Thursday, April 27, 2006

Chabad, the Rebbe, and God

Ah rebbe iz atzmus umahus vos hot zich areingeshtelt in a guf

A Rebbe is [Divine] Essence and Existence which has clothed itself in a body.

This line, from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe's "Likutei Sichos", vol 2 page 509 has become the fulcrum on which Lubavitch-watchers argue about the deification of the Rebbe.

R' Dr. David Berger, Broeklundian Professor of History at Brooklyn College, and author of "The Rebbe, The Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference" has argued that this deification is a strong undercurrent in Chabad.

Reacting to the recent New York State court case between the Agudas Chasidei Chabad (the official governing board of Lubavitch), and the openly Messianist elements who have taken de-facto control of the movement's main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, Dr Berger wrote an article in the Jerusalem Post reiterating the position that Chabad's equation between their dead Rebbe and God constitutes idolatry.

From R' Berger's article:

: Many, probably most, hassidim of this sort endorse the theology
: expressed in a 2003 article by [R' Yeshavama Segal], who affirmed that
: "we Lubavitch hassidim believe that Lubavitch is Jerusalem, the House
: of our Rabbi in Babylonia (i.e., 770 Eastern Parkway) is the Temple,
: and the Rebbe is the ark of the covenant standing on the foundation
: stone in which (referring to the Rebbe/ark, not the foundation stone)
: God's Being and Essence rests."

: [R' Segal's article]

: From the perspective of Jewish law, there can be no material difference
: between a church and a synagogue in which congregants worship the divine
: Essence manifested in an invisible human being whom they face during prayer.

This quote from R' Berger highlights what I believe to be the fundamental methodological flaw in his book: he consciously did not study Chabad theology/philosophy before undertaking the book. It seems he has still not undertaken such a study.

R' Segal's article states what I do below, and yet R' Berger seems not to have comprehended it, about the Chabad concepts of the tzimtzum and bitul of the Tzadik. He cites the article; and still the article seems to him to advocate identifying the Rebbe with God h"v? I don't understand his perspective on this.

Perhaps he is responding solely to the phenomenology, of people treating the Rebbe as if he were still alive (which is itself bizarre and, as far as I know, unprecedented), leaving an aisle for him to walk from his seat to the Torah-reading platform, as the "Tzfatim" element in 770 has taken to doing over the past 4 years (v. Melech Jaffe). In conjunction with what he appears to hold, that the rank and file of Chabad hold the late Rebbe to be God incarnate, then yes, his claim would be valid.

However, I don't see that the Chabad masses (hamon am) actually hold that the Rebbe is God. That would be based on a literal misreading of the Rebbe's quote at the head of this essay, one which is not supported by a study of Chabad theology, nor by R' Segal's articles on the website. That a large element at 770 holds that he is not actually dead in the ground is troubling enough, but it is not the same thing.

* * *

R' Segal has another article on the same site, a response to a letter on "Emunateinu baKadosh Baruch Hu", where he explains, at some length, the concept of "atzmus umahus haborei melubash beguf" (Divine Essence and Existence enclothed in a body). R' Segal's letter fails, however, to state the acosmism that underlies Chabad theology. Only if one has some clue about that acosmism or panenetheism, does R' Segal's letter really explain the concept.

To explain the "roshei perakim" (bare outline):

Chabad acosmism: God is One and Unchanging both before and after the Tzimtzum and Creation. The Tzimtzum, far from creating a physical space inside Hashem (as the Ari writes plainly in the Etz Chayim), was a spiritual restriction, a veiling, as it were, of the Infinite Light so that the created world could stand it without perishing. Then the world was created after the tzimtzum. However, since God is no different after the Creation than He was before, and since He is the sole Unity, it follows that the world has no separate physical existence. Rather, the world is in some way a part of God. I am part of God, you are part of God, the trees and rocks are parts of God, the PC is part of God, etc. That is the reality of the Universe from God's perspective. It is only from our perspective that we imagine the rock to have physical existence, that I have physical existence, that the PC has physical existence.

