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

BUY THIS BOOK


PREFACE

My first encounter with Chabad emissaries was unplanned. During the second week of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after the Israel Defense Forces had established a bridgehead on the far side of the Suez Canal, I was placed at the head of a company of tankers; we were assigned to cross the canal to fuel IDF armored units on the western bank. We made our preparations under Egyptian bombardment. While the artillery fire was sparse, it was very dangerous because of our flammable cargo. Suddenly I heard Hasidic music. It turned out to be blaring from speakers that had been attached to the roof of a civilian pickup truck. High-strung as we were from the danger we were under, we first thought that we were hallucinating. But the two Hasidim who jumped out of the truck turned out to be entirely real. They eagerly handed out small plastic bags containing a copy of the traditional wayfarer’s prayer, printed on parchment-colored paper, along with two ten-agorot coins that, they said, bore the Rebbe’s blessing. They were old-style Chabad Hasidim (“Lubavitchers”), a type you hardly see anymore—they wore everyday clothing and had newsboy caps on their heads. I don’t know how they got so close to the front, but I vividly remember that all of us, religious and nonreligious alike, shoved the precious charmed coins into our pockets or into the pouch holding our dog tags.

A later memory comes from an organized tour of Peru and Bolivia in 2007. When we reached Cusco, the Andean capital of the Inca Empire, our group, which included both observant and nonobservant Jews, decided to enjoy a Friday-night Sabbath meal at the local Chabad House. To our surprise, we found ourselves sitting among about a hundred Israeli trekkers at tables that had been set up under the sky in the courtyard of the house. The local Chabad emissary, who offered an animated talk on the weekly Torah portion, displayed the garb, speech, and the body language of a man born into a Chabad family. We were thus surprised to learn that, just a decade before, he and his wife had been trekkers themselves. They had encountered Chabad for the first time on the beaches of Goa in India. From his discourse on sacred matters, the rabbi segued straight into the profane. First he cautioned the trekkers against swindlers who rent motorcycles without providing full insurance policies. Then he invited the crowd to come back a couple of days later to watch Brazil play Argentina in the Copa América soccer championship. When he said that he had ordered a giant screen especially for the occasion, dozens of trekkers drummed on their tables and cheered “Yesh Elohim!” (“God exists!”).

A year and a half later, I visited India. I arrived in Mumbai a few weeks after an Islamist organization staged a terror attack in the city, in November 2008; one of the targets was the city’s Chabad House. The sight of the bullet-pocked building nauseated me. A few days later I made my way to Varanasi, where, on the banks of the Ganges, I saw numerous signs, in Hebrew and English, pointing the way to a new Chabad House. Following the signs, I discovered that the house—where there were no security guards—had been opened just weeks before by an emissary couple. Like their counterparts in Cusco, they were ba’alei teshuvah—young Jews who had become religious (the Hebrew term translates as “masters of repentance” or “those who have returned”). The man was absorbed in his prayers when we arrived, so we were greeted by his wife, a very young woman with a baby in her arms. I asked her if she did not fear for her life, given the recent events in Mumbai. In reply, she pointed, with a smile, to the large picture of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad’s late spiritual leader (admor),1 whose followers, and many beyond them, know him simply as “the Rebbe,” as I will refer to him in this book. “He protects us,” she said with conviction. “You see, even she [the baby] knows who he is.” Indeed, the baby seemed fascinated by the Rebbe’s face.

Many Israelis and Jews have had similar encounters in recent years, in Israel and throughout the world. Who hasn’t run into the cheerful Chabad emissaries who stand in airports and at busy city intersections, urging passersby to put on tefillin, the phylacteries that religious Jews wear on their arm and head during morning prayers? What Israeli backpacker has not gone to a Chabad house in some remote part of the world to enjoy a kosher meal, the company of fellow Hebrew-speakers, and to get important information about his surroundings? Who has not seen the omnipresent photograph of the Rebbe gazing at him or her from billboards or leaflets? No other Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) group has such a public presence; no other sect’s adherents and leader are so ubiquitous. Chabad turned outward, toward the Jewish people as a whole, even before Rabbi Menachem Mendel became its leader. But its revolutionary project of sending emissaries throughout the world was his initiative. Its purpose is to return Jews to their roots and to better the ways of non-Jews, so as to achieve the most noble and demanding goal that any religious system can place before its believers—to bring the Messiah and the dawn of the final redemption.

