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Some books on a major modern Jewish cult and leader........
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|Subject: Some books on a major modern Jewish cult and leader........ 7/23/2012, 1:11 pm|| |
THE MESSIAH, RABBI SCHNEERSON - A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Submitted by andie531 on Wed, 2010-08-04 05:08
Most Jewish New Yorkers vividly remember the Crown Heights riots of August 1991, four horrendous days of attacks on Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jews that resulted in the brutal murder of Yaakov Rosenbaum, a young Chabad scholar from Australia. The riots were denounced as a pogrom — the first ever in the United States — by former mayor Ed Koch and then mayoral hopeful Rudy Giuliani, and were subsequently classified by historian Edward Shapiro, in his book on the riots, as the “worst anti-Semitic episode in American Jewish history.” However, what far fewer people remember about those infamous events is the particular incident that triggered the riots.
An out-of-control vehicle driven by a Chabad Hasid accidentally killed a five-year-old black child, Gavin Cato. That vehicle was part of the speeding three-car motorcade that, along with a police escort, regularly escorted the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from Brooklyn to Queens to visit the grave of his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, whom the Chabad Hasidim to this day tellingly dub “der frierdiger rebbe,” the previous Rebbe, with whom he regularly “communed.”
In their lively and provocative new book, “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” respected scholars Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman depict those inspirational cemetery visits, during which Schneerson clairvoyantly sought counsel from his predecessor, as a central feature of the Rebbe’s leadership when addressing problems whose resolution eluded even him. Schneerson, who had become “possessed,” after the Holocaust, by the belief that the frierdiger rebbe would not die before ushering in the messianic era, taught that he had not really died in the conventional sense and regularly told his followers that his presence was still active among them. The trips to the Queens graveyard to seek counsel from his predecessor were, indeed, the Rebbe’s only departures from his Brooklyn base over the many decades of his leadership of Chabad. In a particularly rich chapter, entitled “Death and Resurrection,” the authors document the pathos, frequency and centrality of this manner of religious leadership, one that has not only outlived Schneerson, but has taken on a life of its own (so to speak) since his death.
As the book notes, when the passing of his wife, Moussia, in 1988, plunged Schneerson into a life of profound personal isolation, those visitations became increasingly frequent. By that time, the Rebbe had thousands of worshipful followers, but not a single confidant. In the authors’ stark depiction, “There he remained, the man who was to lead the generation to redemption, all alone in the world inside his house, bereft of the last person for whom he was not just a Rebbe.”
His own failing health and desire to usher in the messianic age added to the urgency of these visits. And so — when not urging his Hasidim to chant feverishly what had become the Chabad anthem, “We want Moshiach now, we don’t want to wait” — he spent more and more hours in isolation inside the frierdiger rebbe’s mausoleum.
One of the central themes in this eye-opening account of the Rebbe’s “life and afterlife,” alluded to in the book’s subtitle, is precisely the blurring of the borders between this living world and the imagined next one — a confusion rendered all the more urgent after the Rebbe himself was silenced by a massive stroke on March 2,1992. It was an avertable tragedy that occurred, ironically enough, while he was isolated inside the frierdiger rebbe’s tomb for almost three hours. His disciples waited outside long after he audibly collapsed, afraid to disturb his séance with the dead.
The dissonance between this life and the next became positively desperate over the next two years, until his death on June 12, 1994, following a long hospitalization. After that June, the confusion became something far more extreme: the denial of Schneerson’s death and, in some circles, his deification.
In an interview conducted on Israeli television shortly before the Rebbe suffered the debilitating stroke, the towering Orthodox Israeli philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, was asked what he thought of the Rebbe’s messianism. Leibowitz’s response was characteristically comical and icy:
There is only thing that I cannot figure out about this man , and that is whether he is a psychopath or a charlatan. This is the only thing I just cannot decide. But this kind of degeneracy, of phony prophets and false messiahs, is as ancient as Israel itself.
That Schneerson was no charlatan has since been proven beyond any doubt by the recent scholarship of Tomer Persico and Elliot Wolfson, who leave no question about the Rebbe’s complete conviction that he was the Messiah. While the imminence of the final redemption had been a key point in all of the Rebbe’s “sichos,” or talks, since he took on the mantle of rebbe in 1950, Heilman and Friedman extensively document the messianic obsession that became the leitmotif of his teachings, beginning in the early 1980s and culminating in the Rebbe’s announcement at the beginning of the Hebrew year 5752 that this would be the year of the Messiah’s revelation:
This would be the year, the Rebbe promised, that “the world would become united under the flag of the Messiah, and all would be repaired.” His Hasidim had prepared just such a flag on which a black crown on a yellow background hovered over the Hebrew word ‘Moshiach.’
The Rebbe had often told his followers, “There can be no King without a nation that will crown him.” His “nation,” the Hasidim therefore now crowned him in what would become a series of such events. On Saturday night, January 4th 1992, a panel of Lubavitcher Rabbis at 770 thrashed out the matter of the Messiah’s arrival and concluded with public cries of “Long Live the King Moshiach.” They beamed their meeting by satellite around the world.
As a result of this conclusion, tens of thousands of Chabad Hasidim are now re-enacting the relationship Schneerson had with his deceased father-in-law, verging into the realm of the idolatrous. In the absence of an heir to Schneerson (how, after all, does one “replace” the Messiah, without admitting his failure?), using an assortment of supernatural techniques — such as treating the Rebbe’s writings and videos as tarot cards, and communing with him during visits to his grave, right next to that of the frierdiger rebbe — they are receiving spiritual advice from a dead man, for whom they chant, “Long live our Teacher and Master, the King Messiah, forever and ever.”
“The Rebbe” is by no means an exhaustive biography and is not destined to be the definitive work on its fascinating subject; too much of Chabad’s social and political history under Schneerson’s leadership is missing. But it is, to date, the best analytical study of the two major themes that it addresses: A critical and often boldly psychological biography of Schneerson is prefaced and supplemented by two chapters devoted to a sociological analysis of the beliefs and behaviors of his Hasidim, especially after the death of the man they were — and most still are — convinced was the Messiah. (The authors’ interviews and research make clear that there remain two main positions found among the Lubavitchers: those who admit their messianism openly and those who camouflage it.)
The book begins and ends with short chapters about the Chabadniks today and their responses to the Rebbe’s death. Most of the book, though, is a chronological biography, from birth to death, in six chapters, each dedicated to a distinct phase of the Rebbe’s life.
The most revelatory chapters are bound to generate controversy, especially among the Lubavitchers and their sympathizers. These describe Schneerson’s early life, before he was appointed Rebbe and ultimately anointed “The King Messiah.”
Heilman and Friedman’s riveting presentation of Menachem and Moussia Schneerson’s youthful lives in Berlin and Paris of the 1930s is filled with surprises. It depicts a youthful couple, both of distinguished Hasidic ancestry, who seemed intent on forging a new path for themselves as cosmopolitan, modern Europeans, maintaining a baseline Orthodox lifestyle but with very little connection with the mainstream Chabad community. This was especially true of Moussia, the frierdiger rebbe’s daughter, who to the very end of her life refused to refer to herself as a rebbetsin, preferring to be known as “Mrs. Schneerson of President Street.”
Neither in Berlin nor Paris did the Schneersons live in Jewish neighborhoods. Indeed, in Paris they resided at the fashionable Hotel Max, on the Left Bank, whose other tenants were a rich international assortment of bohemian artists, musicians and writers. In neither city was Schneerson ever seen in a synagogue, and there is no evidence of his involvement with their small Hasidic communities. The authors document Schneerson’s focused commitment to his study of engineering and, in contrast with later years, sporadic contact with his father-in-law.
Contrary to his own father’s pleas, Schneerson trimmed his beard, wore modern rather than Hasidic clothing and socialized mainly with his brother Leibel, a Trotskyite who had completely abandoned Orthodox Jewish observance, and brother-in-law, the beardless cosmopolitan, Mendel Horensztein, who evinced no interest in his Hasidic lineage or its traditions.
Tragically, all dreams of becoming part of cosmopolitan Paris were crushed by the Nazi invasion of France and the urgent need to escape Europe. The most telling detail of the book’s vivid narration of the frenzied efforts to rescue the Schneersons on the part of Chabad Hasidim in America is that all efforts to obtain a special clergy-exemption visa for Schneerson, to exclude him from the restrictive U.S. quotas on Jewish war refugees, were rejected by the State Department.
