Thursday, April 07, 2011

Lubavitch Messianism – An Insider’s View

Guest Post by ELR

In my constant search for the truth I have offered a devout Lubavitcher Chasid an opportunity to explain his honest appraisal of the Meshichist problems dogging his movement.

The writer grew up within the Chabad-Lubavitch community, was educated in their institutions and is currently studying for his rabbinic ordination. After having an e-mail exchange with him I believe he is honest, very bright, and despite his relative youth – very articulate and well informed. He has made a point of studying the issue from numerous insider sources including the Rebbe’s works and the dissertations of leading Chassidim.

Publishing this post should not necessarily be taken as any sort of agreement with him on my part. But in the interest of honest discussion and debate I present here his ‘insider perspective’. It is somewhat lengthy (twice the length of my usual posts) but well worth reading. Because of its controversial nature he has asked me to use only his initials and keep his name out of the public domain. What follows are his thoughts.

Last week the proprietor of this blog, Rabbi Harry Maryles, wrote an article drawing attention to what he perceived to be the growing problem of disturbing forms of Messianism within the mainstream Chabad-Lubavitch community. Pointing to admittedly shocking footage posted on youtube, he wrote that in his mind the notion “that this phenomenon not only still exists, but that it exists in far greater numbers than anyone in Lubavitch is willing to admit” has now been “reinforced”. He took the video in question to be evidence that such extreme forms of Messianism have become mainstream “right here in the United States”.

This was the latest installment in a growing trend to label Chabad-Lubavitch collectively as holding questionable beliefs. On Sunday the 27th of March 2011 Rabbi Mordechai Willig, while admitting that he is “not the greatest expert on the Chabad movement”, went so far as to say that all Lubavitchers – including Non-Mishichistim (“they all believe it, just some say it some don’t”) – hold a view that is “extremely misguided, and wrong, and against the tradition of thousands of years” – namely the belief in “a second coming”. He only grudgingly admitted that they “may not be in absolute violation of the twelfth principle of the Rambam” and may therefore be considered orthodox. (link)

As an insider who is intimately aware of what Lubavitchers really believe, this growing phenomenon indicates a real lack of awareness as to the realities of the situation within the Chabad-Lubavitch community, amongst members of the wider orthodox community.

Rabbi Maryles’ article led to a correspondence in which I sought to dispel the extremely negative image, in which Lubavitch is increasingly cast, and convince him that the conclusions he had drawn were in fact false. Rabbi Maryles has very kindly offered me the opportunity to write a guest post on this blog addressing what he referred to as “the common concerns” being raised in the wider community. I am very grateful to him for hearing me out and providing a platform from which I hope my voice will be heard.

* * *

Today, in the inner world of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, Rabbi Yoel Kahn – in many respects the Rebbe Zatzal”s Talmid Muvok – is generally accepted as the most respected authority on all matters of Chassidic thought and doctrine. Three years ago, in an interview published at the time in Kfar Chabad Magazine, he expressed his outrage at Mishichist practices similar to those seen in the footage posted last week. In recent years the extreme cultist group known as “the Tzefatim”, who have managed to recruit thousands of young Israelis into their ranks, have began to act as though the Rebbe Zatza”l were literally alive and walking in their midst. In Rabbi Kahn’s words:

“Everything the "maskilim" and communists tried to do in order to defame the honor of our Rabbeim is absolutely nothing compared to the defamation caused by the "meshichistin" because of two reasons: 1) the substance of the defamation: it never even occurred to the communists to degrade the Rebbe in such a manner. 2) when this defamation is done by Chabad chassidim the mockery and shame is even greater. Not only is this "shitah" a joke, it is against the Torah and is the complete opposite of what our function and shlichus is.”

