prinmag.com/Written by Levi Liberow
At a Farbrengen held on Shabbos Parshas Nasso 5720 (1960), the Lubavitcher Rebbe related the following story:
“During the early 1940s, when the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was “cooking up a storm” that the events of the times were an indication that Moshiach is near, some chassidim were spreading the news and added to it that the Rebbe “is the one.”
“There was a Jew who came to a chassidic Rebbe, who lived here in the United States, and complained to him: ‘How do we allow the chassidim to promote this message, especially with this addition?’
“This Rebbe answered him thus: “Let’s think for a moment: we all believe that Moshiach can come any day—some say this as part of the Ani Ma’amin text and some contemplate it—so it is a fact that a Moshiach exists. Being so, you know you aren’t Moshiach and I know I’m not Moshiach, but we all believe that someone must be Moshiach — then what difference does it make if it’s him?!””
Dear Friend of Lubavitch,
If G-d forbid the coming of Moshiach is delayed, this weekend Lubavitcher Chassidim like myself around the world will mark 24 years to what they all plainly call Gimmel Tammuz. This is a day that some will call the Rebbe’s Yahrtzeit while some will shudder at hearing this very term, but all of them will continue writing letters to him, study the same books he wrote and find them as relevant as ever and none of them will ever consider looking for a replacement; even now, over two decades later.
I personally am one of those that actually shudder upon hearing the words “the Rebbe’s 24th Yahrtzeit.” I raise my kids this way, and I know that many of you may be slightly disturbed by me and my friends’ behavior. I know you think we’re crazies and you feel very bad for what we did to the beautiful Lubavitch in terms of bad PR; I know that you like to think that the mishichist faction to which I supposedly belong is a marginal fringe group that, with time will come to terms with reality like the rest of the “normal” Lubavitchers did.
So, there are a few thoughts I want to share with you about this very topic.
Firstly, I want you to realize that the reason we did “split up” to the small extent we did, is not over what we believe, but because of how we would be perceived by others.
The “normal” Lubavitch wasn’t created immediately after Gimmel Tammuz; it was a process of several years.
If you remember, before Gimmel Tammuz, the vast majority of us (I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I’d say 98%) were meshichist. After Gimmel Tammuz, when our simple faith in the words of the Rebbe was mocked by some parts of orthodox Judaism, many friends (rabbis, lay leaders and “regular” people) joined hands with us in defending our right to believe in this without being chastised for it and ex-communicated from the greater religious community.
Over time, many of us came to realize that while our friends were ready to defend our right to believe that the Rebbe’s Moshiach; none were confident enough to believe it themselves.
Realizing this, some of us decided to take an apologetic stand for the sake of the success of our outreach. Consciously or not, the Moshiach issue was moved to the back burner in order to be able to move forward and not be seen as peculiar birds in the landscape of the Jewish world.
Lubavitch has no right to exist without propagating the idea of Moshiach
Another thing I want you to know, dear friends, is that while the development of a “normal” Lubavitch is equally comfortable for both of us, you are making a mistake and causing us to make a grave mistake which in the long run both sides can only lose from.
It’s very easy to like Lubavitch without the Moshiach craze; truth to be said we also like ourselves better that way. But what can we do, that we weren’t made only to provide potato kugel to a frum businessmen in china and help Israeli backpackers find a seder in Kathmandu. I’ll go even further, we weren’t made even to make ba’alei teshuvah, there are many others that can do that, and that do, do that, and they do a fairly good job.
Furthermore: without the Moshiach issue we would not have been what we are, and you wouldn’t appreciate us the way you do now. No chassidic group has such devoted friends (and enemies…) the way we do. If not for the Moshiach issue, we probably would have been another chassidic group. If not for the Moshiach issue you wouldn’t find us in a Mitzvah Tank on fifth avenue or in a guesthouse somewhere in the far east.
Chabad is not about outreach; outreach is a means to something greater. To the purpose of creation of this world – Moshiach. And as uncomfortable it feels, we’d better start talking about it seriously, like true friends.
Moshiach and Lubavitch: 4 Phases
When someone you love, be it a child or spouse or friend, is behaving strangely, there is usually something behind it and you ought to discover what it is so you can enter his mind and see the world from his eyes.
