Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Academy Does the Lubavitcher Rebbe

There was a conference last weekend at NYU discussing the Kabbalah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Called “Reaching for the Infinite, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Life, Teachings and Impact.” It sounds fascinating, actually. Or bits of it do. I wish I had learned about it before it occurred, rather than afterwards.

Apparently, heh, a few disputes broke out. Not surprising given the controversial topic. Notably one between Norman Lamm, head of Yeshiva University, and Professo Elliot Wolfson of NYU, a leading academic scholar of kabbalah. Fortunately, the Canonist took notes, here excerpting some of Dr. Lamm's comments in response to Wolfson.
Early in his paper, Professor Wolfson avers that "the secret of the secret"…is that "in its most inwardness, the soul is conjoined to divinity…the soul is consubstantial with God," and refers to this as "an insight that significantly closes the gap separating the human and the divine, a gap that is typically assumed to be a basic tenet of Biblical and rabbinical Judaism."

While this is not alien to Kabbalistic thinking, the idea of yichud refers to unification with the sephirot, never — to my knowledge — with the ohr ain sof itself. The adept must therefore steer a careful course between depicting the highest stages of religious consciousness and the erasure of the ultimate gap between God and man.

That sounds like good old neo-platonism to me. Nothing too scary.
[…] Is this not easy to distort into justification that the Rebbe as Messiah is part of the Godhead?
Not in the least, in my opinion. But perhaps Professor Lamm does not expect run of the mill Lubavitchers to have a working familiarity with the nexus points between neo-Platonism and Judaism in the mystical tradition?
For Rabbi Schneerson, according to Professor Wolfson, "Messianic redemption is, in hypernomian terms, the overcoming of all binaries…a mystical vision that allows one to see that darkness and light are no longer distinguishable."

...Granted that this ethically anarchic state is reserved for the messianic era, and presumably not for us in the here-and-now, is it not easy to find in this concept a "source" for a kind of Sabbatian antinomianism and moral nihilism — especially if one believes moshiach has arrived, in the form of Rabbi Schneerson?
Hmm, calling this state ethically anarchic is certainly not careful, neutral language. And even though a spot of Sabbatianism is always fun -- at least to discuss -- the kind of mystical vision that Professor Wolfson is alluding to seems as far a cry as possible from moral nihilism.

On the other hand, I don't myself believe that the days of the Messiah are already here - heh! as though that's a shock to anyone - and can't quite imagine the mindset of someone who does. But, during the Sabbatian period, it strikes me that what led the people astray and into sin was the leadership itself propelling the people that way. At this point, while there might be some doctrinal differences, there is no suggestion, as far as I know, that people must participate in becoming broken shards by sinning so that they then can be uplifted and made whole, as part of the process of the messianic days. As was true during the Sabbatian period.

UPDATE: Elliott Wolfson responds in person on the Canonist to one of his critics. If mysticism or classical philosophy is the kind of thing that interests you, or if you want to know what the Rebbe's Torah was ultimately about, these several paragraphs are well worth your while. It throws a light on the internals of Lubavitch kabbalah. And certainly helps translate the greatness of the Rebbe.

Hat tip: Paleojudaica


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