He was identified as an engineer on his visa application; he had never studied in any yeshiva and was not formally ordained as a rabbi; moreover he had not a single day of documented work experience as a rabbi. This did not deter the Lubavitchers in America from trying, and failing, to convince Henry Butler, the attorney handling the Schneersons’ emigration case, “that the man who had identified himself as an engineer on his visa application was truly a rabbi.”
Heilman and Friedman work using methods established by Max Weber (“The Sociology of Religion”) and Erik Erikson (“Young Man Luther”) in trying to reconstruct the rebbe’s inner thoughts during this turbulent period; and yet not all of their conclusions will convince all readers, especially the Chabad faithful. Still, they vividly depict the drama of Schneerson’s transition from Paris to Brooklyn:
As he reflected on his situation, he could not help but realize that his plans to settle in Paris, become a French citizen and live as a Jew of Hasidic background pursuing a career in engineering were now in shambles. Moussia, too, who would forever look back on her years in Paris as her happiest and freest, as she often told friends, realized those days were over.
The powerful psychological and spiritual processes that took place within Schneerson’s psyche over the next decade — not least the trauma of the Holocaust — transformed him from an aspiring Parisian engineer to the most famous, influential and controversial Hasidic rebbe in Jewish history, one who became possessed of the belief that he would usher in the messianic age. These processes are not adequately explored by Heilman and Friedman, a lacuna that is this otherwise excellent book’s greatest weakness.
But the authors do document the lasting effects of Schneerson’s enduring posthumous charisma on his thousands of disciples, especially the shluchim, or messengers, who are to be found facilitating the practice of Judaism in virtually every place on earth where Jews are to be found. The finest aspect of Schneerson’s lasting legacy is their good work, which stands on its own merits with or without the delusional messianism.
Allan Nadler, a regular Forward contributor, is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University.
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|Subject: Re: Some books on a major modern Jewish cult and leader........ 7/31/2012, 5:03 pm|| |
The Lubavitcher Rebbe as a god
Haaretz, Israel/March 1, 2007
By Saul Sadka
"Joy to the world the Lord has come."
This misquote from Isaac Watts, along with a link to a Chabad Web site, appears on a billboard. Not a real billboard, but a Photoshopped one that appears on the Web site of a Chabad activist in the U.S.
Rabbi Ariel Sokolovsky is a Moldova-born Chabad rabbi in Portland, Oregon, and a more amiable soul would be hard to find.
Yet Sokolovsky maintains a blog he entitled "Rebbegod" and refers to Schneerson as "Rebbe-Almighty" among other adulatory sobriquets.
Drawing on rabbinical sources, he attempts to show that this is not as revolutionary as it sounds. He concedes that there are few people like him who will openly call the Rebbe God. He claims, however, that many people believe it, but do not say so openly for fear of scaring people away from Chabad altogether.
While he argues that the Rebbe and God are not the same thing exactly, he says that he does not object to people thinking that they are the same thing.
He recounts an incident in which he confronted his teacher - a senior Chabad rabbi from the former USSR - as to why he would not openly declare the Rebbe to be God. According to Sokolowsky, the senior rabbi jokingly warned him: "there can be many gods but only one Moshiach."
Menachem Mendel Schneerson has by most accounts been dead for 12 years. Yet the details of Schneerson's life and death are mired in controversy, with wide discrepancies between the hagiographic account perpetuated by his followers and the scholarly research.
Chabad accounts of his early life tell of a brilliant student who excelled at the great universities of Berlin and the Sorbonne. After gaining degrees in subjects including nautical engineering, he subsequently fled to New York during World War II, where he worked on top secret military work.
But according to research by Professor Menachem Friedman, after he married a distant cousin, the daughter of his predecessor as "Rebbe," they lived far from any Jewish life during much of the 1930s - residing along with her sister and brother-in-law in a non-Jewish suburb of Paris. Eyewitnesses who knew them reported that she was often seen in modern dress and he bareheaded.
While in Paris he acquired his only formal education: he took a two year vocational course in electrical engineering at a Montparnase Vocational College where he achieved mediocre grades. He left for New York, where he spent the war as a worker at the Brooklyn Naval Yard.
Following the death of his father-in-law, Schneerson took up the reins as the grand rabbi or "Rebbe" of Lubavitch. Lubavitch was founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, a venerated figure who founded his sect on the principles of "Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge" (the Hebrew acronym of which is "Chabad"), as a response to criticism of the new Hasidic movement for its obscurantism and superstition. The modern movement that is Chabad-Lubavitch is a far cry from that noble dream.
The Chabad headquarters in the Crown Heights district of New York has become a battleground of different factions within the movement.
The voice of moderates who believe the Rebbe is in fact dead (though most of this group still adhere to his belief of his ultimate resurrection and coronation as messiah) is increasingly cowed, with violent brawls breaking out and spilling on the streets on a regular basis leading to scores of hospitalizations and arrests.
Even the installment of a memorial plaque can cause a riot; as one rioter told the press: "He's alive - they are writing that the Rebbe is dead!"
At the front of the main room at Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights sits the Rebbe's empty chair - its cushions unruffled for more than 12 years. The chair is kept as it was during his lifetime.
Before the daily afternoon prayers, a number of the men perform the ritual of unfurling a Persian rug, moving the Rebbe's chair out from under a desk, fiddling with his prayer shawls and books as if he were about to walk in and take his seat.
The prayers conclude as normal, but the service is followed by singing and chanting with Hora dancing around the central podium. "Long live our Master, our Rebbe, King Messiah," sing the dancing men and boys as they form conga lines - a routine part of this thrice-daily ritual.
The dancing suddenly stops and a sudden hush silences the room. Four young boys each brandishing a large yellow flag bearing the Rebbe's crest part the dancers and move alongside the platform that supports the Rebbe's chair and desk.
Raising the flags high they chant in unison: "We want Moshiach now! We want Moshiach now! WE WANT MOSHIACH NOW!"
A man of about 40 years of age carefully reverses the rituals that had prepared the Rebbe's chair for prayers as the rapt crowd watches. The service terminated, the men stand at ease. Many are wearing yellow lapel-pins, signifying commitment to extremist messianism.
Members of the congregation were happy to explain:
What do the pins signify?"It symbolizes our dedication to the Rebbe above all else."
Above all else? Above God? "As far as we are concerned, we can pray to the Rebbe and he can deal with God for us."
Is that not turning the Rebbe into a god himself, an idol of your own creation? "The Rebbe was not created; the Rebbe has always been around and always will be."
If one believes in God but leaves the Rebbe aside, is one still Jewish? "When the messiah reveals himself, those who didn't see him won't be saved, so you should work on..." He is interrupted. "Look, what you need to do is start with God and work your way up to the Rebbe."
While it may seem bizarre to describe electrician-[banned term]-rabbi M. M. Schneerson in this way, many of the people seen as messianist view Schneerson as a demigod. They are loathe to state this explicitly, but they will assign him characteristics of God, pray to him and, when pressed, suggest that there is really no difference between him and God. Since the Rebbe was perfection personified, he is greater than any man that ever lived; ergo he is godly - omnipotent, omniscient and unlimited.
Virtually no one within the movement today is willing to deny that Schneerson was the greatest man that ever lived nor that he was perfect.
None have a problem with praying to Schneerson, using his books for divination in place of the Bible. Even amongst those viewed as moderates, "the Rebbe" is often substituted for God in normal conversation, sprinkling their remarks with comments such as "may the Rebbe help you" or "the Rebbe is watching over us."
Even among the moderate minority, the distinction between Schneerson and God is decidedly blurred. Asking adherents whether Schneerson will return as the Messiah is unlikely to yield a directly negative response.
Along a tight passageway and up an uneven stone staircase in a Safed building is the library that sits at the heart of Lubavitch. In this ancient city can be found one of the movement's pre-eminent institutions.
A few hundred students are grouped around desks in a cavernous library, in a scene identical to those in hundreds of Yeshivas around the world. The din produced by the animated discussions contrasts with the silence of non-theological academic libraries.
While some of the students, who come from all over the world, are learning traditional Jewish texts, many are studying the works of M.M. Schneerson.
A list of monthly award recipients (the prize is a set of Schneerson's complete works) reveals that of the 10 scholars who will receive prizes this month, four are named "Menachem Mendel," as is the rabbi who chose the recipients. This is not due to the rabbi favoring a namesake, for around one third of the Yeshiva's 400 students are so named.
