Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Rebbe Worship

Lubavitch is in the news again. Their problems seem to be getting worse. And nowhere is it better illustrated than in this article in Ha’Aretz.

Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote of my own shocking experience in a mainstream Lubavitch Shul.

Full disclosure: I still Daven at that Shul. It is close by and convenient. More importantly I have been attending the morning Daf Yomi Shiur there for over 16 years. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised they haven’t thrown me out yet. My views are probably pretty well known there.

More surprising is the fact that mainstream rabbinic leadership hasn’t banned everyone from Daveing there. But they haven’t. Add to that the fact that my Rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik Paskin’d that their Meshichist beliefs are not Apikursus, just simple nonsense, I still go there for some of my Tefila B’Tzibur.

But the fact that it is not Apikursus does not take away the sad facts described in this article. There is nothing in it that is new to me. But for the first time, their beliefs and activities are described in one place. This article should not be missed.

One thing that is rarely discussed is the reason Lubavitch has turned out this way. I think it would be helpful to know that, in order to be able to deal with this movement properly. To review the problematic substance of their beliefs, Lubavitch holds that it is possible for a man to be the Messiah on earth, die, and be resurrected in a second coming.

The range of that belief is all the way from saying it is possible but unlikely… to believing it as fact that not only is he the Messiah but that he is god in a body! And there is the entire spectrum of belief in-between. I suspect that the vast majority of non Meshichist Lubavitchers believe that although he is not God, the Rebbe is at least possibly Moshiach and may very well at some point be resurrected as such. The main dividing line between them and the outspoken Meshichsts seems to be in how likely and how public that belief should be.

Another aspect is what the proportions of Lubavitchers along the Meshichist belief spectrum that believe in any of the various Meshichist options. I think that the so-called anti Meshichist Lubavitchers, are either misleading the non Lubavitch world or are themselves deluded about the proportions. That a mainstream anti-Meshichist Lubavitch girls high school can print pamphlets saying that the Rebbe is god in a body clearly shows how mainstream such a Christian type theology is in Chabad.

Back to why. Why have they evolved into a Messianist group at any level?

The answer is not so simple. But here is my analysis. I am convinced that the problem starts with the Chasidic concept of a Rebbe. A man is set up as the intermediary to God, a man who is deemed so spiritual that is treated as royalty, a near icon of worship. People ask him for blessings as though he had a mystical power to grant them. Of course the more educated among Chasidim realize that he is only a man, great though he may be, and that the Brachos that are requested are Min HaShamyim. The Rebbe being so holy is the best person to request those Brachos. But I question if that is so well understood amongst the majority of Chasidim. They stand in line for hours sometimes just to get “a Bracha from the Rebbe”.

Lubavitch has taken this to the ultimate extreme. They worship the Lubavitcher Rebbe like no other Chasid worships their Rebbe. And all this was helped along by the Rebbe himself who, while still alive was promoting the Messianist idea as a primary focus. He proclaimed that “the time of our redemption is now”. He focused constantly on Messianism during the latter part of his life saying things like “we’ve done all we can to bring Moshiach”. He urged his Chasidim to focus on it in order to hurry Moshiach’s arrival.

The current popular phrase “We want Moshiach, Now!” was a common refrain during this last years of his life. And of course there is the very popular “Yechi Adoneinu…” which declares the Rebbe to be Moshiach. This phrase was chanted many times in front of the Rebbe and he never discouraged it although he publicly denied he was. I think the Rebbe actually believed that there was a very good chance he was going to be anointed Moshiach. And although the anti-Meshichist Lubavitchers would take umbrage and vehemently deny this, the Meshichists would say that in fact this is what the Rebbe believed and that his denials were just an expression of modesty. I think they are right. I think the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed it himself.

Now that the Rebbe is dead, the worship has not abated. It is stronger than ever. Meshichist or not, just about all of the focus of Lubavitch is on the Rebbe. The majority of their learning is on the Rebbe’s words and thoughts. His Likutei Sichos and his many videotaped speeches and appearances abound. It is rare to hear any other Torah luminary from the past or present mentioned. It is “All Rebbe, all the time”.

It is as if they get their life sustenance from his words. As a friend of mine once put it, taking the Rebbe out of Lubavitch would be like taking Torah learning out of Lakewood.

I realize that many will question my take on this as being extreme or way off. But the tell-tale signs are all there, from my little experience a couple of weeks ago, to the constant references to the Rebbe as a Moshicah in disguised ways. As in ending a speech I heard with words like… “with the hope that Bimherah Uv’yamenu, the Rebbe will arise and lead us all out of this bitter Galus.” This phrase sticks in my mind because it was uttered by the son of Lubavitch Rabbi Harold P. Shusterman who was an outspoken opponent of the Meshichists, at the latter's Shloshim memorial.

So this is the problem. And I believe it is getting worse. Articles like the one in Ha’aretz certainly point in that direction. Based on the many conversations and discussions I’ve had with many Lubavitchers, and the many articles I have read, including Dr. David Berger's masterful work on the subject, I believe that the that majority of all Lubavitchers harbor beliefs that the Rebbe will yet have a second coming. And that there are a lot more elohists than they are willing to publicly admit to.

Where will it all end? Who knows. But it isn’t looking so good.