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Understanding Chabad and Messianism

By ReligionMarch, 2012December 21st, 202317 min read

As an active writer and blogger, I have often found myself in discussions about Chabad with people from outside the Chabad community. In addition, I recently had the opportunity to review some of the books and articles written on the issue of Chabad and Messianism. The material I read seeks to explore the Messianic fervour associated with Chabad, and to delve into the mind of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and speculate as to the Rebbe’s intent and sense of self in the context of the Moshiach campaign. The writers drew upon evidence – some better than others – as well as the Rebbe’s writings and their own interpretations of such.

As an “insider”, and someone who has a reasonable grasp of Chabad theology and textual sources, I sensed that many of their assumptions and interpretations are based on a misunderstanding or lack of appreciation of Chabad theology, and particularly of the nature of the organisation itself. This article is primarily intended to educate and contextualize Chabad for those not part of the community. As the work of a card-carrying Chabadnik, it may be dismissed as hagiography – my intent is not to be one-eyed and defensive; rather to break down barriers between Jewish groups through better understanding of each other.

Jews have been pining for Moshiach for nearly 2000 years, some more overtly than others. The belief in the coming of Moshiach is core to all of Orthodox Judaism – the daily prayers and liturgy are full of very explicit and strongly worded wishes for the messianic age. Orthodox Jewish leaders – both Chassidim and Mitnagdim – were for many hundreds of years clearly focussed on the desire to usher in the Messianic age. While the Mitnagdim are/were opposed to some Chabad activities and theology, this did not dampen their own desire for Moshiach; rather they rejected Chabad’s unique approach to the issue. Where Chabad differs from other Jewish groups is that the Rebbe prioritized and emphasized the belief in and desire for the Messianic age, and used it as a driver for the entire movement in ways that have never been done before. This is something worthy of further exploration when considering the impact of Chabad in the world.

To understand this better, one first has to understand the relationship between a Chassid and a Rebbe. As a leader, a Rebbe has a connection to God and spiritual dimensions not attainable for the majority of people. As such, he has the ability to perceive the needs of his Chassidim, and to offer advice, insights, blessings, and direction for their lives. This leads to a very strong bond between Chassid and Rebbe. My late grandfather, Reb Zalman Serebryanski OBM, would repeat the time-worn adage “a Chassid is a soldat (soldier)”. This military metaphor helps us understand the way a Chassidic group functions and the interactions between Rebbe and Chassid.

As an example of this, in 1978, the Gerer Rebbe known as “Lev Simcha” established an outpost in Ashdod. At the time, Ashdod was mostly secular, with a Sefardi and a small Ashkenazi charedi community there. The Gerer Rebbes had a history of establishing takanot (by-laws) to regulate the way their Chassidim lived, such as placing limits of the amount one could spend on weddings to avoid inflationary pressures and jealousy. The initial response was mixed – the believers were positive, those with financial issues liked the proposition, and those who could afford elsewhere tried to get permission to buy elsewhere.

However, the authority of the Rebbe was not something that was questioned, and since price limitations were imposed on flats for newlyweds, the Ashdod community grew very quickly. Today, the price controls are no longer needed as the Gerer community has spread across the Israel, so no- one has an issue with living outside of Jerusalem.

In hindsight, this was an outstanding visionary move. Property prices in Jerusalem only went up, and the Rebbe was acting in the best interests of his Chassidim and the continuity of their community and lifestyle in doing this. And as a Rebbe, he had the power to make it happen, rather than leave it to a market economy.

There are elements of autocracy, monarchy and military in the organisational structure and culture of Chassidic communities. The bottom line is simple: if the Rebbe issues a directive, the Chassidim do.

My late grandparents OBM were among a handful of families sent to Australia in 1949 by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (known as “the Rebbe Rayatz” – an acronym of his name) to help establish and grow the community here. This was during an age where communication across 10,000 miles (let alone travel) was far more difficult. And yet, these families took this upon themselves and were shluchim – emissaries – of the Rebbe, dedicating their lives in fulfilling the mission of Chabad. It was far more difficult to maintain a close connection to the Rebbe back then. They corresponded by (snail) mail, sending reports of their activities, asking questions, and receiving further instructions.

The mission of Chabad is unashamedly simple: to usher in the Messianic age through acts of goodness and kindness. This harks back to the Baal Shem Tov’s famous spiritual encounter with Moshiach, where he was advised that Moshiach will come when “your wellsprings will burst forth to the farthest extremes”; indeed this phrase forms part of a popular Chabad Chassidic song about the encounter.

