July 19, 2019

Another Side of the Rebbe

“There is little doubt that Chabad Hasidism constitutes one of the most, if not the most, potent Jewish messianic movements in the 20th century. Messianic movements are complex, organic, bipolar creatures. Their power is generated by a mix of charismatic leadership and historical conditions that merge to create a volatile bubbling mix of religious enthusiasm, utopian optimism and, when they fail, foreboding and crushing disappointment. Such disappointment makes them prone to revisionism.

Revisionism is often a pejorative term, referring to a mutation or distortion of an idea. I do not use it that way in this essay. By revisionism I refer to a recalibration of a claim, ideology, or idea when history proves it untenable, in this case, when Chabad’s leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who many believed was the messiah, dies. For the movement to survive, it must reassess its central claim and interpret it in a way that both coheres with the present reality and also keeps the original idea alive. In the case of Schneerson, such revisionism gestated in the context of collective mourning and introspection. When Schneerson passed away, 25 years ago this week, more impatient minds offered more radical solutions, such as claiming the Rebbe did not die but is merely occluded, prepared to return at any moment. In some circles, his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death (the third day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz), is referred to only as “the events of 3 Tammuz.” As is the case in many transitional periods, the status quo had a limited shelf life. The tension between Schneerson’s messianic status and the reality of his death was just too great to sustain. Internal Chabad revisions became necessary.

About a decade after his passing, various modes of revisionism began to take hold, especially in America. A newfangled “Rebbe” as spiritual guide began to take form in books such as Simon Jacobson’s 2004 Toward a Meaningful Life and the many works of DovBer Pinson, along with numerous other examples. The messiah morphed into a self-help spiritual guide who presented Judaism as a form of human attunement to the divine presence in the world in a multicultural post-New Age era. What is distinctive about this mode of revision is that the messiah trope largely became transformed from the personhood of Schneerson to the continued importance of his teachings, from a more traditional notion of messiah as redeemer to an American version of piety without asceticism. In essence, it became a new form of Hasidic self-redemption that reminds one of Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “Everyone wants to change the world but nobody wants to change themselves.””

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