Rebbes, Rebels and Rabble-Rousers: Chabad-Lubavitch and the Politicisation of Jewish Mysticism

WITH the arrival of the late-1800s, Jewish history entered a crucial phase and both the messianism and millenarianism of former centuries erupted in a dangerous fusion of politics and religion. The brainchild of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), an Austro-Hungarian Jew, Zionism had originally been inspired by the secular nationalism that was beginning to emerge among non-Jews in Germany. Concluding that Western Europe was no place for his fellow Jews, particularly amid such a torrid show of fanatical German identity, Herzl began to speculate about a possible homeland for the Jewish people.

Despite the fact that he was an atheist, Herzl managed to enlist the help of a number of powerful and influential rabbis. Whilst many of Herzl’s proposals for a Jewish homeland had fallen by the wayside, he soon realised that the Jewish religion’s reliance upon a spiritual ‘return’ of the Jewish people to Palestine would interest an enormous number of religious Jews. This, despite the fact that Palestine’s indigenous Sephardic community had lived in relative peace with its Arab neighbours for many centuries. The ‘Jews’ that Herzl was trying to entice to Palestine, on the other hand, were from various European countries and had their origins in the tenth-century conversion of the Khazar Empire that was once located between the Black and Caspian seas. In truth, therefore, these semi-Turkic ‘Jews’ from distant Eurasia would not be ‘returning’ at all, but planned to steal Palestinian territory from its Arab inhabitants. Once Herzl had secured the assistance of the notorious Rothschild family, itself responsible for having plunged Britain and much of Europe into debt, after his death in 1904 it emerged that behind the obscurantist banners of the Zionist ideology lurked the same old threat of British colonialism.

Whilst the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine had been discussed as early as 1914 by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George (1863-1945), a mere four days after the country’s declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire, few Arabs could have predicted that what initially appeared as a common struggle against Turkish rule in the First World War was actually part of a secret conspiracy for Anglo-Zionists to gain long-term control of the Middle East as a whole.

The following year, a British Jew by the name of Herbert Samuel (1870-1963) presented his Cabinet with The Future of Palestine (2015), a memorandum in which he discussed the possibility of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine in order to provide Syria with a neighbouring ‘European’ state in the event that Syria itself was annexed by France. In other words, this was a blatant example of the British trying to strengthen the European presence in the region on the pretext that it was designed to establish a Jewish state. The document was also a crude attempt to appeal to Christian sensibilities and their belief in the Second Coming of Christ, something that was considered impossible without the prophesied return of the Jews to Palestine. Naturally, of course, the fact that these particular ‘Jews’ were ancestral Khazars from Eastern Europe did not appear to make a jot of difference. Britain’s Zionist sympathies were certainly nothing new, however, as Lloyd George’s own law firm had spent the previous ten years working with the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland to explore the possibility of creating a Jewish homeland in Uganda. By switching their interests to Palestine, the British now wished to have a base from which to secure their existing railway network in nearby Egypt.

Things took a more serious turn in 1916 with the arrival of the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret arrangement between Britain and France (with the consent of Russia) in which the two Western powers ruthlessly divided the Holy Land between themselves. The coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, Jordan itself, southern Iraq and the ports of Haifa and Acre went to Britain; south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon went to France; and, in order to encourage Moscow to overlook these territorial excesses, Russia was given Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia. Once the Tsarist government had been overthrown by the architects of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, however, the Communists published the details of the secret agreement on November 23rd that same year and the British government was naturally very embarrassed.

The assurances that Britain had made to the Arabs on account of their important role during the First World War had been scrapped and even Lawrence of Arabia (1888-1935) himself, that great Western hero of the Arab Revolt, became thoroughly disgusted with the behaviour of his own government. More betrayal followed when it was revealed that the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), had written to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild (1868-1937), a leading member of Britain’s increasingly powerful Jewish community, to say that

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”[1]

Balfour, in a flagrant dismissal of Palestine’s indigenous Arab population, then sent a memorandum from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference in which he proposed that the contentious Sykes-Picot Agreement be replaced by a new proposal of his own in order to secure the support of the major European states:

“The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”[2]

The full text of the Balfour-Rothschild correspondence was published in the British press on November 9th, 1917, and what became known as the Balfour Declaration was later incorporated in both the Sèvres peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire and the Mandate for Palestine.

