I could never understand the Uman phenomenon. I just don’t get what they get out of it. Breslover Chasidim consider it an important pilgrimage to visit the grave-site of Rav Nachman MiBreslov, the founder of Breslov Chasidus during the week of Rosh Hashana. They say it is because R’ Nachman requested that his Chasidim be with him during that time. This custom has continued even after his untimely death at age 38 because Rav Nachman’s disciple, Reb Nosson, interpreted the Rebbe’s request to apply posthumously as well.
Now… there is biblical precedent for praying at the grave-sites of righteous people. Based on a Gemarah in Sotah (34b), Rashi in Bereishis (13:22) interprets the singular form of the word ‘VaYavo’ by the Meraglim (spies) as referring to Caleb. It was he who traveled there to pray at the Maaras HaMachpela which is the grave-site of his (and our) ancestors. He prayed that in their merit God should grant him the ability to resist the bad influences of the other Meraglim, who spoke negatively about the land of Israel.
But this is a custom that is not universally followed in our time. And for good reason. It could lead to worshiping the deceased directly instead of asking God to consider the merit in our prayer requests.
I had never heard of this Breslover custom until recent times. That’s probably because it was not that widely observed as it is today. But now the custom is so widely observed that it actually makes the news. Usually not in a good way.
Last time I reported on this event – it was also not in a good way. The gentile residents of Uman – the town in the Ukraine where Rav Nacchman is buried – put up a statue of Jesus on a cross. One can debate the motivations of those Ukrainians who put up this statue right next to Rav Nachman’s grave. It may very well have been done to incite the Chasidim who visit the grave. But one cannot debate the stupidity of the reaction to it by some of the extremist elements among them. It was defaced with graffiti.
The Ukraine was never a friendly place for Jews. During the Holocaust far too many Ukrainian gentiles relished going after Jews to please their Nazi occupiers. The Chasidim who go to this place every year should know that… and not do anything that would exacerbate their enmity. Defacing a statue of their god is one very good way to do that.
As if that weren’t enough, the Jerusalem Post reports that the 26,000 Chasidim and assorted curiosity seekers that made this pilgrimage this year trashed that town while they were there. From the article:
Jewish pilgrims … reportedly scuffled last week with locals while off duty… one of (them) sustained minor injuries…
Pilgrims from Israel started a fire inside their rented apartment after they had an indoor barbecue…
An apartment block on Pushkin Street lost power for nearly one day because of an overload in consumption by Jewish pilgrims…
(P)ilgrims caused the sewage system to overflow and flood the municipality’s social services center… The visitors flushed diapers and hygienic pads down the toilet, the reports said, resulting in a flood that caused severe damage to the municipal offices located in the basement of the building…
A Jewish visitor was arrested after being spotted smoking marijuana…
Very nice. I hope these Breslover Chasidim got what they wanted out of this visit… and that it was worth the Chilul HaShem it ended up making.
Some of their defenders will say that these kinds of incidents are normal for big gatherings. Minor laws will be broken and public (and even private) property will inevitably get some minor damage. That is the nature of big crowds… comparable to what one might see at with huge crowds at an outdoor rock concert.
Well… that may be fine for rock and roll revelers. But it is not OK for people who represent themselves as devout Jews making a pilgrimage during the holiest time of the year. Breslover Chasidim certainly do not think of themselves as unruly teenagers having uncontrolled fun at a concert.
Many Breslover Chasidim will also try to rationalize this by pointing to the economic benefits that 26,000 people who spend a week in that town provide. They will cite the welcome offered them by those very same townspeople – grateful for the economic boon they bring.
About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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