Vayeshev – And Jacob Dwelt

Joseph the Dreamer: The Imagination According to Rabbi Nahman of Breslov

And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? And they hate him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words (Genesis 37:5-8).

The chapters of the Torah that deal with Joseph “the dreamer” have been fertile ground for commentators and homilists, from talmudic times to the present.  The attention devoted to Joseph and his dreams is no less than that devoted by modern psychology to the subject of dreams and the imagination.  Naturally, the story of Potiphar’s wife and her  unsuccessful attempt to seduce Joseph, is an important element of the discussion.  The connection between dreams and imagination and sexual temptation features in the hermeneutical literature as well.

In his blessing to Joseph, Jacob says: “The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong” (Gen 49:23-24). The first verse is understood as a reference to his brothers and to the wife of Potiphar, who made Joseph’s life miserable, as recounted in the biblical narrative.  Regarding the second verse, Rashi cites the Aramaic translation of Onkelos – vetavat behon nevi’utei (his prophecy was fulfilled in them).  This translation affords the opportunity to associate Joseph’s imaginings and trials with prophecy.  The connection between imagination, dreams and prophecy is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, and a number of prophecies were said to have appeared in a dream.  The verse in the book of Hosea (12:11): “and by the ministry of the prophets have I used imagery”, has often been cited in support of the existence of a connection between imagination and prophecy.

A talmudic interpretation attributed to Rabbi Yohanan (Sotah 36b) adds further substance to the verse’s homiletic associations: “‘But his bow abode in strength’ – Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Meir: his bow returned to its strength; ‘and the arms of his hands were made strong’ – he clutched the ground with his hands, and his seed exuded from [beneath] his fingernails”.  Joseph, who according to kabbalistic-hasidic tradition is the righteous one who upheld the Covenant (of circumcision), is portrayed by Rabbi Yohanan as having wasted his seed in order to resist temptation – a very grave sin, according to these same traditions.  This sin is caused by the fantasies of the imagination, and its consequences – as described in the Talmud and the Kabbalah – the generation of demons, evil spirits.  Fantasies emerge as demonic spirits.

Vayeshev is generally read in the synagogues on the Sabbath before Hanukah, at a time of year when we recall Hellenistic culture, which saw the Jews as lacking creative imagination.  This negative characterisation was based on Judaism’s injunctions against the creation of graven images and other likenesses, the intellectualism of the Jewish study hall, and the paucity of Jewish works in the plastic arts, as compared to Greek accomplishments.  Torah study was the focus of divine worship.  Josephus Flavius quotes Apion’s criticism of the Jews: “we Jews have not had any wonderful men amongst us, not any inventors of arts, nor any eminent for wisdom” (Against Apion II,13 – tr. W. Whiston).  Generally speaking, Hasidism accepted this description of Judaism, although it did not consider it ideal, but rather the result of Jewish decadence.  According to the Hasidic view, this state of affairs, whereby the intellect had become the central and virtually exclusive path to the divine – was not the way that things should be. It was directly related to the disappearance of prophecy, that was tantamount to the disappearance of imagination all together.  Prophetic imagination was supplanted by intellectual mind.

These are some of the many thematic and homiletic associations that provided the backdrop for Rabbi Nahman of Breslov’s philosophy of imagination.  By way of an introduction to the thought of Rabbi Nahman, I will present two well-known approaches to the subject of imagination, by the mediaeval Jewish scholars Judah Halevi and Maimonides; typological positions that will help us to place Rabbi Nahman in the spectrum of Jewish philosophy.

What is the power of imagination?  Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed II, 36 – tr. M. Friedlander, Routledge, London, 1904) writes that “Imagination is certainly one of the faculties of the body”.  It is a faculty related to the senses, but distinct and antithetical to the action of the intellect.

