Sunday, 30 October 2016


R. Chaim Kramer and R. Gavin Michal
Is the Breslov we see in the streets of the world today, congruent with the classical Breslov we read about in the books?   –This question is easily asked but not so comfortable or simple to answer. And, depending on who is doing the answering, there may be many different views.

Here is one view.

From the original teachings, before factionalization created splits within the movement, a different but clear model of Breslov emerges.

Rebbe Nachman's basic message is probably one of the simplest that has ever existed in Judaism: Speak to God every day, in a language you understand, as if you were talking to a friend. Always look for the good in everyone, as well as in yourself. Never ever give up. Be joyous and consciously seek ways to create happiness. Clear your mind and keep it clean. And most importantly, live morally.

The movement never had a book of its own customs as some other Chassidic groups do. Neither did they have their own version of the prayers. Someone once said that Breslov customs are simply the Shulchan Aruch.

Rebbe Nachman believed in integration with society, and personally did not shy away from irreligious people. Much to the chagrin of those around him, he played chess with avowed nonbelievers.

Good societal behavior was something he felt very strongly about, saying, ‘Even Kings and Emperors can send their children to us to learn derekh eretz (respect and how to act appropriately)’[1]  

His view regarding non-Jews was rather liberal, even by today’s standards. He strongly supported and even encouraged sincere Halachic conversion to Judaism. We have records of entire villages becoming Breslover Chassidim[2].  

Breslov does not support lunacy. Rebbe Nachman taught that even in serving God one should not be an extremist. He said: ‘Don’t be a fanatic. You can serve G-d with restraint.’[3]  He cautioned not to be overly stringent in any observance. ‘It is enough to keep the commandments according to the law without going beyond it. Do not take on unnecessary restrictions.’ 
I recently spoke to my teacher, Rabbi Chaim Kramer who heads the Breslov Research Institute. He is perturbed by the perception that offshoots of the movement may have become somewhat ‘cult-like’.

In response to my questions he explained;

‘Breslov never ever had a dress code. The goal was never to make everybody identical. According to Rebbe Nachman people are not clones! There are as many ways of being a Breslover Chasid as there are people who study the teachings. There is no standard Breslov path, with all the Chassidim being required to conform.   It is up to the individual to decide how much of a Chassid he wants to be.  Even those who live in a Breslov community, may not feel that their connection requires close involvement in communal activities.’

I pressed Rabbi Kramer further, and he continued:

‘Within Breslov today, there have arisen many subsidiary factions which purport to carry the Breslov banner, yet are extreme fringe movements not only to Breslov but some even to Judaism itself.  
The risk certainly exists in Breslov, as it does in every movement, that one may misinterpret some of the teachings. Rebbe Nachman once said, tellingly; “Even among my Chassidim, there will be false leaders! It is possible to see in the followers, the qualities of their leader. If he is normal, the followers will also be. The opposite is also true.”[4] -And sadly, we see today that people who are not in full control of themselves, can easily have their hearts and souls swayed.’

I was first introduced to Breslov by the extensive conceptual writings of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, whose thinking left a profound impression on many people. His teacher was the late father-in-law of my teacher, Rabbi Kramer. Another influential figure, from the other side of the rainbow, was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, at whose funeral the Chief Rabbi of Israel said; ‘He was a Breslover Chassid. And now Rebbe Nachman is waiting to welcome him home.’ Through these individuals I discovered both depth and beauty in the Breslover teachings.

I hang on to these dearly, for I fear that with the freefall surrounding the movement today, we may have lost some of this magnificence.

[1] Siach Sarfei Kodesh 3:74
[2] See Siach Sarfei Kodesh.
[3] Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom 51
[4] See Likutey Moharan I, 140  

Wednesday, 19 October 2016



Rambam (1135-1204) was born at the close of the five hundred year period known as the Golden Age of Jewish Spain. This was a time when Jews flourished under Islamic rule, and enjoyed great political and religious freedom[1]

But this Golden Age came to an abrupt end in the mid 1100’s with the rise of a radical Islamic sect known as the Almohadim who presented the Jews and Christians with an ultimatum to either convert or die (which was later rescinded to allowing for the option to leave the country).

