is the issue of chillul Hashem that this pilgrimage creates, as it presents a distorted image of religious Jewry to the world. While many of these pilgrims are mentslich people who mind their own business and behave like humans, there are untold numbers of lunatics who create a tremendous chillul Hashem with their deviant, wild, behavior. Some of this behavior is outwardly profane and doesn’t even mask itself with the cloak of Torah.
For many years there were few proper accommodations, so Ukrainian goyim would rent out their apartments, houses, and haylofts to Jews for ridiculous sums. Other primitive arrangements were also available. The gentiles were surely amused at the irony, when you consider that some of their fathers and grandfathers probably killed Jews. Most Jewish pilgrims are still reliant on the cheapest accommodations. 

Yet for those with a bigger budget, today there is Inn Uman, a comfortable modern setting with glatt kosher food, mikveh (only for guests!), shiurim, 24 hour security (why?), and comfy accommodations. I don’t know what is more tragic, the insanity of those whose distorted religious worldview compels them to subject themselves to uncomfortable accommodations from possibly dangerous gentiles, or the mentality of those who have created glatt kosher leisure resorts in rural Ukraine.

As I see it, the contemporary Breslov movement offers nothing to the thinking Jew, save a host of spiritually dangerous notions which oppose fundamentals of Torah. It is an ideology of concepts both foreign and forbidden. At the core, they worship and venerate a dead Rebbe. I am not only speaking about the “Nah, Nachs,” but even mainstream followers who fixate on superstition, demonology, segulos, peculiar diets to prevent lewd thoughts, perverse views of “purity and holiness” (based on sexual/aggressive frustration), and bizarre tikkunim. I invite the reader to take even a cursory perusal of the literature to confirm what I am writing.

Some of the material that is propagated by certain mainstream “leaders” of the movement are obscene beyond description, and the decision was easy to not include it in the article. Several years back, a mainstream Breslov personality was disseminating a video about a ba’al tshuvah who had an alleged “near death experience.” Nebach, the guy clearly had (and probably still has) severe psychological problems. The purported visions he describes during his alleged “religious experience” are pornographic and frightening, and they betray a diseased mind. This was circulated across the web, in an attempt to terrify Jews who might be involved in sexual sin to do tshuvah. Now while it is certainly meritorious to try to convince Jews to sanctify their lives and refrain from improper behavior, proper tshuvah requires a rational understanding and proper presentation of the Halachic system to the uninformed. Trying to frighten people with mythical tales of demonic visitations, evil changelings that are the offspring of forbidden sexual behavior, and other goyish nonsense, has no place in yahadut.

The worst expression is the pagan lure of the Na Nach movement. It is growing more popular in Israel, as the followers prey on Israel’s disconnected and disaffected youth. The Na Nachs are particularly attractive to those drawn to alternative experiences, with their outlandish displays of whirling and twirling in the streets like dervishes, or pogo-ing on the rooftops of vans as if they were attending a punk rock concert. The message needs to go out to the entire Jewish and non-Jewish world that this is not Judaism. This is repression and frustration exploding outwardly in the absence of a kosher outlet. Unfortunately, many naive Israelis religious and otherwise don’t really see the problem. They think it is harmless unless of course they actively dislike religious Jews and choose to see these oddities as a genuine symbol of frumkeit and religious fanaticism.

Whenever I see these misguided Jews dancing in the streets, I think of the mass dancing frenzies that spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. The bizarre Saint Vitus’ dance, where thousands of hysterical x-ians took to the streets and danced themselves to the mental asylum, while shouting profanities to the heavens, all in the name of religious fervor. Yet at the root of their dancing was fear and anxiety: fear of the Black Death; fear of the clergy and of witches; terror that the Jews might poison their wells; or steal their children for matzo. In short, they were spiritually and mentally diseased people. The manic dancing of these Breslovers is not an expression of “serving Hashem with joy,” as some would have it. It is an outlet for those with psychological problems to vent their frustration. The problem is that madness in the name of religion doesn’t kasher the illness. It simply hides it. Uman is actually a symptom of a greater problem that is particularly prevalent in Israel, where the search for the sacred often leads to the profane. 

The power of any popular movements devoid of Torah thought is the same with every movement that encourages the abandonment of the rational mind for an artifice of joy. They present easy solutions to complex issues that cannot be resolved by any guru or text. Chants and mantras are the life blood of all cults, be they “Jewish” or otherwise. Only a commitment to true Torah ideals and halacha can give a Torah person clarity. And the perfection of the Jewish soul sometimes necessitates the skills of a psychologist. The time of the Uman pilgrimage is upon us, and we dare not ignore the opportunity to highlight the danger. Presumably, a great many tickets have already been bought. Yet the annual spectacle should be a time to condemn it as un-Jewish activity. Rabbonim should raise their collective voice and state unequivocally that for a host of reasons (and they should elaborate on all of them), it is improper to travel to Uman. 

Rabbinical Opposition 
Over the years certain Rabbis have come out against this practice, though not nearly enough. An Arutz Sheva news brief from 2010, “Zionist Rabbis Against Uman On Rosh Hashannah” noted a survey of leading Zionistic Rabbonim who opposed the trip to Uman. The list of notable names included the following distinguished Rabbis: Eliyahu Zini, Yakov Ariel, Dov Lior, Uri Sharky, Shlomo Aviner. Rabbi Zini’s response is particularly memorable: “Whoever leaves the holiness of the Land of Israel for the defilement of exile, it is unclear whether he does not believe in the Torah, or is just mentally ill or maybe just unlearned …I have no doubt that Rabbi Nachman, if he were alive today, would be vehemently opposed to this. It is likely that most of the innocent passengers do not know they are wrong. Visiting our holy city of Jerusalem or the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a thousand times more important.” Other Rabbonim that have also opposed the trip in recent years include Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zt’l, and Rav Bar-Chaim of Machon Shiloh. 

Earlier this year, Arutz Sheva reported that the Ukrainian Parliament passed a bill which would charge Chasidim a $100 dollar fee for a day’s visit to the shrine. Naturally, many Breslover Chasidim were furious with this gentile imposed “Uman tax.” Hopefully, the additional financial burden will discourage Jews from heading into rural Ukraine, rather than fighting a holy war over their right to do so. So I implore my fellow Jews of Israel and the diaspora: This Rosh Hashanah, stay home with your families. Daven to the Ribono Shel Olam like a proper Jew, and not to the grave of any man, regardless of his merits. Understand that Hakadosh Baruch Hu alone is where we are permitted to direct our tefilot, and He alone is the source of repentance. As the classic piyut informs us, the formula is readily available for those who wish to change: “U’Tshuvah, U’Tefilah, U’Tzadakah Ma’avirin Et Ro’ah Ha’Gzeirah.”
 
The formula for true repentance (tshuvah g’mura) has never changed. As I’ve stated before, we have no need for all this nonsense. We have the ability to turn directly to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. For me, this is the time of the year to immerse myself in the Rambam’s Hilchot Tshuvah, and Rav Soloveitchik’s fascinating collection of essays, “Al Ha’tshuvah” (On Repentance). I find that these two works present a comprehensive framework for understanding and undertaking the process of repentance.

And as far as Ukraine goes, a Jew belongs in Uman the same way that he belongs in the Islamic country of Oman. Stay away from the impure blood stained soil of Ukraine, or any region in accursed Europe for that matter. Eretz Yisroel is the only soil on earth worthy of being kissed.

May Hakadosh Baruch Hu inscribe Am Yisroel and all righteous gentiles into the book of life this year.
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