Massive posters bearing Schneerson's image adorn every wall. A sign instructing the students to keep their dormitories tidy concludes by invoking the "Living" Rebbe.
Schneerson wrote of his father-in-law as the messiah, though the previous rebbe had recently died. Adherents believe that when the Rebbe referred to his father-in-law, this was code for the Rebbe himself.
Why do they think that Schneerson is alive? "The Rebbe was no normal human being," is the response. He was a polymath who "studied under Einstein in Berlin" before "inventing the atom bomb."
How do they view the connection between Schneerson and God? "The Rebbe is not something different from God - the Rebbe is a part of God," says a British teenaged student.
Does this not 'idolize' Schneerson, in the literal sense? "We cannot connect to God directly - we need the Rebbe to take our prayers from here to there and to help us in this world. We are told by our rabbis that a great man is like God and the Rebbe was the greatest man ever. That is how we know he is the messiah, because how could life continue without him? No existence is possible without the Rebbe."
Would they go so far as to describe the Rebbe and God as one and the same, as some extreme Messianists have done? "No, some people have gone too far and described the Rebbe as the creator.
"They say that God was born in 1902 and is now 105 years old. You can pray to the Rebbe and he will answer, and he was around since the beginning of time. But you must be careful to pray only to the Rebbe as a spiritual entity and not the body that was born in 1902."
Does the Rebbe have a will of his own? What if the Rebbe and God disagree? "That is a ridiculous question! They are not separate in any way."
So the Rebbe is a part of God. "Yes, but it is more complex than that. There is no clear place where the Rebbe ends and God begins."
Does that mean the Rebbe is infinite omnipotent and omniscient? "Yes of course," an Argentine student says in Hebrew. "God chose to imbue this world with life through a body. So that's how we know the Rebbe can't have died, and that his actual physical body must be alive. The Rebbe is the conjunction of God and human. The Rebbe is God, but he is also physical."
Chabad members have become irrecovably fixated on their dead leader. If the seemingly inexorable rise of the vocal yellow pin brigade progresses apace, the movement founded to bring rigor and intellectualism to Hasidic Judaism may well face a benighted future.
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|Subject: Re: Some books on a major modern Jewish cult and leader........ 7/31/2012, 5:06 pm|| |
It's been 16 years since Menachem Schneerson's death, and yet, as the debate surrounding two new books about his life and legacy can attest, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe is, in a sense, more with us than ever before
Tablet/July 20, 2010
By Adam Kirsch
Faith, it has been said, is the evidence of things not seen. By that definition, to believe in Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, requires no faith at all: It is far easier to see him today, anywhere in the world, than it was when he was actually alive. When the Rebbe died in 1994-on June 12, or the 3rd of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar-the Internet was just being born. But under his leadership, the Lubavitcher movement had always been adept at using technologies of mass communication, and it quickly seized on the Internet to make the Rebbe's presence even more accessible. On YouTube, Chabad.org, and many other sites, you can hear the Rebbe talk about Torah and world events, watch him distribute dollar bills to guests (a practice that became his trademark), and witness some of his frequent visits to the grave of his predecessor, Yosef Yitzhak, the sixth Rebbe-the tomb, or tsiyen, where Schneerson himself now rests, in Queens, not far from JFK airport.
The most popular of these videos, however, and in a way the most extraordinary, are those that record the Rebbe's farbrengens-the ceremonial gatherings in which his followers would eat, drink, and sing with him. What is striking about these scenes is their extreme ordinariness. Here is the Rebbe, an old, frail man, gingerly chewing pieces of bread and taking sips of wine. The setting, a large room in Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn, is modest at best, wood-paneled like a basement rec room. There is none of the pomp with which religious leaders are ordinarily surrounded-no vestments, altars, or processions. Yet the way the Hasidim chant the niggun-"ve'samachta be'hagecha," "you shall rejoice in your festival," a line from the Book of Deuteronomy-and the way they are absorbed in the Rebbe's every movement, leave no doubt that in this little corner of Crown Heights, if anywhere, holiness is taking place. For what else is holiness than the utter conviction that holiness exists?
To many Jews, this conviction is also the scandal of Lubavitch-or Chabad, as it is often called, using the Hebrew acronym for the school of Hasidic thought to which the sect belongs. To most people, Chabad means two things: its far-flung network of emissaries, or shluchim, greeting Jews in the most remote places and urging them to light holiday candles or wear tefillin; and its belief that Menahem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah. Both of these things give Chabad a prominence in the Jewish world far out of proportion to its actual membership. In The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Princeton University Press), their much-debated new biography, Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman estimate that the total number of Lubavitcher Hasidim is around 40,000-"about ten thousand in Crown Heights, five thousand in Kfar Chabad [the Lubavitch settlement in Israel], and perhaps another twenty-five thousand worldwide, including about three thousand shaliach families."
In other words, Lubavitchers make up about one quarter of 1 percent of the world Jewish population. Yet it would be hard to find an engaged Jew, of any denomination or none, who does not have an opinion about Chabad, usually a strong one. Many admire Chabad for its institution-building, the devotion and selflessness of its emissaries, and its bold representation of Judaism in the public square-whenever a huge menorah is illuminated somewhere, from Washington to Moscow, it is usually a Lubavitcher who built it. That is why so many Jews who are not Orthodox, and sometimes not even particularly observant, praise Chabad and help to fund its activities.
Yet many of those same Jews are acutely embarrassed by the notion, which swept Lubavitch in the years before Schneerson's death, that he was actually "Melech HaMoshiach," King Messiah, sent by God to redeem the world and the Jewish people. Still more alien is the belief, clung to by a small but vocal minority of Lubavitchers to this day, that because the Rebbe was the Messiah, he could not actually die-that he is now simply hidden, waiting for the moment when he can return to earth. One of the illustrations in The Rebbe shows the wall of the synagogue adjacent to 770 Eastern Parkway, where a large cornerstone has been removed: It was defaced by Hasidim who objected to the inscription, which referred to the Rebbe as being "of blessed memory."
You do not have to look very far, on websites and discussion boards, to find Lubavitchers who are sick of being associated with the delusions of the meshikhistn, as the Schneerson messianists are known. Yet it is impossible for Chabad to decisively repudiate them. The notion that the seventh Rebbe was the Messiah, or would be instrumental in bringing the Messiah, and that we are currently living in the period known as ikvot meshicha, "the footsteps of the Messiah"-that is, the end of days-is too deeply ingrained in Lubavitch thought and practice.
Messianism, of course, has always been one of the central concerns of Hasidism. In the 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, wrote that he had actually spoken with the Messiah face to face, during one his mystical ascents, and asked, "When will you come?" The answer, as the Besht recorded it, was that redemption would arrive "when your teachings are publicized and revealed to the world and your wellsprings will be spread to the outside." But it was not until Lubavitch was transplanted to America, during the Second World War, that this metaphorical injunction became the basis for an extremely practical kind of Jewish missionizing.
Every time a Jew lit Shabbat candles or wrapped tefillin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, he was helping to spread the wellsprings, drawing closer to God and hastening the Redemption. It didn't even matter if these symbolic Jewish acts sprang from, or led to, a deeper sense of commitment and observance, since the Rebbe's "radical view," as Heilman and Friedman write, was that "the deed itself is what counts not the motivation." In this way, Lubavitch developed a uniquely American messianism, pragmatic and action-oriented, in which a secular Jew hurrying through Times Square could stop for a few moments at a Chabad "mitzvah tank" and make his contribution to the coming of the Messiah. "Getting Jews to perform these mitzvahs," as Heilman and Friedman put it, "was a first step in cleansing the Jew of his non-Jewishness, releasing the spark of holiness from the captivity of impurity."
As cloistered as Chabad seems to be, in its Crown Heights precincts, Heilman and Friedman argue that the movement, and the Rebbe in particular, had an acute sense of the needs and possibilities of American life for Judaism. The Rebbe was sending his shluchim to the most remote spots on earth, calling them to a life of service and sacrifice, at the same time that President Kennedy was launching the Peace Corps, in the early 1960s. Chabad focused its missionary activities on the universities just as the postwar baby boom brought millions of new students to campus and as the counterculture radically expanded the range of spiritual possibilities for young people. (It is no coincidence that charismatic, media-friendly Jewish figures like Shlomo Carlebach and Shmuley Boteach started out as Lubavitch emissaries to colleges.) And Chabad's embrace of technology feels distinctively American, even when it uses high tech for surprisingly atavistic purposes. It is customary, for instance, for pilgrims to the grave of the Rebbe to leave written prayers, in the conviction that he can intercede with God to answer them; but if you can't get to Queens, you can send your prayer by fax.
