A Permanent Beginning

R. Nachman of Braslav and Jewish Literary Modernity

By Yitzhak Lewis

Subjects: Jewish Studies, Religion, Jewish Religious Studies, Literary Criticism
Paperback : 9781438477664, 242 pages, January 2021
Hardcover : 9781438477671, 242 pages, March 2020

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents


Introduction: What Is Jewish Literary Modernity?

Part I: Political-Aesthetic Questions

1. Positioning R. Nachman

2. Representing Difference

3. The Secret of Our Wisdom

Part II: Questions of Social and Intellectual History

4. Was R. Nachman an Innovation Such as the World Had Never Seen?

5. Was R. Nachman a "Jewish Intellectual"?

Part III: Literary Questions

6. Was R. Nachman the Messiah?

7. Poetics of Intransitivity

Conclusion: Reading outside Modernity


Situates a Hasidic master in the context of his time, demonstrating his formative influence on Jewish literary modernity.


The Hasidic leader R. Nachman of Braslav (1772–1810) has held a place in the Jewish popular imagination for more than two centuries. Some see him as the (self-proclaimed) Messiah, others as the forerunner of modern Jewish literature. Existing studies struggle between these dueling readings, largely ignoring questions of aesthetics and politics in his work. A Permanent Beginning lays out a new paradigm for understanding R. Nachman's thought and writing, and, with them, the beginnings of Jewish literary modernity. Yitzhak Lewis examines the connections between imperial modernization processes in Eastern Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century and the emergence of "modern literature" in the storytelling of R. Nachman. Reading his tales and teachings alongside the social, legal, and intellectual history of the time, the book's guiding question is literary: How does R. Nachman represent this changing environment in his writing? Lewis paints a nuanced and fascinating portrait of a literary thinker and creative genius at the very moment his world was evolving unrecognizably. He argues compellingly that R. Nachman's narrative response to his changing world was a major point of departure for Jewish literary modernity.

Yitzhak Lewis is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Duke Kunshan University, China.


"…Lewis's study constitutes a unique and critical starting point for further exploring the borders of modern Jewish literatures." — H-Net Reviews (H-Judaic)

"This is a groundbreaking study. There can be no doubt that it will constitute a basic work for understanding the theology and stories of R. Nachman, modern Judaism, and modern literature in general." — Jonatan Meir, author of Literary Hasidism: The Life and Works of Michael Levi Rodkinson

"This book is a rare intellectual achievement. Lewis addresses the question of Hasidism's modernity by analyzing key issues in the study of R. Nachman, such as the question of his Messianity. His answers are thought-provoking and convincing, and his exciting book dramatically extends our understanding of the challenges posed by R. Nachman's tales and mystical texts." — Hannan Hever, Yale University