With Us More Than Ever
Making the Absent Rebbe Present in Messianic Chabad
Yoram Bilu

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INTRODUCTION

Messianism Here and Now

The messianic fervor that has electrified the Hasidic movement of Chabad-Lubavitch in recent decades, and in particular the departure in the summer of 1994 of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad’s charismatic leader and the designated Messiah in the eyes of his followers, offers a rare opportunity to study the way the religious imagination is fueled in transitional states. In such historical moments the religious horizon shatters but can also expand. When routines are shaken and the conventions of normative religious behavior crack, new or revived beliefs, practices, and patterns of experience can gain entry. These practices are meant to reestablish an adequate system of meaning for believers and to provide them with an updated agenda. We still lack the necessary historical perspective to evaluate the results and consequences of Chabad’s messianic ferment, but we can certainly point to its not insignificant similarities to constitutive events in the histories of other religions, in which crises born out of a seemingly spectacular messianic failure proved to be fertile ground for religious renewal. This is what happened to the early Christians after Jesus’s crucifixion,1 to Shi‘ite Islam in the ninth and tenth centuries following the disappearance of the twelfth imam,2 and to the devotees of the Jewish Messiah Shabbetai Zvi in the seventeenth century following his conversion to Islam, and then again after his death.3 Such historical moments are characterized by energetic religious activity manifesting the presence of the departed messianic figure, so as to secure his privileged status. Chabad’s messianic awakening offers a convenient platform for gaining understanding of key processes in the way religious thinking and experience are shaped.4 Every religious belief system, after all, involves some sort of attempt to imbue metaphysical entities with concreteness and vitality—in other words, to transform them into a presence in the world of the believer.5 Denial of the Rebbe’s death, a central tenet of the radical messianic circles in Chabad, can also be seen as a radicalization of fundamental and common religious claims about the endurance and eternity of the soul and life after death.

Beyond the broad religious issues it illustrates, Chabad messianism also needs to be considered in terms of the implications that the idea of redemption has for contemporary Judaism, in Israel and outside it.6 The uniqueness of messianic figures lies in the vision of redemption that they embody and preach, but such a vision does not necessarily require a personal messiah. Utopian and apocalyptic ideas of a secular cast, lacking a specific messianic figure, have been a feature of the modern world. The role played by such ideas in the great ideological movements of the twentieth century, such as communism and fascism, is common knowledge. Utopian values and the concept of redemption have been part of Zionism as well, and the establishment of the state of Israel was perceived by many Zionists, not just religious ones, in such terms.7 Religious Zionists view the establishment of the state in 1948, and later its decisive victory in the Six Day War in 1967, as the “first manifestation of the approach of our redemption.”8 But the messianic scenario accepted in such circles, even as embodied in the most potent language used by the Gush Emunim settler movement at its height, never publicly and explicitly said that a particular person was the Messiah. Yet that is exactly what Chabad has done. Chabad reverts to the classical concept of the messianic era, with its two essential elements. First, it centers on a personal Messiah, descended from King David, and claims to know who that Messiah is—the Rebbe himself. Second, it imbues in its believers an intoxicating conviction that they live on the verge of redemption. It is a concept that has not been current in Judaism for more than three hundred years, since the messianic tide set in motion by Shabbetai Zvi.9 It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of this phenomenon, even if we cannot yet take a long historical view of it.

FIGURE 1. Poster of the Rebbe on a shop door. The note reads: “I will soon return.” Courtesy of the Association for the True and Complete Redemption.