Lubavitch does not officially believe that the seventh Rebbe is still, somehow, alive; but 16 years after his death, there is still no eighth Rebbe. And Schneerson's presence-on videos, in books, in the memories of his disciples-still dominates Lubavitch, both practically and theologically. Friedman and Heilman quote a Chabad video featuring a woman who had never met the Rebbe when he was alive, but saw footage of him after his death: "I was just at my first farbrengen," she said, as though the Rebbe's virtual presence was no different from his physical one.
The absolute centrality of Menachem Mendel Schneerson to Chabad helps to explain the hostility that Heilman and Friedman's book has aroused among Lubavitchers. The latter half of The Rebbe is devoted mainly to the way Schneerson shaped Chabad's public activities-the mitzvah campaigns, the high political profile (President Reagan once sent the Rebbe a birthday message), and of course the messianic activism. Starting in 1951, when he inherited his father-in-law's position as Rebbe, Schneerson's life was effectively dissolved in Chabad's life. Childless, far from his few surviving relatives, surrounded by disciples who worshipped him, he had no one who could relate to him in an ordinary, personal way. The only exception was his wife, Chaya Moussia, the daughter of the Sixth Rebbe; but she was intensely private, and Heilman and Friedman give the sense that she more or less relinquished her husband to his followers.
The controversy comes mainly from the first half of the biography, where Heilman and Friedman suggest that, as a young man, Schneerson was tempted by the wider, secular world and resisted the call of Lubavitch. The evidence for this thesis is necessarily circumstantial. It took a surprisingly long time for Mendel, as the authors call him, to marry Yosef Yitzhak's daughter, as if one or both of them were hesitant about the match. After the marriage, the couple did not live with the sixth Rebbe, in Latvia, but went to Berlin and then Paris, where Schneerson studied engineering. Heilman and Friedman make much of the idea that Schneerson's short beard and (relatively) modern dress embarrassed his father-in-law, and imply that he lived too far from local synagogues in Berlin and Paris to pray regularly.
What emerges, not quite explicitly, from all these details is the portrait of a young man struggling against his destiny. Heilman and Friedman argue that not until Schneerson fled France for New York in 1941-rescued from the Nazis, along with most of the Lubavitcher elite, thanks to pressure put on the State Department by American Jewish leaders-did he finally give up his "dream" of living a less-cloistered life. It is this contention that many Lubavitchers have disputed, mainly on the grounds that throughout the 1930s, even as he lived away from the Lubavitch court, Schneerson was deeply immersed in Hasidic study. (See, for instance, the hostile but impressively knowledgeable critique by Chaim Rapoport, "The Afterlife of Scholarship.")
There is a strong case to be made that, even when Schneerson was living farthest from the Lubavitcher world, his mental universe remained thoroughly Hasidic. What is undeniable is that as late as 1950, when Yosef Yitzhak died, Mendel seemed to resist becoming the next Rebbe. The sixth Rebbe's other son-in-law, Shmaryahu Gourary, had been far more involved in the institutions of Chabad and looked like a more obvious successor. Not until Schneerson's brilliance and charisma became undeniable did the Lubavitchers press him to become their leader.
Heilman and Friedman's account of the day Schneerson finally agreed to become Rebbe is brilliantly dramatic. For a year after the sixth Rebbe's death, quiet jockeying and lobbying among the Lubavitchers had pitted Schneerson against Gourary, with the former continually refusing to declare himself a candidate for the leadership. Finally, on the anniversary of Yosef Yitzhak's death-the 10th of Shvat, on the Jewish calendar-Schneerson "arose to offer a Torah talk, sicha." But a sicha was different from a ma'amar khsides, "a talk filled with Chabad philosophy and thought that is recited in a distinctive and unmistakable singsong … and which in Lubavitcher practice can only be offered by a rebbe." Before the talk began, some Hasidim had privately asked Schneerson to give a ma'amar khsides, which would imply accepting the role of Rebbe, and he had refused, snapping, "stop this nonsense." But as he spoke, "one of the oldest Hasidim present" called out "venimtso kheyn veseyhl tov, der rebe zol zogn khsides": "may we find grace and good wisdom, and would the Rebbe offer khsides."
At this cue, Schneerson paused, then resumed his talk "in the special singsong associated with such addresses," Heilman and Friedman write, "at last offer[ing] the ma'amar khsides for which so many had been waiting and which he had undoubtedly prepared in advance. The drama of this vocal transition was unmistakable." Indeed, the whole episode is like nothing so much as the moment in Julius Caesar when Caesar refuses the crown that the people keep begging him to accept. The comparison brings out the unselfconscious elevation and dignity of the scene at 770 Eastern Parkway. In the minds of those present, the selection of the new Rebbe was literally of cosmic importance, and it is nothing but this certainty of significance that makes history out of happenings. Without it, the grandest, most lavish spectacles-even coronations and inaugurations-feel self-conscious, stagy, insincere; with it, the affairs of a tiny sect in an old house in Brooklyn become the stuff of history.
One might say, then, that the Rebbe was always a virtual figure, just as much when he was physically present as now, when he can be seen only on a screen. Significance and holiness and power are, after all, virtual qualities: They cannot be touched or measured, but they can always be perceived by those who consent to their existence. The woman who spoke of viewing a video as being in the Rebbe's presence was, perhaps, just speaking metaphorically. But the difficulty, when it comes to religion, has always been knowing when a metaphor stops being a metaphor.
Some people speak to the dead for guidance, even though they know they are really just speaking to themselves; others speak to the dead and believe the dead can hear, even if they can't respond; some believe they are receiving messages from the dead, through signs or omens or the words of a medium. If you leave pidyones, written supplications, on the Rebbe's grave, are you still acting metaphorically, or have you crossed the existential line that separates acting-as-if from genuine belief? Is it ever possible to cross that line, or does all belief carry with it suspicion of mere acting-and is that self-suspicion the reason why some people become fanatics, meshikhistn, to prove to themselves that they are finally, completely in earnest?
In this way, the scandal of messianism leads inexorably to the scandal of faith itself. If you believe in God-in an omnipotent and actual God, not the euphemistic God of rational and liberal theology-then you must believe that it is possible for God to speak to us, to intervene in our world, to change history. Indeed, if you are an Orthodox Jew or Christian or Muslim, you believe that God has already done these things, a long time ago, though he has inscrutably stopped speaking directly to mankind. It must therefore be possible, in principle, for God to redeem this world-to send the Messiah. And that means that it must be possible, in principle, for a man who claims to be the Messiah actually to be right-even though every previous Messiah, from Bar Kokhba to Jacob Frank, has turned out to be a false one.
To live messianically, then, is to live at a tremendously high tension, in the belief that the Eternal could always be just about to break into the temporal. In modern, secular Jewish literature, the great anatomists of this tension emerged in German-speaking Europe in the 1920s and 1930s-that is, at the historical moment when European Jewish life was at its breaking point, when it had to be either redeemed or destroyed. Out of this crisis came Franz Kafka, who wrote paradoxically that "the messiah will come on the day after he has arrived … not on the last day, but on the very last day"; and Walter Benjamin, who concluded his last essay, written shortly before his suicide in 1940, with the words: "every second of time [is] the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter." Benjamin's friend Gershom Scholem became the greatest modern scholar of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism, including that of the false Messiah Shabbetai Zevi.
Franz Rosenzweig, author of The Star of Redemption, was the philosopher-theologian of this crisis moment. In Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (Columbia University Press), his densely brilliant new study of the Rebbe's mystical thought, Elliot R. Wolfson aptly quotes Rosenzweig on the function of the false Messiah: "The false Messiah is as old as the hope of the genuine one. He is the changing form of the enduring hope. Every Jewish generation is divided by him into those who have the strength of hope not to be deceived. Those having faith are better, those having hope are stronger." Those having faith are better: Rosenzweig outrages reason in that phrase, deliberately so. It takes strength to resist the temptation of believing in a false Messiah, but to risk belief, he suggests, takes something even rarer-the willingness to be wounded and disappointed, the willingness to be made a fool of. For if no one is willing to believe in this Messiah, false though he may be, how will anyone be found to believe in the Messiah, when he really comes? And "no one knows," Rosenzweig writes, "whether this … will not happen even today."
