Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

An Unnecessary Attack

FailedMessiah recently posted a YouTube video of Rav Adin Steinsaltz speaking on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the death of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. The video contains some statements that, on superficial reading, might sound controversial and like an endorsement of the divinification of the Rebbe. To wit:
The Rebbe is unlike so many heroes whose biographies you can’t sell a year after they’ve died. The Rebbe remains a very active figure even though he doesn’t move with us in this world.
When the Rebbe was alive, he was not just a spiritual leader; he was in many ways, a king, a commander of an army, and he made people move.
Now he is becoming spiritualized, he is becoming a force, a figure like Elijah the prophet.
We’re not really uncovering new stories about details or parts of his life. Instead, what appears is a picture of an individual who is almost a supernatural being.
The Rebbe is becoming very much—and perhaps this is not the right term—a mythical figure. The Baal Shem Tov, for example, is now a power of nature. And the Rebbe is becoming like that.

However, on closer reading, I don't see much a person can disagree with. Now, Rav Steinsaltz is a great amongst greats, a Gadol b'Yisrael and certainly doesn't need little ol' me to defend him. Nevertheless, I will point out why what he said isn't really controversial.
Now those who know me know that I'm certainly not an apologist for Chabad. I'm not into mystical stuff so Tanya has never appealed to me. I'm not into Rebbe-worship so Chasidus is something I'm interested in but not devoted to. And don't get me started on the Moshiach crap they've created.
In addition, I have had the zechus to meet Rav Steinsaltz and can attest to the man's greatest, both spiritual and intellectual. He is not a mindless follower of anyone, certainly not the former Rebbe.
It seems to me that some people have a problem with the word "great". People they like can have the adjective attached to them but people they don't like can't. Such is the case with the Rebbe. Tell the average anti-Chabad person that the Rebbe was a great man and they immediately bristle and try to prove how he wasn't.
Except that he was, by any standard. Here's a man who took a mid-size Chasidic not-so-well known clan and turned into the most successful marketing organization of the 20th century. He didn't just build up Chabad, he turned it into a brand name by remaking the Lubavitchers into a company. Other Chasidic clans exist. Lubavitch is fixed on a mission. One may disagree with the mission, the philosophy or even the flavour of their gefilte fish but their success is undeniable. They have a model that works for what they want to accomplish. All of this is due to the goal-durected leadership of the former Rebbe. This is what made him great and an important figure in Jewish history.
Seen in this light, Rav Steinsaltz' statements are more understandable. Like Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, l'havdil, death has only increased his reknown and influence. What the Rebbe might have wanted remains the factor for his followers and the current folks running Lubavitch Inc. act as if he is still running the organization. Lubavitch still functions like a finely oiled machine. The shlichim know their jobs and train their entire lives to perform the mission they've been sent on. In many ways Lubavitch is like an army and the Rebbe is the figurehead general.
In addition, freed from the shackles of its mortal coil, the Rebbe's legacy is now beginning to grow. Sure most of the stories are probably bubbe maysehs but they are told with conviction and over time they will continue to grow. In a hundred years, the Rebbe will have been elevated to the status of the Ba'al Shem Tov, a larger than life figure with hundreds of mystical and miraculous events attributed to him. And this is what Rav Steinsaltz is admiring.
History is written by the winners. The Lubavitchers play to win. In a hundred years, we'll know if they did.


Not Brisk said...


He could have worded it differently. The 'supernatural' thing for example.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Yes, the wording is tricking but there is something unusual about how the Rebbe's marketing has been so successful.

Anonymous said...

It's possible to use ambiguous language to send out a double message, one to insiders plus another to outsiders. I have no idea if this is an example of that or not. Why not ask Rav Steinsaltz directly about his intent?

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

It is often pointed out, by members of Chabad, that Chabad has grown exponentially since the passing of the Rebbe demonstrating, thereby, the greater effect of the Rebbe since his passing than even before. This is presented as evidence of not only his continuing legacy but a continuing spirit. The fact is that there are cases when one seems to accomplish more in death -- and be more recognized after death -- than while still alive; this, though, is not necessarily a positive. While someone is still with us, the actual parameters of that person's ideas and perceptions are still tangible and real. While someone is still alive, you can't say that this person said a certain idea (i.e. put words into his mouth) as this person can always correct the misperception and state what he really meant. But when someone has passed on, he can become mythical because he can be attributed with any and all statements. The Mashichist movement within Chabad is a perfect example of this. Both sides argue that their position is the one that the Rabbe articulated. Those who say the Rebbe is Mashiach quote the Rebbe himself as proof of their assertons. Those who are strongly against this position also quote the Rebbe as being against such an assertion. The fact that the Rebbe is not here to clarify his true thoughts allows this to be. And the fact that the Rebbe can be seen in so many different ways means that he can be found to be more acceptable to a wider audience. The sadness of this is that without the Rebbe here to clarify what he really means, the loss is the truth and the Rebbe's true position within Torah.

There is no doubt that the Rebbe was a great man in accomplishing what he did. That does not mean that we have to agree with everything that he did or with his overall viewpoints. Eilu v'Eilu applies. But when he was here, we were sure that there was a parameter on the movement in the personna of the Rebbe. That is missing and while the influence of the Rebbe after his passing is indeed a reflection of what he did, it also is something of which we should be concerned. What will be said in his name?

Rabbi Ben Hecht