Heilman, Chabad & Abraham Lincoln
06/18/2010 - 18:10
Jonathan Mark

Nothing is easier -- or more intellectually sloppy -- than to take shots at Chabad for believing that the Lubavitcher rebbe is still alive or for thinking that the rebbe is the messiah.

Here, take a look at the official Chabad-Lubavitch website. Go ahead. Here's the link to their section on the rebbe. Find even one reference to the rebbe being alive or the messiah. You won't find it.

Are there some chasidim. somewhere, who believe the rebbe is somehow alive, or the messiah? Sure. A few (without a serious survey it is all guess work, Certainly the rebbe's emissaries don't speak of him that way). And there are professors with top doctorates in top universities who think George W. Bush had a hand in bringing down the World Trade Center; dozens of professors with beautiful diplomas who think Israel should not exist and is more guilty than Hamas; professors who think Bobby Kennedy was assassinated for supporting Civil Rights when in fact he was assassinated for supporting Israel during the Six Day War. The list of idiot professors is long and tenured. Does anyone therefore think that their opinions reflect the essence of their universities or reflect negatively on the value of a college education, or does it simply mean that some professors don't know what they're talking about?

Guess what? Some chasidim also don't know what they're talking about. They don't speak for Chabad-Lubavitch anymore than those professors speak for their universities and all that is true.

No one who speaks for Chabad, online or offline, says the rebbe is still alive or that the rebbe was or is the messiah.

But that won't stop people from trying to play "gotcha."

Take Sam Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College, and the co-author with Menachem Friedman of a new book on the rebbe. The New York Times (June 14) went with Heilman to the rebbe's grave, on the eve of the rebbe's 16th yahrtzeit.

In the article, "Mr. Heilman pointed to a headstone facing the ohel that refers in Hebrew to the rebbe as 'the Messiah of God.' 'It’s etched in stone,” he said."

Pretty clever. Gotcha. Especially if read fast and don't catch that the tombstone in question is not the rebbe's. Or if you refuse to say, or report, that the expression is an honorific meaning "the annointed one of God" that has been applied on stone to Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azouly and Rabbi Chaim Ben-Attar (the Ohr HaChaim), and when Reb Chaim of Volozhin, the great disciple of the Vilna Gaon, passed away his disciples mourned him with the exact same expression. The Republic still stands, the Heavens don't quake, and no one really cares.

That is, no one who knows anything about rabbinic, especially chasidic, hyperbole.

What kind of professor tries to prove anything by what's written on a tombstone?

The cemetaries are filled with tombstones reading "Beloved Husband and Father" for scoundrels, rapscallions, drunks and cheaters who were despised by their wives and kids, who nevertheless paid for a stone reading "Beloved Husband and Father," and so what, really? A tombstone isn't expected to be a factual document that proves anything to anybody -- except Sam Heilman.

Good. He got those Lubavitchers, didn't he? Except he didn't. Go back to the official Chabad site where there is not one word about the rebbe being the messiah. Isn't the real truth that Chabad can't win? If someone writes that he is the messiah on a tombstone elsewhere in the cemetary -- as on other rabbinic tombstones -- it proves everything. But if they say he is dead and make no mention of him being the messiah, over the course of thousands of words online and in official conventions and gatherings for the shluchim (open to journalists), well, that just proves how tricky those Jews Lubavitchers are.

There is some interesting biographical information in Heilman-Friedman's book, but here are three things that are either highly annoying, unfair or indecent.

First, the annoying: The authors spell Chabad "ChaBaD" throughout the book, hundreds of times. ChaBaD? Heilman-Friedman's excuse is that this is "to indicate it is an acronym of the three Hebrew words, Chochma, Binah, and Da'as."

Thanks, professors, except that Chabad has long since been transformed from a Hebrew acronym into a proper English name for the movement, spelled by the movement itself as "Chabad" -- capital C, small 'H," small "a," small "b," small "a," small "d." No one, but no one, from journalists to academics to chasidim, have found the need to spell it "ChaBaD," and I'll bet no one will ever spell it Heilman-Friedman's way again.

It is not the worst mistake in the book but it is by far the most annoying and indicative less of the acronym than of the ivory tower pomposity that runs through the project.

Mistake two, is Heilman-Friedman's assertion that the rebbe opted mid-life for a career within Chabad-Lubavitch because the future rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, realized the limited opportunities in engineering that awaited a newly arrived immigrant. Except that Schneerson, although he did not complete his secular education, nevertheless had taken classes at the University of Berlin, the Sorbonne, and did get a diploma at a lesser known engineering school in Paris. There is no question that we're talking about a man with an outstanding intellect. And we know that tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who went into the concentration camps without even finishing high school went on, after the war, to find successful careers in the United States in every field imaginable. That someone who was brilliant, who later proved that his organizational and intellectual prowess was in the highest percentile, who was academically acquainted with the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne, even without a degree, that this Schneerson would be among those most pitiful survivors unable to land on their feet, and was therefore forced into the Chabad rabbinate by default, is just unfair, even absurd.