Menahem Mendel Schneerson grew up in a very different part of the Jewish world than Rosenzweig or Benjamin, but he was part of the same generation. Born in the Russian empire in 1902, to a family with an old Lubavitcher pedigree, he lived through the string of crises that devastated Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the 20th century: Tsarist pogroms and persecutions, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War, Stalinism, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and finally the Holocaust. If, as Gershom Scholem writes in "Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea," messianic predictions in Judaism are born in "an equal degree from revelation and from the suffering and desperation of those to whom they are addressed," it is no wonder that the Jews of Schneerson's generation should feel themselves to be living in "the footsteps of the Messiah"-a time, Scholem notes, in which "dread and peril of the End form an element of shock and of the shocking which induces extravagance."
Given the magnitude of the catastrophe, in fact, one might wonder why Lubavitcher messianism-which was already taking shape, Heilman and Friedman show, in the 1920s, under the Sixth Rebbe-did not command a wider Jewish appeal. Why does the cult of Menahem Mendel Schneerson seem like a freak of Jewish history, when earlier messiahs, from Bar Kokhba to Shabbetai Zevi, convulsed the entire Jewish world? The answer, perhaps, is that by the time the "King Messiah" movement came into its own, in the early 1990s, Jewish messianic longings had long since been siphoned off into other channels. Communism, to which so many Jews looked for redemption in the early 20th century, had long since proved a dead end; but the creation of the State of Israel had given Jews, especially American Jews, a new focus for their love and longing.
No wonder, then, that Heilman and Friedman see the Rebbe's relationship with the State of Israel as especially fraught and complex. On the one hand, Chabad built a large settlement in Israel-with the help of the state's third president, Zalman Shazar, who had grown up in a Lubavitcher family-and Schneerson became an influential figure in Israeli politics (Rabin, Begin, Sharon, and Netanyahu all made the pilgrimage to 770). He saw the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael-including the Occupied Territories-as a sign of divine providence and was dead-set against any move to give up land for peace (except for the Sinai desert, which had no covenantal significance).
Yet Heilman and Friedman also argue that Lubavitch was in competition with Zionism, which it saw as a "false Messiah [that] was going to steal the faith of the Jews that Lubavitchers had been worrking so hard to arouse." In particular, they write, Schneerson envied the prestige of the Israeli army and used several rhetorical techniques to try to claim it. His "mitzvah tanks" were meant to be spiritual equivalents of the IDF's conquering tanks, just as his mitzvah campaigns were versions of military campaigns. At times Lubavitch sought to missionize Israeli soldiers, promising that troops who wore tefillin would be divinely protected and strike terror into their enemies. At the end of the Yom Kippur War, Heilman and Friedman write, Schneerson went so far as to advise Moshe Dayan to invade Syria and take Damascus, "based on mystical and Kabbalistic texts" that supported this step.
This kind of rivalrous grandiosity was a sign that, as Heilman and Friedman write, the Rebbe came to "see himself as controlling events not only in Israel but also in many other places in the world." In 1990, the Rebbe's followers claimed that he had predicted Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War. He even advised Israeli Lubavitchers not to equip themselves with government-issued gas masks, since he was certain no Scud missile could harm them. The fall of Communism in 1989 was another vindication of the Rebbe, the destruction of Lubavitch's oldest and bitterest enemy.
Such world-historical events served to raise the emotional temperature at 770, where the Rebbe was approaching his 90th birthday. In the natural order of things, he could not live much longer. Yet for almost half a century-since the very first talk he gave upon becoming Rebbe, in 1951-Schneerson had been insisting that the Messiah would come in his time. The theme of that inaugural speech had been the mystical power of sevens, a stock subject in Jewish mysticism. "All who are seventh are most beloved," Schneerson quoted, and it was lost on no one that he himself was the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. Every year on the same date, the 10th of Shvat, he would repeat the talk, which Heilman and Friedman call "a key text in Lubavitcher mythology and messianic theology." (You can hear a selection of it, with subtitles, here.)
How, then, could the blessed seventh generation possibly give way to an eighth? As Schneerson came closer to his end, his messianic proclamations took on a more urgent, even desperate tone. "Everything necessary for the redemption has been completed," he said in August 1991. The Jewish year 5752, which began in 1992, was the year when "the world would become united under the flag of the Messiah." His Hasidim took the cue, preparing the famous yellow flag with a crown that became the logo of the Moshiach movement. No one, perhaps, believed more trustingly than a man named David Nachshon, an Israeli Lubavitcher who visited 770 in 1991. As Heilman and Friedman describe the scene, on Shabbat, April 20, Nachshon held up a bottle of liquor "and, standing before the Rebbe, announced that with this drink they would all toast the Rebbe our righteous Messiah who would redeem them on the next Sabbath at the rebuilt Holy Temple in Jerusalem."
Here, if anywhere, was the man Rosenzweig described as having faith. Was he "better"? Should we not feel pity or contempt for him, imagining his plight on April 27, when the Temple was not restored and the Rebbe was not magically transported to Jerusalem? (A replica of 770 Eastern Parkway was built there, so that he would feel at home when the relocation happened.) Or should we, perhaps, feel anger at the Rebbe, the charismatic leader who encouraged his followers to believe of him what should never be believed of any human being? As the frenzy built among his Hasidim-as they displayed banners with his picture calling him Moshiach, and ran ads in the New York Times declaring "Moshiach Now," and signed petitions begging him to declare himself the Messiah-Schneerson could have put a stop to it with a word. He never did.
But does this mean that the Rebbe actually believed he was the Messiah? On the evidence of his words and actions, as analyzed both by Heilman and Friedman and by Wolfson, it is hard to give a clear yes-or-no answer. It would be easier to understand Schneerson, and to judge him, if he were simply a pretender-if he told people he was the Messiah, knowing full well that he wasn't-or simply deluded-if he straightforwardly knew that he was the Messiah, in the way that psychotics know they are Napoleon or Jesus Christ. But he was too good and sincere to be the former and too realistic and intelligent to be the latter.
The truth seems to be that, like his humblest followers, the Rebbe himself was waiting, in a state of intolerable expectation, for the Messiah to be revealed-and he was unable to rule out the possibility that the Messiah would turn out to be himself. The genuine bewilderment this caused comes across in the harangue he delivered a few days after Passover in 1991, when once again the Messiah had failed to come-despite the tradition that the final Redemption would take place in the same month, Nisan, as the redemption from bondage in Egypt. "How can it be," he asked his followers, "that you have not yet succeeded in this time of grace to actualize the coming of the righteous Messiah? What else can I do so that the Children of Israel will cry out and demand the Messiah come, after all else that was done until now has not helped since we are obviously still in exile." He concluded, "I have to hand over the task to you: Do all you can to bring the righteous Moshiach, mamesh."
The last word, which Heilman and Friedman leave untranslated, is Hebrew for "in fact," "really," "actually." It became part of Schneerson's standard refrain in calling for the Messiah, as Elliot Wolfson shows in greater detail. (In general, Wolfson has much more to say about the content of Schneerson's thought and writing, while Heilman and Friedman focus on the events of his life and the organizational growth of Chabad.) Let the Messiah come "tekhef u-mi-yad mammash," Schneerson said again and again-"immediately and without delay in actuality," as Wolfson translates.
The redundancy and insistence of the phrase speak very movingly of the urgency of Schneerson's desire and capture the feeling that Walter Benjamin also communicated-that any single instant could be the gateway for the Messiah. Wolfson quotes Schneerson's words from February 1990: "Let it be your will that by means of all these things we will merit in all of Israel, immediately and without delay in actuality, immediately without delay in actuality, immediately and without delay in actuality, the true and complete redemption." With each repetition of tekhef u-mi-yad mammash, the moment is bid to hold still, the gate to swing open. One can imagine the same words coming from the pilgrim in Kafka's parable "Before the Law," who spends his entire life sitting in front of an open door, waiting for the doorkeeper's permission to enter.
The Kafkaesque turn in that story comes at the moment of the man's death, when he is told that "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you." But it is left deliberately unclear whether this means that he should have seized the opportunity that was destined for him-say, by forcing his way through, despite the doorkeeper's warnings. For isn't forcing redemption the great temptation and sin of those who can't wait patiently for God? Wolfson quotes Rosenzweig's indulgent view of those who believe in false messiahs but in The Star of Redemption Rosenzweig is sterner about those he calls "Tyrants of the Kingdom of Heaven": "The fanatic, the sectarian … far from hastening the advent of the kingdom, only delay it. … The ground prematurely cultivated by the fanatic yields no fruit. It does that only when its time has come. And its time, too, will come. But then all the work of cultivation will have to be undertaken afresh."
