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Messianic matters

By ReligionFebruary, 2010December 21st, 20238 min read
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Outsider, Rachel Sacks-Davis, and insider, David Werdiger, comment on the expulsion of the “Moshiach Dancers” and related controversies at Yeshiva Shule. Click here to skip straight to David’s insiders’ view.

Outsider’s view
by Rachel Sacks-Davis
It’s 6pm on Wednesday the 28th of January, and I’m on my bike at the corner of Inkerman Road and Hotham Street, on my way home from work. Three men are dancing in circles on the corner nearest the Yeshivah Centre; they are wearing yellow t-shirts and jester hats, and waving an enormous yellow flag. Evidently, their widely publicised ‘excommunication,’ has not dampened their spirit.

In June last year, when Frosh and I wrote our “Ode to the Moshiach Dancers,” we were aware that these four joyous if unconventional men were a source of embarrassment for some Jews outside of the Lubavitch community, but we did not realise how controversial they had already become in their own community.

Shortly after writing the article, I was told that the moshiach dancers were considered to be quite mad. Unfortunately, I got the impression that this perceived madness elicited derision rather than compassion; so the following Shabbat when I walked past the dancers on my way to shul, I made an effort to be particularly friendly to them.

Of course by now, anyone who reads the AJN knows that on January 10 this year Rabbi Telsner, the dayan of Yeshivah Shule, released a notice effectively excommunicating the dancers. Rabbi Telsner’s notice reached my inbox via a friend who is not a chabadnik, but nevertheless suggested that perhaps Chabad had “finally come to its senses” by distancing itself from these extremely messianic elements.

The secular staff writer at the AJN seemingly concurred, writing that when the moshiach dancers broke the fast of the 10th of Tevet, they had “gone too far.” This struck me as being somewhat ironic coming from a secular person, who it is fair to assume, eats on the 10th of Tevet as a matter of course.

The two Chabad commentators who wrote in the same edition of the AJN cast the moshiach dancers as eccentrics and cult members respectively. Neither expressed sympathy for the small group who are by all accounts a bit different from the norm.

It would be remiss not to mention the context in which the moshiach dancers had become unpopular, and certainly they had raised the public profile of an extremely controversial and divisive issue – Chabad messianism. (For some insight into this controversy, see David Werdiger’s blog post and subsequent comments on the “Yechi” debate at Yeshivah Shule.)

Nonetheless, it seems fairly insensitive to excommunicate a small group of “eccentrics,” with no real influence on the mainstream congregants at Yeshivah Shule. Moreover, whilst the excommunication might be partially related to the dancers’ explicit messianism, explicit messianism persists at Yeshivah Shule amongst its more mainstream congregants. In the weeks following the excommunication, a movement from within the Yeshivah Shule congregation petitioned Rabbi Telsner to take down the sign that hangs in the shul proclaiming (or at the very least praying) that the late Chabad Rebbe is the moshiach, but Rabbi Telsner has announced that the sign will not be removed.

Insider’s view
by David Werdiger
The so-called “Moshiach Dancers” have been largely viewed within the Yeshivah community as meshuga’im – crazies – not as much due to their extreme ideology regarding Moshiach, but more for the way they choose to express it, whether through loud defiant declarations and dances in the shul itself, or more recently their regular expressions of free speech in the street.

When they were evicted from the shul, it was because their actions were divisive and disruptive to the broader members. The recent declaration against their Chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) by publicly eating on a fast day in breach of Jewish law was, in my view, warranted, as they had crossed a line with such an action. No matter what their beliefs regarding the imminence of Moshiach’s arrival or his identity, this gave them no right to breach halacha. As the Dayan of the Yeshivah community and arbiter of matters relating to Jewish law, Rabbi Telsner was obliged to take a stand against such action.

Going beyond that to what some people would call the core issue of the “Moshiach Dancers” is the mental health issue. As a community, we ought to help them. We have committees for financial aid, and for meal assistance during crisis times, although these things can usually be done by lay persons. To deal with a mental health issue requires a professional, so perhaps what is required in this case is a communal approach (directed by a mental health professional) that would help lead these folks to get the help they need. Deriding their behaviour is callous, but expressing public sympathy or approaching them may not have the correct effect either, as it continues to reward their actions with attention.

While the actions of a few eccentrics are what capture the imagination, the substantive issue here is actually that of messianism at Yeshivah Shul, and in Chabad generally. Regarding this, the recent coverage in the AJN regarding the Yechi sign and the petition was shameful sensationalism carrying little insight into what is really going on.

People have left Yeshivah shul because of the Yechi sign at the back. Would they all come running back if the sign was taken down? No. Would the removal of the sign usher in a new age of unity within the shul? No. The existence of the sign does not affect the vast majority of regulars (certainly not those of us who daven facing the front of the shul where the aron kodesh is) – a minority on either side of the political/ideological fence either strongly object to it, or strongly object to its removal. Whether people agree with the outcome or not, a process was followed by launching a petition, and the Dayan made a ruling. It ought to stop there. The issues facing Yeshivah shul go far beyond messianic ideology, and are largely internal.

Rachel talks about the “explicit messianism” that persists at the shul. I’ve always maintained that the issue is not black and white: rather, there is a spectrum of belief within Chabad regarding Moshiach, with extremes on either side. What everyone wants to know is this: is it reasonable to believe that the Rebbe can still be Moshiach, despite having passed away some years ago? The answer, according to many authorities, is yes. And if that might be termed “explicit messianism”, then yes, it does still exist within many mainstream Chabad communities around the world. It is also reasonable to believe that the Rebbe during his lifetime could have been Moshiach (or was “the Moshiach of his generation”), but now can no longer as he has passed away. Both of these positions are supported by Jewish theology.

No matter what one believes about specific details (and indeed, whether these details are themselves important), what Chabad brought was a public awareness about Moshiach that was largely absent from the Jewish world for many years. This is despite the fact that our daily prayers are filled with liturgy about our craving for the Messianic era. It is sad and ironic that the concept of Moshiach, which encapsulates the reunification of world Jewry, has been recently subverted as such a divisive one.

The article originally appeared on Galus Australis, and the article image is taken from there.

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