One of the reasons for this persecution particularly against Jews was the belief that the Messiah would arrive five hundred years after Mohammad’s ‘revelation’ in 622. When the Messiah did not arrive, it was decided that Jews needed to convert to Islam.

The Christians by and large found refuge in other European countries but the Jews had difficulty in finding sanctuary (although some went to neighbouring Christian Spain).  Most Jews, however, remained in Muslim Spain and were compelled to outwardly adopt Islam as their new religion.

They reasoned that allegiance to Islam only required a verbal declaration and anyway that religion was not considered to be idolatrous. In a strange agreement, the authorities allowed the Jews to practice Judaism in the privacy of their homes, but only after publically attending Mosque and reciting the Koran.

(The Jews remained on in Spain until 1492 when they were eventually expelled from what then became Christian Spain and they were no longer permitted to practice their Judaism even discretely.)

Ramabm's house in Fez Morroco
Rambam was thirteen years old when the Almohadim rose to power. His family were on the run for eleven years, fleeing from Spanish city to city, until they left for Morocco, where they lived for a number of years, until similar Islamic persecutions forced them to flee again, and eventually they settled in Egypt.


While on the move, Rambam’s father, Rabbi Maimon, wrote a letter of comfort or Iggeret Nechama to the majority of Jews who had remained behind in Spain, encouraging them to remain steadfast in their Judaism.

It was at this time that a Moroccan rabbi also wrote a letter to the Jews of Spain, but instead of encouraging them he condemned them in the strongest terms for outwardly converting to Islam.  He wrote that Islam was not a monotheistic religion and was in fact a form of idolatry, for which the Spanish Jews should rather have laid down their lives than to have converted. He effectively placed all of Spanish Jewry under excommunication for their practices. He said that even the act of entering a Mosque without praying was considered heretical.

When Rambam found out about this letter, he strenuously believed it ran contrary to Jewish law. He became incensed and wrote a counter letter of his own to those same Jews who had remained behind in Spain. The letter is known as Iggeret haShmad or Letter of Apostasy.

In Iggeret haShmad Rambam refuted the Moroccan rabbi’s claims and accusations and lifted their spirits. He accused the rabbi of writing about circumstances he could never have understood from his distant abode, without having experienced persecution firsthand.

Even some Talmudic sages, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Eliezer feigned conversion in order to save their lives.[2]

Rambam reiterated his belief that it was better to submit to Islam and still lead a private Jewish life because that way their children would remain Jewish instead of being orphaned. He further wrote that merely to recite the Shahada (the Islamic proclamation of faith) is permitted if one’s life is threatened.

He made the distinction between the three cardinal sins - idolatry, adultery and murder - for which one is required to give up one’s life rather than transgress them - as opposed to converting to Islam which in his view was not idolatry.

He explained that a real Kiddush haShem (sanctification of G-d’s name) was not to submit to death but rather to live an exemplary, moral and honest life.

Rambam’s tone and tenor in this letter is significantly forceful, even angry towards the Moroccan rabbi, when compared to his other more measured writings.

While he did regard those Jews who remained behind in Spain to have been somewhat negligent and while he did encourage them to try leave, he nevertheless offered his support and even sanction to the way the Spanish Jews were living.

It has been said that as a result of Iggeret haShmad the huge numbers of Jews who continued living in Spain were finally given hope and were made to feel exonerated and still connected to their people. This kept the ‘door open’ for them to remain Jewish and thus saved their future generations.
Had it not been for this letter, the vast majority of Spanish Jews may have felt completely excommunicated and may have lost their desire to remain committed to Judaism.

It is in this sense that it can be said that Rambam played a pivotal role in saving a huge segment of Spanish Jewry.


As a consequence of Iggeret haShmad some[3] contend that Rambam too may have been forced to convert to Islam while still in Spain (or Morocco). Accordingly, he may have experienced firsthand what forced conversion felt like when he wrote about it in his letter - hence his empathy for them. 