I very much understand that what some of us are doing and saying about matters related to Moshiach come across as strange to you, and I even understand why.
I’ll tell you another secret: I sometimes feel very strange doing it myself! No, it isn’t comfortable to tell people you believe that a man whose physical presence is gone for 24 years is Moshiach, it really isn’t comfortable to deny what usually is perceived as reality.
But not everything we do is comfortable. That’s life.
If you are a true friend, you must look past the strangeness and see where its coming from.
To help you understand where we’re coming from I would like to divide the history of lubavitch from its inception by the Alter Rebbe, the ba’al haTanya, into four phases of Moshiach-related work. (For the more detailed analysis that this topic deserves, click here.)
Phase 1: Moshiach as the underlying philosophy of Chabad Chassidus: The Alter Rebbe, unlike “mainstream” traditional Judaism, sees olam hazeh as the focus of Judaism, in the sense that our efforts of Torah and mitzvos are all geared to bringing this world towards its ultimate purpose, being a dira, a “home” for Hashem.
Phase 2: A generation of Moshiach: The unique challenges and opportunities of Judaism during and post the WWII world were the backdrop to the activities of the Previous Rebbe upon coming to America in 1940. They were seen as Chevlei Moshiach and a Divine call for a mass return to Judaism to ease the suffering and to hasten the arrival of Moshiach. The present Rebbe, joining his father in law in America in 1941, spearheaded much of these activities. After he assumed leadership in 1951, these continued full force and became worldwide. The goal behind these activities were very clear.
In what you can call his “inaugural address,” the Rebbe declared that the mission of the “seventh generation” of Chabad is to reveal the Shechinah completely in this world. In other words the Rebbe used countless times: “We are the last generation of galus and the first of geulah.”
Phase 3: We want Moshiach Now: While Moshiach was always in the background of Lubavitch activities, in the early 1980s the Rebbe moved Moshiach to the front burner. A common theme in the Rebbe’s public talks and farbrengens of that decade was how urgently we need Moshiach and the need to ask for and demand it.
Phase 4: Open your Eyes/The time of your redemption has arrived: The peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and other evil regimes, Jews returning en masse to Israel, the miracles of the Persian Gulf war and the dismantling of WMDs by world superpowers, were all seen by the Rebbe not only as signs that the Geulah is near, but that the geulah is actually beginning to unfold.
The Relevance of the Rebbe’s Moshiach Message to Judaism Today
What highlights the uniqueness of the time, and in essence are the two parts of the Rebbe’s Moshiach message, are two things:
- The Moshiach of the generation has begun his revelation process: The concept of identifying a Jewish leader as a potential redeemer is as old as the concept of Moshiach itself. What it really is, is a testament to a strong and realistic faith in the coming of Moshiach, that if Hashem were to decide to send Moshiach he has a person ready for the job.
In the height of this phase the Rebbe declared that according to the aforementioned signs indicating that the Geulah process has begun, the Moshiach of the generation has also begun his mission to take the Jewish people out of exile.
[An important note that must be mentioned here, is how the Rebbe’s message of the progression of the Geulah process may have been mirrored in the Rebbe’s changed reaction to Chassidim publicly speaking of him as Moshiach. Yet I deliberately choose not elaborate on it for the reasons I will discuss further on.]
- You can start living a Moshiach-like lifestyle in spiritual matters: While the first aspect relates to the “‘general’ Moshiach”, the second is what Chassidic terminology calls the emergence of the “inner Moshiach of every Jew” that becomes possible now, at a time where “redemptive energies” are already running in the air.
In my opinion this is something so “radical”, even more radical than saying the Rebbe is Moshiach. The reason why it doesn’t grab anyone’s attention, is since there is little knowledge of such terms.
The Rebbe taught often during these years that our Avodas Hashem can and must be done now on a “messianic” level. In simple terms, the limits that galus placed on our G-dly awareness are removed and if we only wanted to, we are able to “live with Moshiach.”
Living with Moshiach, through learning about Moshiach, leads to a life void of competition and hatred, and filled with G-dly awareness and joy.
