Opinion |

The Anarchic ultra-Orthodox Jews Prepared to Die for Their Pilgrimage

20 percent, and rising, of the Jewish people live in closed communities run by rabbinical edict. COVID-19 is exposing a core conflict with wider society, exemplified by pilgrims defying reason, norms and the law to get to Uman

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Hardcore ultra-Orthodox Breslav pilgrims are willing to defy COVID-19, reason, norms and the law to get to Uman in the Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah
Hardcore ultra-Orthodox Breslav pilgrims are willing to defy COVID-19, reason, norms and the law to get to Uman in the Ukraine for Rosh HashanahCredit: רויטרס
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

You might think that the Ukrainian government’s announcement Wednesday that it is closing its borders to foreign citizens for the next month to prevent the spread of the coronavirus means that the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage of Breslav Hasidim to Rabbi Nachman’s grave in Uman is cancelled this year. You could not be more wrong.

Rosh Hashanah is still three weeks away, but at least a thousand Breslavers flew early, anticipating the Ukrainian closure. Another thousand flew yesterday in four flights to Kiev, just before it went in to effect. They are all happy to sacrifice over three weeks of their lives just to be there on Rosh Hashanah.

And even after Kiev and Odessa’s airports are closed to them, there are seven other countries bordering Ukraine to which the Hasidim can fly and then seek passage from there to Uman. Look forward to lurid reports of intrepid Hasidim tracking through forests and across mountain passes, and bribing border guards. The more casual pilgrims – who are the majority – will stay home.

But the die-hard Hasidim have faced much worse to reach Rabbi Nachman’s grave. And there are many of them who will do anything and everything to get there this year.

The Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s grave is a holy quest for the Breslav Hasidim that defies reason. Back in the communist era, there were those who literally risked their lives in an attempt to reach the site.

Popular Breslav social media meme highlighting 'anti-Judaism' leaders who prevented the pilgrimage to Uman: Stalin, Netanyahu and coronavirus 'czar' Gamzu. 'Breslav Hasidim won't forget or forgive!'Credit: Twitter

The exploits of those brave Hasidim loom large in Breslav lore, so the pandemic of 2020 is a wonderful chance for their youthful successors to create myths of their own. If the Soviet Union and KGB didn’t deter their fathers, the much "softer" Ukrainian police of today is not about to stop them trying. And certainly not such minor issues as a global plague.

The pilgrimage to Uman was always an anarchic rebellion, not just against the communist regime or the COVID-wary governments of today. Before the communists came along, it was an act of defiance against the rest of the Hasidic establishment, which viewed Rabbi Nachman as a madman and tried to brand his followers as "Dead Hasidim" and Sabbatean heretics for their adoration of a deceased rabbi.

In recent years, as the pilgrimage became wildly popular beyond just the Breslav sects, it attracted the ire of non-Hasidic rabbis as well.

"Every good Jew, who has sense, dedicates the night of Rosh Hashanah to his family," said the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in 2007. "Everyone eats and drinks together. That’s the chag [festival]. What do you do on a chag? You have to rejoice. So do you rejoice – or go to a cemetery?"

But Rabbi Yosef’s words were lost on many of his faithful followers drawn to Uman, whether by the spiritual allure of Rabbi Nachman or the attraction of spending the holiday with a group of other men (women don’t take part in the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage), far from the family pressure cooker.

One of the unique aspects of the Nachman cult is that it doesn’t require you to accept him as the one and only true messiah. Breslav is open to every Jew. Many of its adherents are descended from families who lived far away from Ukraine. Two years ago, I spent Rosh Hashanah in Uman, with 50,000 pilgrims, and I’m pretty certain that a majority of them were not Ashkenazim. Such is the power of Breslav that it draws in people from every Jewish background.

Bratslav Hasidim dance on top of a van adorned with the name of their spiritual leader Rabbi Nachman of Uman, as they drive through Tel Aviv city center during the all-night "White Night" celebrationsCredit: Dan Balilty / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Through gritted teeth, the other rabbis have accepted that they can’t beat Uman. Rather than accept that thousands of their members will be beyond their reach on Rosh Hashanah, many other Orthodox groups now maintain synagogues, study centers and communal kitchens there.

There’s one with a massive picture of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef himself on it and there’s also a Chabad center. Even though Chabad, a Hassidic sect that prides itself on its own brand of intellectualism, always saw itself as diametrically opposed to the folksy and chaotic ethos of Rabbi Nachman.

Uman on Rosh Hashanah is still much more anarchic and transgressive than typical ultra-Orthodox events, but it’s has also been subsumed into what can be termed the global Haredi autonomy.

Over the past six months, politicians and public health authorities from Jerusalem to New York have had to confront some Haredi rabbis – not all; there are rabbis and communities acting responsibly – who have insisted that their right to exclude any outside influence from their communal autonomies, and continue all their religious traditions and cultural practices as normal, transcends modern medicine and the science of pandemic prevention. Uman is just the latest battlefield in this confrontation.

Representatives of Breslav have insisted in interviews in the Israeli media that the pilgrimage this year will be carried out in strict observance of social distancing, and that those taking part are not endangering themselves any more than the thousands of Israelis who gather each Saturday night outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem to demand Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation.

This is bullshit. And not because of the respective importance of the right of protest and fight for democracy, versus the right to pray and freedom of religion.

'Social distancing in Uman? Bullshit': Hasidic pilgrims attending a daytime prayer service in the Ukrainian town of Uman during the Rosh Hashanah holidayCredit: Sean Gallup / Getty Images IL

No one who has spent Rosh Hashana in the dank narrow Pushkina Street in Uman, sleeping in the cramped dormitories, eating at communal kitchens and pushed their way through a scrum of thousands of bodies trying to touch Rabbi Nachman’s cloth-covered grave can honestly say that it is similar to a protest in the open air of Jerusalem’s Paris Square and Balfour Street. But that isn’t the point.

The story of this year’s Uman pilgrimage, the quiet negotiations between the Ukrainian and Israeli governments and the discord within the Israeli government, which has boiled over into an ugly and public argument between "Coronavirus Czar" Professor Ronni Gamzu and ultra-Orthodox government ministers, epitomize a critical conflict within Judaism and within Israeli society.

Can closed communities, consisting of about 20 percent and rising of the Jewish people, continue to live their lives solely according to their rabbis’ edicts, defying the norms, laws, the conception of the public good, and now also the public health requirements, of the rest of society?

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