Then, as soon as it became safe for him and his family, they denounced their ‘conversion’.
It’s interesting to see that many Muslim writers[4] have claimed Rambam, or Musa bin Maymun, as their own:

The 13th Century Muslim biographer Safadi (who hailed from Safad) wrote;

“When Maimonides came from the West he prayed the tarawih prayers out of the Koran with the people of the boat, it being the month of Ramadan. He Damascus. There the Kadi... happened to be ill. Maimonides attended to him...The Kadi was grateful to him and wished to remunerate him. Maimonides, however...would take nothing from him. 

Presently he bought a house and asked the Kadi to antedate (backdate) the contract by five years. The Kadi, seeing no harm that could arise, readily agreed to the request...Maimonides presently went to Egypt where he entered the service of (another Kadi) Al-Fudil. Some of his fellow passengers on the boat then came and said: ‘This man came with us from the West and prayed...with us in such and such a year.’ Maimonides produced the contract, saying: ‘I was in Damascus long before that year...’[5]

Thus according to Safadi, Rambam cleverly and deviously hid his conversion from the Egyptian Kadi so as not to be punished (by death) for abandoning Islam and openly returning to Judaism.

Herbert Davidson quoting another medieval Muslim writer, Al-Kifti wrote:

“(Those) who had few ties departed (Spain), whereas those who were concerned about property and family ‘exhibited the external guise of Islam’...Moses the son of Maimon chose the latter course. He publicly lived the life of a Muslim. Reading the Quran and reciting Muslim prayers, until he was able to put his affairs in order. 

He then left Spain...travelled to Egypt and resumed the identity of a Jew. At the end of Maimonides’ life, a Muslim jurist from Spain...arrived in Egypt, recognized him, and accused him of having ‘accepted Islam in Spain’. Maimonides’ patron in the sultan’s court rescued him – recidivism from Islam being punishable by death – by declaring; ‘When a man is coerced, his acceptance of Islam is not legally binding’.[6]

But Davidon contends Al-Kifti’s account
 “Maimonides had bitter personal enemies in Egypt as well as ideological enemies throughout the Jewish world who would have clapped their hands in glee at the opportunity of undercutting his reputation and besmirching his name. Yet no information about the conversion of the Maimon known to have penetrated Jewish circles; no medieval Jewish writer ever hints at anything of the sort.”[7]

Historian Alan Nadler, also refutes this and other such claims:

Maimonides practiced the time-honoured medieval tradition of Taqiyya, or prudent dissimulation, by dressing and behaving like a Muslim publically, perhaps occasionally presenting himself at a mosque, while remaining an observant Jew during the darkest period of the Almohad persecution...which...resulted in thousands of forced apostasies and deaths. There is simply no credible evidence that Maimonides converted, let alone that he was a ‘practicing Muslim.’

Dr. Friedlander, best known for his English translation of The Guide for the Perplexed, similarly and completely refutes any claims that Rambam converted saying that the charge (which was apparently well known); “...was probably started by some less favoured physician who envied Maimonides’ successes at the Ayyubids’ court.”

Rambam himself wrote that while on a visit to Jerusalem he entered the Temple Mount (a place usually out of bounds for a practicing Jew). This only added fuel to the rumour that he had converted to Islam. The fact of the matter is that Jews are permitted to enter only certain areas of the Temple Mount, and that is most likely what Rambam did.

In more contemporary terms Jerome A. Chanes writes that “...the practice, during periods of persecution in Sefardic lands, of behaving publicly in a Muslim manner, whilst remaining traditionally observant,“ was very common. 

The early Ashkenazi residents of Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim quarter adopted the same practice of ‘blending in’ for security reasons, a practice copied from the older Sefardic community, dressing like Arabs in striped robes. The ‘zebrot’ of the Batei Ungarn neighbourhood today are the remnants of this history.”[8]


During the eleven years that Rambam and his family were persecuted in Spain, and the years they spent running from danger in Morocco, whilst so many other Jews had been forced to convert (or feign conversion) to Islam on pain of death - could he not have been subject to that same fate?

It is feasible, and as we have seen most probable that he may have been coerced to adopt some outward Muslim practices.

But the definitive answer as to whether or not he was forced to convert to Islam is as elusive as the question is uncomfortably contentious.