The Rebbe Rayatz did this by sending his emissaries like my late grandparents to all parts of the world to build communities and do outreach work, and the Rebbe continued this work with even greater vigour, rapidly growing Chabad to a global network of tens of thousands of Chassidim, and thousands of Chabad Houses and Chabad communities.

While other Chassidic groups had a more insular and isolationist approach, in some cases trying to recreate the shtetl of pre-war Europe, Chabad was radical and revolutionary. They discarded the shtreimel and long coats of the other groups and took the conservative fedora and dark suit of mainstream Orthodoxy and Misnagdim. They went out into the world and engaged with it in a way that no Jewish group had ever before.

The thousands of foot-soldiers, each dedicated to the Rebbe and his mission, spread very rapidly across the world. The movement took some but not all elements from the military. In an army, the chain of command is everything. A soldier is trained to follow the orders of their superior officer, and in order for an army to operate smoothly, it needs a deep hierarchy of management: Lieutenants, Corporals, Majors, Generals, and a Commander in Chief. Orders flow down from the Commander in Chief to the Privates, and activity and reporting flows up. Chabad was different: it had the military culture of soldiers working together toward a common cause, but not the structure and management levels of an army (or indeed of any organisation of similar size). I believe this was for two reasons:  Firstly, this sort of hierarchy is not how delegation traditionally works in Chassidic groups – everyone can and does have a direct connection to the Rebbe, which is embodied in the principle of hitkashrut (connectedness). A Chassid is connected to a Rebbe by (a) doing the things the Rebbe directs and considers important, and (b) studying the Rebbe’s teachings. The Rebbe had a tremendous work rate, and with the assistance of a small secretariat group, was indeed able to respond to a huge volume of correspondence from many thousands of Chassidim and maintain a direct connection with them. Secondly, having minimal management and controls meant global expansion could be far more rapid. How long would it take a regular business to establish a global presence of tens of thousands all pushing the message of the CEO?

Over time, and with growth, the position of Head Shliach for a geographic region emerged. However, this was not a management position, rather a way to ensure the region was divided appropriately. Any given Shliach would not report to, nor be required to seek guidance from their Head Shliach on a regular basis – rather they would still be connected directly to the Rebbe. In recent time, and with greater saturation of shluchim in some areas, this structure has led to turf wars and nepotism, and the conflict resolution mechanisms are not well developed.

In some areas, parallel and partially overlapping structures formed, where in one city or area there might be several Chabad Shuls, several Chabad Houses, and a Chabad community. Melbourne is a good example of this, where there are Rabbis, Shluchim, and Head Shluchim, and somehow, they mostly find a way to coexist. However, the alliances are loose at best, and there are weak if nonexistent lines of accountability within the city. There is no group that purports to speak or make decisions for the Chabad Rabbis in any city. Again, conflict can and has arisen, and has not been dealt with well. Here is not the place to go into a deep examination of the political and organisational dynamics of one particular city that has a strong Chabad presence. Suffice to say that the loose hierarchy has both strengths: rapid growth and a feeling of direct connectedness to the Rebbe and the mission; and weaknesses: difficulty in dealing with conflict and maintaining a very consistent message.

People who speak of “the Chabad PR machine”, or who suggest that “Chabad has power and influence” have the mistaken impression that Chabad Rabbis and Shluchim work far more closely together than they do. Each has their individual shlichus and mission, and each one seeks to fulfil it on a micro level. As disappointing as this may sound, they don’t get together in secret meetings to plot global domination, or even local domination of (non-Chabad) shuls or pan-communal organisations like the Beth Dins or Kashrut authorities.

So how about Messianism? As stated, the mission of Chabad is to bring about the coming of Moshiach, and the Rebbe was (and remains) as the leader, driver and face of that mission. There is a tradition (mentioned in Zohar) that in every generation, there is someone who is the designated Moshiach (if the time is right for Moshiach to come). Most, if not all Chassidim (and plenty of non-Chabadniks) considered the Rebbe to be the mostly likely person to be the Moshiach of our generation.

There was plenty of opposition by broader Orthodoxy to this focus on who Moshiach may or may not be. While there is precedent in the Talmud for declarations of who the “designated Moshiach” is at any time, it was felt by some that this emphasis was unnecessary, unhelpful to the cause, and cult-like. From the perspective of Chabadniks, it may be that identifying a likely Moshiach made the concept more tangible and acceptable, which in turn would drive greater activity directed toward bringing Moshiach (when I was in Yeshivah many years ago, my roommate once commented to me: “Galus isn’t as bad as people make out”. This inertia, complacency, and fear of change were something the Rebbe was trying to break with the Moshiach campaign. Only a genuinely feeling that there was something deeply missing in the world could being to sufficient desire to create change).

