Great Tales of Jewish Occult and Fantasy
Compiled, Translated, and Introduced by Joachim Neugroschel
Wing Books, 1991, 709 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 15, 2010
Originally published as The Great Works of Jewish Fantasy and Occult in 1976, this 1991 edition contains stories by some of Judaism's greatest writers, including Y. L. Peretz (four tales), Mendele Mocher Seforim (two), and the famous somewhat mysterious, some argue "mad," Rabbi Nachman of Braslav (five), and others, for a total of thirty-one stories. The tales vary in length from two to one hundred and eighteen pages. There are humorous, fantastic, mysterious, mystical, cabbalistic, skeptic, messianic, rational, irrational, satirical, and pragmatic tales. We meet kings and paupers, clever and ignorant men and women. We see individuals and groups concerned about their families, themselves, and God; while others run away or are too confused to move. Some tales are ambiguous, such as many by Peretz and Rabbi Nachman, making them delightful, memorable, and thought provoking. While some mention Jewish customs or beliefs, these stories reflect the strivings, delights, and problems of all cultures, and can be read with joy and advantage by all.
Rabbi Nachman's A Tale of a King and a Wise Man is an example of an ambiguous, perhaps even obscure, thought-provoking tale. A king heard of another king who claimed to be powerful, truthful, and unassuming. This other king secluded himself, and even hid behind a curtain. The king sent his wise man to get a picture of this other king, for none existed of this hidden king. The wise man arrived and found that everything in this other kingdom was a lie: the dealings between people, families, courts, and political system. He went to talk to the king of this other land and told him about all the lies that he heard. This provoked the officials around the king to anger. But the wise man praised the king. He said that the king must be good and wise. He could not be a liar like his people. Surely he did not know about the lies because he lived behind his curtain. The king was impressed by the praise, as all people are impressed by praise, and opened the curtain to see who was speaking to him. The wise man saw the king's face, memorized it, and was able to paint it and give it to his king.
What is going on here? Is this a parable? What does Nachman mean by everyone telling lies? Is he talking about humanity, that people are not living properly? Who is this other king? Who are his officials? What is the significance of the picture that the king wants of this other king? Is the other king God or the laws of nature that control the world or both? Are the officials a metaphor for clergy? By the picture does Nachman mean a description of how God functions in the universe? What does the praise of the king signify? Is it prayers to God? Is the rabbi/author criticizing God? Is he mocking God or our conception of God? What is he saying about God? Is Nachman "mad"?