[1] There is some contention amongst historians as to whether the Golden Age was as utopian for Jews as it is often made out to be. According to Bernard Lewis the perception is largely exaggerated. He claims that Islam did not offer equality or even pretend that it did.
[2] Avodah Zara 18a
[3] Including Graetz (who refers to anyone who denies this as ‘critical imbecility’), and Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson of Hebrew University (but he hastens to point out that it was a ‘feigned conversion’).
[4] Al-Kifti
[5] The unpublished Biographical Dictionary of Safadi (Bodleian MS. Arch. Seld.)
For a fascinating refutation of this story see The Legend of the Apostasy of Maimonides, by D. S. Margoliouth The Jewish Quarterly Review Vol. 13, No. 3 (Apr., 1901), pp. 539-541
[6] Moses Maimonides: the Man and his Works, by Herbert Davidson, p. 17
[7] Ibid. p. 18
[8] Jerome A. Chanes, faculty scholar at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center, is the author of “A Dark Side of History:  Antisemitism through the Ages.”

Tuesday, 4 October 2016


This is a very complicated and extremely emotional subject. The viewpoints presented here are for academic purposes only and the reader must remember that there is no ‘competition’ as to which theories are more correct than others. The purpose of this essay is simply to point out the diverse array of theological material on the topic of Providence vs. chance as deliberated upon by some of our great Torah thinkers.]


There appears to be an all pervasive perception that Judaism believes in only one model of Divine Providence – namely, that every single event, no matter how insignificant, occurs directly as a result of G-d’s Providence or hashgacha peratit. - ‘A leaf doesn’t fall off from a tree’ and land in a particular place unless it was so ordained by G-d.

Many would be surprised to discover that this view, greatly publicised by Chassidim as a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) was to a large extent an innovation in, and a relatively new contribution to Jewish thought.[1]

We will attempt to explore some philosophical and hashkafic models that are sometimes similar to and other times radically different from this popular view.


The Talmud makes a number of statements that certainly do seem to support the idea of G-d’s Providence extending over all of creation:

G-d is said to provide; “...from the horns of the wild oxen to the tiniest louse.”[2]

“Man does not knock his toe unless it has been decreed so in heaven.”[3]

And; “even if one intended to take out three coins from his purse and two came out instead,”[4] nothing is by chance.

The ‘sea of the Talmud’ is an anthology of many statements on many topics and it was only later, during the periods of the Geonim and Rishonim that these statements were interpreted to form the basis of systematic schools of thought and philosophy.[5] Although these different schools were all generally (although not always) based on Talmudic thought, they often differed dramatically from each other.

RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Rambam, takes the surprising view that there are no definitive sources in either the Torah or Talmud where G-d’s Providence is said to extend to anything other than ultimately relating to human beings.[6]

Thus hashgacha peratit (individual Divine providence) applies only to humans - while hashagcha kelalit[7] (general Divine Providence) would apply to all other creatures and also to inanimate objects.

According to Rambam, G-d takes care of the various species or groups of animals, vegetation and inanimate matter as a whole but not the individual in the cluster.

He writes:

I do not believe that a leaf falls as a result of Divine Providence, not that this spider devours this specific fly as a result of Divine Decree...I do not believe that...when a fish snatches a specific worm floating on a river that such was the will of G-d. Rather this was all through absolute chance, as Aristotle contends.”[8]

Rambam presents four popular models of Divine Providence that were common in his day, and then adds a fifth which he considers to be the most correct view:[9]

1)      The first view is the claim of some people that there is no Divine Providence at all regarding anything in existence, and merely the result of chance...this is pure heresy (or alternately the view of Epicurus).

2)      The second is the view that over some things there is Divine Providence... but other things are left to chance. This is the view of Aristotle.[10]

3)      The third that nothing in existence is the result of chance, not specific individuals nor general groups...This is the view held by the Muslim school known as Asharites.[11]

4)      The forth view is...that all divine acts are a result of Divine Wisdom which can bear no injustice (even in regard to animals and inanimate objects). This is the (Muslim) school of Mu’tzalites[12], where a guiltless mouse that is devoured by a cat will be compensated in Heaven.

