Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Glorious but Imperfect Legacy

Typical of the ubiquitous Meshichist posters
There has been a lot of discussion about the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneersohn over the last couple of weeks. Several books have been published about him as the 20th anniversary of his death approaches.

I never met him.  But my impression over the years as well as what I have read recently is that he was a remarkable man – in more ways than one.  Aside from being a genius, he was a leader with few if any peers. There are so many superlatives cited about this man’s abilities, that I could not possibly remember let alone list all of them. I believe that they are all true (…with the exception mentioned by some about his prophetic ability).

His chief accomplishment was that he took a movement that had but a few members under the previous Rebbe (his father in law) and turned it into one of the most powerful outreach organizations in history – increasing its numbers exponentially over the decades since his ascension as the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe. Through the guidance of the Rebbe, there are more Shiluchim – emissaries of Lubavtiach in more places than there are of any other segment of Judaism.

The Rebbe believed that the way to build Klal Yisroel was to do it one Jew at a time. He set the tone of how Luibavitch does their outreach. They do not call it Kiruv. They see us all as being in the same boat. Some more observant than others. All of us have to work on our Judaism.  They do not see it as making  irreligious Jews – religious.

As much as the Rebbe was concerned with the Klal – his focus was on one individual at a time. That’s why he was so accessible to the public. Getting a private meeting with the Rebbe was not all that uncommon for even the most ordinary of people.  Including those that were not Lubavicthers.

It was his willingness to meet with all Jews, his intelligence, his knowledge of Torah, his knowledge of human nature, and his technological savvy and willingness to use it that enabled him to create an empire unmatched in the Jewish world.

Story after story has come out about individuals who have had personal encounters with this man. In almost every case, those individuals walked away inspired. To say that the Rebbe was charismatic is an understatement of immense proportion. I recall an interview of famed author, Chaim Potok that took place after the Rebbe’s massive stroke, shortly before he died. He had similar things to say about the Rebbe. When he was asked why he never had an audience with him, which he could have easily gotten, he replied that he was afraid that his charisma would have overwhelmed him.

The Rebbe’s power over his people was uncanny. He was so beloved, so trusted by his Chasidim, that they would do his bidding no matter what he asked of them. So that when a young family was told to go to a community where there were few if any religious Jews, in order to serve those few Jews that were there, they did so barely giving it a second thought. 

Imagine any other religious Jew with a young family being told to go to the remotest part of the globe and told to raise his children there with no other observant Jews anywhere near them.  No one that I know would ever dream if doing that. But Lubavtichers did it and still do it matter of factly to this day, 20 years after the Rebbe’s death. The Rebbe had no trouble sending his Chasidim anywhere in the world. In almost every instance there presence there bore fruit as they were able to reach out by their warm embrace of every single Jew they met. No matter how secular.

The list of dignitaries - religious and secular - that had a personal meeting with the Rebbe is a mile long. So brilliant was he, that Israeli generals actually discussed military strategy with him.

All that said, I am not a Chasid and could not agree with his position that Chasidus in general; and Chabad Chasidus in particular was the primary light by which the Torah cold be understood. There have been thousands upon thousands of pages of his discourse on this subject published, I have heard some of them repeated and I am not convinced of his view.  I am also a bit disappointed at the proprietary way in which Lubavitch reaches out to fellow Jews.  They focus as much if not more on the things unique to Lubavitch as they do on the things that are common to all of us

But it is easy to forgive since the positive impact they have far outweighs the negative.

But, as I have written in the past, the Lubavitcher Rebbe made one huge mistake. Near the end of his life he started focusing on Moshiach. He started talking about Moshiach’s immanent arrival. If we would just push a little harder, do one Mitzvah more…he would surely come. That led most Lubavitchers to believe that their Rebbe was actually Moshiach himself. Even the most rational among them believed that at any moment, the Rebbe would reveal himself as Moshiach. The Rebbe denied it. But he never really discouraged his Chasidim from saying it. They mistook his denials for humility.

But it is obvious that he was not Moshiach. No one outside of Lubavitch believed it even when he was alive. And after he died, that should have put an end to it. Unfortunately it didn’t. That belief still exists to one degree or another. Either as a private hope that when there is the resurrection of the dead during messianic times the Rebbe  may arise to declare himself Moshiach… to those who proclaim with certainty and out loud that this will happen. Some believe that he never even died.  Others believe that even though he did die, he will definitely arise from the dead to become Moshiach. In a few extreme cases, there are Lubavitchers that actually say that the Rebbe is God. That of course is Avodah Zara.

I have no choice but to say that the Rebbe erred by putting too much focus on the idea that Moshiach’s arrival was imminent.  This has caused one of the biggest rifts between Lubavitch and the rest of Orthodox Jewry. There are some Orthodox Jews that will still not eat from Lubavitch Shechita. And they are not just extremists. They are part of the mainstream and exist across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy.

I believe it is the extreme loyalty that he inspired (which caused the kind of successes that everyone is now talking about) that is also responsible for the Meshichist phenomenon.  The Rebbe is now larger in death than he was in life. While that is fairly common with charismatic leaders. In this case it has brought with it a lot of negative baggage.

Mainstream Chabad has fought that image hard and I believe it has for the most part been successful in subduing the noise. We now read mostly about all the considerable good that they do. But the fact is that it still exists and is the proverbial fly in what would  otherwise be a sublime ointment.There is a Beis Moshiach right here in Chicago with a poster in the window proclaiming the Rebbe’s Messiahship!

This is really too bad. Because as I have said, Lubavitch serves a vital function for Klal Yisroel that nobody else does or is even willing to do. They are the true soldiers of God – sending His message to all four corners of the earth. We need them. And we ought to support their work. But the Messianism continues to be a stain on the legacy of a great Jewish leader. A man whose leadership will likely not be repeated again in my lifetime. And probably not until Moshiach himself arrives.