It is hard to think of a more stirring and noble religious ideal than that realized by the coming of the Messiah. In Jewish history, with its string of calamities, the belief in the coming of the Messiah is an inseparable part of religious life, one that offers comfort and hope. Yet that same belief is tied up with apocalyptic prophecies that “have always contained interwoven elements of terror and comfort.”10 The shift from the historical present to the messianic future involves a cosmic upheaval of a catastrophic nature, known in Jewish lore as chevlei mashiach, the birth-pangs of the Messiah. It is no wonder therefore that the Jewish religious establishment takes an ambivalent view of acute messianic visions. Jewish society has paid a heavy price following the appearance of messianic figures in its midst, beginning with Jesus and Bar Kokhba in ancient times and ending with Shabbetai Zvi and Jacob Frank in the early modern age. These failures did not cause the mainstream to reject the messianic idea, but they intensified suspicion of flesh-and-blood messiahs. Jews continued to believe with perfect faith, as Maimonides admonished them to, in the last of his Thirteen Principles of Faith, in the coming of the Messiah, even, and perhaps especially, in times of crisis and catastrophe. But Judaism’s messianism remained beyond the horizon of actual life, set in some undefined future. Given that, in an unredeemed world, past messiahs are by definition false messiahs, the messianic scenario generally refrains from putting the idea to a critical test by pointing to a specific messianic figure or setting a proximate date for redemption.11 Chabad’s message of redemption, which identifies the Rebbe as the Messiah and claims that the ultimate redemption is impending, has created a heated and active messianism that defies the rabbinic establishment’s caution and ambivalence. The Rebbe’s boldness in fostering the messianic idea and disseminating tidings of redemption is worthy of special note given these attitudes of apprehension and reserve, the products of a manifestly passive messianic ideology. On the one hand, this displayed resolute faith and theological courage—unlike most other rabbis, the Rebbe was not afraid to grapple with the charged messianic idea and to try to realize it here and now (even if he avoided explicitly declaring that he himself was the Messiah). On the other hand, it testifies to his authority and charisma as a religious figure. The Rebbe was able to enthuse his followers and mobilize them for his messianic project with hardly any remonstration from any central figure in the Jewish public.12 The nearly negligible opposition to his initiative seems to be due, in part, to the difficulty of coming out firmly against an admired leader who, with his disciples, was seeking to achieve a central principle of faith while strictly observing Jewish law. Beyond that, however, it has been difficult to stand against the power and influence Chabad wields in Israel and the world. Here, too, lies the phenomenon’s importance.13 This contemporary messianic ferment has not occurred on the margins of Jewish society but within a large and influential Hasidic movement that has a considerable public presence.

Twenty-five years have passed since Chabad’s new era began, and the future is foggy. That fog puts me in an inferior position in comparison with historians who study outbreaks of messianism from the past, examining how they played out and what effects they had, from beginning to end. I deal with the here and now. But the messianic tempest taking place before my eyes offers me a rare opportunity to document systematically and in real time a rich skein of processes and events connected to the phenomenon, and to do so in a prospective rather than retrospective way. Using this method, my aim is to analyze the ways in which Chabad Hasidim try to make the absent rabbi present in their lives. Their ways of doing so are many and varied, and together form a behavioral environment that I call a messianic ecology, in which the Rebbe is an active participant. The Rebbe vanished in the summer of 1994—even his most extreme adherents have to acknowledge that. But all his Hasidim continue to see him as their leader, and would never think of proposing that an heir or successor should take his place. That being the case, the movement’s endurance depends in large measure on his disciples’ capacity for maintaining the sense that he continues to live among them, attentive to their requests and acting for their sake. In this book I want to show how that capacity is realized—how the Hasidim maintain ties with the Rebbe, the presence of whom they experience with their senses, and how they “live the Rebbe” and with the Rebbe. My focus, then, is not the classic Chabad movement and its theosophy, nor the messianic teachings of the last Rebbe,14 but rather the means that his followers developed in the past generation to make the Rebbe manifest in their world. This is a system of practices that has developed in connection with an absent-present leader and has come into regular use by his Hasidim, many of whom never knew him in his lifetime. While the phenomenology that this system of practices engenders is my primary concern, I also seek to show how the multiform experiences of the Rebbe’s presence constitute Chabad messianic cosmology.