On November 3rd, 1918, one day after the Zionist Commission had arrogantly celebrated the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a delegation from the Muslim-Christian Association – led by the senior Ottoman official, Musa al-Husayni (1853-1934) – organised a petition in which 100 leading members of the Palestinian community expressed their anger towards the Zionist Commission itself:

We have noticed yesterday a large crowd of Jews carrying banners and over-running the streets shouting words which hurt the feeling and wound the soul. They pretend with open voice that Palestine, which is the Holy Land of our fathers and the graveyard of our ancestors, which has been inhabited by the Arabs for long ages, who loved it and died in defending it, is now a national home for them. […] We Arabs, Muslim and Christian, have always sympathized profoundly with the persecuted Jews and their misfortunes in other countries […] but there is wide difference between such sympathy and the acceptance of such a nation […] ruling over us and disposing of our affairs.”[3]

Needless to say, the protests were ignored and the foundations had been laid for one of the modern world’s most brutal and contentious occupations.

The unprecedented impact of the Zionist movement on the lives of all Jews was tremendous. One fact that is very rarely mentioned, however, is that when Zionism began gaining support millions of religious Jews opposed it on the grounds that it was – and remains – a purely secular phenomenon and, thus, not the will of God.

Ironically, an example of politicised mysticism appeared in the shape of Rabbi Isaac Breuer (1883-1946). A prominent member of the Torah im Derech Eretz school of Orthodoxy that had been established by his grandfather, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), Breuer sought to continue the dialogue that addressed how the Jewish religion should meet the challenges of modernity. However, whilst Hirsch had set out to nullify the growing threat of Abraham Geiger’s (1810-1874) liberal Reform Judaism, Breuer saw more danger in Zionism. As the inaugural president of Poalei Agudat Yisrael, a Polish workers’ organisation committed to opposing the controversial 1948 establishment of the Israeli State, Breuer feared the Zionist movement because it imitated the spiritual drive of the Jewish people and yet had created a secular government in Palestine.

Another side to Breuer, however, was his wish to replace the existing State of Israel with one that was more firmly rooted in the Torah and he discussed his theological preference for a more spiritual alternative in Der neue Kuzari: Ein Weg zum Judentum (1934). It has been said that

“no thoughtful reader will be able to put down this book without the most conflicting emotions. As eccentric and obstinate, as totally unrepresentative as it appears to be, the book nonetheless contains something like a genuine testimony to the baroque situation of German Jewry in the night of its catastrophe.”[4]

Whatever one makes of Breuer’s slightly modified ‘Zionism,’ he was most certainly a modern mystic in that his deeply contemplative nature – combined with the characteristic austerity of Orthodox Judaism – led him to dream of applying more practical solutions. Rabbi Hirsch, his pioneering grandfather, tried to minimise the Kabbalistic dimension within Judaism and place the emphasis squarely on the Torah, but whilst Breuer appreciated the importance of the Torah as a potential focus for his political vision he also tried to harness Kabbalah to the aims and objectives of the Orthodox movement in general. Secular Zionists have made the claim that such actions inevitably result in the invalidation of mysticism by trying to marry it to the remnants of Hirschean dogma. What they oppose most of all, of course, is the fact that Breuer was using mysticism in the service of his own curious brand of anti-Zionism.

One extremely fanatical Zionist, on the other hand, was Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), a political mystic and Kabbalist who became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine in the period before the country was finally handed over to the Israelis.

Kook was born near Dvinsk, in modern-day Latvia, and became the most outstanding student at the Volozhin yeshiva. By 1886 he had married the daughter of the Lithuanian rabbi Elijah David Rabinowitz-Teomim (1843-1905), a future Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and Kook himself was soon appointed rabbi of the Lithuanian town of Zaumel. Between 1895 and 1904 he performed the same role in Bauskas and then left to take on the position of Chief Rabbi in the Palestinian coastal town of Jaffa. Although Kook was opposed to the Zionist movement’s barely disguised secularism he nonetheless saw the waves of Jewish immigration that it encouraged as a convenient means of hastening the appearance of the Messiah. As a result, he became active in the new Jewish settlements that were springing up on Arab land.

During the First World War, when Kook attended a conference in Berlin, he was unable to return to Palestine and spent two years in Switzerland before moving on to London and becoming rabbi at the Spitalfields Great Synagogue in London’s East End. On his return to the Middle East in 1919, Kook was appointed Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and viewed his position as an opportunity to restore the old Sanhedrin council. This idea was obviously tied up with his staunchly messianic outlook. In fact it has been argued that Kook began to suspect that he might even be the long-awaited ‘messiah’ himself.