5)      The fifth view is the Torah view is completely in control of his actions...and (paradoxically) everything that occurs to man is fitting to occur (as a result of Divine Providence).

Amazingly, what emerges from Rambam is that any belief in the concept of the ‘leaf falling from a tree’ being ordained by G-d - is of Muslim and not Jewish origin!

He continues;

This theory is in accordance with reason and with the teaching of Torah, whilst the other theories either exaggerate Divine Providence or detract from it.”

Rambam also points out that this concept of G-d’s Providence extending only over humans does not mean that G-d is unaware of what takes place in the non-human realms which are governed by chance:

Understand thoroughly my theory, that I do not ascribe to G-d any ignorance of anything or any kind of weakness...”

Rambam makes the point that there is a difference between G-d’s Providence and G-d’s Knowledge.  Accordingly, G-d is fully aware of everything taking place within the animal, vegetation and inanimate realms but has no direct involvement in them other than in terms of General Providence.

And even with regard to Direct Providence within the human realm, the measure and intensity of the Providence is relative to the intellectual comprehension of the recipient. Thus a more intellectual and contemplative person will be privy to a more direct form of Providence.


The Rambam’s radical view as outlined above - which will come as a surprise to many people - may be explained away by virtue of the fact that he is known to be the father of Jewish rationalism.

The Ramban, however, born 60 years later and often known as his philosophical adversary, was a great mystic.

Nonetheless, as counter intuitive as it seems, Ramban quoted from and established his theology of Providence directly upon Rambam’s position!

והענין הזה בארו הרב זצ"ל ביאור יפה בספר מורה הנבוכים

And this matter was explained beautifully by Rambam in his book ‘The Guide For The Perplexed’” (from which we quoted from above).

Ramban, like Rambam, maintains that Direct Providence is only the preserve of human beings, while all other creatures and objects are subject to a more general form of Collective Providence.

Ramban clearly agrees that only humans are subject to Providence, as opposed to; “the fish of the sea, towards which G-d does not exert providence...”

 “We follow the Greeks who say that the rainbow appears naturally when the sun shines through moist air (instead of as a result of Divine Intervention). This concept (of nature taking care of itself) is borne out by the verse; ‘And I placed (past tense, i.e. from the time of creation) my rainbow in the cloud.’”[13]

Accordingly, the world continues to maintain itself based on the natural first principles endowed upon it during the creation process.

ולא בא בתורה או בנבואה שיהיה האל משגיח ושומר אישי שאר הבריות שאינן מדברות
 השמים וצבאם רק שומר את הכללים בכלל

He also agrees that there is no Scriptural basis for Individualized Providence outside of human beings:

We have not found in all of the Torah that God will oversee anything that does not speak. Instead, for such things, He preserves only the principles of science, or the “natural order” of things.”[14]

He further agrees with Rambam that Providence amongst human beings is commensurate with their spiritual (Rambam says intellectual) comprehension; “He directs His providence to his righteous that His watchfulness will always be on them.”[15]

Then Ramban (in a possible departure from Rambam) adds the caveat that Providence is applicable only to the extremes of either the truly righteous or wholly evil person (who will alternately be rewarded or held accountable respectively). Most other human beings who fall into a category somewhere in the middle will be subject to randomness and chance!

RALBAG (1288-1344):

Rabbi Levi ben Gershom writes: “When one understands that evil does not stem from G-d it becomes clear that Divine Providence does not extend to all individual members of the human race. (i.e. the evil prevalent amongst humans must come from ‘chance’, because it certainly does not come directly from G-d). ”[16]

CHASDAI CRESCAS (1340-1411):

Rabbi Chasdai Crescas, a halachist and rationalist, takes issue with the notion that G-d’s Providence is commensurate with the stature of the person. Instead he maintains that all human beings, regardless of their righteousness or lack thereof, are subject to Direct Providence.[17]

RABBI YOSEF ERGAS (1685-1730):

Rabbi Yosef Ergas, the great Italian mystic and kabbalist writes in his Shomer Emunim;
Nothing occurs by accident, without intention and Divine Providence. This is learned out from the verse; ‘And I will walk with you in chance (be’keri).’ From this we see that even the state of apparent ‘chance’ is actually Providence.[18]

But then, in uncharacteristic language for a mystic, he continues;
But that does not apply to the non-human species...whether this ant will be trodden upon or saved. There is no special Providence for animals and certainly not for plants and minerals, as they are governed by species and not individuals. Whatever occurs to individual animals, plants and objects is purely by chance, and not by Divine Decree – unless it is ultimately connected to humankind.”