Mamesh means "in fact"; but it is also made up of the letters mem, mem, shin, which are the initials of Menahem Mendel Schneerson. By so insistently linking this word to the coming of the Messiah, Schneerson seemed to be confirming that he himself was the one the Lubavitchers were waiting for. Once, Heilman and Friedman write, he added "that he meant mamesh ‘with all its interpretations' "-a typically elusive confirmation. So elusive, in fact, that Wolfson bases his book on the hypothesis that Schneerson not only didn't think he was the Messiah, he didn't even believe the Messiah was coming at all.
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|Subject: Re: Some books on a major modern Jewish cult and leader........ 7/31/2012, 5:24 pm|| |
This is not about Chabad / Lubavichers..... but about a Rabbi who I actually knew a little in the late 60s before I bumped into Zen. After his death, many women came forward with allegations. Same old story.
A Paradoxical Legacy: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's Shadow Side
Lilith Magazine Volume 23, No. 1/Spring 1998
By Sarah Blustain
In 1989 feminist group Women of the Wall defied the Orthodox Jewish establishment and read from their own Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Shlomo Carlebach, steeped in Hasidic tradition but committed to the spiritual rights of women, was the only male rabbi present.
An orthodox rabbi by training, Rabbi Carlebach took down the separation between women and men in his own synagogue, encouraged women to study and to teach Jewish texts, and gave private ordination to women before most mainstream Jewish institutions would. Described as a musical genius, Rabbi Carlebach's melodies, including Adir Hu, AmYisroel Chai, and Esa Ena, are sung throughout the world in Hasidic shteibels and Reform temples alike; have sunk so deeply into Jewish consciousness that many don't realize these are not age-old tunes. And Rabbi Carlebach encouraged women, tossing out loudly a challenge to the orthodox teaching that women's voices should not be heard publicly lest they arouse men.
Shlomo Carlebach also abandoned the Orthodox injunction that men and women not touch publicly. Indeed, he was known for his frequent hugs of men and women alike, and often said his hope was to hug every Jew, perhaps every person, on earth.
It is an alarming paradox, then, that the man who did so much on behalf of women may also have done some of them harm. In the three years since Rabbi Carlebach's death, at age 69, ceremonies honoring his life and work have been interrupted by women who claim the Rabbi sexually harassed or abused them. In dozens of recent interviews, Lilith has attempted to untangle and to explain Rabbi Carlebach's legacy.
"He was the first person to ordain women, to take down the mechitza and I think he thought all boundaries were off," says Abigail Grafton, a psychotherapist whose Jewish Renewal congregation in Berkeley, California has spent the last six months trying to cope with the allegations.
While Rabbi Carlebach was never formally connected with the Jewish Renewal movement, which encourages spiritual and mystical expressions of Judaism, his teachings and music have had a deep impact on many Renewal congregations, and on institutions of other streams of Judaism as well. For this reason, he was a frequent guest at synagogues, youth conventions, Jewish summer camps and other gatherings.
Among the many people Lilith spoke with, nearly all had heard stories of Rabbi Carlebach's sexual indiscretions during his more than four-decade rabbinic career. Spiritual leaders, psychotherapists, and others report numerous incidents, from playful propositions to actual sexual contact. Most of the allegations include middle-of-the-night, sexually charged phone calls and unwanted attention or propositions. Others, which have been slower to emerge, relate to sexual molestation.
The story appears to date back to the 60's when Rabbi Carlebach had moved away from his Lubavitch Hasidic practice and was exploring ways to bring aspects of Judaism to a mixed-gender, secular Jewish community. But it begins for our purposes in the days after his death, in 1994, when a memorial service on Manhattan's Upper West Side was attended by a multitude, and the blocks in front of his synagogue, the Carlebach Shul, had to be closed off to accommodate the gathered crowds. In pouring rain, men and women wailed as their religious leaders articulated their grief. "The air around here is sanctified, "one passionate speaker told the crowd. "If I were you, I would breathe the air&It will fix something."
Such idealization was only the beginning of a process of canonizing Rabbi Carlebach, a process that has continued over the three years since his death. A number of his followers have reminded us that Rabbi Carlebach, when alive, "walked with the humblest of the humble" and "never said he was a holy man." But with his death came an outpouring of love, and a degree of idolization that did not easily allow followers to recognize what others gently call his "shadow side."
"I hear people say or imply it over and over again, 'He was bigger than life,'" remarks Patricia Cohn, a member of the Berkeley Jewish Renewal community and a women's rights activist who has been centrally involved in her community's effort to grapple with the allegations that women both in Berkeley and elsewhere were injured by Rabbi Carlebach. "He touched many people on a level that they have rarely been touched in their lives."
It was at one ceremony, at an ALEPH gathering in Colorado, that an assembly of more than 800 honored his life with songs and stories on the first anniversary of his death. ALEPH is the central institution for the Jewish Renewal movement; its preeminent rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, had been a friend of Rabbi Carlebach since the 1950's when both were sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to do outreach to the secular world.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a pioneer Jewish feminist who was at that ALEPH Kallah, says that she "first became aware of his glorification at the gathering, when it was announced that this [memorial] was going to happen." Right after the announcement, three or four people "jumped me", she says, and told their stories: "'Shlomo molested me, Shlomo was abusive to me,'" is how she summarizes their words.
It was going "overboard to not acknowledge the problematic side of the man when there members of the community there were hurt by him," says Rivkah Walton, an ALEPH program director, who reports that she walked out of the memorial.
In 1997, through the Internet and in public forums, the stories of inappropriate behavior began to be more widely discussed. The messenger was Rabbi Gottlieb, who since the ALEPH gathering had been distressed by the continued murmuring about Rabbi Carlebach. Understanding the pain and confusion here revelations might stir up, but concerned with what she saw as the "deification of Shlomo Carlebach"; Rabbi Gottlieb wrote a tell-all essay.
"These are difficult words to write," she began, in an essay sent to Lilith and presented by Rabbi Gottlieb at Chochmat HaLev, a Berkeley Jewish center for meditation and spirituality, in late 1997. "I have a responsibility to the women who have confided in me. They deserve a place on the page of the collective memories about Shlomo Carlebach."
She wrote of Rabbi Carlebach's molestation of one of her congregants, Rachel, as a young woman. As Rachel (name changed on her request to prevent further trauma) told Lilith in a subsequent telephone interview, she was in high school in the late '60's when she attended a Jewish camp where, for the first time in her life she felt 'safe and uncriticized&Every talent I had was encouraged." Music was everywhere, and it was to this "safe" environment that Rabbi Carlebach, who spent much of his life traveling to bring his music and prayer to communities, worldwide, was invited as a guest singer. "We had heard that someone fabulous was coming, a star," she recalls of the visit. 'The rabbis [at the camp] really seemed to honor him, like a god." Rabbi Carlebach, with his warmth and charisma, was like the Pied Piper, she remembers, and his singing was wonderful; Rachel recalls it as "the first time in a Jewish context that I could feel that I was having a spiritual experience."
When he asked her to show him around the camp, Rachel says she felt, "what an honor [it was] to be alone with this great man." They walked and talked of philosophy and Israel, of stars and poems, and she remembers being "just enchanted." He asked her for a hug, and when she agreed, "he wouldn't let go. I thought the hug was over and I tried to squirm out of it. He started to rub and rock against me." So unsuspecting was she, she says, "that at first I thought, 'was this some sort of davening?'" She says she tried to push him away while he was "dry humping me until he came." And although she doesn't remember the words he spoke, she remembers him communicating to her that it was something special in her that had caused this to happen. "It felt cheap, but he had said thank you." The next day he didn't even acknowledge her presence.
Rachel's responses, she reports, were varied in the days after this incident. At first she wondered, "Was I his special friend?" Then, when he ignored her, she wondered, "Did I displease him?&Was he considering me a whore?" She also blamed herself for causing the event, was there something special in her that made this happen? And "for not having the chutzpah to&kick him in the shins."