Mistake three -- the indecent -- is Heilman-Friedman's concluding sentence, in which they claim that Schneerson "brought his chasidim to such a peak of expectations.... that in his absence, should the Messiah continue to tarry, the future can only promise disappointment or the emergence of a new sort of Judaism."     

First of all, the rebbe has been dead for 16 years, the Messiah has indeed tarried, and yet we see from Lubavitchers not "disappointment" but likely the most optimistic, happy warriors in all of Judaism. One would think the gloomy disappointment would somehow have manifested itself by now, but not only has it not but Chabad has doubled its global projects and shluchim ("emissaries" of the rebbe, not "missionaries" as the Times has it).

Never in modern times has there been a group less prone to dissapointment. Heilman-Friedman's conclusion is based on nothing. For a professional sociologist shouldn't we see some survey, some proof for such a damning indictment? Nothing. That sentence is more akin to a spitball than to any substantiated academic conclusion, not what you'd expect from a pair of professors who demand to be taken seriously.

And "the emergence of a new sort of Judaism"?

Would any honest sociologist look at Judaism and say Chabad was the denomination or sub-denomination most likely to become a new sort of Judaism?

Would a Queens professor of sociology say that about Reform Judaism, where almost no one puts on tefillin, observes Shabbat as it has been observed for centuries, or keeps kosher or goes to mikvah, a denomination where Jewish illiteracy is rampant, where rabbis perform intermarriages by the thousands -- would Heilman-Friedman say Reform is becoming a new sort of Judaism?

How about Secular Humanist Judaism -- is not believing in God a new sort of Judaism, or is Secular Humanist Judaism, or even Conservative Judaism as practiced in most suburbs, better inoculated against becoming "a new sort of Judaism" than Chabad?

It's OK in most Jewish circles to take cheap shots at Chabad that we wouldn't take at any other Jewish group, it ihas become acceptable to slash Chabad as "the religion closest to Judaism," as the popular joke goes, but that doesn't make it any less repugnant and in violation of every modern code of pluralism and mutual respect.

The Times piece mentions that Heilman is a "modern Orthodox Jew." That means he is a messianist himself -- belief that the Messiah might come this very day is a basic precept of Orthodoxy -- and Heilman is a Zionist messianist, at that. In every Modern Orthodox shul, every Shabbat, his congregation recites the Prayer for the State of Israel, declaring it to be "the first flowering of our Redemption," a Redemption every bit as messianic as what you'd hear in Chabad.

In the interests of full disclosure and a more realistic conversation about messianism, shouldn't Modern Orthodox Heilman have owned up to his own messiansim and how Orthodoxy has always understood it rather than allowing a Lubavitcher's -- a fellow Jew's -- understanding of messianism to be twisted into incoherence?

I happen to be a Modern Orthodox, messianic Zionist myself, in favor of many of the West Bank settlements and the Jewish right to pray openly on the Temple Mount, but let's be honest with each other. What has been more divisive, what has led, even innocently, to more death and national chaos? Modern Orthodoxy's Zionist messianism, with its settlements and political agenda, or Chabad's messianism?

How about that cute Yiddishist leftist messianism from early in the 20th century that eradicated religion, and supported Stalin, even into the Hitler-Stalin pact, even against the State of Israel during the Six-Day War, sometimes even against the Soviet Jewry movement, and some of whose children now  -- without any concern for Gilad Shalit -- support the flotilla of the "humanitarians" and "peace activists" against Israel? How about that Jewish messianism?

Chabad's messianism has hurt no one, has been physically and culturally innocent, even selfless. It may very well be the most innocent, most generous, most harmless form of messianism in the history of religion, Jewish religion included.

If Chabad's messianism -- supposedly secretly adhered to by all Lubavitchers, according to Heilman -- is what drives the followers of the rebbe to do the astonishing amount of kindness all over the world, for Jews and non-Jews, arguably more than what is done by any other Jewish group, well, all I can say is what Lincoln said to those who bitterly complained about the legendary amounts of  whiskey being consumed by General Grant.

Said Lincoln, "Find out what he's drinking and give it to the rest of my generals."

To every man, woman and child in Chabad, "L'chaim." Pour yourselves another. May you and the rebbe be forever blessed -- and treated with respect.  

