Rabbi Nahman of Breslav

Image: Zeeshaan Shabbir


The dialectic of the founder of phenomenological existentialism


Joseph Weiss' thesis submitted to Gershom Scholem in November 1950, “The dialectical theory and faith of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov”, had four chapters. The fourth chapter suggested that the grandson of the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Nahman of Breslav, had a revolutionary vision not through mysticism, not through reason, man submits to a God present in the world.

In an acosmic vision of the Maggid of Mezeritch, disciple of the founder, and the alter rebbe, but with a paradoxical and tormented faith, God is absolutely transcendent, not within our reach. Man is never sure of his faith.

This dialectical paradox inaugurates an absolutely anthropological and pessimistic vision of the human being.

It anticipates the existentialist ontology of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. It anticipates the counterpoint of faith and mysticism, by Emil Brunner and Karl Barth.

Just mentioned in this chapter IV, is Heidegger's guidance, Jonas, and his book The late gnosis. His advisor, Gershom Scholem, rejected the thesis, especially chapter IV. Gershom Scholem was in favor of an analysis of a philological-historical method to Hegel, never an existentialist phenomenological method to Heidegger.

He suspected that in this chapter his student was attesting to a mental illness. He rejected the thesis, and Joseph Weiss was forced to move to London. In 1969, he committed suicide.


This is how I saw the work before reading the excellent book Tikkun ha-Paradox, from the excellent radical publisher Blima Books. Jonatan Meir also puts the appropriate context.

Gershom Scholem never abandoned his student, supported him in London with scholarships, and, after his suicide, gave a conference in his memory.

The thesis would not be so much, as I thought, of Christian-philosophical inspiration, but Weiss's own professor, the author of the perfect Philosophy of Judaism, which we have translated in Brazil by Perspectiva.

I already had this philosophical view of Judaism. There is no such counterpoint that I believed in, hermeneutic history to Hegel and existential phenomenology to Heidegger. Everything was less dramatic.

This is the context of Jonatan Meir's precious book.

Joseph G. Weiss (1918–1969) arrived in Jerusalem from Budapest in December 1939 and enrolled at the Hebrew University, where he studied Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and general philosophy. He attended lectures by Julius Guttmann, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, Yitzhak Baer, ​​Gershom Scholem and others. Joseph Weiss initially intended to study the medieval poetry of the Jews of Spain, and even wrote several articles on Hebrew literature, but he quickly became closer to Gershom Scholem and the study of Kabbalah.

He adopted a rather critical attitude towards developments in Palestine and appears to have refrained from political involvement at this time, despite the Zionist fervor in the spirit of Martin Buber that brought him to Palestine in the first place. He received his master's degree from the Faculty of Humanities in 1947 and wrote a doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Gershom Scholem, first on R. Nahman of Bratslav and later on the Baal Shem Tov.

The complicated history of the dissertation on dialectical faith in the teachings of R. Nahman that he presented in 1950 has long been shrouded in mystery, circumstances that have given rise to statements such as I have made above. With this, a complete report of the dissertation, presented in all its context, is brought here for the first time.

Far from the scandals that I had read in Jacob Taubes and was inspired by the article “Judaism in Hannah Arendt”, from my book Law and tradition. In any case, even if I have read the context of the thesis wrong, reading it is still surprising, it leaves us astonished, because in the face of it I cannot see the humor in any academic thesis.

*Ari Marcelo Solon He is a professor at the Faculty of Law at USP. Author of, among others, books, Paths of philosophy and science of law: German connection in the future of justice (Prisma). [https://amzn.to/3Plq3jT]


MEIR, Jonathan. Tikkun ha-Paradox: Joseph G. Weiss, Gershom Scholem, and the Lost Dissertation on R. Nahman of Bratslav. Jewish Thought, v. 4, p. 151-206, 2022.

SOLON, Ari Marcelo. Law and tradition. São Paulo: Elsevier, 2009.

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