Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chabad and a Review of Turning Judaism Outward

It's late after Shabbat and I'm pretty tired, but if I don't write this now, my head will explode and my heart will melt. The intense need to write? I finished reading Turning Judaism Outward today, which is the biography about the seventh Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson written by friend and colleague Rabbi Chaim Miller (I worked with him on his chumash project several years back).

I was well into the book when I went into synagogue today to discuss this week's parsha (Torah portion) with my women's learning group. Luckily, I'd landed the third aliyah, which was the bit about the people kvetching after Miriam dies because the water dries up, there's a brief mention of her death and burial, followed by Moshe and Aharon approaching HaShem with what to do. HaShem says to go, speak to the rock, and water will pour forth. Moshe doesn't bother asking what to say, but goes forth to the people, calls them a band of rebels, and smacks the rock with his staff. The result of this incident is that Moshe is destined to never enter Eretz Yisrael.

As we talked about the parsha, I realized the significance of being the unwilling leader. Moshe was devastated by the death of his sister Miriam and the peoples' lack of realization that the water was because of Miriam's merit. Frustrated and at his absolute wit's end, he broke. HaShem knew the narrative, HaShem knew that Moshe wouldn't enter the land and needed an "out" in this narrative. It was at this point, where Moshe became truly human that it was possible to build the "exit strategy."

It only made sense to me to tie in the "unwilling leader" to the Rebbe.

I knew it before, but reading Turning Judaism Outward just reinforced the fact that the Rebbe never sought out leadership. Until he set foot in the U.S. and it was evident that his father-in-law (the sixth rebbe) had plans for him, he evaded leadership at every turn. I read this book awaiting the magical explanation for how he ended up in the role of the Rebbe and how the "Rebbe is messiah" movement, but there was never a firm point that either of these aspects of Rabbi Schneerson's life manifested. They were organic.

There are several things I did learn for certain in this book that have provided me with a heightened respect and love for a rabbi I never knew.

  • The Rebbe was a savant. He devoured literature and had a complete memory of the Torah, both Talmuds, and gobs of commentary. From childhood through the end of his life, he was able to give hour-long talks without even opening a book. The way that he processed information and relayed it make me wonder if the Rebbe had a touch of Asperger's, actually. As a savant who evaded public life and communal leadership, it would seem that he had these classic social trappings. I also found it frustrating that he was so well versed in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), because so many Chabadniks these days don't bother learning it or teaching it. The Rebbe clearly saw the value in knowing it, quoting it, and discussing it. 
  • The Rebbe was an engineering and mathematical genius. The stories that Rabbi Miller relates about his skill with understanding mechanics, machines, military plans, and so much more really blew my mind. I had no idea that he spent years in university getting an engineering degree and applied his skills and talents throughout his life to both relate to experts and to make suggestions to world leaders. 
  • Although he never stepped foot in Israel, the Rebbe had a deep love, appreciation, and passion for both Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and Medinat Yisrael (the state of Israel). The amount of political and religious leaders he had deep and emotional ties with, not to mention the amount of times he wrote about the actions of Israeli leadership and the mistake they made show me that he was a man deeply in love with Israel. You also need to read the book to see a few of the moments when the Rebbe predicted something that happened and Israeli military leadership were kicking themselves. His foresight was mind-blowing. 
  • The Rebbe very clearly had a vision for Chabad after he died, and that was to look locally, to your local rabbis for guidance and answers. He was creating leaders to lead. He didn't need to name a successor because he believed in the Jewish people to lead themselves. 
  • He was a man who loved his wife in a deep and unwavering way that I cannot even begin to fathom. They met daily for a half-hour over tea. That was their moment to connect, reconnect, to be one. Although they never had children (and this is something I wish I knew more about, but it's still not covered in the book -- were there fertility issues? Her sister also had trouble conceiving, but I also know that this is a very, very, very private issue), they were deeply in love. 
  • The Rebbe did amazing things for education in America. He truly believed in reaching out to Jews and non-Jews, because he believed that everyone is capable of so much. 
  • The Rebbe was horribly frustrated with Chasidim viewing him as the mashiach (messiah). He never condoned it, in fact he spoke against it and the problems it would cause. He was very abrupt and to the point about this. I think it's chaval (not a great translation, but it kind of means "a pity") that he spent the last 10 years of his life battling the mashiachists who tried to peg him as the messiah when it was something he so did not want, condone, or endorse. 
My own personal conclusion after reading this book and experiencing my eyes well up with tears as I spoke to Mr. T about what I was reading have shown me that I so feel for the Rebbe and everything he fought for and fought against in his life. He was a passionate, educated, wise Jewish man who believed in the Jewish people -- religious or not. 

The truth is that had I been alive in the 1960s or 70s and come to Judaism during those eras, chances are good I would have ended up Chabad. Nowadays, with the prevalence of the vision in Chabad as the Rebbe as messiah, I simply can't wrap my head around that. It's not something I'd ever be able to stand by and endorse as part of a collective entity. 

That being said, I understand that not all Chabadniks believe the Rebbe was the messiah, but when there are congregations that give an aliyah to the Rebbe on Shabbat, I just ... it isn't something that's for me. I have, however, written for, worked on many projects with Chabad, and spoken on many panels with my very close Chabad friends. (Is this kind of like saying, "Some of my best friends are Chabad!!! ...?) 

But I view it as dishonoring the Rebbe as opposed to honoring him to perpetuate the mashiach angle. I'd rather stand from the outside and share with the world the beautiful mind and heart and soul of the Rebbe than stand within and perpetuate something he stood so firmly against. 

The Rebbe is a man unlike any the modern world has seen. I compared his unwilling leadership to Moshe, after all. I wish I had been able to meet him, to be a Jew during the period of his life when something so special was happening. When the potential for greatness in the Jewish community was so palpable. 

At this point, all I can do is hope to honor the Rebbe through my own observance, through my own outreach, through my own storytelling. I can only hope he would have been proud of this Jewish woman had he known her.