In redirecting my spotlight from Chabad’s teachings and theosophy to its ways of making the Rebbe present, this book joins a cluster of recent works which share a conceptual framework that has come to be called, in the study of religion, “the media turn.”15 These works center on the means of mediating the gap that religious thinking presumes between the real world of the senses and the unseen world that lies beyond it. The claim that the material means that serve this mediating purpose actually constitute religious experience challenges the traditional distinction between religion and the media. It also challenges the presumed superiority, in classic scholarly approaches (influenced by Protestant tradition) of spirit to matter, theology to technology, faith to practice, inner experience to external ritual, and sacred text to ritual object. With the media turn, means of mediation are no longer seen as secondary to the ostensibly primal transcendental experience of the encounter with the divine. Quite simply, such an encounter cannot take place without them.16

The emergence of this new paradigm at this time has to do with the connection between, on the one hand, the growing strength of religion and its prominence in the public sphere, and on the other, the appearance of new audiovisual and digital media technologies.17 But the claim that religion and the media constitute each other relates to mediating mechanisms in their broadest sense. They are not just the sophisticated mass communications media of recent years, but anything that bridges over gaps. Media in this broader sense includes, for example, the body of the shaman-medium in tribal societies, the stones on the high priest’s breastplate in ancient Judaism, the icons and relics of Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, and the sacred text in the book-based faiths. Contemporary society is replete, even flooded, with different types of media, which has led scholars to address not only mediation processes themselves, but also the mediatization processes through which a religion, like other social institutions, assumes new guises under the influence of new media channels, reformulating itself in their terms.18

One important source of inspiration for this line of research is Jacques Derrida’s assertion that the links between religion and media need to be examined in an open way, without distinguishing ontologically between religion as a transcendental realm and the media as a purely technological one.19 Derrida’s claim that mediation creates presence is also the starting point for the present work, which maps out the means of manifestation aimed at making the vanished Rebbe into a concrete presence. The conceptual system of researchers working in this new paradigm is derived in part, explicitly or implicitly, from the theoretical framework proposed by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin for understanding the ways in which the new media work.20 Their opening argument has two components. First, they claim, the real world is always mediated—that is, it is dependent on media in the broadest sense. Second, it is structured and continually restructured on the basis of previous mediations, with new forms of media engaging in dialogue and basing themselves on previous forms. Bolter and Grusin’s key concept is therefore not mediation but rather remediation.21

Remediations characteristically seek to obviate media technologies while at the same time highlighting them. Bolter and Grusin call the first aspect “transparent immediacy.” Communications technologies tend to be expunged from the representations they produce such that the representations seem to offer direct, immediate, and unmediated access to the real world. The medium becomes transparent in a process that creates a sense of authenticity and presence. The sense of involvement and realism produced when watching a realistic feature film, which erases the fact that this “reality” is actually being projected onto a two-dimensional screen, is an example of the effect of a transparent medium. Likewise, in the religious context, a sacred text becomes the word of the living god, an authentic and authoritative religious experience that conceals the material mediating object, the printed book. This sense of authentic media contributes to the empowerment of religious mediating practices in general, and in particular to those used in Chabad. The Rebbe’s presence is manifested when the medium that provides communication with him itself melts away. This happens, for example, when Hasidim sense that a letter the Rebbe wrote in his lifetime is addressed to them directly even though they have taken it from a printed collection of letters that were sent to other petitioners in the distant past. It also happens when they feel that the Rebbe’s gaze is directed at them and meant to guide them even though the gaze comes from a photograph taken many years before and reproduced endless times since.

The opposite of transparency is hypermediacy. In this experience, the user is exposed to a varied set of channels of information, to many forms of representation, such that the medium itself does not vanish but is instead highlighted. Examples of hypermediacy are collage or photo-montage in the plastic arts, hypertext such as the Talmud, and Microsoft Windows. This is the ostentatious aspect of the media in which technology becomes real and a second nature.22 The connection between this postmodern logic and Chabad’s means of making the Rebbe present is less clear,23 but it corresponds to the multiplicity and even redundancy of the means of mediation to which believers in a messianic environment are exposed simultaneously, to the dialectical nature of Chabad mysticism, and perhaps also to the Rebbe’s own interest in sanctifying technology in general, and the mass media in particular.

