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Heilman, Chabad & Abraham Lincoln

Heilman, Chabad & Abraham Lincoln

Associate Editor

Nothing is easier — or more intellectually sloppy — than to take shots at Chabad for believing that the Lubavitcher rebbe is still alive or for thinking that the rebbe is the messiah.

Here, take a look at the official Chabad-Lubavitch website. Go ahead. Here’s the link to their section on the rebbe. Find even one reference to the rebbe being alive or the messiah. You won’t find it.

Are there some chasidim. somewhere, who believe the rebbe is somehow alive, or the messiah? Sure. A few (without a serious survey it is all guess work, Certainly the rebbe’s emissaries don’t speak of him that way). And there are professors with top doctorates in top universities who think George W. Bush had a hand in bringing down the World Trade Center; dozens of professors with beautiful diplomas who think Israel should not exist and is more guilty than Hamas; professors who think Bobby Kennedy was assassinated for supporting Civil Rights when in fact he was assassinated for supporting Israel during the Six Day War. The list of idiot professors is long and tenured. Does anyone therefore think that their opinions reflect the essence of their universities or reflect negatively on the value of a college education, or does it simply mean that some professors don’t know what they’re talking about?

Guess what? Some chasidim also don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t speak for Chabad-Lubavitch anymore than those professors speak for their universities and all that is true.

No one who speaks for Chabad, online or offline, says the rebbe is still alive or that the rebbe was or is the messiah.

But that won’t stop people from trying to play "gotcha."

Take Sam Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College, and the co-author with Menachem Friedman of a new book on the rebbe. The New York Times (June 14) went with Heilman to the rebbe’s grave, on the eve of the rebbe’s 16th yahrtzeit.

In the article, "Mr. Heilman pointed to a headstone facing the ohel that refers in Hebrew to the rebbe as ‘the Messiah of God.’ ‘It’s etched in stone,” he said."

Pretty clever. Gotcha. Especially if read fast and don’t catch that the tombstone in question is not the rebbe’s. Or if you refuse to say, or report, that the expression is an honorific meaning "the annointed one of God" that has been applied on stone to Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azouly and Rabbi Chaim Ben-Attar (the Ohr HaChaim), and when Reb Chaim of Volozhin, the great disciple of the Vilna Gaon, passed away his disciples mourned him with the exact same expression. The Republic still stands, the Heavens don’t quake, and no one really cares.

That is, no one who knows anything about rabbinic, especially chasidic, hyperbole.

What kind of professor tries to prove anything by what’s written on a tombstone?

The cemetaries are filled with tombstones reading "Beloved Husband and Father" for scoundrels, rapscallions, drunks and cheaters who were despised by their wives and kids, who nevertheless paid for a stone reading "Beloved Husband and Father," and so what, really? A tombstone isn’t expected to be a factual document that proves anything to anybody — except Sam Heilman.

Good. He got those Lubavitchers, didn’t he? Except he didn’t. Go back to the official Chabad site where there is not one word about the rebbe being the messiah. Isn’t the real truth that Chabad can’t win? If someone writes that he is the messiah on a tombstone elsewhere in the cemetary — as on other rabbinic tombstones — it proves everything. But if they say he is dead and make no mention of him being the messiah, over the course of thousands of words online and in official conventions and gatherings for the shluchim (open to journalists), well, that just proves how tricky those Jews Lubavitchers are.

There is some interesting biographical information in Heilman-Friedman’s book, but here are three things that are either highly annoying, unfair or indecent.

First, the annoying: The authors spell Chabad "ChaBaD" throughout the book, hundreds of times. ChaBaD? Heilman-Friedman’s excuse is that this is "to indicate it is an acronym of the three Hebrew words, Chochma, Binah, and Da’as."

Thanks, professors, except that Chabad has long since been transformed from a Hebrew acronym into a proper English name for the movement, spelled by the movement itself as "Chabad" — capital C, small ‘H," small "a," small "b," small "a," small "d." No one, but no one, from journalists to academics to chasidim, have found the need to spell it "ChaBaD," and I’ll bet no one will ever spell it Heilman-Friedman’s way again.

It is not the worst mistake in the book but it is by far the most annoying and indicative less of the acronym than of the ivory tower pomposity that runs through the project.

