Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Lubavitcher Rebbe's 20th yahrzeit

ANNIVERSARY: The Lubavitcher Rebbe Died 20 Years Ago Today. Who Was He? Two new biographies attempt to describe the Chabad leader, but can we ever fathom his ultimate aloneness? (Susan Handelman, Tablet Magazine)

PaleoJudaica has posted on many articles about the Lubavitcher Rebbe (start here and follow the links back to 2003) and noted his tenth yahrzeit here. My main interest has been phenomenological: here is a twenty-first century post-mortem Messiah, complete with rumors of an empty casket and resurrection appearances, as well as claims of occultation and apotheosis. This article touches on these issues, but it is mainly a personal account of the writer's interactions with the Rebbe and reflections on his life, while including in passing reviews of two new books about him. On the issue of messianism she writes:
The messianic idea indeed is one of the great gifts the Jews have given the world: an optimistic view of history; of the world, despite all its bloodshed and darkness, still moving forward toward a goal; of the human task as repair of the world in partnership with God. As Rabbi Léon Ashkenazi, a major postwar French Jewish thinker, put it: “Jewish history is dramatic, but not tragic.” But like all powerful ideas, messianism has also been twisted and distorted in dangerous ways.

The Rebbe’s entire life, I think, was a cry to God to bring the Redemption. For him, it had already been too long; there had been too much pain. As he got older and felt his own personal end coming, he further intensified that call, and a messianic controversy swirled around him. Some of his followers tried to proclaim him the Messiah, which pained him personally, and which he tried to stop time after time. A few months before his stroke, a Chabad rabbi sent him a letter referring to him as “King Messiah.” The Rebbe’s secretary witnessed him looking at the letter, throwing it down in frustration and writing on it, “Tell him that when the Messiah comes, I will give him the letter.” After his stroke, and the diminution of his physical and cognitive abilities, he was not able to control those extremists anymore.

Telushkin and Steinsaltz [the writers of the two abovementioned books] both spend considerable time discussing the controversy, explaining traditional Jewish notions of the Messiah, the Rebbe’s pronouncements, and how they were interpreted and misinterpreted. The key is the text the Rebbe himself often cited to define the Jewish Messiah, Maimonides’ authoritative Code of Jewish Law at the end of his “Laws of Kings.” Maimonides defines “possible candidates” in every generation. Someone from the lineage of the House of David, of great piety, Torah scholarship and observance, who prevails on all Israel to follow the paths of Torah and battles their oppressors can be “presumed” to be the Messiah [chezkat moshiach]. Nothing supernatural is needed. But only if such a candidate succeeds, goes on to rebuild the Temple on its ancient site, and the Exiles are gathered in, can he be confirmed as beyond all doubt the Messiah [moshiach vaddai]. Any “presumed Messiah” can fail or die and then is simply considered, in Maimonides’ words, like all the “wholehearted and worthy kings of the House of David who died”—but he is not the Messiah.

In this context, I, like Steinsaltz and Telushkin, and many others in the Chabad and non-Chabad world, considered the Rebbe as good a “candidate” as any for our generation. But he died, the Exile continues, the world still suffers. He was not the Messiah.