Op-Ed: Moshiach Without The Rye

When someone you love 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. The 24-year conversation with friends and admirers of Lubavitch about Moshiach must change its course. An open-letter to friends of Lubavitch

Dear Friends 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.

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.

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.

So there are a few thoughts I want to share with you about this very topic.

Lubavitch has no right to exist without propagating the idea of Moshiach

It’s very easy to like Lubavitch without the Moshiach craze; truth to be said we also like ourselves better that way. But 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 who can do it, should do it and do it!

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.

To help you understand where we’re coming from, I would like to you to read this post, Lubavitch and moshiach: 4 phases, in which the history of lubavitch from its inception in the 1870s, is divided into four phases of Moshiach-related work.

But in summary, Chabad is not only about outreach; outreach is a means to something greater. To the purpose of creation of this world – the coming of Moshiach. And as uncomfortable as it feels, we’d better start talking about it seriously, like true friends.

 

The Relevance of the Rebbe’s Moshiach Message to Judaism Today

The Rebbe turned Moshiach into a campaign in-it-of-itself during the 1980s, and brought into unprecedented heights in the early 1990s, after the peaceful collapse of the soviet union, Jews coming in hords to israel, the miracles of the Persian Gulf war and the dismantling of WMDs by world superpowers. All these were all seen by the Rebbe not only as signs that the geulah is near, but that the geulah is actually beginning to unfold.

During the international conference of the Shluchim in late 1991, the Rebbe went as far as saying to the Shluchim that, “the work of Shlichus has been completed, the only thing remaining is to greet Moshiach” The Rebbe went on to say that this idea must permeate all other aspects of the Shlichus!

The Rebbe’s Moshiach message includes two aspects.

Speaking to CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman on December 20 1990, the Rebbe worded his “message to the world about Moshiach” thus: “Moshiach is ready to come now; from our part, we must add in acts of goodness and kindness.” (See video footage here)

I would like to focus on this message, by expounding it based on the Rebbe’s teachings around the time it was said:

  1. “Moshiach is ready to come now” – 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 to elaborate on it for the reasons I will discuss further on.]

  1. “From our part” – You can start living a Moshiach-like lifestyle in spiritual matters: Our Avodas Hashem can and must now be done 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-halachic 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.]

***

This is the Rebbe’s message. Our Job as Chassidim is to promote it, make it known and most importantly – get people involved.

How did we score on this mission?

Well, it’s a very hard question to answer, because I can safely say that almost everyone knows that we’re very into Moshiach, particularly on the “Who?” (yes, Lubavitchers know exactly who is Moshiach…) and “When?” questions, (“We want Moshiach NOW!”).

When it comes to our second mission, – getting people involved, we still have a long way to go. The reason for that, I believe, is because we didn’t address the “What?” and “Why?” in an adequate fashion.

 

Our Successful-Unsuccessful PR Campaign

Divine Providence wanted, and somehow our “gig” of the Rebbe’s Moshiach message became the messianism of the Rebbe himself. Ironically, this 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 may have made the message unpalatable and harder for people to get involved in.

But more than making it unpalatable, it drew the attention away from the more practical aspects of the Rebbe’s message.

I often think to myself, which of those two aspects of the Moshiach message are more important, knowing that “Moshiach is ready to come now” or “Our part,” which means 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.

I don’t think we should regret the way we did it, because apologetics don’t work in the long run; this is what we believe and it would have come out anyway.

We can however speak to each other, and understand the sensitivities involved, and even if we don’t reach agreement on all aspects of the message, we can move a step closer in terms of our preparations for Moshiach.

Since I initiated this conversation, I would like to “admit” to two mistakes in our presentation of the message, with the hope of fixing them with your help.

 

Mistake #1: We Didn’t Make it Meaningful

The first mistake we made is that there was no real “call to action.” We said that this is what we believe and we tried to convince the world to believe the same.

I was once on a bus in Israel, and some of my friends 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 spent some more time learning about Moshiach and the Rebbe’s message in particular, and I think I may now have the answer:

The Rebbe’s messages of Moshiach (in all of its phases, see “4 phases” post) includes two layers, the first, a theoretical-informational one and the other a practical one.

The concept: We’re living in messianic times and the Moshiach of the generation has begun to reveal himself; The implication: We must serve Hashem on a messianic level (by revealing our “inner Moshiach”), thus greeting (the “general”) Moshiach.

To fix this mistake, we need to provide the required attention to this topic, as it is very crucial:

“Living with Moshiach” creates a form of Avodas Hashem which answers all the struggles of the Jewish-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.

One 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.

A “holistic” kind of worldview wherein the world and what it represents are not seen as an enemy to Judaism, but a world seeking to be redeemed, does good not only to the world, but also to the carriers of the message.

If children are brought up knowing that they are the leaders of a world which they must teach and inspire, the clashes with the world (which will exist until the arrival of Moshiach) will be handled much more wisely, calmly and successfully.

 

Mistake #2: We Gave You the Pastrami Without the Rye

Our second mistake is another irony: we didn’t realize that we were doing it!

Mistake #1 wasn’t a deliberate decision that turned out to be mistaken, as much as it was reactionary behavior.

Let me explain: the practical side of the Rebbe’s Moshiach message was certainly not unknown to us (while we are still trying to grasp it and make it more attainable), it is just that it came to be perceived by both the promoters of the message (us), and by all else—the target audience—as secondary.

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.

It is only natural, that when a group of people claim that a certain person is Moshiach that much attention is given to this claim. It becomes a topic of debate and controversy which grabs everyone’s attention.

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.

We are having the wrong conversation!

Just like its only natural that a child will pull out the filling from his 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.

The Rebbe-Moshiach topic must be put into two contexts. The first: Where does it come from? And the second: Where is it going to? Why is it meaningful to me?

***

I believe that I gave at least some food for thought for the second question. I wish to now return to the first: From where the belief that the Rebbe is Moshiach come?

I will answer this question with a story related by the Rebbe himself at  a Farbrengen held on Shabbos Parshas Nasso 5720 (1960):

“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.” (the Rebbe himself was known to take part in these activities. Ed.)

“There was a Jew who came to a chassidic Rebbe, who lived here in the United States (it was the Kopishnitzer Rebbe. Ed.), 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?!””

Our dear friends!

Did Lubavitch messianism start to seem outlandish post Gimmel Tammuz, or were you disturbed by it during the Rebbe’s (revealed) lifetime?

Is saying that a (seemingly) deceased person will be the Moshiach what is bothering you. Or is it the very 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 makes you feel uncomfortable?

This is an question you must ask and answer yourself, the feeling I get, however, is 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.”

Now I’m not trying to avoid the Gimmel Tammuz issue; I do very well understand that many in retrospect could say that ‘I would have believed before Gimmel Tamuuz, but now? What makes you so certain that the Rebbe led a heroic and noble attempt to bring Moshiach which failed, just as many Tzddikim did?

A fair question, we can and should discuss it.

But I think such a discussion will be more productive if we overcome the first hurdle.

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.

Let’s learn about how we see signs of Moshiach unfold before our eyes. I think we can agree on this one too.

As the Kopisnitzer Rebbe told this gentelman: “Let’s think for a moment: we all believe that Moshiach can come any day, so it is a fact that a Moshiach exists.”

If you find another serious candidate and believe that he’s the one, we won’t be making precedent: already in the times of the Gemara students of four different yeshivahs each saw their rebbe as the Moshiach of the generation.

We must avoid becoming 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.

 

A Personal Request:

So please, next time you want to talk to a Lubavitcher about Moshiach, 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.

Levi Liberow

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