The first of my three encounters with Chabad emissaries, on the banks of the Suez Canal, took place when the Rebbe was still alive and at the height of his strength. The two other meetings occurred during the second decade following his passing on June 12, 1994 (3 Tammuz 5754 on the Jewish calendar), without leaving an heir and successor. Despite the painful shock caused by “the Event of Gimel Tammuz” (gimel, the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, represents the number three), the Rebbe seems to have lost none of his capacity for infusing his followers with messianic fervor and motivating them to spread Chabad’s teachings and message of redemption. On the contrary, his potency may be even greater than it was in his lifetime. The central puzzle this book seeks to solve is the fact that Chabad has thrived in the post-Gimel Tammuz period. My most fundamental question is: What makes this Hasidic movement so vital and popular precisely when it is leaderless? After all, a leaderless Hasid is almost an oxymoron. One central tenet of that religious movement is that the tzadik, the righteous leader, mediates between his flock and heaven. True, there is a debate within Chabad regarding the ontological status of the Rebbe—did he go the way of all flesh, or is he alive but hidden from human eyes? The latter view is held by the more radical Hasidim who are at the center of my study; but either way, for members of all factions of the movement, the vacuum the Rebbe left behind him is unbearable. How can a connection between the tzadik and his disciples be maintained? How can the Hasidic body function without a head, especially when the head in question was such a charismatic and revered leader whose activity stretched around the world, who was considered by his followers to be not just their leader but the “president of the generation,” the “head of the Jewish people” (the Hebrew words for the latter phrase form the acronym “Rebbe”), a wonderworking saint, a farsighted prophet and, ultimately, the King Messiah himself?2

In seeking to account for these puzzlements, I was first seized by an acute sense of urgency, a fear that Chabad’s messianic surge—a relatively rare moment in Jewish history—would soon dissipate. Thus far, as the book you are about to read documents, this has not been the case.

While I alone remain responsible for the contents of this volume, I am deeply grateful to many who helped me along the way. Insights from the article I coauthored with Michal Kravel-Tovi on the construction of messianic temporality in Chabad, based on her master’s thesis, found their way into this book. A book chapter I coauthored with Zvi Mark, which compared the Hasidic sects of Chabad and Bratslav, gave rise to Chapter 13 in this book. Aside from allowing me to make use of our joint texts in my work, Kravel-Tovi and Mark helped me with fruitful comments. I also profited from two other master’s theses on messianic Chabad by Sagiv Elbaz and Shlomo Reinitz. Elbaz also served as my research assistant, and his high work ethic combined with intimate knowledge of Chabad proved invaluable to the project. The late Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine, a historian of Chabad and a Chabad Hasid himself, generously gave me access to his private collection of documents associated with the messianic ferment in the movement. The text was enriched by discussions and exchanges with Henry Abramovitch, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Kimmy Caplan, Alon Dahan, Rachel Elior, Immanuel Etkes, Menachem Friedman, Jonathan Garb, Galit Hazan Rokem, Samuel Heilman, Boaz Huss, Moshe Idel, Haviva Pedaya, Tomer Persico, Ada Rapoport Albert, Ariel Rot, and Gadi Sagiv.

I would also like to thank the Eshkol Institute at the Faculty of the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for funding my research and the Open University Press for publishing the Hebrew version of this book and for granting it the Goldberg Prize.

I am deeply indebted to Tanya Luhrmann and Ann Taves, the editors of the Spiritual Phenomena Series at Stanford University Press, for their encouragement and comments. The constructive comments of Shaul Kellner and a second, anonymous reviewer helped me to improve the manuscript in various ways. Emily-Jane Cohen, SUP executive editor, lavished me with thoughtful suggestions that contributed significantly to the book’s outline and coherence. After she had left SUP, Faith Wilson Stein, Kate Wahl, and Gigi Mark accompanied me in the last phases of production with dedication and care.

In this volume I revisit some of the material I have published elsewhere and gratefully acknowledge the publishers for granting me permission to use this material. These publications appeared as “To Make Many More Menachem Mendels: Childlessness, Procreation, and Creation in Messianic Habad,” Contemporary Jewry (2012) 32:2, pp. 111–134; “We Want to See Our King: Apparitions in Messianic Habad,” Ethos (2013) 41:1, pp. 98–126; and “Between Tsaddiq and Messiah: A Comparative Analysis of Chabad and Breslav Hasidic Groups,” in After Spirituality: Studies in Mystical Traditions (2012), Jonathan Garb and Phillip Wexler, eds. (New York: Peter Lang), pp. 47–78 (coauthored with Zvi Mark).

NOTES

1. Admor is a Hebrew acronym for “our master, teacher, and rabbi.”

2. A Hasidic community without a reigning tzadik is rare but not unprecedented. The Bratslaver Hasidim have been in that situation for more than two hundred years since the death of the sect’s founder, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in 1810 (see Chapter 13).