However, he was a special rabbi, and those she had looked up to, looked up to him. Rachel, today and artist and a martial arts teacher in New Mexico, told almost no one what had happened. Those she did tell said he was "just a dirty old man." Thirty-five years later she was jogging with Rabbi Gottlieb, both her friend and her congregational rabbi, when they were talking about Rabbi Carlebach. Hearing that others were claiming experiences similar to hers, Rachel broke down in tears. Only then, she recalls, did she get very angry. I felt acknowledged. It wasn't a dream, it really happened."
Other stories have begun to emerge, suggesting that Rachel's experience was not unique. Robin Goldberg, today a teacher of women's studies and a research psychoanalyst on women's issues in California, was 12 years old when Shlomo visited her Orthodox Harrisburg, Pennsylvania community to lead a singing and dancing concert. He invited all the young people for a pre-concert preparation. And it was during the dancing that he started touching her. He kept coming back to her, she reports, whispering in her ear, saying "holy maidele," and fondling her breast. Twelve years old and Orthodox, she says she didn't know what to think. Her mother, that afternoon, told her she must have been mistaken, and that she must not have understood what was going on. But when she was taken to a dance event led by Rabbi Carlebach years later, while she was in college, she reports that the same thing, dancing, whispering, fondling, happened to her again.
Another story comes from Rabbi Goldie Milgram, 43, today a teacher and an associate dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City. Rabbi Milgrom was 14 when Rabbi Carlebach was a guest at her United Synagogue Youth convention in New Jersey, and was invited by her parents to stay at their home. Late that night they passed in the hallway. "He pulled me up against him, rubbed his hands up my body and under my cloths and pulled me up against him. He rubbed up against me; I presume he had an orgasm. He called me mammele.
Rabbi Milgram says she didn't tell her parents at the time and wasn't able to work through the incident until three years later, when she was 17 and on her first trip to Israel. Approaching the Kotel, she saw Rabbi Carlebach leading singing there and she fled. Her companion saw her distress and suggested that she "'pretend I'm him,'" recalls Rabbi Milgram. "All I remember is screaming 'Who are you? Why did you do that? I was so excited that you came to my house and then...'" (Today, Rabbi Milgram says, she has come to terms with this event and feels very connected to Rabbi Carlebach's positive work, though she had been alienated by her early experience with him.)
For the past 15 years, Marcia Cohn Spiegel of Los Angeles, has studied addiction and sexual abuse in the Jewish community and has spoken to some 60 groups through Brandeis University, the University of Judaism, the Havurah Institute, along with many Jewish women's organizations, synagogues and Jewish community centers. She doesn't mention Rabbi Carlebach at all in her talks, she told Lilith. Following such talks, women come up to her, even in the women's bathroom, to pour out their own stories, she says, "not seeking publicity or revenge, but coming from a place of shame and isolation." Consistently through the years women have come forward to share their stories explicitly about Rabbi Carlebach, Speigel says.
In a letter, which Spiegel made available to Lilith, she states that in the last few years, a number of women in their 40s have approached her "in private and often with deep-seated pain" about experiences they had when they were in their teens. "Shlomo came to their camp, their center, their synagogue," she wrote, "He singled them out with some excuse...[G]etting them alone, he fondled their breasts and vagina, sometimes thrusting himself against them muttering something, which they now believe was Yiddish."
The other typical story, she says, is recounted by women who had gone to Rabbi Carlebach, "for help with problems, or who met him when they studied with him. They were in their 20s or 30s when it happened. He would call them late at night (two or three o'clock in the morning) and tell them that he couldn't sleep. He had been thinking of them. He asked, Where were they? What were they wearing?"
A woman who attended services conducted by Rabbi Carlebach in California in the 1970's, and who asked not to be identified in this article, recalls precisely this second scenario. After meeting her once or twice, she says, Rabbi Carlebach called her in the middle of the night several times. "It was very creepy. I seem to remember him breathing heavily on the phone and panting." Though at first she was confused, once she realized that "something surreptitious" was going on, she told him not to call her in the middle of the night anymore. He did not.
Rabbi Carlebach's sexual advances to adult women were apparently well known. Rabbi Gottlieb herself recounts Rabbi Carlebach's request that she pick him up at his hotel when he was visiting her Albuquerque community. When she got there, "he refused to come down," asking instead that she come up to his room. Rabbi Gottlieb "went up and stood outside the threshold and said, "I am not coming into your room and you are not going to touch me.'" Another woman recalls, "His manner was 'God loves you, I love you,' and then he'd come on to you out of 'love.'"
If these allegations were so widely known, why were so many people, in so many communities in the United States, Canada, Israel and elsewhere, able to ignore or squelch such serious concerns to preserve the myth of a wholly holy man?
The ideal time to confront Rabbi Carlebach about these allegations would have been during his life. Though that opportunity has passed, there are a number of reasons why these allegations need to be acknowledged in public, even after his death.
First, silence. A silence protective of the man and damaging to the women has been maintained for years, sometimes decades since the alleged events. Perhaps these women were cowed by Rabbi Carlebach's living presence, but his posthumous increase in stature cannot have made the speaking easier. Those who have encouraged the women to come forward say they hope that breaking these silences will help other women to speak as well, and that such speaking will allow them all to begin to heal.
Second, power. It is important to understand just how powerful and intimate an impact any spiritual leader, but particularly a charismatic and revered Rabbi like Rabbi Carlebach, may have on followers. Unfortunately, according to experts on clergy abuse, it is not uncommon for extremely charismatic leaders to take advantage of this power in order to make sexual contact with congregants. It is the rabbi's responsibility, these women's stories suggest, to recognize his power, and to use it only to his congregant's benefit and not to their detriment.
Finally, communal responsibility. In cases where a rabbi's self-restraint fails, perhaps the Jewish community needs to look at its own responsibility for protecting its members, and for helping its rabbis as well. If Rabbi Carlebach's sexual advances indeed spanned decades and continents, as has been alleged, and were indeed as well known as it now appears, then we must ask: What might have been done on behalf of the women who may have been hurt by him? What can be done for them today? And why did the legions who revered him not do more to help him, since there appears to be some evidence that Rabbi Carlebach was himself troubled by aspects of his own behavior.
Rabbi Carlebach's approach to Jewish learning and spirituality developed in an era when social boundaries were being broken. Born in Germany the son of a rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach moved with his family to the United States in 1938 and began his schooling in strictly Orthodox institutions in New Jersey. In 1949, as an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he was sent out by the Rebbe to reach out to lapsed Jews, but he objected to Orthodoxy's strict separation of men and women, and he left the Lubavitch fold, according to a recent article in Moment magazine.
By the 1960's, Rabbi Carlebach was maintaining the musical style and spiritual fervency of Hasidism, but had rejected constraints and the gender segregation it demands. Among the ultra-Orthodox, wrote Robert Cohen in a recent, generally positive memoir in Moment, "embracing women was enough to make Shlomo a dubious, if not disreputable, figure in many Orthodox circles." Instead, he established his base of spiritual operations from the mid 60's to mid 70's at San Francisco's House of Love and Prayer, a commune-style synagogue that catered to a young hippie community.
"Shlomo joined the counter-culture," notes Reuven Goldfarb of a Berkeley Jewish Renewal congregation the Aquarian Minyan, defending "Shlomo" (as the rabbi asked people to call him) from opprobrium. "The norms in that sub-group were very different, and he was subject to all sorts of temptation."
In addition to an increasing sexual openness in American culture generally, Rabbi Carlebach had developed his own belief that the healing of the world would come through unconditional love. He was known for calling friends "holy brother," "holy sister," "holy cousin." "His life goal," Cohen writing in Moment, recalled his saying, "was to 'hug every Jew [sometimes it was every human being] in the world.'" One woman telephoning Lilith from Jerusalem in horror that any negative story about Rabbi Carlebach might appear, recalled, "he hugged many many people and he also saved so many people with those hugs." Another told us, "He hugged into each man, woman, child what each of us needed." Another man remembers a synagogue concert in the late 60's when Rabbi Carlebach kissed every person who greeted him there on the mouth.
Despite their support of some of Rabbi Carlebach's spirituality and egalitarianism, there were even those in the forefront of challenging Judaism's traditional hierarchies who viewed Rabbi Carlebach's alleged sexual behavior as wrong. In the early 80's, a group of women in the Berkeley area decided to express to him their concerns about his behavior toward women. Among them was Sara Shendelman, a cantor who holds a joint ordination from Rabbis Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi and who sang with Rabbi Carlebach for 15 years before his death. Specifically, says Shendelman, her Rosh Hodesh group of 15 to 20 women was concerned that Shlomo Carlebach did not observe proper boundaries with woman that he called them in the middle of the night, and sometime invited them to his hotel.
