The first shot was fired by Rabbi Yermiah Cohen, head of the Or HaYakar Yeshiva in Safed, with the publication of a pamphlet attacking Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, who passed away 196 years ago, at age 38. The reaction was immediate. By last night, the walls of haredi neighborhoods were plastered with blistering condemnations of Rabbi Cohen, signed by the heads of the Breslav community in Safed, as well as other leading rabbis.
“How can we stand still when God’s angels are insulted and His words are scorned and His prophets are defamed with words of vanity, lies and slander,” read one such notice.
Signs against the rabbi (Photo: Gil Yochanan)
Another sign was even harsher. “Evil has descended from the north. Soul-searing blasphemy, profanity and pollution against God and His messenger emanated from a man of evil deeds known as Yermiah Cohen of the city of Safed. Let the lips that dared to haughtily and scornfully utter lies against the world’s righteous ones be silenced.”
'Sinners who cause the masses to sin'
Even in the early days, Breslav chassidism was controversial and susceptible to attacks from major hassidic personalities. In his pamphlet, Rabbi Cohen repeats the old accusations.
He notes that in the past, “Breslav chassidim were insignificant. They barely managed to bequeath their master’s teachings to their own children and were saddled with excommunications and ostracisms. It was said about them that ‘it is a good deed to repulse, hunt and confound them’. Also, their books were burned and trampled.”
Rabbi Cohen even quotes from one excommunication attempt, attributed to the Savraner Rebbe, in which Breslav chassidim are referred to as “sinners and those who cause the masses to sin”.
In the pamphlet, Rabbi Cohen scorns the newly religious who embrace Breslav and describes how “even before each newly religious individual opens his eyes, he discovers that his hands are full of multicolored booklets”.
Hassidim in Uman (Photo: AP)
He criticizes the chassidic custom of traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah and claims that they “waste a lot of money… for naught”.
In addition, he accuses Rabbi Nachman of Breslav of insanity and quotes incessantly from Rabbi Nachman’s writings as proof. Rabbi Cohen cynically writes that should one “choose to defend (Rabbi Nachman), what can be said? That (Rabbi Nachman) was righteous but somewhat arrogant? One can only say: He did not err intentionally. Rather, mental sickness caused him to hallucinate.”
With respect to the behavior of Rabbi Nachman’s followers, Rabbi Cohen remarks, “an outsider can see how ludicrous it all is”.
'Once it starts, it becomes more extreme'
According to one rabbi of the Or HaYakar Yeshiva, when Rabbi Cohen realized that Breslav hassidism was growing and gaining momentum, he decided to confront the phenomenon. This rabbi claims that Rabbi Cohen’s discourses “were not meant for general consumption. It was in the framework of an internal course in the Yeshiva. Also, it was only addressed to certain specific students and not everyone.”
The Or HaYakar rabbi explained to Ynet the reasoning behind the attack on Rabbi Nachman.
“There is the paved road which is clear: Torah study and other paths that have been accepted for years. But all of the sudden, this type of awakening? Seclusion, less learning, and once it starts, it becomes more extreme. The student no longer carries standard religious texts but only one of Rabbi Nachman’s works. This is not the paved road that the head of the Yeshiva and his teachers received. Each person does what they want in their own homes, but either you are here and continue in the path or you are not here.”
War on the walls (Photo: Gil Yochanan)
The rabbi is well aware that Breslav is the most widespread chassidic sect in Safed.
“There are many of them. Some are crazy or insane,” he avowed. When asked if Rabbi Cohen is now concerned about walking around the city, the Or HaYakar rabbi replied negatively. “Although there were students who thought about guarding or remaining on alert, as far as he himself is concerned, he walks around freely.”
Reaction: This is incitement to murder
When told of the "repulse, hunt and confound them" comment, several young Breslav Jerusalemites responded with some strident words of their own: “This is incitement to murder.”
One even mentioned that he was considering filing a police complaint against Rabbi Cohen. The young chassidim defiantly quoted Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Nachman’s chief disciple who said that “mitnagdim (lit., those who oppose) should know that they also possess windows.”
Nachum Karlinski is another Breslav adherent. He had not read the pamphlet, “because it simply hurts my eyes and I can’t read it”. Nevertheless, he claimed, “what (Rabbi Cohen) is trying to do is to represent Rabbi Nachman in the most disgraceful, most negative and worst light possible.”
“In hassidism, when one hurts a chassidic master,” he added, “it is the most horrible thing that can be done. Throughout the entire history of hassidism, no one ever arose and spoke out against Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.”
Yet another Breslav chassid is clearly upset by Rabbi Cohen’s onslaught. “That man is starting to rummage through dumpsters and attacking Breslav hassidim and (even) aiming at Rabbi Nachman. Nowhere is it acceptable to begin casting aspersions on someone who is still revered after 200 years.”
Breslav hassidim charge that Rabbi Cohen also attacked the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of hassidism. At the Or HaYakar Yeshiva, they concede that there may be some truth to the claims.
“By doing this, he has decided to open a Pandora’s Box about the whole dispute between the hassidim and their opponents, the mitnagdim,” one chassid said. “It just shows how determined a man is. Once his honor has been insulted, because some students left him, he lashes out at everyone.”