Kook’s main legacy is that he tried to foment a new form of Hasidism that was centred on the era in which the Baal Shem Tov was laying the foundations of the movement itself. He also coined a new mystical acronym, KeMaH, comprised of the words ‘Kabbalah-Madda-Hasidut’ (‘Kabbalah-Science-Hasidism’). One of Kook’s favourite texts was Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s 1655 Sha‘ar ha-Shamayim, which includes a fascinating comparison of Lurianic Kabbalah and Neoplatonist philosophy. Whilst Kook himself was a traditionalist, he often used this source to justify his interest in non-Jewish ideas. Furthermore, it demonstrated that there could be a form of rapprochement between Kabbalah and modern science; between the sacred and the profane. In order to bring this about, Kook proposed that a new type of Hasidism (‘Mussar’) should lead his followers out of the darkness and into the full glare of knowledge.

One of Kook’s prophecies, and there were several, suggests that Jews and Christians can work together to bring about the arrival of the Messiah. If the collaboration between the Zionists who now control many of the world’s governments and some of the more fundamentalist American Christians is anything to go by, the Chief Rabbi’s mystical calculations have since come to fruition.

* * *

Whilst there were approximately 1,000,000 Jews living in Europe in 1800, by the year 1897 it had risen to almost six million. Within the borders of the Russian Empire there were 811,000 Jews in Galicia, 851,000 in Hungary, 266,000 in Romania and 96,000 in Bukovina. Much of what we know about the Jewish history of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries comes to us from Hasidic sources. As a result, written material dealing with contemporary Jewish mysticism is far more difficult to obtain and this is the result of two main factors. One is the

“comparatively modern style of the more important Hasidic authors, the other their fondness for epigrams or aphorisms. In the case of most of the older Kabbalistic authors, the reader must make the effort of transplanting himself into a world of strange symbolism; the mind must adapt itself to a complicated and often abstruse mystical vocabulary, and even so understanding often becomes difficult. Hasidism marks an exception.”[5]

Three obvious reasons for the scarcity of mystical literature in the modern period are (i) the widespread proliferation of Lurianic Kabbalah in the sixteenth century and its ill-considered transference of highly specialised material out into the profane realm eventually led to a more tempered and secretive approach; (ii) the paranoia surrounding the rise of seventeenth-century Sabbateanism also led Kabbalists to operate in an increasingly more withdrawn and underground fashion; and (iii) the role of the Hasidic Tzadik led Jewish mystics to become more involved in community affairs and set their ascetic solitude to one side.

What modern Hasidism has also done, is to dramatically minimise Kabbalah’s infatuation with all things messianic. Not to erase these important facets completely, of course, as they are still very much part and parcel of the Zionist imperative, but to transform them from the be-all-and-end-all of the Kabbalistic experience to a purely redemptive segment of the overall Hasidic world-view. It is rather akin to the institution of monarchy, for example, being relegated to a mere department of culture. In that sense, the wildly virile and imaginative mysticism that seemed to go into overdrive during the seventeenth century, in particular, has undergone something of a quiet reformation and it is almost as though the unknown dangers of Jewish magic have finally been recaptured and placed back inside Pandora’s Box. In the eyes of one scholar:

“The upshot of all this unlimited emotionalism was paradoxically enough a return to rationality. Such paradoxes by the way are not infrequent. In the event the waves went so high that emotion turned against itself. There was a sudden anti-climax.”[6]

As in the case of Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe and great-grandson of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague who spread his brand of Chabad-Lubavitcher Hasidism throughout the Russian Empire in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, some Jews were not afraid to branch out and seek new converts. As a result of this exercise in mass proselytisation, the Chabad-Lubavitcher has become one of the most dynamic Jewish movements of the modern age and the fact that a Rebbe is not simply viewed as a spiritual figurehead but also as a ‘messiah’ has led to the creation of a formidable Hasidic dynasty.