“You will observe that most animals possess imagination … Man's distinction does not consist in the possession of imagination, and the action of imagination is not the same as the action of the

intellect, but the reverse of it. For the intellect analyses and divides the component parts of things, it forms abstract ideas of them, represents them in their true form as well as in their causal

relations, derives from one object a great many facts, which-for the intellect-totally differ from each other, just as two human individuals appear different to the imagination: it distinguishes

that which is the property of the genus from that which is peculiar to the individual, — and no proof is correct, unless founded on the former; the intellect further determines whether certain qualities of a thing are essential or non-essential. Imagination has none of these functions. It only perceives the individual, the compound in that aggregate condition in which it presents itself to the senses; or it combines things which exist separately, joins some of them together, and represents them all as one body or as a force of the body. Hence it is that some imagine a man with a horse's head, with wings, etc. This is called a fiction, a phantasm; it is a thing to which nothing in the actual world corresponds. Nor can imagination in any way obtain a purely immaterial image of an

object, however abstract the form of the image may be. Imagination yields therefore no test for the reality of a thing (ibid. I, 73).”

The action of the intellect, according to Maimonides, is abstraction and generalization.  The imagination, on the other hand, merely perceives the aggregate of images provided by the senses.  Sights, sounds, colours and even smells – are the stuff of the imagination.  It absorbs the fleeting and the ephemeral, and from these it fashions boundless fantasy worlds, melodies and characters, in a realm of freedom, trapped within the confines of sensory images.  The intellect treats the imagination with profound mistrust.  The chimaeras of the imagination, the intellect cautions with disdain, are but empty illusions, or at best, sources of aesthetic pleasure.  The intellect takes an interest in the sensory, only to the extent that it is a means to abstraction, material for future experimentation, for reduction to a general formula, a mathematical equation; for dour, compelling and constant truth.  Man is not unique in his imaginative abilities, with which the animals are also endowed.

Maimonides views factual analysis as the only path to truth, since it allows one to grasp the principle behind a tangible, often transitory and random event; a principle that is far from imagination.

Maimonides focuses his discussion of imagination on two main topics: prophecy and the sin of the Tree of Knowledge:

“Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain: it consists in the most Perfect development of the imaginative faculty … You know that the full development of any faculty of the body, such as the imagination …” (ibid. II, 36).

Prophecy, according to Maimonides, is a form of inspiration, in which true intellectual enlightenment is cloaked in the sensory images that express it.  Maimonides views understanding as a far better instrument than imagination for attaining truth.  A prophet is a philosopher with imaginative abilities, whose advantage lies only in the social function with which s/he is charged.  The influence of descriptive imagery on the masses is much greater than that of intellectual arguments.

Imagination is also discussed in connection with the Tree of Knowledge.  According to Maimonides, the sin of the Tree of Knowledge led to man’s degeneration – his ability to grasp the fundamental difference between truth and falsehood supplanted by a subjective perception of good and evil. Imagination recast post-transgression man as a subject, an “ego” guided by considerations of “good for me” and “bad for me”, imagining a fictitious reality tailored to his own pleasure and needs; whereas his previous existence had been one of objective consciousness, guided simply by recognition of the truth.  According to some interpreters of Maimonides, the snake that causes man to sin is none other than the imagination.  “All this is the work of the imagination, which is, in fact, identical with “evil inclination”.  For all our defects in speech or in character are either the direct or the indirect work of imagination” (ibid. II, 12).

The dual representation of imagination – as an instrument of prophecy on the one hand, and the snake (the source of sin) on the other – reflects Maimonides’ ambivalence toward it.  Imagination in fact assumes two entirely different meanings in the thought of Maimonides.  Imagination is fantasy – in the sense of man’s ability to create tangible images in his mind’s eye – which becomes prophecy when it acts in the service of intellectual enlightenment.  The prophet, as noted above, is a philosopher with imagination.  In its negative sense, imagination is simply fiction.