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This article is absurd. Meshichism is rampant in Chabad with only a few holdouts. Their liturgy has been enlarged to include the "Yechi' (Long Live our master, leader, rabbi, the king, the messiah). There is no question that they have the deceased Menachem Mendel Schneerson in mind. David Berger's book published by the Littman Library established this years ago. It remains the dominant reality of Chabad around the world.

Jonathan Mark, did you visit their synagogue during an ordinary service and not notice this or are you clueless about Jewish liturgy or did you take your information from Chabad minders?

So many aspects of your review are nitpicky but seem motivated by a goggle eyed journalist immerse or seduced into a hagiographic version of Chabad and the Rebbe. I am surprised you did not throw in a visit to the living risen rebbe.

Jonathan: here is an orthodoxy 101 question. When is Zatzal (ZT"L) appended after a name of a prominent orthodox rabbi and why do chabadniks refuse to apply it after the name of their deceased rebbe.

Answer, it is an Acronym for Zecher Tzadik Livrochoh (Rember this Righteous man for Blessing) and it is the norm for it to be appended after the name of any deceased rabbi of stature. Chabad applied it to the names of their earlier rebbes.

Jonathan, why do you think they refuse to apply it to Menachem Mendel Schneerson's name?

Of course the chabad.org website will present a sanitized Chabad to the world. However, just take a look at the signage throughout Crown Heights, especially in the World Lubavitch Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. Have a word with the average Lubavitcher on Kingston Avenue. I'm sorry, but there collective attitude is that Rabbi Schneerson is either alive or planning to come back form the dead.
The author raises fair points about the good works of many Lubavitchers, but he is quite obviously only peripherally connected to the group. I became observant about a dozen years ago and lived in a mid-sized Chabad community for a decade. I have also experienced Lubavitchers in New York and Israel. The vast majority, upwards of 80 percent, believe MMS to be the moshiach. The only difference is whether they openly proclaim it, or keep quiet. The latter is often the position taken by "establishment" shluchim who do not want to frighten off potential donors.
Unfortunately, this piece misses the point. Reagardless of the book it is apologetics to hide from Chabad Messianism. Both Crown Heights and Kfar Chbad are full of Moshiach flags and the fact remains that NOWHERE TO THEY DESCRIBE THE REBBE AS DEAD WITH THE obm OR TRADITIONAL zt"l . My local shluchim all keep it under wraps but privately are flaming messianists. they all are old enough to have known the Rebbe and come from the so-called anti-mishichist camp of Oholei Torah.....
While Reb Mark makes some very good points, I would like to focus on what the real issue in all of Judaism is. Unity, We number approximately 14 million of the 7 Billion people on earth. Much of the world hates us and wishes we would go away. Most of the world blames us for the challenges in the world. We are Hashems chosen ones. All Jews matter to G-d...A LOT. Just like a parent with many kids, what brings a parent tremendous nachas? When all the children get along. It is time for all Jews to focus on what we have in common, which is a lot more than what makes us different. We have a mission to make this world a better place. The Rambam clearly says " I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming." Let's try to make Hashem happy in choosing us by looking for the good in each other. Especially those who challenge us. A very good friend of mine, Tzvi Freeman, once quoted the Lubavitcher Rebbe, "If you see someone's faults hanging out and you truly want to help--whether it be a friend, a spouse, your child or even your nemesis--don't say a word about what you have found wrong. Find something wondrous about that person, perhaps something that nobody ever mentions, and talk about it--to yourself, to those who will listen and sympathize. In very little time, you will see such a new person, you will believe you are a maker of wonders. Indeed, we all are" today's a great day to start.
Jonathan, You are amazing, witty and "on the Mark", as always! You are a true and loyal friend of not only Chabad, specifically, but the entire Klal Yisroel, and Eretz Yisroel in general. You always have the guts to say what is right and what must be said regardless of political correctness, which unfortunately the majority of the media, Jewish Standard included suffers from (BTW - we cancelled our 10+ year JS subscription a month ago, after the ridiculous and angering run of a typically Anti-Semitic, J-Street ad). We need more true soldiers like YOU!!! -Fellow Jews from Teaneck, NJ
Jonathan, fantastic column!
Nice essay. But its not so simple. What is Chabad today and what is orthdox messianism? 