The second Rebbe, and thus the son of Shneur Zalman, was Dovber Schneuri (1773-1827). More well known as the Rabbi Dov Baer of Lubavitch, this great mystic and sage was born at Liozna, in modern-day Belarus, and became a model student of both the Talmud and the Sefer ha-Zohar. Married at 15, just two years later Dov Baer had become a spiritual guide (Mashpia) for the Hasidim who arrived to visit his father. Moving from Liozna to open a yeshiva at Lubavitch, Dov Baer tried to deal with the persecution that many Jews were suffering under Tzar Nicholas I (1796-1855) by encouraging them to learn a skilled trade. Although the Jews of the Russian Empire were living under the restrictions of the Pale of Settlement, which required them to remain in one area, Dov Baer’s suggestion at least provided his fellow Jews with a degree of economic autonomy within the borders of their own community. Inspired by the Jews of Ancient Palestine, he encouraged them to become farmers, herdsmen and fruit-growers.

Rabbi Dov Baer wrote extensively on the complementary relationship between Kabbalah and philosophy, arguing that Chabad thought was itself shaped by the Kabbalah’s more mystical precepts. In many ways, this philosophy was able to present Kabbalistic teachings in a more approachable fashion. Approachable, that is, from the perspective of someone who might be more prone to grasping esoteric concepts in philosophical form. His most famous work, Sha’ar HaYichud (‘The Gate of Unity’), describes the entirety of creation from a Kabbalistic viewpoint and offers advice on how to meditate upon the emanations of God.

A second of these mystical works is the 1868 Kuntres HaHisbonenus (‘A Tract on the Excitement of the Emotions’), which deals with the generation of ecstasy and meditation during prayer. Concluding that a form of spiritual ‘sickness’ was spreading among the Hasidim, due to individuals feeling apprehensive about expressing religious fervour in sight of their fellows, the author states that this is far preferable to becoming unduly excited about something more profane. Dov Baer believed there were five different levels of excitement, but despite their complexity it is possible to reach them through dedicated contemplation. In fact this can even happen automatically, at a more subconscious level.

Another of these notable Chabad ‘Rebbes’ was Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1860-1920), who was born in the rural Russian town of Lubavitch in the Rudnyansky District of Smolensk Oblast. The name ‘Schneersohn’ is simply a modified version of ‘Schneuri,’ but it is one and the same bloodline. Once Schneersohn had risen to the leadership of the movement and become the fifth official Rebbe, he established yeshivas at Lubavitch, Georgia and Palestine, and it was these prestigious institutions of religious learning that soon enhanced the standing of the Chabad themselves. His other activities included facilitating agricultural settlement for those Jews who had been displaced by the Russian May Laws of Tzar Alexander III (1845-1894). Dovber Schneersohn was also staunchly opposed to Zionism and the threat of secular Jewish nationalism and explored this theme in his 1903 work, Kuntres Uma’ayan.

In the wake of the February Revolution of 1917, which served as the catalyst for the full Bolshevik consolidation of power the following month, Dovber Schneersohn campaigned in the Russian elections on a platform of religious tradition. Elsewhere, he sought to bring the so-called Mountain Jews (Berg Yidden) of the Caucasus – themselves descendants of Persian Jews from Iran – closer to Chabad. In the words of Zalman Posner:

“Chabad-Lubavitch stresses an ancient Torah concept, namely that all Jews are responsible for one another. No Jew is an island of virtue surrounded by a sea of Jewish indifference. The founder of Chabad went so far as to say that a Jew who helps another Jew to regain his Jewishness will find his own heart and mind purified and refined a thousandfold. In helping others the Jew helps himself also.”[7]

Although Dovber Schneersohn wrote many books on Jewish theology, one of his more interesting volumes is the Issa B’Midrash Tehillim. It concerns the mystical aspects of the tefillin, a small black box containing a scroll of parchment which adult Jews wear on their heads during prayer. The purpose of these leather objects is to remind Jews that God led the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

The sixth Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), son of Rabbi Sholom, had worked alongside his father from a young age and took a particular interest in educational affairs. Little did he know, of course, that he would preside over the movement during the most disastrous phase in Jewish history.

Much of Yosef Yitzchak’s early years were spent helping Jews who had fallen foul of the Tzarist authorities, as well as supporting Jewish soldiers who had been sent east to fight in the 1908 Russo-Japanese War. As life for Jews in Russia became more and more difficult as a result of the community’s involvement in money-lending and the anger it inspired among the Russian people, Yosef Yitzchak tried to get assistance from the governments of Germany and Holland. As a result of his opposition to persecution, he was arrested four times in the space of nine years.

