Monday, July 19, 2010

The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Infallibility

[Warning: Depressing pre-Tisha b'Av post ahead.]

Remember the poem, Moshiach’s Hat, about how Mashiach arrived and no one would believe that he was Mashiach because he didn’t look like them? He had the wrong type of yarmulka, gartel or no gartel, curled payes or not, and so on?

["He's not the Moshiach!" -- Said one with a grin,
"Just look at his hat, -- At the pinches and brim!"
"That's right!" cried another -- With a grimace and frown,
"Whoever heard of Moshiach, -- With a brim that's turned down?"]

In the past I took that as Hallmark mussar, long on sentiment and short on substance. But lately I’ve been re-thinking it, because it has come to seem spot-on.

Before the last Lubavitcher Rebbe's passing, when I was asked what I thought about the question of his Mashiach-hood, my stock answer was, “He has my vote.” After all, the Rambam defines Mashiach, in part, as someone who leads/compels the Jewish people to follow Torah, and I felt he was doing a good job of it.

Maybe it's because in those days, I didn't have enough of a thought-through ideology to feel that my way was right. I don't know, but in the years since then I’ve changed, I think. Not about a hat, necessarily, but about other matters.

Today, what if I would hear about a Breslover who was doing just that, would I give him my vote? Or would I say, “Great man, but for his shtick of handing out books?”

Or if it was a Yeshivish leader who said secular studies were treif?

Or a political left-winger who wanted to exchange land and create a Palestinian state?

Orthodoxy, by definition, demands that I make the correct decisions, that I use the best information at my disposal and the best talents assigned to me to develop the “right” ideology and practice. But that easily leads me into believing that my approach is, in fact, the right approach, when in fact there is a difference between demanding perfection and guaranteeing perfection.

Over the years, I have come to believe, on some level, in my own Orthodox Infallibility, such that I would have difficulty trusting a Mashiach whose platform did not match mine.

This is wrong, and on Erev Tisha b’Av it does not give me a lot of hope.


  1. This is wrong, and on Erev Tisha b’Av it does not give me a lot of hope.

    Sorry Rabbi T but it should give you a lot of hope. The first step in solving something is to recognize that something needs solving. You've said that your feelings are wrong--the first step necessary. Changing personal opinion is not easy but first has to come the recognition that something needs changing.

    Plenty of people who believe firmly that their way of thinking/doing/believing is the only way and certainly the only correct or right way. You're a step up on those people because you at least recognize that your thinking may not be correct. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step--you, at least, have taken that first step.

    Have an easy fast.

  2. My take - I think I'm doing what the ratzon hashem is for me, I'm happy to discuss why with others who differ (never get any takers:-)) and when mashiach comes (hopefully before tonight) (and I hope it will be a case of everyone knowing it is him) , I think he'll agree, but if says put on a kapoteh/large white kippah/black hat/streimel I will happily say yes sir.
    Joel Rich

  3. Powerful and thought provoking.
    Thank you.

  4. I was taught in yeshiva that since Moshiach will have the Halacha of a king a sanhedrin has to be convened to approve him. I doubt any of us will have trouble accepting a Moshiach that is accepted by a wide range of opinions in Halacha. If Chassidim, Misnagdim, Sephardim, Taimanim, etc. agree on someone will we even double-check that closely? I don't think I will.

    (I don't mean to cast aspersions on other groups within the framework of Orthodox Judaism. My point is that if you can get diverse groups within Orthodox Judaism to agree on anything chances are they are correct.)

  5. Marc: Hate to continue the negativity, but what makes you sure we'll even be able to convene a Sanhedrin that will be acceptable to all? (There was already one attempt in Israel).

    If we can do that, acknowledging Mashiach is the easiest part!

  6. I think the point of "Orthodoxy" (which, by the way, is a Christian term foisted on the traditional community by its critics, and was originally taken as an insult) is not to arrive "the correct" opinion; otherwise, we could never have a debate in halakhah. Orthodoxy is an approach that preserves the traditional method of pesak and the traditional hashkafah of Torah min ha-Shamayim, which gives us a range of legitimate opinions.
    I think the trick is not to automatically label someone else's opinion as false even if you think your own opinion is more correct than his, since even he may be correct on certain points even if he is not correct on others. Using this humble approach (which you do seem to have, as ProfK pointed out), you can then refine your position to include those legitimate points. For instance, even someone who is for secular studies would be able to acknowledge their problematic elements and to set policy accordingly. (I should acknowledge the work of Professor Reuven Kimelmen in helping me formulate this last point.)
    Have an easy fast.

  7. Mike,

    1. Even Mordechai didn't get universal approbation. I don't think universal acceptance of a Sanhedrin is required for it to be authoritative.

    2. If we posit that the Messiah will come and a Sanhedrin needs to recognize him to be officially Messiah then we have to conclude that there will be a Sanhedrin sufficiently recognized, as otherwise we would have to entertain the possibility that there will not be a Messiah. Of course, if you do not believe a Sanhedrin is needed, then you may have a point.

  8. ProfK-
    Thanks for the encouragement, but my pessimism isn't only because of my own state...

    But how would you know he was mashiach? The donkey?

    Thank you.

    I'd love to see a source on that.

    Indeed; see my response to ProfK above...

  9. Mishnah Torah, Chapter 1, Halacha 3 says that we need a Beit Din of 70 to install a king "B'techilah", which I understand means after a significant break after there has not been a king.

    Chapter 11, Halacha 4 means it clear to me that a person attempting to do the things Mashiach is supposed to do has to be a king to begin with.

    I don't know if this is the particular source he used, but it does seem to say what I was taught.

  10. Look at how the sectarianism of the Second Temple period led up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Even back then, we didn't know how to agree to disagree.

  11. JID:

    I don't think that is a fair comment. The members of the Sanhedrin at the time disagreed with each other frequently, but they were not the ones responsible for the sectarianism. They were a fringe group with disproportionate power and influence. Such things happen.

    I once heard a Lubavitcher tell the old Chassidic joke about how Moshiach has to be a misnagdid. This is because if Moshiach would be Chassidic the misnagdim would not accept him, but if Moshiach is a misnagdid Chassidim would accept him. Ironically, he wore a Yechi kippah. It is something to ponder.

  12. Hi Marc,
    1:3 is an interesting point, as is 11:4, but then what do you do with 11:3?


  13. I can think of a number of possibilities. I have not researched any of these.

    1. R' Akiva held that a Sanhedrin is not in fact needed, either for any king, or just in respect to Moshiach.

    2. R' Akiva convened a Sanhedrin which installed him.

    3. Perhaps there is a stage before either of the explicitly mentioned stages wherein one may be a potential Moshiach without being a king yet. The MT explicitly states two stages, those being Chezkat Moshiach and Vadai Moshiach. R' Akiva may have been convinced he would become Moshiach but had not yet become Chezkat Moshiach.

    There may be a version of the MT that explains the issue. I can easily imagine that this would be at the top of the chopping block for European censors.

  14. Wasn't blaming the Sanhedrin, just pointing out that the general lack of unity in Judaism can be extremely problematic.