[Concerning the more basic, physical aspects of the geulah, the Rebbe reiterated his position that the redemption begins only when Moshiach arrives, gathers the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael and rebuilds the Beis Hamikdash.]
Has Gimmel Tammuz Changed Lubavitch?
At the height of this process, months after he gave over to the chassidim the prerogative of bringing Moshiach, the Rebbe suffered a stroke and then another and on Gimmel Tammuz, 24 years ago, the Rebbe’s physical presence was concealed from us. You would usually call this a setback, but it really isn’t:
Though much has changed about Lubavitch in the last two-and-a-half decades,
- The Rebbe’s leadership, not via successor, continues. The Rebbe is seen by his Chassidim as a leader still in action and the growth of Chabad institutions expresses this leadership to the world. and,
- The process of redemption the Rebbe spoke of is continuing and growing. This requires more explanation which surpasses the limits of this op-ed, but there will be more to come please G-d.
We don’t have all the answers on what exactly happened on Gimmel Tammuz, nor on how the final geulah will commence with the Rebbe at its helm given what happened on Gimmel Tammuz. The nature of faith, however, is that it doesn’t depend on reason even when it can be reconciled with it, and this faith is no exception to this rule.
What we do know, and want and need everyone to know is that the Rebbe’s message of Moshiach is something serious and timely:
“Living with Moshiach” creates a form of Avodas Hashem which answers all the struggles of the religious community in the postmodern era – and it’s a shame they’re not being used as much as they can and should, both inside and outside of Lubavitch.
An example amongst many: it is much easier to overcome the temptations of modern technology knowing that it is an expression of Hashem’s greatness that allows an unprecedented dissemination of G-dl’y information, rather than viewing it as an enemy of Judaism.
Our Successfully Unsuccessful PR Campaign
Now that you know where we’re coming from, I can predict two possible reactions:
One is, “OK, maybe the adversaries of Lubavitch were right, there is something warped in the DNA of this movement and I shouldn’t be lured by their smiling faces and love.” The other reaction, which I think—and hope—is more likely, is “why didn’t you present it this way all along?”
And here, I admit, we must take the blame.
Looking back, I don’t know if a precedent exists in the field of PR and promotion of ideas like ours:
Our “gig” of the Moshiach message using the messianism of the Rebbe to promote it, worked towards its greatest success as well to its greatest detriment. In terms of exposure, it drew 100% attention and made everyone aware of it, in terms of what’s called in the marketing world “conversions,” it certainly made the entire message unpalatable for people to join in.
But more than making the rest of the message unpalatable, it drew the attention away from the more practical aspects of the Rebbe’s message.
I often think to myself, which of the two aspects of the “phase 4” Moshiach message are more important, the existence of the “general Moshiach” in the world, or the ability of every Jew to unshackle his “personal Moshiach” and do his avodas Hashem on a messianic level?
On a “theological” level, one isn’t possible without the other and they really are one organic unit; but on a practical level, which should come first in terms of publicity?
It’s not an easy question, and as I illustrated above, the course of action taken definitely gave us greater exposure, but little success in getting others involved.
And I think that even if perhaps we should have waited with this conversation, now, after we started this conversation, it would be a shame to drop it. Let’s continue it and try to move forward while addressing the sensitivities involved.
When we speak and publicize the Rebbe being Moshiach, you often feed on it out of curiosity and perhaps as a way to convince us out of it, and thus we constantly fail to address the context of that message.
Let me be clear when I use the term “context:” often you hear from someone who is blamed for something unwise he said or did, that “He was taken out of context.” Naturally, most people already stopped buying into this talking point anymore.
Lubavitch for one moment shouldn’t claim that it’s belief in the Rebbe being Moshiach was taken out of context! Nor that things the Rebbe said which led to this belief were taken out of context!
They were not and our belief was not. We believe in it 100% and what we say is what we mean.
In terms of presenting it to others, however, we have not yet succeeded. The reason is since we haven’t provided the general context that makes it understood, and thus somewhat more palatable, and most importantly – meaningful.
Mistake #1: We Didn’t Make It Meaningful
I was once on a bus in Israel, and some friends of mine were handing out some literature about the Rebbe being Moshiach. A chassidic gentleman sitting near me took the pamphlet, read it, and turned to me with a question of two words: “Uma achshav?” – “What do you want now?” a question to which, I’m ashamed to admit, I had no answer for.