Following the death of his father, in 1920, Yosef Yitzchak took over the leadership at a time when the new Communist rulers were busy destroying all forms of religious tradition. Needless to say, the Chabad-Lubavitch group vigorously resisted these atheistic measures and Yosef Yitzchak was eventually driven out of the town of Rostov. Moving to Leningrad, he continued to establish Jewish schools and centres of worship. As a safety precaution, he also set up the Agudas Chasidei Chabad in both Canada and the United States, which continues to act as an international umbrella organisation for the movement itself.

In 1927, the Rebbe was arrested by agents of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and imprisoned at their Bolshoy Dom facility. He was sentenced to death. Following a huge wave of Jewish outrage that coursed the length and breadth of the world, Yosef Yitzchak’s case was taken up by several Western states and the International Red Cross. Eventually, the Soviets agreed to release him and in 1928 he was given political and religious asylum in the Latvian capital of Riga. One year later he was living in Palestine and spreading his ideas there. In September of that same year he visited New York and was met by 600 of his supporters. He was also guest of honour at a joint banquet staged by leaders from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish communities.

Despite his positive experiences in the United States, Yosef Yitzchak returned to Riga before moving to the Polish capital, Warsaw. in 1934. Given that Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) had come to power just the previous year, this was an extremely dangerous time to be a Jew in Eastern Europe and once Germany had attacked Poland in 1939 he intended to flee to America. However, this was only achieved the following year with the direct intervention of the United States Government and today it seems incredible to think that the Third Reich actually permitted him to escape by making his way to Riga via Berlin.

Soon afterwards, once he had settled in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, New York, the Rebbe built up the Chabad-Lubavitch empire by spreading his religious message far and wide. Unfortunately, Yosef Yitzchak did not share the anti-Zionist principles of his father, Dovber Schneersohn, and by the late-1940s was channelling funds to Chabad schools in what was now occupied Palestine. In 1950, two years after the establishment of the Israeli State, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn died at his home in Brooklyn and was declared ‘messiah’.

The Rebbe left behind a sizeable library containing over 12,000 books and 50,000 religious documents, most of which now form the basis for what we know about Chabad-Lubavitch history and the Schneersohn dynasty in general. Yosef Yitzchak’s own literary outpourings were fairly extensive, too, and whilst books such as Lubavitcher Rabbi’s Memoirs, The Principles of Education and Guidance, The Tzemach Tzedek and the Haskala Movement, On Learning Chasidut, The Heroic Struggle, On the Teachings of Chasidut, Some Aspects of Chabad Chasidism and the two-volume Chasidic Discourses deal mainly with the historical and theological aspects of the movement, he also left us with six volumes of his public talks in the shape of the Likkutei Dibburim, and several mystical texts such as The Four Worlds. This latter volume deals with the Kabbalistic descent of the Divine light (tzimtzum) into the realms of Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah. It also explores how these domains are different to one another and whether they occupy a particular space. A second mystical tract, entitled Oneness in Creation, deals with the things that Yosef Yitzchak saw during his first tour of the United States and discusses them from the perspective of Kabbalistic emanation into all areas of life.

The fact that Yosef Yitzchak left no male heir meant that he was succeeded by the youngest of his son-in-laws, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994). Regarded as the seventh and final Rebbe, Schneerson (1902-1994) was perhaps the most influential – not to mention controversial – leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He was born in the Black Sea port of Nikolaev, later wrestled from the imperial grasp of the Russian Empire by the Ukrainians and renamed Mykolaiv. His father had been a Talmudic scholar and when Schneerson was still a small child the family moved to Yekatrinislav on the Dnieper River. For thirty-two years his father served as the Chief Rabbi of the city, but following intense Soviet pressure the family was eventually forced to relocate to Kazakhsta in 1939.

Becoming proficient in both Talmud and Kabbalah, Schneerson took his exams at a Soviet school and was widely regarded as a highly gifted student. He had even memorised the Talmud and many of its commentaries. Like his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchak, Schneerson often intervened in disputes between local Jews and the Bolshevik authorities. Between 1928 and 1933, the year Hitler came to power, Schneerson lived in Berlin and studied physics, mathematics and philosophy at the city university. Forced to leave under the growing menace of the Third Reich, he moved to Paris and by 1937 had obtained a degree in mathematics, mechanics and electrical engineering at the École Spéciale des Travaux Publics. During this period he was also visited by many leading rabbis, among them Yerachmiel Binyaminson (d. 1955) and Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953), with whom he would discuss Kabbalah and Jewish philosophy.

