Have some Lubavitchers turned the late rebbe into an idol?

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — One of the more interesting questions that is sometimes asked in modern anthropology is whether a group is a collection of individuals, or are they like a body with various members? Much of this has what to do with the issue of individual vs. corporate identity. Among primal peoples, it has been argued, there seems to be a merging of consciousness between the individual and the corporate ideal. Thus, in a manner of speaking, the individual could become the group. By the same token, a deceased ancestor—although dead—could be considered as though he was still alive, and that the surviving descendant could still identify with the ancestor.

When one examines the latest Hassidic brawl in the 770 headquarters of Lubavitch, one can easily see this anthropological drama unfold. Some of the Hasidim wanted to create an inner sanctum where they could have a private spiritual meeting with the late Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schnersohn. Lest you think the Lubavitcher movement has lost touch with reality, think again. The spiritual leadership took umbrage with this militant group, and the Mashpia (spiritual mentor), Rabbi Bluming, demanded that they disband.

They didn’t.

In fact, they attacked the poor Mashpia, pummeling his face as though it were a punching bag. Someone called the police and the students made death threats to the Mashpia for interfering with their service.

How do we make sense out of this experience? As mentioned earlier, it goes back to the nature of corporate vs. individual identity. In the psyche of the militant student, each and every person gathered at these services functions as the merkabah (the chariot) of the Rebbe. Even though he is dead, they regard him like one who is still very much alive. The Hasidim form the physical body for the Rebbe’s spirit.

Needless to say, this kind of veneration of any human being, meets all the classical definition of idolatry as defined by Jewish tradition. In the beginning of his Laws of Idolatry, Maimonides offers a philosophical Midrash depicting the origins of idolatry:

During the days of Enosh, humankind made a serious mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave foolish advice. Enosh himself was one of those who erred. This is how idolatry developed. The ancients recognized that God created the stars and the celestial planets with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Therefore, it is only fitting to praise and glorify them and to accord them with honor. Since the ancients perceived this to be the will of the Blessed Holy One, they began to aggrandize and give homage to those whom He magnified and honored. Just as a king desires to be honored by the servants who stand before him. Indeed, by doing so, they thought they were honoring the King. After considering this notion, they constructed temples to the stars and offered sacrifices to them. The ancients praised and glorified the heavenly hosts with words, while prostrating themselves before them. The men thought they were fulfilling God’s will. This was the essence of idolatry, and the justification given by those who worshiped them. Originally, the ancients did not say there is any other god except for this star.”[1]
The belief that a deceased spiritual leader still serves as the conduit for Divine communication with God, can no longer be considered “Jewish,” but “idolatrous.”

In fairness to the Hasidim, there is another way of understanding their behavior. Grief affects us in so many different ways. The deeper we love, the more vulnerable we become to the loss of a loved one and valuable family member. Nevertheless, Jewish tradition teaches that not all grief is kosher. The classical definition of someone who is considered “deranged,” someone who goes out alone at night, stays overnight in the cemetery, and rends his garments (Hagigah 3b). Anyone who has ever lived in Brooklyn probably knows the dangers associated with going out alone at night. However, why would anyone want to live in a cemetery? The answer ought to be simple: certain people cannot go on with living because they are in a perpetual state of grief.

The time has come for the Hasidim to “get out of the cemetery,” because too much grief is unhealthy. More leaders, like the brave Mashpia, Rabbi Bluming, need to step up to the plate and reclaim the soul of Lubavitch—before the entire movement gets hijacked by people who really need psychological counseling and help.



[1] Maimonides MT, Laws of Idolatry 1:1–2.

Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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