This is symbolized by the verse "Hashem is God, there is none besides."

* * *

The Tzaddik: For the Tanya, the rasha is one who sins at all, the beinoni is one who does not sin at all, but fights his yetzer hara about it, and the tzaddik is one who has transcended the desire for sin, so that his yetzer hara no longer bothers him. When the tzaddik has become a tzaddik, his will is entirely shaped by Torah, which is the expression of God's Will in the world. Conversely, then, anything which he wills to do is an expression of God's Will. This is the meaning of "Tzaddik gozer" - that the Tzaddik decrees something and God does it. Not that the tzaddik can "force" God to do anything, God-forbid, but that what the Tzaddik wills is a pure reflection of what God Wills.

* * *

R' Segal in the "Emunateinu" letter: He bases this on a Zohar which says "3 times a year every male shall appear before the face of the Master, Hashem - who is the Master? R' Shimon bar Yochai!"

This is not to say that Hashem has a limited body, H"V, rather, that Rashb"i was so purified that his body was nullifed to, and unified with, the Essence and Existence of Hashem.

So too will Hashem's Essence be revealed in the physical world in the future, as it says "vehayah H' l'melech al col haaretz..."

Thus the Rebbe's body was so purified that it was nullified to, and unified with, the Essence of Hashem.

* * *

Finally, my synthetic understanding: the Tzaddik/Rebbe, who has made his will congruent to, and nullified to, Hashem's Will, is thus the purest expression of God in this universe. It is as if the veils of the tzimtzum were thinned out in his presence so that one could perceive the true Godliness peeking through. So it's not that the Rebbe was *more* God than anyone else, it's that he was *just as much God* as everyone else, but in his case, one who was sufficiently attuned could *perceive* that Essence of God in the Rebbe in the physical universe.

* * *

Now, the Vilna Gaon, in his famous letter quoted in, e.g., E.J. Schochet's book on the arguments with the Chasidim, worried that the Chasidim, by positing that one can perceive the Godliness in the physical universe, would wind up worshiping the twigs and stones. It seems a very simple misreading of this rather difficult concept could easily lead to such worship of physical objects. It seems that some few, perhaps in Kfar Chabad, have in fact made this theological jump, ignoring the real Chassidic theology that explains it away.

I can sympathize with the Vilna Gaon's problems - in the hands of the uneducated, this theology could lead to avodah zarah. I asked R' A. Brill about the possibility of antinomian tension in Chabad acosmism, that since we are all part of God, wouldn't anything we did, even against the Torah, be a part of God's Will? He responded, "they were Yidden, their whole lives were Torah & mitzvot, such ideas wouldn't have occurred to them." The same would seem to apply to the idea of deifying a man. Today, however, when many/most Chabadniks come from the non-frum world, it seems almost a miracle that there isn't more Rebbe-God equation.

If one simply addresses the phenomenon of treating a physical person as a piece of God, yes, it can be understood as idolatrous, as we regard the Catholic practice of Host Adoration - worshipping a cracker as a piece of god, genuflecting before it, etc. However, do we not owe the Chabadniks some measure of good faith, of caf zchus, to investigate their theology and ascertain whether or not they really are doing something heretical?

To the Chassidim (especially Chassidei Chabad) out there: am I understanding this correctly?


David Guttmann said...

>Rather, the world is in some way a part of God. I am part of God, you are part of God, the trees and rocks are parts of God, the PC is part of God, etc. That is the reality of the Universe from God's perspective. It is only from our perspective that we imagine the rock to have physical existence, that I have physical existence, that the PC has physical existenceI raelly don't understand this whole concept. I don't think anybody else does without seeing pantheism. I have read Tanya and other chabad writtings (torah Ohr)even attended a shiur By R.Steisaltz on the latter and I believe that they have a pantheistic approach which they deny minei ubei. I prefer staying with rambam's approach that HKBH does not occupy Makom, and we just don't understand His Mahus therefore cannot understand His interaction with the physical.

thanbo said...