In principle, Rabbi Judah Halevi accepts the Maimonidean approach to prophetic imagination in the service of the intellect, whereby the prophet attains intellectual-divine enlightenment by virtue of imagination.  He differs from Maimonides however, on two essential points.  According to Halevi, imagination enables the prophet to see ontic reality.  Imagination is thus not merely an expression of intellectual consciousness –  a projection from the internal to the external – but a vision of reality.  This approach is related to Halevi’s “Glory of God” doctrine, whereby the prophet sees real beings, created to represent the divine.  The two approaches differ with regard to the ontic reality of such visions, but not the instrument by which they are conveyed, i.e. the imagination – which Halevi numbers among the senses.  Halevi also contends – in keeping with his view of the “the divine ” as transcending “the intellectual” – that the prophet’s understanding is greater than that of the philosopher.  The “mystical” world is tangible, and imagination is the sense with which the mystic “sees” this world above the world of wisdom.  The prophet’s ability should therefore not be seen only terms of the social function he fulfils.  The imagery and visions he perceives afford a cognitive as well as a socio-pedagogical advantage:

“The Creator was as wise in arranging this relation between the exterior senses and the things perceived, as He was in fixing the relation between the abstract sense and the uncorporeal substratum.  To the chosen among His creature He has given an inner eye which sees things as they really are, without any alteration.  Reason is thus in a position to come to a conclusion regarding the true spirit of these things,  He to whom this eye has been given is clear-sighted indeed … It is possible that this eye is the power of the imagination as long as it is under the control of the intellect.  It behold, then, a grand and an awful sight which reveals unmistakeable truths.  The best proof of its truth is the harmony prevailing among the whole of this species and those sights.  By this I mean all the prophets.  For they witnessed things which one described to the other in the same manner as we do with things we have seen … Those prophets without doubt saw the divine world with the inner eye; they beheld a sight which harmonized with their natural imagination.  Whatever they wrote down, they endowed with attributes as if they had seen them in corporeal form … If a prophet sees with his mind’s eye the most perfect figure ever beheld in the shape of a king or judge, seated on his throne, issuing commands and prohibitions, appointing and deposing officials, then he knows that this figure resembles a powerful prince” (Kuzari, tr. H. Hirschfeld, Schocken, 1964, pp. 207-208).

Another important element of Halevi’s approach, emphasised by Rabbi Nahman, is the distinction that he makes between prophetic imagination – the result of inspiration; and the imagination of the “hasid” at worship – an act of volition, intended to summon images that will help him to attain “devekut” (communion with the divine).  The efficacy of the prophetic imagination stems from its spontaneity, and so too its high degree of certainty and reality; as compared to that of the hasid, who strives to bring his imagination to a point at which he might find the strength of conviction.

“He … charges his imagination to produce, with the assistance of memory, the most splendid pictures possible, in order to resemble the divine things sought after. Such pictures are the scenes of Sinai, Abraham and Isaac on Moriah, the Tabernacle of Moses, the Temple service, the presence of God in the Temple, and the like” (Kuzari, p. 138).

“For there can be no faith in that which the intellect comprehends.  Faith begins where the intellect ends. It is where comprehension fails, that faith is needed.  And when one’s intellect fails to comprehend, all that remains is the power of imagination, and that is where faith is needed” (Likutei Moharan, Tenina (2), 8,7).

The intellectual rationalist, lacking in imagination, is therefore incapable of faith.  The freedom of the imagination, which Maimonides believes to be random and therefore inferior – is, according to Rabbi Nahman, the very quality that renders imagination the means to faith.  This view stems from the broader conception, that “faith begins where the intellect ends”.  Contrary to Maimonides, who considered the intellect to be the source of faith (which is demonstrable); and unlike Halevi, who did not see the intellect as the source of faith, but claimed there could be no contradiction between the two; Rabbi Nahman believed philosophical inquiry to be antithetical to faith.  The philosopher is bound by the natural order of things, which runs counter to faith, inasmuch as faith is based upon the principle of God’s omnipotence, which cannot be subject to order of any kind.  Articles of faith such as belief in divine reward and punishment, Providence and miracles, are inconceivable in a world governed by a strict natural order.  Faith requires  a medium through which it can be revealed, because it cannot appear as an abstraction.  And that medium is imagination.

“Let Him be described – that is with attributes and qualities that lie within the power of imagination.  For all the attributes and qualities we ascribe to God, lie in the realm of imagination.  In purely intellectual terms, God is entirely abstract, beyond all qualities and attributes.  All attributes and qualities thus lie in the realm of the imagination” (ibid. 8,12).