In the mediation model there is tension between the mediated and the immediate as the central characteristic of religious systems, with an awareness of the paradox inherent in this dynamic. The believer’s experience in encountering the transcendental is hugely powerful because of the sense of authenticity, directness, and immediate presence, but these feelings can be created only by indirect representational means mediated by the media. Given this tension, there is no way of being certain that new communications media and information will in fact appeal to believers. Studies based on the mediation paradigm grant much weight to struggles between users of new and old media in the conceptualization of religious change, conflict, and revolutions. Different types of media shape the religious subject in distinct ways, in part because they affect different sensory pathways.24 In this spirit it would not be out of line to argue that the many uses that Chabad makes of photographs of the Rebbe and videos in which he appears, based on an entire system of visual culture, affect the shaping of the religious experience of Chabad Hasidim today.

The media turn in the study of religion has taken place in part as a counterresponse to simplistic theories of modernism, progress, and secularization which predicted that religion’s hold on the subjects who live in modern nation-states would loosen and contract into the private sphere alone.25 Works of this type stress that new media technologies contribute to strengthening the influence of religions in the public space and augment the dissemination of their messages beyond local communities, often leading them to adopt a global orientation. The new media-mediated face of religion can be seen, for example, in the blurring of the religious-secular distinction. The blurring can be seen in the use of information technologies and advanced communications technologies for religious purposes, as well as in aspects of commercialization, consumerism, and entertainment that become integrated into and even enhance religious experience. These new technologies make it possible to create imagined communities and new religious identities, but the turn to the public space is also liable to undermine the sense of community and to threaten the religious establishment’s control over believers.

Chabad is an excellent example of religion’s new face. Its public activity and prominence in Israel and the world are unprecedented; its orientation is transnational and even global. Its regular use of communications media and visual and digital information contains within it aspects of commercialism, with an eye toward popular culture. Chabad has adapted well to the modern post-secular world and thrives there, but it is not immune to the dangers that this world holds for religious authority and community cohesion.

Having offered the study’s theoretical framework, I now turn to its research population. All Chabad Hasidim maintain a connection with the vanished Rebbe, but his presence is especially prominent among that group of Hasidim who are called the Meshichists (Messianists, from the Hebrew word for Messiah, mashiach). The common trait of all these Hasidim is not their adherence to the belief that the vanished Rebbe is worthy of being considered the Messiah even today, but rather their position on his ontological status. Chabad can be roughly divided into two major groups. The first is the movement’s central current, consisting of Hasidim who are prominent in large Chabad communities, first and foremost in its home base in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and in Kfar Chabad in Israel, but also in major American and European cities. Many of these people were born into the movement to established Hasidic families. Most Chabad emissaries belong to this group. The members of this central group have accommodated themselves to the fact that the Rebbe died on Gimel Tammuz 1994. Most of them retain, however, the hope that he will return from the dead to lead his people into redemption. The second group, the Meshichists, are prominent in Israel, especially among young new adherents to the movement and ba‘alei teshuvah. It includes many Mizrachim—Jews whose ancestry lies in the Islamic world, far removed from the East European orbit where Hasidism emerged. The Meshichists deny that the Rebbe ever died; instead, they maintain, he is “alive and well in body and spirit, in the full sense.”26 It is only the limits of the flesh that prevent people from seeing him now. In their view, he continues to live in his home, called Beit Hayenu (The House of Our Lives), at Chabad’s international headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, which believers refer to simply as “770.” The Meshichists uphold the belief that the Rebbe will reveal himself “soon and mamash immediately” to lead the Jewish people on the path to redemption. Note that mamash, “in fact” or “really” in Hebrew, is read by believers as an acronym for Mashiach Menachem shmo, meaning “Menachem is the name of the Messiah,” or as the initials of the Rebbe’s name, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