1. Chabad does not exist today. (Bear with me). "The New Chabad" ("TNC") exists today. Chabad from its inception and design hundreds of years ago (until ~1990) has a rebbe, is wholy unified under him, everything of it, from it and about it is the rebbe. TNC is like a body without a head being kept alive by machines. Though there may be exponential, organic, growth and services, as far as being alive as defined by reaction, opinion, policy-making, innovation, etc. it does not. TNC has people making decisions and policy which affect others, but unlike Chabad when 100% of people considering themselves Chabad subjected themselves to the rebbe's whims (which were considered representative of the divine), TNC's "leaders" are considered by no one as divine representation and many don't consider them at all. TNC is a fragmented mass of people using the name Chabad but is a new and evolving entity, which may include contradictory components about, and certainly has no live rebbe establishing policy for, 2010 issues. Chabad's rebbe's positions of pre-1990 are constantly being used today by many different people who wish to say what TNC is or should be. So, Chabad's (actually TNC's) official website is as official as any other website if it is to portray what Chabad philosophy is today. TNC's website can only clarify what its site owner's feel TNC should be, but cannot portray what Chabad says or is. To try and encapuslate my point: We can all study what Chabad's philosophy was for anything until the rebbe's death and justfiably, potentially reach some thing called unequivocal fact. But we cannot apply as fact an official Chabad position for anything that has developed after the rebbe's death, including, of course, the rebbe's death and what he is or is not today. That is TNC and will always be just one (and every) man's opinion - be it Heilman, Mark or TNC leadership. B. Ask youself what exactly you mean by that you are "messianic". Do you believe that today there is a man alive that can and perhaps will - before 3pm - show, unequivocally, everyone else alive, that god runs the world, can make the sun stop its path across the sky, make the dead alive, has a special connection only to your people, and dictates that you kill an (every) amaleki child as revenge for some storied war of several thousand years ago. Do you take literally the (biblical - religious) fact that Israel belongs to you and your people (Zionist?) but sugarcoat (biblical-religious) things that require explicit godly miracles and existence? Fact is that anyone messianic - you, Heilman or a chabadist - can think or believe that the rebbe is the messiah and still consider yourself within orthodox judaism. But you don't or won't - because the rebbe being messiah whether before or after his death - requires a bridge between belief and real life that most Jews don't cross. How silly of me? Don't all orthodox Jews live their beliefs? Sure. Clothes, food, Do and don'ts....all that can be played throughout an entire life like a show. But that messaih and resurrection of the dead are real like that steak you eat? Nu uh. Its one thing to think of yourself a an orthodox Jew in a suit as any other sophisticated human as long as you can keep your religion in line with the pace of modern society - you exercise your right to wear a different color of the same fabric of the cultured mosaic. It's quite another to state to the world that you are a fundamentalist with a Moses just like in the Bible who will split another red sea, today and it will be on CNN. The rebbe forced the accountability of whether you truly believe everything about orthodox judaism. He pushed the notion of a real heart-pumper messiah in the face of all people who say they believe it will be. He discarded the common and familar comfort zone of a future messiah. He spoke of a messiah today. He too had issues switching from a future belief to a today one. But in his later years did make the switch and eventually emraced the notion of his actually being the messiah. And his death pushed further the conversation into the discomforting zone of how deep anyone's beliefs run. So Heilman, you and Chabad.com can all agree on a messianic notion that remains fixed in the future, since there's no rebbe alive to push you out of that comfort zone. And the fringe people who say the rebbe never died or did die but is still THE messiah can be marginalized. But if you want to be true to your self you should ask yourself whether you do actually believe in what the rebbe challenged people to believe in 1992. This could of course touch on whether you really believe in the god you supposedly pray to or whether you just need a santa claus for social reasons and psychologcial and existential reasons, but deep down have more faith in the sun rising than messiah requiring you to ride on his cloud in a couple of minutes.
right on. great response. but of course we know that (in the words of bibi netanyahu) "chabad is guilty until proven guilty".
The bottom line is that a significant number of Lubavitchers believe that the Rebbe is god. Look at rebbegod.blogspot.com. When in Jewish history would anyone be given a pass at deifying a human being? The Rebbe was a very great Jewish leader; but theReform and conservativ problem is that Lubavitch has always deified its rebbes. As far as criticism of Lubavitch taking precedence over other groups, it should not. The Reform, by performing conversions not in accordance with Jewish law, accepting patrilenaility, and intermarriage, has resulted in a situation where the majority of people in many if not most people in Reform temples are not Jewish according to any halachic standard. The Conservatives, by issuing divorces that in no way would hold up to halachic scrutiny would have created a major problem with mamzeirut had it nit been for the earth-shattering ruling of Rav Moshe Feinstein that Reform an Conservative marriages do not require a get. Rav Henkin railed against this position. If he had been going up against anyone except Rav Moshe, he would have prevailed. It's clear that these people intended to get married, and held themselves out as such. The disgusting Ashkenazic charedim are not being give a pass for their vicious racism against Sephardim. And most of us Zionists don't hesitate to criticize theJ-Streeters for placing Israel's security i danger. But all of these other groups' faults do not excuse the grievous sin of avoda zara--idolotry, one of the 3 sins for which a Jew is required to sacrifice his life before transgressing. And the fact that Lubavitch does great work does not excuse them from excising this cancer in their midst.