The connection between Rabbi Nahman and Rabbi Judah Halevi, who viewed the imagination as a sense by means of which one may see the divine, is clear.  Unlike Halevi however – who considered the imagination superior only in its sensory ability, but otherwise subservient to the intellect – Rabbi Nahman saw this sensory capacity as an independent instrument, unhindered by the intellect, and thus fit to serve as a means to faith.

Imagination is the prophetic inspiration – the “charisma” – of the hasidic “rebbe”.  The rebbe can channel this spirit of inspiration to his followers.

“One must therefore earnestly seek out a true leader, in order to draw near to him.  For each and every leader possesses the power of prophecy … “another spirit” (Num. 14).  And this other spirit that the leader possesses, is the holy spirit, the spirit of prophecy … For one who has the good fortune to draw near to a true leader, by drawing near to him his power of imagination is perfected and clarified, by the leader’s spirit of prophecy … And by the perfection of imagination, holy faith is perfected and clarified” (ibid. 8,8).

Rabbi Nahman cautions against the false “charisma” of “a false leader”, “a lying spirit”, calling it “the pollution of the serpent”: “For the commingling and confusion of the imagination, commingled and confused with false beliefs, is the pollution of the serpent”.  False prophecy, that originates in the imagination of diviners and augurs, spreads false beliefs, nonsense and lies.

If the leader is a true leader however, imagination is not only an expression of faith.  It’s power of persuasion, inasmuch as it is spontaneous inspiration granted from without, as noted above in the words of Judah Halevi, is itself belief!  Rabbi Nahman goes a step further; imagination becomes the guiding force in changing the face of reality.

“And through faith, the world will be renewed … This is the meaning of faith that hinges upon the power of imagination … Then the world will be conducted in a wondrous fashion … For there is a melody that is the natural way, in the sense of  “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork” – praising God for the current manner in which the world is conducted, that is in the natural way; but in the future a new song will awaken, one of wonders, and of Providence” (ibid. 8,9).

The renewal of the world, the creation of a utopia in which the world is released from the grasp of the natural order, attaining the freedom of “wonders”, also hinges upon the prophetic inspiration of the imagination.  These ideas are reminiscent of modern utopian philosophers, whose beliefs differ greatly from those of Rabbi Nahman, but who equally balk at the stranglehold of “instrumental rationalism”.

Rabbi Nahman was of course referring to the renewal of the world through the imagination of faith, but his description of the wondrous melody, the new song that will be sung at the end of days, is tinged with aesthetic freedom.  In any event, Rabbi Nahman would have agreed that freedom of imagination is the remedy for the ills of reality, and that it has the ability to penetrate the world and transform it into a utopia.

Rabbi Nahman devoted a good deal of attention to the subject of preservation of the Covenant, i.e. the struggle against sexual desire.  The figure of Joseph the dreamer – who according to Kabbalah and Hasidism represents the Sefirah of Yesod (the Sefirah of the Covenant of circumcision) and the righteous one who resisted temptation and upheld the Covenant – was seen as embodying the connection between prophetic inspiration of the imagination and sexual passion.  Rabbi Nahman describes such passion as a spirit – in its perfected form the very spirit of prophecy and faith that will renew the world, and charge it with the tension of devotion and wonder.  One might say that Rabbi Nahman considered the mystical spirit to be a form of desire, perfected through the preservation of the Covenant.

In a number of places, he cites or refers to the following wonderful talmudic exegesis:

“And even Rahab the harlot said to the messengers of Joshua … ‘neither did there rise any more spirit in any man’ – that [their members] did not even harden.  And how did she know this?  As it has been said: There was no prince or nobleman who did not lie with Rahab the harlot” (Zevahim 116a).