"We were going to study Judith, supposedly, but what we were really going to do was confront him," she recalls of the planned meeting. The day came, and members of the group began to get cold feet. They felt he just had "too much light" to be confronted, Shendelman recalls. (Shendelman told Lilith she heard later that someone had told Rabbi Carlebach the purpose of the meeting in advance. He came nonetheless.) The group, along with Rabbi Carlebach, began to study. Rabbi Carlebach, according to Shendelman, sat wrapped in his tallit and spoke of teshuva.
Not one of the women spoke up, until Shendelman announced, "Shlomo, we came here because we need to talk to you about how you've been behaving toward the women in the community&And the whole room froze&Nobody was willing to back me up."
The dialogue between Shendelman and Rabbi Carlebach continued in a private room, where Rabbi Carlebach at first denied any problem, says Shendelman. Then she reports, he said over and over, "Oy, this needs such a fixing."
We cannot know what Rabbi Carlebach did toward "such a fixing." Certainly the reluctance of the women of the Berkeley community to approach him en masse, and the reluctance of others in the wider Jewish community, must have made it easier for him to avoid addressing the problem. Perhaps if he had received greater guidance in seeing that his behavior needed repair, Rabbi Carlebach might have welcomed an opportunity to do teshuva, repentance.
We do know that certain segments of the progressive Jewish world, until the day Rabbi Carlebach died, distanced themselves from him because they were aware of reports of his sexual behavior. Leaders at ALEPH, and its sister organization, a retreat center called Elat Chayyim, told Lilith that during Rabbi Carlebach's life they refused to invite him to teach under their auspices or sit on their boards.
"It was definitely and issue for me," said Rabbi Jeffrey Roth, director of Elat Chayyim, who says that he had hoped to invite Rabbi Carlebach to teach before his sudden death. "My intent was&that I was going to have a serious discussion about [the] innuendoes&In retrospect, when I heard of the [seriousness] of the stories, I think that even my thinking that maybe I would invite him and lay down the law would have been a cop out."
"He didn't have a relationship with ALEPH, and that [his sexual advances towards women] was a serious impediment," Susan Saxe, chief operating officer of ALEPH, told Lilith, emphasizing that Rabbi Carlebach was "one of several distinguished teachers with whom we might have wished to be closer, but could not, in keeping with our Code of Ethics." ALEPH's Code of Ethics proscribes the abuse of power in interpersonal relationships as well as discrimination in other forms.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel, executive director of ALEPH, was the first rabbi ordained by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He was introduced to Rabbi Carlebach by his wife, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, to whom Rabbi Carlebach "had been very kind during a difficult year in her life," Rabbi Siegel recalls. "She always loved him for his support and encouragement."
"Shlomo was never my rebbe," Rabbi Siegel says, "though I have a love both for his music and many of his teachings. In spite of the disagreements I had with his politics and his very ethnocentric view of reality, I brought or helped bring him for concerts several times. I was also aware of his reputation for indiscretions with women, though what I heard was vague and filtered through other people. However, it did happen that women I knew began to tell me of conversations they had with him, after concerts I organized, in which he said things which had disturbed or confused them. As a result, I stopped inviting Shlomo, though I never told him why."
Now, however, the dam of silence has begun to break. Some members of the Jewish Renewal community of Berkeley, California, particularly those active in the Aquarian Minyan and the Jewish learning center Chochmat HaLev, where Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb first presented her account of Rachel's abuse last Fall, have taken upon themselves the burden of giving voice to the allegations.
"He so deeply wounded many women," says Nan Fink, co-director of Chochmat HaLev and co-founder of Tikkun magazine. "Communities knew that this was happening, and women were hardly ever protected...I think it is really important for the community to make a gesture of apology to the women."
Rabbi Gottlieb's presentation came just eight weeks before a scheduled Shabbat program entitled, "Celebrating Shlomo." According to Reuven Goldfarb, a leader of the Aquarian Minyan, Rabbi Gottlieb's words so disturbed some members of his community that the event was postponed until after the community could begin a "healing process" and hold a series of events to that end.
A Healing Committee has now been formed by the Aquarian Minyan. On December 7, according to Goldfarb, a confidential meeting dubbed Mishkan Tikkun; "a sanctuary for fixing" took place "to provide a listening space for those who felt they had been injured by boundary violations that occurred within a spiritual context." According to a source who attended that meeting, three people came forward with claims against Rabbi Carlebach: one woman spoke about herself, two spoke about their daughters.
Committee member Patricia Cohn, an interim director of the now-closed Bay Area Sexual Harassment Clinic, told Lilith that the Jewish Renewal community is attempting to address the concerns raised by the allegations that have surfaced "by promoting opportunities for members to talk with one another, gain support for dealing with their feelings and reactions, re-establish, or establish, a deeper sense of safety, define appropriate boundary-setting, and educate themselves about the way sexual harassment functions and affects people." In addition, the committee hopes to offer forums to "explore ethical and moral guidelines for rabbis and people in positions of lay spiritual leadership to bring into focus the power imbalances between someone in a position of spiritual leadership and the person he or she is serving."
The Jewish world has not really dealt with rabbinic [sexual] abuse," says Fink. "The Christian world has, the Buddhist world has. The Jewish community needs to say, 'We don't sanction this.' The main thing is to have it really be known that every infraction of this kind will not be tolerated."
Nonetheless, for the many who knew Rabbi Carlebach as a holy guide, hearing allegations may raise a conundrum: "How it is possible that a person who can affect us so powerfully&can at the same time be imperfect and do things we find very, very hard to countenance," asks Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus and, most recently, of Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Mystical Masters.
This cognitive dissonance echoes through Jewish tradition, which is filled with flawed leaders, Moses and David come to mind, who are appreciated for their greatness and forgiven for their human failings. "It is important for us to be reminded that even our spiritual teachers are flawed human beings," notes Rabbi Siegel of ALEPH. "I hope that somehow, as time goes on, we will learn how to honor Reb Shlomo's gifts and, at the same time, to acknowledge those for whom his presence was difficult and even painful. While I cannot predict how this will happen, I know that honest and open discussion of the totality of Reb Shlomo's life can only help."
Indeed, the holding of both parts of Shlomo Carlebach in mind have come into relief as these allegations against him have collided full force with the reverence many still feel for him. Some of his followers have jumped to his defense in the face of claims such as these. Lilith has received both the outrage and prayers of those trying to stop the publication of this article. Coming from as far as Israel, England, and Switzerland, comments have ranged from denial that such actions could have taken place to testimonials to his greatness. More than anything, these calls, emails, and faxes have demanded in various ways that we perpetuate the silence.
"Whatever negative there is to say there [are] a million positives you could choose," one protester wrote. Another told us, "He alone gave me the sense of beauty of being a Jewish woman." A third, even more adamant, suggested hat "there is no way you can even think of publishing a negative article about a man like Rabbi Carlebach, if you even begin to know the unending acts of kindness he devoted his life to performing." Finally, some protested against these allegations coming to light, "regardless of truth or right," "How dare you sully the memory of such a soul, such a tzaddik?" one correspondent asked.
Kamenetz suggests that this need to see only the positive sides of Rabbi Carlebach should be expected. "We want to be moved, we want to be touched, and we project that onto certain individuals," he said, explaining how such an idealized perspective develops.
Explains Rabbi Julie Spitzer, "It is not uncommon when women come forward with their stories of inappropriate sexual contact with a rabbi or clergy member hat the members of the congregation or community so much want to disbelieve those shocking allegations that they vilify the complainant and glorify the abuser." Rabbi Spitzer is director of the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues and for 14 years has served on the National Advisory Board for the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.
In the cacophony of voices expressing doubt, fear, fury and grief, Rabbi Gottlieb asserts, "This is about our relationship to power, rabbinics, patriarchy. This is not about him. It is about the women he hurt."
The voice of Rachel, speaking of her summer camp experience more than 35 years ago rings clear for any who wonders why, in the end, her story had to be spoken aloud. "I think in the name of a higher good than one man's reputation, we must talk about this&It's about truth, and if we keep saying that he was a great man&and if we don't name the behavior and don't hold him and his spirit and memory accountable, we are colluding in perpetuating that behavior and violence in our most spiritual center."
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