In June 1940, just as Paris was about to be captured by the German Army, both Schneerson and his wife, Chaya Mushka (1901-1988), fled first to Vichy and then to Nice. The following year, as the situation in southern France became unbearable, the couple crossed the border into Spain and finally escaped from Europe altogether via the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. On June 23rd, 1941, they arrived in New York and Schneerson was quickly put to work as director of the three main Chabad-Lubavitch organisations: Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Machneh Israel and the Kehot Publication Society. Before long, he was acting as Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak’s personal secretary. Once the latter had passed away, in 1950, Schneersohn was asked to become the seventh Chabad Rebbe on account of his great faith and religiosity. One year later, he was been officially inaugurated into the role and received congratulations from the government and ministers of the Zionist State of Israel. Sadly, it was already a well-known fact that he actively supported the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in their brutal occupation of Palestine and that he considered them to be performing a great service for the Jewish people. Indeed, when the New York Times later came to publish its obituary of Schneerson on June 13th, 1994, he was described as

“a major political force in Israel, both in the Knesset and among the electorate [who] presided over a religious empire that reached from the back streets of Brooklyn to the main streets of Israel and by 1990 was taking in an estimated $100 million a year in contributions.”[8]

In part, at least, this unfortunate political affiliation was possibly the result of the Rebbe never having set foot in the Holy Land itself.

Schneersohn arranged the construction of many new schools and synagogues in America, Morocco, Italy and England, and encouraged all Jews to rediscover the Jewish religion by studying Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah on a daily basis. In 1988, following the death of Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe – who was always a natural introvert – moved into his study permanently and created the conditions for a more private and mystical life. In 1992, on his ninetieth birthday, Schneerson drew the attention away from himself by telling people that the Hebrew word for ‘ninety’ meant ‘tzadik’ and that each and every Jew can become ‘righteous’. After his death, two years later, the Rebbe left behind 3,600 religious institutions throughout the world and within the more general sphere of Judaism itself this left the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in a very enviable position. Meanwhile, thousands of Jews pray at Schneerson’s grave each week and it has become a sacred shrine to his pioneering efforts.

Finally, it has been said of Menachem Mendel Schneerson that his knowledge of the Talmud was truly astonishing and his teachings have been published in over 200 volumes. Whilst most of these appear in Hebrew, those that have been translated into English are often preoccupied with personal conduct and the importance of the soul in relation to God. As for Schneerson’s own conduct, it has been said that he deliberately sought to downplay the messianic aspects of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and yet in the aftermath of his death his followers considered him to be the ‘messiah’. It is certainly a fact that Schneerson agreed with this rather flattering analysis during his own lifetime and by seeking to keep it quiet was thought to be fulfilling the Kabbalistic notion that God can only be revealed in the world by a process of concealment. One Lithuanian Haredi rabbi, Elazar Menachem Man Shach (1899-2001), bitterly attacked the Chabad-Lubavitcher community and compared Schneerson’s messianic pretensions to those of Sabbatai Zevi.

* * *

Things did not always go smoothly for the Chabad-Lubavitcher, however, and during Yosef Yitzchak’s tenure as the sixth Rebbe a fierce critic appeared in the guise of Aharon Roth (1894-1947). Born in the Hungarian town of Uzhhorod, now in Ukraine, Roth was a Talmudic scholar and himself part of the overall Hasidic movement. He also studied under the instruction of leading Jewish scholars like Rabbi Yeshaya Silberstein (1857-1930), an expert on Maimonides and Torah; the third Rebbe of the Belz dynasty, Yissachar Dov Rokeach (1854-1926); and Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira (1783-1841), from the Polish Hasidic dynasty of Dinov. In fact it was Spira’s influence that led Roth to found a Hasidic community in the Romanian district of Satu Mare. It was there that he came into conflict with the outspoken anti-Zionist, Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), the first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty. Roth called his own circle the Shomer Emunim (‘Guardian of the Faith’), going on to form a second centre at Berehovo, in western Ukraine, and then a third in Jerusalem.