According to the Gemara, Rahab the harlot knew of the impending defeat of the Canaanite inhabitants of the land, from the fact that they had lost their virility – “neither did there rise any more spirit in any man”.  It is on this talmudic interpretation that Rabbi Nahman bases his view of the transformation of sexual energy – to the point of becoming holy spirit and the charisma of the Zaddik : “And this is the perfection of the Covenant, that is the holy spirit, that is “neither did there rise any more spirit in any man” (Likutei Moharan, Kama (1), 19,3).

And so too with regard to imagination:

“And ‘the dream of Pharaoh is one’ (Gen. 41), that the dream of Pharaoh, the power of imagination, an idle power – as it is written (Ex. 5): ‘do ye hinder the people’ –  comes from ‘one’, that is love [because ‘one’ is love, as explained elsewhere].  That is to say, from fallen love, in the sense of ‘my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, etc.’ … And thus one falls from love of God to brutish love, and is then overcome by the power of imagination, that is the power of brutishness” (ibid. 54,6).

The imagination is fallen love, love that has become brutish desire.  Like Maimonides,  Rabbi Nahman too expresses ambivalence toward imagination, even employing similar terms, referring to imagination as an animal force.

In this context, Rabbi Nahman cites the Zohar on demons created at twilight.  God failed to provide them with bodies, leaving them to search for bodies to inhabit.  The demonic imagination seeks out Torah sages whose scholarship is only brilliant on the surface.  Torah scholarship, by which heaven and earth are created – in this case creates “false heavens”, provoking famine.  Criticism here is aimed not at the imagination of false “Zaddikim”, false prophets who spread false beliefs, but at scholars whose learning is dazzling but superficial – aesthetically pleasing but essentially meaningless and without substance.  The utopia of imagination turns to false renewal and illusion in the mouths of these false scholars.

Here, and in one of his famous tales, “The Seven Beggars”, Rabbi Nahman portrays Joseph as one who controls and perfects the spirit.  Rabbi Nahman also teaches that the perfection of the Torah scholar (called “Jewish demon” in the Zohar) can be found in Joseph.

“And his perfection is Joseph, as in (Gen. 30:23) ‘God hath gathered in my reproach’.  For he sweetens the evil that is like famine, as in (Ezek. 36:30) ‘that ye may receive no more the reproach of famine among the nations’.  And it is he who ‘gathered in the spirit, etc.’, as in (Gen. 41:38) ‘a man in whom the spirit of God is’.  And of whom it is said (ibid. 46:4) ‘and Joseph shall put  his hand upon thine eyes’.  For by the hand, the eye is guarded against the power of imagination.”

Joseph is thus the antigen of the “Jewish demon” – the brilliant but false Torah scholar.  The role that Rabbi Nahman assigns to the Zaddik is quite different from that of the prophet.  The Zaddik controls the spirit, has the ability to shape it into a melody that brings inspiration to the prophet who hears it.  The image that Rabbi Nahman evokes is of a musician’s hands, rising and falling, imparting rhythm and structure to the spirit.  The Zaddik is an artist who shapes the spirit, as a sculptor shapes stone.  The hands, that are the instruments of action and control, control the spirit itself.  Such is the Zaddik’s ability to shape the spirit of the world.  In hasidic thought, this action is termed the “service of clarification” – separating good from evil, and gleaning the “sparks” – the positive forces within evil.  Hasidism places the emphasis on releasing the holy sparks from the “kelipot” (the “shells” of impurity), like a sculptor who releases the form trapped within the stone, by removing all of the superfluous material.  The Zaddik composes the melody and plays it to the prophet, to whom it brings inspiration – a division of labour that forms the basis of a number of Rabbi Nahman’s tales.  According to Kabbalah, the upper Sefirot require human service before they can pour out their “shefa” (divine abundance) upon them.  The prophet is an instrument of inspiration, but the creator of that inspiration is the Zaddik, who shapes and sculpts and clarifies the spirit, affording the prophet the inspiration he needs.  The Zaddik is thus greater than the prophet.

