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.