In my humble view, Rabbi Kahn’s second pronouncement is imprecise; the Tzefatim are not Chabad Chassidim at all. They may claim to be, but as Rabbi Kahn has made clear, they have departed both from the teachings of Chabad and the Torah by choosing an irrational path of self delusion, and claiming 1) that Moshiach has come and 2) that the Rebbe Zatza”l is physically alive, both of which statements are clearly untrue. He goes on to explain that their extreme views have even brought them to explicitly transgress Halacha. In Rabbi Kahn’s own words, Tzefati belief “is not related in any way to Lubavitch nor to Torah”. The full interview can be read here in English translation.

The question remains to be asked: who wins out here? the Tzefatim or the non-mishichistim? For Lubavitchers in America, and for the worldwide community of Shluchim, the answer is resounding and unequivocal. To find someone who identifies even in his heart of hearts with Tzefati doctrine or participates in their rituals is indeed an anomaly.

Each year increasing numbers of Tzefatim descend on Crown Heights from Israel for the entire month of Tishrei. Most of them are Bochurim ranging approximately from the age of Bar Mitzvah till marriage. But increasingly they are joined by girls in the same age group, younger boys, young married men, as well as some older men and even whole families. If you take a look at the footage posted you will see that the vast majority belong to the first group described. Though this strange spectacle takes place in the main synagogue of Crown Heights, New York, you will be hard pressed to find an American participating. The Tzefatim, though numbering in the thousands, are almost exclusively Israelis and are not at all representative of the Lubavitch mainstream, whatever they may claim.

* * *

Several years ago, when Lubavitchers were first trying to come to terms with the recent passing of the Rebbe Zatza”l, a periodical entitled “Kovetz Geulah U’Moshiach” was published by Rabbi DovBer Levin (chief librarian at the Aguch Library and a noted Talmid Chochom, he is the editor of the new edition of Shulchon Aruch HaRav). In the second of issue of that publication Rabbi Kahn wrote a lengthy essay, in which he outlined his personal view of the messianic status of the Rebbe Zatza”l. It would be impossible to offer a satisfactory digest of such a dense scholarly dissertation, and I strongly advise those who wish to gain a full understanding of all the complexities involved to take the time to study it carefully from beginning to end. I will, however, attempt to review several points whose elucidation will provide crucial insight into the beliefs of some within the non-mishichist camp.

Within the Torah itself there are multiple layers of meaning, Pshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod. While these areas reflect parallel themes, they are nevertheless distinct from one another; each has its own internal frame of reference, its own set of rules. What is correct and valid within the world of Drush cannot necessarily be applied in the domain of Pshat. Similarly, that which is true in the world of sod, cannot dictate a Halachic ruling. These are distinct disciplines and we must be careful not to blur the boundaries between them.

Within the realm of Halacha the position of the Rebbe Zatza”l was clear; the only way to establish the identity of Moshiach is based on the criteria described by the Rambam. Based on those criteria it is clear that the identity of Moshiach is yet to be determined. Moshiach has not yet come. The Rebbe Zatza”l did not fulfill the criteria either of Vadai Moshiach or Chezkas Moshiach as described by the Rambam.
The association of the Nassi – the spiritual leader of the generation – with Moshiach, is not a Halachic association but a mystical association, which has no bearing on the realm of Halacha or the Halachic status of the Nassi. Being a meta-Halachic association it does not have any legal implication and cannot be in anyway binding or obligatory. This cannot be a statement of empirical fact, but is rather a subtle belief whose intensity and form is dictated by personal conviction alone.

A discussion of the mystical principles that inspire the deep reverence that Chabad Chassidim have always felt towards their Rabbeim and which have led some of them to associate their Rebbe with Moshiach, is too complex to be entered into here. Suffice it to say that the concepts involved belong wholly to the realms of Sod, Remez and Drush, the spirit and the soul, the heart and the mind. To confuse such ideas with legislative principle in the Halachic sense is to completely misunderstand the subtleties involved. Any such association is not ordained doctrine, to be espoused openly and shouted as a slogan, but rather a very subtle feeling – a mystical belief in a complex ideal, carried as a deep sense of personal reverence.