Mistake two, is Heilman-Friedman’s assertion that the rebbe opted mid-life for a career within Chabad-Lubavitch because the future rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, realized the limited opportunities in engineering that awaited a newly arrived immigrant. Except that Schneerson, although he did not complete his secular education, nevertheless had taken classes at the University of Berlin, the Sorbonne, and did get a diploma at a lesser known engineering school in Paris. There is no question that we’re talking about a man with an outstanding intellect. And we know that tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who went into the concentration camps without even finishing high school went on, after the war, to find successful careers in the United States in every field imaginable. That someone who was brilliant, who later proved that his organizational and intellectual prowess was in the highest percentile, who was academically acquainted with the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne, even without a degree, that this Schneerson would be among those most pitiful survivors unable to land on their feet, and was therefore forced into the Chabad rabbinate by default, is just unfair, even absurd.

Mistake three — the indecent — is Heilman-Friedman’s concluding sentence, in which they claim that Schneerson "brought his chasidim to such a peak of expectations…. that in his absence, should the Messiah continue to tarry, the future can only promise disappointment or the emergence of a new sort of Judaism."

First of all, the rebbe has been dead for 16 years, the Messiah has indeed tarried, and yet we see from Lubavitchers not "disappointment" but likely the most optimistic, happy warriors in all of Judaism. One would think the gloomy disappointment would somehow have manifested itself by now, but not only has it not but Chabad has doubled its global projects and shluchim ("emissaries" of the rebbe, not "missionaries" as the Times has it).

Never in modern times has there been a group less prone to dissapointment. Heilman-Friedman’s conclusion is based on nothing. For a professional sociologist shouldn’t we see some survey, some proof for such a damning indictment? Nothing. That sentence is more akin to a spitball than to any substantiated academic conclusion, not what you’d expect from a pair of professors who demand to be taken seriously.

And "the emergence of a new sort of Judaism"?

Would any honest sociologist look at Judaism and say Chabad was the denomination or sub-denomination most likely to become a new sort of Judaism?

Would a Queens professor of sociology say that about Reform Judaism, where almost no one puts on tefillin, observes Shabbat as it has been observed for centuries, or keeps kosher or goes to mikvah, a denomination where Jewish illiteracy is rampant, where rabbis perform intermarriages by the thousands — would Heilman-Friedman say Reform is becoming a new sort of Judaism?

How about Secular Humanist Judaism — is not believing in God a new sort of Judaism, or is Secular Humanist Judaism, or even Conservative Judaism as practiced in most suburbs, better inoculated against becoming "a new sort of Judaism" than Chabad?

It’s OK in most Jewish circles to take cheap shots at Chabad that we wouldn’t take at any other Jewish group, it ihas become acceptable to slash Chabad as "the religion closest to Judaism," as the popular joke goes, but that doesn’t make it any less repugnant and in violation of every modern code of pluralism and mutual respect.

The Times piece mentions that Heilman is a "modern Orthodox Jew." That means he is a messianist himself — belief that the Messiah might come this very day is a basic precept of Orthodoxy — and Heilman is a Zionist messianist, at that. In every Modern Orthodox shul, every Shabbat, his congregation recites the Prayer for the State of Israel, declaring it to be "the first flowering of our Redemption," a Redemption every bit as messianic as what you’d hear in Chabad.

In the interests of full disclosure and a more realistic conversation about messianism, shouldn’t Modern Orthodox Heilman have owned up to his own messiansim and how Orthodoxy has always understood it rather than allowing a Lubavitcher’s — a fellow Jew’s — understanding of messianism to be twisted into incoherence?

I happen to be a Modern Orthodox, messianic Zionist myself, in favor of many of the West Bank settlements and the Jewish right to pray openly on the Temple Mount, but let’s be honest with each other. What has been more divisive, what has led, even innocently, to more death and national chaos? Modern Orthodoxy’s Zionist messianism, with its settlements and political agenda, or Chabad’s messianism?

How about that cute Yiddishist leftist messianism from early in the 20th century that eradicated religion, and supported Stalin, even into the Hitler-Stalin pact, even against the State of Israel during the Six-Day War, sometimes even against the Soviet Jewry movement, and some of whose children now — without any concern for Gilad Shalit — support the flotilla of the "humanitarians" and "peace activists" against Israel? How about that Jewish messianism?

Chabad’s messianism has hurt no one, has been physically and culturally innocent, even selfless. It may very well be the most innocent, most generous, most harmless form of messianism in the history of religion, Jewish religion included.

If Chabad’s messianism — supposedly secretly adhered to by all Lubavitchers, according to Heilman — is what drives the followers of the rebbe to do the astonishing amount of kindness all over the world, for Jews and non-Jews, arguably more than what is done by any other Jewish group, well, all I can say is what Lincoln said to those who bitterly complained about the legendary amounts of whiskey being consumed by General Grant.

Said Lincoln, "Find out what he’s drinking and give it to the rest of my generals."

To every man, woman and child in Chabad, "L’chaim." Pour yourselves another. May you and the rebbe be forever blessed — and treated with respect.

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