The man wasn’t questioning the validity or the truth of the belief. If he was, I could have spent many hours in debate with him. I watched others do it and I’ve been doing this since I was ten years old.
He was telling me something that I have never given thought to: what difference does it make if the Rebbe is Moshiach or isn’t? If it’s him, when he comes we’ll greet him!
Some years passed, I matured a bit and I spent some more time learning about Moshiach and the Rebbe’s message in particular, and I think I may now have the answer:
If we sum up what we discussed above, we’ll find that each of the Rebbe’s (and Chassidus’) messages of Moshiach include two layers, one “theoretical” and one “practical”:
- Phase 1 – Concept: Moshiach is the purpose of creation; Implication: we must do mitzvos to make it happen.
- Phase 2 – Concept: We’re in a generation of Moshiach; Implication: We must increase our efforts through Ufaratzta (Chabad Houses and outreach) to complete the final stretch.
- Phase 3: – Concept: The signs show that the time has arrived; Implication: We must start wanting it “for real” and we must demand and ask for it.
- Phase 4: Concept: We’re living in messianic times and the Moshiach of the generation has begun to reveal himself; Implication: We must serve Hashem on a messianic level (by revealing our “inner Moshiach”), thus greeting (the general) Moshiach.
Largely, what we’ve been doing thus far to disseminate this message included two mistakes:
- We failed to walk you through the previous phases upon which the present, final phase is built upon.
- Within the final phase itself, we usually only present the theory and inadequate focus is given to meaningful implication of it.
What brought us there are a few causes. Firstly, we take it for granted that you know what we know, and that may not be true. Secondly, we have a sense of urgency on matters of Moshiach and we rush to the “main” part. Thirdly, the human nature of curiosity attracts us to the more controversial and peculiar seeming sides of things.
Mistake #2: We Gave You the Pastrami Without the Rye
And here I wish to make you part of the “blame” too, as well as a part of the solution:
It certainly is tasty to pull the filing out of the sandwich, it tastes better, it’s more exciting, but its very babyish and entirely not nutritious.
But Torah teaches us that we must at times overcome natural tendencies and do what’s right. In this case, we owe you and you owe us the time and the attention that’s needed to study a topic as important as this one.
Getting back to the sandwich analogy, we need to provide the bread for you to be able to eat the filling without getting a stomach ache.
We don’t want to act like what the Rebbe once described as an “Italian train:”
The railroad system in Italy was known to be very disorganized. Many a time the locomotive would go on its way without the cars tied to it. We really need to join forces here. All Jews will have to share one Moshiach. I think that that if we can all be on the same page in the area of achake lo bcho yom sheyavo, we can conduct a candid and serious discussion of the “Who is Moshiach” topic.
Did Lubavitch messianism start to seem outlandish post Gimmel Tammuz, or is the notion of believing that a person living amongst us will suddenly become a world leader which will change the world in a short while, that bothers us more?
This is an question you must ask and answer yourself, the feeling I get, however, is that the uncomfortability with our belief of the Rebbe being Moshiach is not only that we continue to say so after Gimmel Tammuz, but that there is an uncomfortability with bringing our belief in the concept of Moshiach from the theoretical future to the present reality, believing in it enough to open our eyes and say, “It’s gonna happen soon, and this man can be the one.” How many friends and sympathizers of Lubavitch can say that their problem with Lubavitch messianism began post Gimmel Tammuz? I believe there are a few, but very few.
Let’s work in stages: let’s together study how important Moshiach is to Judaism; something we can easily all agree on. Let’s learn about how important it is to ask for and demand from Hashem that He send Moshiach, also something we can easily reach agreement on.
If you find another serious candidate, and believe he’s the one, then we won’t be inventing something new. Already in the times of the Gemara students of four different yeshivahs each saw their rebbe as the Moshiach of the generation.
A Personal Request:
So please, next time you want to talk to a Lubavitcher, don’t let him fall into his own trap and talk about the controversial first. Let him walk you through it starting with the first floor. There isn’t much to gain from building a skyscraper without foundations.