The two figures work closely together: the one in need of a muse, and the other able to  control, shape and guide it at will.  Rabbi Nahman himself belonged to the second category, and took great pains in the preparation of his teachings and tales.  (The story is told of one of the founders of Hasidism – Dov Baer (the Maggid) of Mezhirech – that he would fall silent from time to time while teaching.  When asked why this was so, he replied that every time he heard his own voice, the Shekhinah would cease speaking through him, forcing him to stop, until he had once again forgotten himself.  This is an example of teaching by inspiration.  He had to make himself a passive instrument, that the inspiration might pass through him.)

In the chapters of Vayeshev, Joseph and his brothers – particularly Judah – are at odds with one another, undoubtedly foreshadowing the historical rift between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.  In hasidic thought however, Judah and Joseph are perceived as two archetypes of righteousness, differing in their respective spiritual approaches to divine service.  This dispute is seen as a constant element throughout Jewish history – stretching all the way to the days of the messiah, as reflected by the two messianic figures: the Messiah ben Joseph and the Messiah ben David.  Rabbi Nahman himself, certainly identified with the figure of Joseph – interpreting the biblical passages accordingly.

The dispute between Joseph and his brothers was not an accidental lapse, but a vital part of Joseph’s development of his method, as dispute was to Rabbi Nahman as well.  Joseph is the “charismatic” Zaddik, whose charisma derives from his acute imagination and the dreams that he shares.  Imagination, as explained above, is the means to faith and divine revelation.  It is the holy spirit that brings Joseph to the audacious behaviour that irritates his brothers and causes them to turn against him.  The dispute between them is not over power, but over the future of the Jewish People.  The brothers fear Joseph’s method, and fear that Jacob’s special love for him will lead to his triumph and their exclusion from the leadership of the People.  The most striking expression of this is Joseph’s sale and descent to Egypt.  In hasidic terms, this descent is interpreted as Joseph’s descent into the “kelipot” to release the sparks that had fallen there – one of Hasidism’s central tasks.  According to this doctrine, it is specifically in the depths of evil and impurity that the highest values and “lights” can be found; higher even than those that lie within the traditional precincts of faith.  The role of the Zaddik is to descend to those places, in order to gather the lights, and incorporate them in divine service.  Such incorporation however, requires an extension of the boundaries of faith, and the adoption of a “new Torah” – a term Rabbi Nahman was not loath to use in various contexts.  The brothers, on the other hand, are portrayed as conservative in their approach, lacking the will and audacity for true renewal.  Joseph, the Zaddik, draws his conviction and audacity from his dreams, i.e. from the imagination the brings the spirit upon him, which he is then able to convey to his flock.

Judah’s opposition to Joseph leads to his sale; an event that in fact serves Joseph’s purposes – descent into the “kelipot” in order to gather up the sparks that are there.  Joseph’s temptation, his attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife (associated with imagination, as explained above), adds a further dimension to the conflict between Joseph and Judah.  The Torah – even at the basic narrative level – obviously wished to juxtapose Joseph’s resistance to temptation with Judah’s behaviour toward his daughter-in-law Tamar, foremother of the Davidic dynasty and the Messiah ben David.

The description of Joseph as being of “beautiful form and fair to look upon” also lends itself to this interpretation.  In a number of his teachings, Rabbi Nahman portrays the Zaddik as possessing grace.  Here too, Rabbi Nahman places unusual emphasis upon the aesthetic-artistic aspect of spirit.  Beauty is not only a source of enjoyment, but a source of truth as well, inasmuch as it reflects the divine rhythm; the cadence and melody of Ein-Sof.  Grace is the “metre”, the original rhythm of the Zaddik’s charisma.  Hence Rabbi Nahman’s application of his own artistic skills to his tales and teachings.  Rabbi Nahman frequently laments the departure of “grace” from the Jewish People, to reside among the gentiles; and finds redress in the grace of the Zaddik.

Hasidism strives to discover the internal logic of the biblical narrative.  Not satisfied with the plain meaning of the text, it seeks the message or insight at its core.  The story of Joseph and his brothers, and the figure of Joseph, are interpreted by Rabbi Nahman in light of his own self-perception as “Zaddik” of his generation – the controversy that he and his followers aroused merely serving to vindicate their approach, for such is the fate of all who come bearing a new and anti-conventional truth.


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