For the Chassidic movement which developed post the mid 1700’s, these ideas were a blasphemous anathema. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (also known as the ‘spiritual grandson’ of the Baal Shem Tov) explains in his Tanya, that creation was not just a onetime historical event. Rather the world is constantly and continuously being re-created by G-d because that is the only way the Divine life-force can sustain it. Were that energy to be removed even for an instance, the entire universe would resort immediately to nothingness as it was prior to creation.

Thus by definition Providence of the highest order is present in every single aspect of creation from the most lofty even to a rock or sand.

Much of these teachings were derived from Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari (1534-1572) who wrote that; “Every leaf contains a soul that came into the world to receive a rectification.”

Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz said; “A man must know that even a piece of straw lying on the ground facing a particular direction is a result of Direct Divine Providence.”


It is strange to see that such a basic and fundamental concept like Providence is subject to such variant and diametrically opposed views.

Rambam and the rationalists claim there is no Torah or Talmudic basis for Divine Providence extending to anything beyond humankind.

He accuses those who follow the view that G-d directs the affairs of non-humankind to be following an Islamic theology.

Then, counter intuitively, great and fearless mystics like Ramban and Rabbi Yosef Ergas side with the rationalists on the issue.

Amazingly, only in the last 300 years with the advent of Chassidism, did the hashgacha pratit concept of infinitely detailed Divine Providence take hold of the religious Jewish psyche. To the extent that many are mistakenly under the impression that this has always been an intrinsic part of mainstream Torah theology.[19]

Although everyone’s personal view on this highly emotive matter must be respected, nowadays the Chassidic view does seem to have become the new mainstream approach.

Whatever position one takes, it’s difficult to deny that the history, development, and theological debate behind a concept we all take so for granted is indeed as intricate and divergent as it is fascinating.

[1] Some would rightly argue that The Baal Shem Tov’s ‘innovation’ was based on echoes from some earlier (and even Talmudic) teachings which do imply a similar idea. What the Baal Shem Tov did, though, was to crystallize these teachings into a sophisticated and at the same time popular philosophical system. Some would challenge the use of the word ‘innovation’ and instead would say ‘re-introduction’.
[2] Avodah Zarah 3b
[3] Chulin 7b
[4] Erchin 16b
[5] Besides hashkafa (philosophy) a similar process occurred with halacha (law) as well, where many halachik views were expressed in the Talmud, but systematic codification of the law only took place in post Talmudic times.
[6] Moreh nevuchim 3:17-18
[7] Also referred to as hashgacha minit (Providence of the species).
[8] Ibid. See also 3:22-3 and 3:51
[9] Ibid.
[10] Rambam himself appears to agree in principle with the position that humans are subject to divine providence but not animals or inanimate objects, as we have seen above. He expands on this in point 5.
[11] Founded around 945 by Abu l’ Hasan al-Ashari.
[12] Founded in Basra in the 700’s.
[13] Ber. 9:13
[14] This is significant because it is similar to Rambam who likewise maintains that there is no Torah source or precedent for Providence extending beyond humans.
[15] Ramban to Iyov 36:7 Although very similar, there is a subtle difference between the Rambam's and the Ramban's formulations. Rambam refers only to intellectual achievement while the Ramban refers to piety and not intellectual achievement. 
[16] Sefer Milchamot haShem.
[17] See Or HaShem II 2:4
[18] Shomer Emunim 2:81
[19] Some have attempted to reconcile Rambam with the Baal Shem Tov, and also Rambam in the Guide with Rambam in Mishne Torah. This way they try show that the Chassidic view was not so much an innovation as it was a re-introduction of older ideas.