In Chabad's case, not pantheism (the universe *is* God), but panentheism (the universe is *part of* God), or acosmism (there is no physical cosmos, the whole thing is illusory and part of the unitary God).

Lisa said...

I think "illusory" is an unwarranted exaggeration. Rather, we're dealing with a matter of perspective and relativity (not the Einsteinian sort).

Relative to a air, a rock is solid. But we know that a rock is actually made up of mostly empty space. Relative to a piece of neutronium (collapsed matter without all that space), a rock is virtually without substance.

The issue of panentheism vs. acosmism has a parallel outside the realm of religion. Substitute "existence" for Hashem, and see what happens.

Existence covers everything. In fact, everything that exists does so within existence, and as part of existence. But that doesn't mean my keyboard is existence. Rather, it is an instantiation, or actualization, of existence, in one aspect. It has no effect on existence itself. Were it to cease to exist, or be converted into something else (say, a doorstop), existence would not be changed thereby.

Most people can understand this. But put "God" in where you had "existence", and all of a sudden, it becomes a theological crisis.

Ariella's blog said...

I found myself here after following the link on your comment to Gil's quote of my post on the ruby gmach.

If YGB is R' Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, then that is my brother you are referring to. To clarify: my mother is descended of parents who hail from Lithuania. My maternal grandfather attended Telz. He and a number of his children adopted the Lubavitch practice when my mother was over 18. So she was never a Lubavitcher. My father hails from Germany --the Frankfurt area. So we were brought up waiting 3 hours between meat and milk in the great Yekke traditon.

BTW: I had to fill out tons of info to add my name to blogger just to leave this comment. My blog: Kallah Magazine is a Word Press one, hosted by by webhosting co. You can access it from my website: or from

Kofer said...

Hmmm... the Lubavitchers believe that in the Rebbe/"Moshiach" one found the fullness of divinity in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). They also believe the Rebbe/"Moshiach" is one with God (John 10:30) and is also one with his students (John 17:11, 17:21). Does any of this sound familiar? If anyone is actually going to claim this is legitimate Orthodox Judaism, they really need to ask themselves on what grounds Xianity is halachically avodah zarah. I'm no zealot. I'm not even Orthodox. But Berger is right.

Editor said...

I like your understanding, on the right track, however you are only thinking of a "tzadik" not a "rebbe" - which in the Chabad lexicon is a whole 'nother thing.

Anonymous said...

In Christianity Jesus is not merely G-d clothed in a body he has a body

thanbo said...

Understood. Which is why this Chabad idea is not itself equivalent to post-Nicene Christian theology.

There are those who call some Lubavitchers "neo-christians" for their belief in a Second Coming, and/or the Rebbe never having died but being "in hiding" until the right time. That more closely reflects the anti-Nicene "early Christians" who were still mostly misguided Jews.

The danger is that some less-sophisticated Lubavitchers may confuse this concept of the Rebbe as a "joining intermediary" with the Christian concept of God Made Flesh. And it remains an open question if the concept of a "joining intermediary" is itself a legitimate Jewish concept, or is just an updating of "none may approach the Father except through Me [Jesis]." If the Rebbe's intervention is an occasional aid in communing with God that's one thing. Praying to the Rebbe as the only authorized, and necessary, representative of God is entirely another. And when some Chabadniks pray with a picture of the Rebbe next to the prayerbook, it looks like that, and may even be that.

micha said...

However, the result does parallel Buddhist descriptions of Buddha. (Although Buddha Nature, the fundamental unity, is not considered a Deity.)

As for "joining intermediary", isn't that what memutzah hamechabeir means? And in the common eye -- when Reuven Alpert published a book titled "God's Middlemen: A Habad Retrospective" no one blinked at the title.


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