This study focuses on the messianists, who are ostensibly on the margins of the movement, although they see themselves as the vanguard of redemption. But the boundaries between the Meshichists and other Chabad Hasidim are not as sharp as one might expect, and the view that there are two distinct and conflicting camps is oversimplified, even if it is based on Chabad’s internal discourse. It is true that the two groups have found themselves at odds many times, especially during the early years after the Rebbe’s departure. The adherents of each side vilified and stridently condemned their opponents, and at times even attacked each other physically or sued each other in secular courts. But the truth is that the differences within each of the groups are almost as great as the differences between them. Among the moderate Hasidim there is a broad spectrum of positions regarding the Meshichists, ranging from ambivalent acceptance or disregard to active opposition and even accusations that the Meshichists are mentally ill. The Meshichists are divided into a large number of sects, some of them ephemeral. They lack a common agenda or uniform ideology. The most radical of them—those who explicitly attribute divine status to the Rebbe or consider the possibility of annulling halakhic strictures and prohibitions on the ground that the era of redemption has already begun—are a small minority. Most of the activists I interviewed refrain from visiting the Ohel, the shrine marking the Rebbe’s grave in the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. Instead, they go to 770, where, they claim, the Rebbe continues to live as in the past. But I also met Meshichists who visit both sites and explain the apparent contradiction in the spirit of Chabad’s dialectical mysticism.27

In the last twenty-five years, Meshichist communities have been founded within larger Chabad communities, where they maintain separate synagogues and educational institutions and print their own publications. The men in these communities wear distinctive dress, including a kipah with an inscription that declares the Rebbe to be the Messiah, and a lapel pin displaying a yellow flag emblazoned with the crown of the King Messiah. Nevertheless, many Meshichists continue to be part of the larger fabric of life in the Chabad movement and its operations, in which they work and study with non-Meshichists. In any case, since the distinction between Meshichists and non-Meshichists is part of Chabad’s internal discourse, and because my research interest led me to the more hard-core and distinctive Meshichists, I will also apply this distinction despite its oversimplification.

NOTES

1. Marcus 1996, 2001.

2. Amir-Moezzi 2011; Sachedina 1981.

3. Scholem 1973.

4. Beit Halahmi 2001, p. 317.

5. Meyer 2014.

6. Ariel-Yoel et al. 2001; Ravitzky 1993.

7. The fear of the implications of the messianic idea for the Zionist movement and the state of Israel was clearly voiced by Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism: “Will or will it not be in the capacity of Jewish history to face this entry into concrete reality without destroying itself with the messianic demand that has been brought up from its depths? That is the question that a Jew of our generation poses for the present and the future, out of his great past, so full of dangers” (Scholem 1982: 262).

8. Aran 2013.

9. Outbursts of messianic fervor took place among Yemen’s Jews in the second half of the nineteenth century, but they had little resonance outside that community (Eraqi Klorman 1993).

10. Scholem 1943, p. 129.

11. Sharot 1982.

12. Berger 2001; Heilman and Friedman 2010, p. 236; Schwartz 2011, pp. 386–399.

13. On Chabad’s success on the world stage, see Biale et al. 2018, pp. 694–700.

14. On Chabad’s classic era, see Elior 1993; Etkes 2014; Goldberg 2009; Halamish 1994; Loewenthal 1990; Schatz Uffenheimer 1968; Schwartz 2011. On the Rebbe’s messianic teachings, see Dahan 2014b; Wolfson 2009.

15. Engelke 2010.

16. Meyer 2006, 2014; Meyer and Moors 2006; Stolow 2005. Moshe Idel has led a similar paradigmatic change in the study of Jewish mysticism, see Idel 1988, 2005a.

17. De Vries and Weber 2001.

18. De Vries and Weber 2001; Meyer 2005.

19. Derrida 2001; Derrida and Vattimo 1998.

20. Bolter and Grusin 1999.

21. Bolter and Grusin do not use the term remediation, as others have, in the sense of improving on or remedying prior technologies, but rather in the sense of re-mediation. They offer a few examples of remediation: as a medium, writing depends on speech, and the print medium depends on the written word; video and online media are based on the previous media of television and telephone.

22. Meyer 2005, p. 161.

23. According to this logic, similar to that of the simulacrum of Jean Baudrillard, there is no reality beyond the representations that constitute it, see Meyer 2005, p. 161.

24. Because of the centrality of sensory pathways in the mediation that produces the transcendental experience, Meyer refers to religious means of mediation as “sensational forms,” see Meyer 2014.

25. For a critique of these approaches, see Casanova 1994; Castells 1996, 1997, 1998.

26. Sichat Hage’ulah 205, July 10, 1998, p. 1. All the quotations that follow are from this source.

27. Elior 1993.