I am writing this as we approach the 15th Yarzeit of the Lubavicher Rebbe.
It is not common to hear the term Yom Hillula in Australia, however it suitably applies to the Rebbe’s yartzeit. Wikipedia defines the term as follows:
A Yom Hillula is another word for yahrzeit (the anniversary of someone’s passing). However, it differs from a regular yahrzeit in two respects. It refers specifically to the yahrzeit of a great Tzaddik who taught Kabbalah, and unlike a regular yahrzeit, which is marked with sadness and even fasting, a Yom Hillula is commemorated specifically through simcha, joy, and festive celebration. This term is most often used in Hasidic circles to refer to the day of the passing of Hasidic Rebbes.
Those of us who have lived in the same generation as Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, have been privileged to live during days of great leadership and courage. More than any other Jewish leader in our lifetime, Rabbi Schneerson gave an unwavering committment to his people, set an astonishing example of true leadership, and revived Jewish life in many places that would otherwise have no Jewish community presence. Unlike any other Jewish movement, the Chabad chassidim have been able to reach out to unaffiliated Jews, demonstrate the true meaning of ahavat Yisrael, and without compromising their own identity, grow communities.
I never met the Rebbe, but I would not be where I am today without the aid of his shluchim, and without the benefit of his wisdom. I respect the movement greatly, but I am not a chabadnik.
We all have those “where were you when you heard the news” moments in our life. For many Jewish people one of these times was to hear that the Rebbe was niftar. This time 15 years ago I was living in Melbourne. One afternoon I was approached by a friend to advise his elderly Aunt had passed away. Apparently they would struggle for a shiva minyan that evening, and he asked if I could attend. So I arrived early for Mincha, to an old house in a dead end street. There I saw some friends I had not seen for many years. We soon had a minyan. The Rabbi arrived and started the tefillah. During the Shmoneh Esra another chabadnik burst into the room and whispered something into the Rabbi’s ear. We were in a small room, and soon it was full. I had no idea what was going on, but the Rabbi attempted several times to read chazarat hashatz, and then during kaddish broke down inconsolably. He was physically unable to complete the words of kaddish. I was beginning to wonder what connection the Rabbi had to the family, and how saintly my friend’s aunt was. Suddenly I saw out the window. There were not dozens, but hundreds of chabadnikim. Some were crying. Some were sitting on the roadside with their head in their hands. As far as the eye could see, there was a sea of black hats. Then the whispers went around the room. The Rebbe…….
In the days, weeks and months that followed, much was said about what the Rebbe’s passing would mean to the future of the movement. There can be no doubt that history has proven the movement has further strengthened its mission and that the legacy of the Rebbe lives strongly in every part of the world. This is further testament to the greatness of the Rebbe’s leadership.
However, it has not all been good, and with the best of intentions we should also reflect on why the Chabad movement today is in threat of disenfranchising itself. A split in the movement, and a following that ascribes to the “meshichist” notion that the Rebbe will rise is, in my view, a disturbing element within the Lubavich community. There are Jewish beliefs in human limitation that are not consistent with some of the viewpoints that surround the way in which the Rebbe is revered, sometimes referenced in a way that suggests that it is more than simply his legacy that lives on in our world today.
There is a Chabad publication called The Lamplighter that is distributed in Shules, and was delivered as a supplement to the Australian Jewish News this week. Once again, it is a wonderful accomplishment of the movement to deliver divrei Torah to Jewish communities around Australia. However this week, as with many other weeks, stories appear in this publication that infer the Rebbe had supernatural powers, and I question the wisdom of using this inference as a way to honour the memory of our great Tzaddik.
At this point, I wish to say that having faith and belief is very important. The ability of tefillah and a bracha to deliver consolation and healing is in my view very real and very important. I also have no doubt whatsoever that the Rebbe’s endless stream of personal communications to those who approached him had great impact and effect for the good.
However, I wish to come back to the point that Judaism is a G-dly inspired and gifted human construct. It’s halacha is a Sinatic tradition (from G-d) that allows people to perfect the creation of G-d. Judaism is not a “faith healing” religion. Miracles occur, and sometimes people become the agents of miracles. But the faith of Judaism is not supplanted on the basis of miracles alone, and it is wrong to project any Jewish leader as a person with “superhuman power”. I often wonder what the Rebbe would think today if he could see the way in which the reverence shown to him sometimes comes close to, or even crosses the line, from showing how the Rebbe was simply a servant of Hashem, to that of inferring that the Rebbe has the power of Hashem.
Chos v”shalom I am not saying that the stories of faith and that examples of personal miracles should not be shared. However when this becomes the sole focus of communication, and when the middot of Judaism do not feature the the transfer of tradition from one generation to the next, then we have a problem. Sadly, a vocal sector of the Rebbe’s followers do a disservice to the community by turning the Rebbe into a Messiah. I did not see any conduct or any action of the Rebbe during his lifetime that demonstrated that he saw himself as Moshiach, even though he moved klal yisrael significantly closer to the end of the days of galut.
All who were inflenced and touched by the Rebbe will reflect on his accomplishments during this Yom Hillua. In Western Australia we have a changing Chabad movement, that is both active and resource constrained. May this community continue to grow and flourish, and may all the Jewish people of Australia, who have been so strongly and positively influenced by the Chabad movement, dedicate themselves to more mitzvot in the merit of the neshama of the Lubavicher Rebbe.