Did the “who” surpass the “how”? For some, it certainly did. Did the Rebbe himself feed the frenzy? This is a difficult question to answer. There are letters, extracts of discourses and incidents that can be interpreted either way (and here is not the place to go into a detailed chapter and verse), so it’s impossible to come to a clear answer to this. How important is it to know whether or not the Rebbe himself fed the frenzy? This question is probably only important to those who feel strongly either way (rather than the muddled middle that are comfortable with ambiguity on this issue).

There was and remains a divergence of views as the relative importance of the “who”. Some within Chabad believe that the declaration and acceptance of the Rebbe as Moshiach in and of itself helps bring Moshiach closer. The majority focus on what they consider “core” activities: general outreach work and the mitzvah campaigns.

The Rebbe’s passing from this world, on Gimmel Tammuz (all Chabad special days are known by their Hebrew date rather than what happened on them), was a huge challenge for all Chassidim. For some, it was a clear indication that the Rebbe’s mission to bring Moshiach (and to be the Moshiach) had failed. Nevertheless, the mission had to continue. For others, a spectrum of secondary beliefs emerged and developed as to the status of a Rebbe who no longer had a physical presence in this world, and this spawned what is now characterised as Chabad Messianism. Yet for these Chassidim too, the mission had to continue. This created a significant rift within the movement which continues until this day. And yet, no matter where on the Messianic belief spectrum Chassidim sat, they all agreed that the mission had to continue. And continue it did, with even greater growth and expansion than before Gimmel Tammuz.

What proportion of Chabad fall within the spectrum of these Messianic beliefs? How many are “Meshichisten”? Until someone does some quality research on the matter, it’s impossible to say. But again, this question is probably only important to people at either spectrum of belief (both within and outside Chabad).

Actions speak louder than words and give us a greater insight into the underlying beliefs that drive those actions.

In many other Chassidic dynasties, the passing of the Rebbe led to quarrels as to succession, and in many cases to splits, and the formation of new groups (how do you think we ended up with hundreds of Chassidic groups, when it all started from the Baal Shem Tov?). In the case of Chabad, there was no nominated successor, which makes it even more amazing that the movement didn’t fracture into many distinct subgroups. Why didn’t this happen? If the movement was that focussed on its leader, why didn’t it collapse when he was no longer around?

To understand this, let’s take a quick digression into the concept of bitul – most commonly translated as “self-nullification” (some translations of complex Chassidic and Kabbalistic terms are infuriatingly awkward and inadequate) or “selflessness” (a bit better). Very briefly, the pathway to a deep relationship with God is humility, thus recognizing that God is one and is everything, and that the purpose of man is to bring Godliness into the physical world. A person then becomes batul to the mission of his soul and the purpose of creation. This bitul is not unlike the relationship between a Chassid and a Rebbe – the Rebbe directs the mission, and the Chassid is a loyal and unquestioning foot-soldier. The notion of bitul is being part of something bigger than oneself.

As a tzadik (righteous person), a Rebbe certainly has attained this level of bitul toward God, and as a leader, his role is to direct the mission. But the Rebbe is not greater than the mission – indeed the Rebbe is batul to the mission in exactly the same way that the Chassidim are. The mission is greater than everyone – Rebbe and Chassid alike.

In this context, and using the terminology of James Collins, it makes sense to describe the Rebbe as a “level 5 leader”, who embodies a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.” As a mission-driven organization, Chabad was built to last, and this is the key to understanding how the mission could continue to thrive after the physical passing of the Rebbe.

The prolific writings of the Rebbe continue to act as a guide to all Chassidim in the fulfilment of their mission, and as a way to continue to remain connected to the Rebbe, in various different ways.

How long can Chabad survive without a physical leader? It’s a good question. Eighteen years after Gimmel Tammuz, it is humming along like a well-oiled machine. The rift associated with Messianism has not destroyed the movement, nor has it split the movement far enough apart that there are two versions of Chabad. Eighteen years is nearly a generation: the young shluchim that are going out to open new Chabad Houses barely have a memory of the Rebbe being around, of directly hearing discourses, or any personal interaction. Will they have enough mission in them to impart to their children? Only time will tell.

So what is Chabad? Chabad is a global, distributed, mission-driven organisation. ‘Global’ is quite obvious; ‘distributed’ because of the lack of hierarchy and central controls; and ‘mission-driven’ because the mission was and is everything, and is bigger than and survives any one leader or individual.

In conclusion, Chabad is perceived as far more structured and controlled than it is. When taking into account its organisational structure and culture, Chabad in my view is actually more mission-centric than Rebbe-centric. Academics and others who ruminate about what the Rebbe might have thought of himself may be missing the real story of Chabad, which continues to power on long after many people thought the light switched off.

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

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