* * *

When the Rebbe Zatza”l spoke of such concepts as the mystical association of Chassidus or the Nassi with Moshiach, he expected his Chassidim to understand his statements in their true meta-Halachic context. The Baal Shem Tov (quoted in the Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecha) warned against the dangers of insensitivity to the true profundity of Kabbalistic concepts, which could potentially lead to the heretical belief that G-d is manifest in corporeal form. For that reason, abstraction and subtlety have always been the hallmarks of Chabad Chassidic thought, which trains its students to conceive of the most esoteric of Kabbalisitc concepts in a spirit of rational abstraction.

Unfortunately, it seems that in the later years of his life certain Chassidim were no longer of the caliber that the Rebbe Zatza”l expected. A new generation, raised in America, and caught up in the spirit of the Rebbe’s global outreach campaign, was perhaps less in sync with the more subtle ideals of Chabad philosophy. They began to take his statements too literally and too far, blurring such boundaries as those that separate definitive statements from expectant hopes. Following the Rebbe’s stroke in early 1992, the situation rapidly deteriorated, and the Rebbe was physically unable to keep his Chassidim in check. The Messianic fervor spiraled beyond any rational limit, magnifying the shocking impact of the Rebbe’s ultimate passing, and triggering the confusion and controversy in whose shadow we dwell to this day.

* * *

These are certainly issues of some complexity, and a lack of subtlety or proper research can lead to misunderstandings and wrong conclusions. It is self evident that to date many – both within Chabad and without – have already made unfortunate mistakes. For that reason many of the Rabbis and Rosh Yeshivas who head leading institutions within the Chabad community have explicitly discouraged and discounted any specific association of the Rebbe Zatza”l with Moshiach. To name but a few; Rabbi Emmanuel Schochet of Toronto, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Shapiro of Miami, Rabbi Gershon Steinmetz of Detroit and Rabbi DovBer Levin of New York.

In the third issue of “Kovetz Geulah U’Moshiach” Rabbi Yosef Avrohom Heller (the very respected Talmid Chochom who serves as Rosh Kollel in Crown Heights), pointed out that while every area of Torah is so extremely complex that only one who is very well versed in the relevant codes and commentaries would dare to offer a ruling, it is especially so with regard to the laws of Moshiach. In the words of the Rambam “all these and similar matters cannot be definitely known by man until they occur… even the Chachomim have no established tradition regarding these matters except their own interpretation of the verses…” (Hilchos Melochim 12, 2).

He went on to express his astonishment at the fact that people who in all other areas defer to their Rabbanim for guidance, take the liberty to throw around their opinions with regard to the Moshiach issue as if they had suddenly become “the Poskei Hador”. Of course this barb was directed at the Mishichistim, who have since then continued to blaze a path of brazen disregard of authority and Halacha. By the same token, however, it is unacceptable to all but write-off an entire community of Torah true Jews – including Talmidei Chachomim of great stature – without first conducting a proper investigation and truly ascertaining their real beliefs and opinions.

In a few months from now we will be marking the eighteenth anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing. A whole generation has now grown up in the shadow of that dark day. In many ways the heart-ache and the controversy over what should have been has been lurking, always close by, throughout our lives. But we never really were a part of the wild hope; the expectation, even the certainty that was so suddenly smashed by the Rebbe’s passing. The confusion and controversy that ensued is a problem that we have inherited by default, but it is not ours; it is a disappointing relic of the not so distant past. Amongst the younger generation especially there is a growing trend to get back to basics, to get beyond the distractions of the Moshiach controversy, and just get on with what we have to do.

* * *

The Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya (chapter 37) that the state of completion that will be attained with the coming of Moshiach – the explicit manifestation of Divinity within the terrestrial realm, is achieved directly through our fulfillment of Mitzvot and our service of G-d while still in exile. Ultimately, the challenge of exile is that despite the difficulties, the questions and the controversies, we must all continue to ever improve our commitment to the service of G-d, and the furtherance of His cause.