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Uman Rosh Hashanah: From spirituality to idolatry

As a frequent pilgrim to the site, I say the religious question is not whether you will get sick. It is whether you will make others sick. And you will.
Jewish pilgrims in Uman. Photo: Wikipedia

Will Breslov Hasidim be allowed to go to Uman for Rosh Hashanah? The debate is front-page news in Israeli media, secular as well as ultra-Orthodox. Will Israel cancel flights? Will Ukraine, at Israel’s behest, forbid their arrival? Haredi politicians are lobbying, health authorities are warning of mass coronavirus infection, and the Israeli public’s appetite for arguing over religious issues has found a new topic.

I have been praying with Breslov Hasidim for over 40 years and going to Uman on pilgrimage for 30 years, year after year. Being in Uman on Rosh Hashanah is an important moment for me in my own spiritual practice. I am not only sympathetic; I am an insider. All the more reason why I feel an urgent need to urge my fellow Uman pilgrims to keep away this Rosh Hashanah.

The question is whether the pilgrimage can take place in a way that would conform to guidelines for public safety. Breslov Hasidim have put forth a proposal that they consider meets the needs for public health safety.

The problem is that in the ultra-Orthodox world, “coronavirus safety practice” consists, at most, of wearing masks. Social distancing is generally not practiced. Public events are reported in Haredi media as conforming to safety instructions, even though hundreds of people come into close proximity with one another. To bring the point home with reference to Breslov Hasidim, images of a recent mass prayer gathering in the Central Breslov Shul, for the purposes of opening up the gates of Uman, show hundreds of hasidim, huddled up in close proximity, not even wearing masks. Communities that are not accustomed to practice social distancing will not suddenly implement this form of behavior upon arrival in Uman. The social cohesiveness that is the source of strength for Hasidic communities in ordinary times becomes their undoing at the time of a pandemic.

And then there is the issue of accommodations in Uman. One of the great hardships of the pilgrimage is the limited infrastructure for receiving upwards of 50,000 pilgrims. Accommodations typically house 6-8 individuals in a room that would normally serve 1-2 people. Ukrainians move out of their homes and fill the rooms with wall-to-wall beds. Jewish establishments typically have four bunk-beds per room. In the public conversation over whether to cancel this year’s pilgrimage to Uman, nothing is said of the overall living conditions. We know from studies that homes and indoor spaces are hotbeds for infection. Given that Haredi society accounts for close to 40 percent of infections, and given that people are housed together randomly and not according to well-defined self-contained groups that live together over an extended period, like at yeshivot, the potential for spreading the virus is enormous.

The most common argument in support of travel to Uman is presented as a rights discourse. There is a “right” to travel to Uman. Breslov apologists apply a rights-logic to a mass pilgrimage: One person’s right is not diminished by 30,000 other individuals seeking to realize the same “right.” Politicians too appeal to a right of their constituency to exercise its religious belief (an argument that is understandable, due to the troubling double standard of a permissive attitude shown by authorities to mass demonstrations in the name of the right to demonstrate).

The problem is that a “rights” discourse fails to take into account the balance of rights and responsibilities. The practice of religion is first of all about responsibilities, about duties and service. Going to Uman is a privilege, a blessing and a spiritual opportunity. But it is not a right and it is certainly not a right that can stand independently, without being balanced by broader concerns for the well-being of others.

Does the right apply if it threatens others? Does the right apply if others will have to bear its costs, financially or in terms of strain on the medical system? Here a rights-discourse easily degenerates into a selfish discourse of the individual, undermining the fundamental perspectives of a broader collective Torah vision.

Religion, well practiced, is about care for the other, not about one’s rights of religious practice. The ethos of Breslov Hasidim, drawing on decades of practice, despite Soviet oppression, is one of mesirut nefesh, dedication and risk-taking, for the sake of fulfilling religious obligations. Here, one must pay the price of the success of the Uman pilgrimage, growing from 10-20 participants to 50-60,000 participants. This ethos can no longer be applied when the question is not the risk to the individual but risk to others. As Rabbi Dov Singer points out, the problem with the coronavirus is not about becoming sick. It is about infecting others. Overlooking this fundamental concern is an instance of misplaced and inappropriate faith.

In recent years the pilgrimage to Uman has become normative. But it was not normative 30 years ago. The attachment of Breslov hasidim to their deceased master was once largely frowned upon, often seen as a case of idolatrous attachment to a rabbi who is no more. Prayer to him, or through him, met with strong theological opposition in the wider Haredi world. Many still hold such views. The mainstream is increasingly forgiving, caring less and less about theological nuance, proper religious intention, and understanding. The quest for spirituality and meaning and finding one’s spiritual identity largely eclipse concerns for proper worship, and so attachment to Rebbe Nachman – like attachment to the Lubavitcher Rebbe that has come under similar attacks – is accepted as part of Judaism’s present-day diversity. We live in an age where spirituality means more to us than “correct” faith.

And yet concerns over idolatry remain. It has to do with how religion is practiced. In a forthcoming volume, Idolatry: A Contemporary Jewish Conversation (Academic Studies Press), I bring together dozens of Jewish voices to explore what idolatry means for us today. One of the most common answers has to do with holding on to the practice of religion itself in a way that obscures God, taking over God’s centrality and making the practice of religion or some part of it more central than God and His concerns. In this reading, any religious practice can become idolatrous. Insistence on traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah at any cost crosses that line.

Corona is a time of purification. All our institutions, including religious institutions, have come under scrutiny for how they respond to the limitations and challenges imposed by the coronavirus. When one holds on to the practice of religion — be it communal prayer, pilgrimage or any other aspect of practice — with an insistence that ignores the well-being of others, that practice becomes idolatrous. It eclipses God and substitutes our will for His. When this is driven by the individual and fulfillment of our spiritual needs or desires, then the idolatry of the self, in the name of religion, occurs.

The coronavirus gives us the opportunity to examine the motives and practice of our faith. As someone for whom Uman is dear and in whose spiritual life Rebbe Nachman holds a central position, I fear that we are witnessing an idolatrous moment. This is therefore a moment for soul-searching, in a spirit that is proper both, for the time of the coronavirus and for the season of Rosh Hashanah.

For a positive appreciation of the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman in terms of spirituality, the reader may wish to consult my full length Hebrew essay called “Uman Uman Rosh Hashanah: Reflections on Spirituality,” which can be downloaded here.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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