As a result of his contact with members of various other Hasidic dynasties, Roth gleaned a deep knowledge of their theological beliefs and practical activities. This led him to denounce many of his counterparts for their endless scandals and destructive factionalism. Roth wanted to see a complete overhaul of Hasidic practice and a more ascetic way of life that better reflected the declining virtues of faith and modesty. He also opposed the spread of Zionism and considered it to be a false dawn for the Jewish people. So adamant was he that Jews had fallen into bad habits that he even described the Third Reich’s persecution of Jews as a form of divine retribution. Many of his criticism were aimed at the Chabad-Lubavitcher. Apart from his writings on piety Roth also produced a 1942 text called Kunteres Ahavat he-Bore (‘Tract on the Love of God’), in which there is a mystical work known as the Hitragshut HaNefesh (‘Agitation of the Soul)’. As the title suggests, Roth’s intention was to set ablaze the Jewish soul and encourage more people to worship God:

“Now it is well known from the books of wisdom (the Kabbalistic works) that just as man has three categories of soul – nefesh, ru’ah and neshamah – so, too, our holy Torah has these three categories. When a man studies the Torah or carries out the precepts in a plain manner, his nefesh adheres to the nefesh of the holy Torah and the influence then extends to the World of Action. When a man studies the Torah or worships the Lord in a greater spirit of inwardness, there rests upon him that degree of holiness which derives from the category of ru’ah, of greater inwardness. If he worships the Lord in fear with refined thoughts, there then rests upon him the degree of holiness of the neshamah with the result that he achieves holiness of thought. Thus nefesh becomes bound to nefesh, ru’ah to ru’ah, and neshamah to neshamah, reaching back to Ein-Sof, blessed be He and blessed be His name.”[9]

Roth’s modus operandi, of course, is to convince his readers that both man and God can be unified through the Torah. The book itself acts as a kind of mystical intermediary for the meeting of the microcosm and the macrocosm. God is said to turn aside from his usual activities and embrace the ‘yearning on the part of a son of Israel’. The Hitragshut HaNefesh is thus one of the most profoundly mystical texts of the twentieth century and, given its wonderfully metaphorical discussions of emanatory light, a great source of illumination. That is, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Given the enormous support that the Chabad gave to the Israeli State during Schneerson’s own tenure, it seems that Roth’s criticisms about the more scandalous aspects of Hasidism have worsened considerably since the first half of the twentieth century. As one anti-Zionist source makes clear, Chabad has developed a very worrying relationship with the current Israeli leader:

“Evidence of Netanyahu’s own messianism and its effects on Israeli policies has also been uncovered, highlighting his disturbing links with the Lubavitch Chabad movement, as symbolized by his speech before the United Nations in September 2011. Netanyahu quoted reverently from his meetings with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, in the 1980s and 1990s. He affectionately called Schneerson “the great rabbi.” Both held the same vision of an expansionist Israel that would yield no land while ethnically cleansing the Palestinian Gentiles from land which was now viewed as solely the property of Jews.”[10]

In more recent times, the group has become involved in the widespread acquisition of property in both New York and the Israeli settlements, also forming a close bond with America’s Donald Trump (b. 1946) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (b. 1952).

The gradual immersion of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement into the field of Israeli politics under Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s guidance – and here it is wise to recall that the fifth Rebbe, Dovber Schneersohn, was an opponent of Zionism – should not lead us to conclude that the group itself is no longer interesting from the perspective of Jewish mysticism or that it won’t change course over time. Particularly, it must be said, when the Zionist project really begins to flounder on the unforgiving rocks of political, social and economic reality. Not to mention, either, the stark potential for another false messiah.


1. Israel Ministry for Foreign Affairs; “The Balfour Declaration”, retrieved on October 11th, 2016.

2. Balfour, Arthur; “Document 242, Memorandum” in E.L. Woodward & Rohan Butler, Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939 (H.M. Stationery Office, 1952), pp.340–348.

3. Wasserstein, Bernard; The British in Palestine: The Mandatory Government and Arab-Jewish Conflict, 1917-1929 (Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp.31-2.

4. Scholem, Gershom; The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, op.cit., p.325.

5. Scholem, Gershom; Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.326.

6. Ibid., p.345.

7. Posner, Zalman; Think Jewish (Kesher Press, 1979), p.94.

8. Goldman, Ari L.; “Rabbi Schneerson Led A Small Hasidic Sect To World Prominence” in New York Times (June 13th, 1994).

9. Jacobs, Louis; Jewish Mystical Testimonies, op.cit., pp.246-7.

10. Jobst, Sean; “Netanyahu and the Disturbing Political Connections of Chabad” in Troy Southgate (Ed.), Blood & Shekels: Exposing the International Zionist Cartel (Black Front Press, 2018), p.102.

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