From the Office of the Priest
By Shmuel Yitzchak ben Aaron HaCohen*
Thou Shalt Have No Other
Why the Rebbe's Picture
Isn't Before Me
Regarding the sin of "Rabbiolatry" (or, concerning chassidim, "Rebbeolatry")
[* See the critical response to this column from a reader and friend of First Covenant, Rabbi Scott Israel Seldowitz, below]
The second of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20; 3-5) reads rather strangely: “Thou
shalt have no other gods before me.”
If the intent were just to say, “Don’t have idols,” or “don’t worship them,” it would be better to not refer to these idols as “other gods”, a term that gives them honor. Significantly here, “before me” seems superfluous. What does it add when the command to not make idols follows immediately (Ex 20;4) “Thou shalt not make a graven image or any likeness…” with the command to not worship them right after that (Ex 20; 5) “Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them…” The approach found in most English commentaries follows Rashi and the Midrash Mechilta. They translate “before me” as any time or place where I exist (that is, always, everywhere). Would a normal person have thought otherwise?
Maimonides' - the Rambam’s - interpretation is different. He follows Abraham Ibn Ezra - the Ibn Ezra - and takes “other gods before me” to be "gateway gods": holy images, or other items one prays through to worship the one true God (Avoda Zara 2;1). Items like this, prohibited to Jews,
but permitted to gentiles, are images of Jesus and communion items. The 2nd commandment calls them the “Gods of others,” to indicate that a gentile is permitted to use them and treat them as gods if he puts them before God. That is, if he prays through them to the one true God. A Jew, by contrast, must pray straight to God only. Similar to this is Deuteronomy (4;19) “And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars …, and be drawn away, and serve them, which the Lord [HaShem, the Holy Name of God spelled Y, H, V, and H] your God has allotted to all the (gentile) nations under the whole heaven.” Thus,
while a Jew is forbidden to worship God by way of the sun, moon, and stars, the gentile
nations are permitted it.
Conceivably, Rashi might have preferred this explanation above, but chose
the way he did because Catholic Crusaders were killing almost every Jew in Europe in
1096, while Rashi was working on his commentary, and Catholics, unlike Moslems and
Jews, have images at the center of their churches.
The prohibition against Jews praying to God through an image or object is severe.
In Chapter 1 of Maimonides' greatest work, the Mishneh Torah, Tractate Avoda Zara, the Rambam presents intermediaries as the root of all idol worship, and says in (chapter Yesodai Hatora 1:6), that anyone who denies that there is no partner to God “denies the great principal upon which everything else depends.” In pelek/section Chelek, 5th fundamental principal, he says, “It is therefore wrong to serve them in the sense that they should be intermediaries to intervene for us with God.” One who violates this, according to the Rambam, has no share in the world-to-come or eternal life unless he repents before his death.
Given the severity and the prominent place of this Commandment in the Ten Commandments, one might wonder why English books avoid direct attack against the belief in gateway
intermediaries. You will even find some “orthodox” books that promote this very sin!
The book “Think Jewish,” by a rabbi of a prominent chasidish sect, states that one must provide
himself with a rebbe, and claims that one is to direct his prayers to God through that
rebbe, sending his prayers “like arrows” in his direction. Speaking as a serious Torah student, and as a cohen or priest of Israel, I am very strongly inclined to call that a violation of the 2nd Commandment.
Let me postulate the existence of two selfish motives in the publishers and
authors of such books:
(1) people prefer to be told there is a person who can “intervene
for us with God” rather than feeling they’re on their own. Also
(2) this particular Chasidic sect is perhaps the most prominent and powerful in all Judaism, and this - an appeal to a less than holy human tendency - is one of the secrets of their growth.
However, it is not only the Chasidic sects who promote the idea that a rabbi is a connection
to God. Most yeshivish groups do too, though less strongly.
Every orthodox rabbi's biography, it seems, must now include a miracle or two to prove that their own rabbi is special. And most orthodox groups have banded to oppose regular, in-home minyans operating without rabbis despite Israel Salanter’s [the revered founder of the Mussar Movement of the 19th Century] famous comment to the effect that the rabbi adds
nothing to the holiness of the congregation.
Another place to see the specialness that we have come to accept in the rabbi’s connection to God, is that the rabbi’s children (!) are supported ahead of the worker parent’s own children to “become the next great leader.” People seem to think there is a special "mojo," spell or blessing that runs through the rabbi’s veins, and from there, to his children, and even to those children who are - as some children will be, alas - obviously ignorant, immoral, or stupid.
Among Chasidim, one finds this in an even more extreme form, and in the great Lubovitcher Movement it goes further than most, sometimes - rarely, we hope - actually passing on to idolatry. Here, it becomes appropriate to treat the rabbi, and even his gravesite, and even his pictures, as if they were the only gateways to God.
Even more moderate Jews end up allowing the most hotheaded followers of this sect to lead
their prayers, to visit the sick or comfort the mourner for them, not realizing how bad it is
when the hothead presents their rebbe, rather than God, as the appropriate target for the
poor Jew’s hopes and prayers.
During the Rebbe’s lifetime, his shlichim (missionaries) presented him as literally
omniscient, omnipotent, and as the messiah – the political king promised for the end of
days - and hardly anyone objected!
They passed out prayer pictures of the Rebbe with instructions to move the picture along in the prayer book, praying to God while gazing intently on the picture. I would have wished that the Rebbe would have reminded his followers that there’s a prohibition against even making such images (Ex 20;4), and certainly against praying through them (Ex 20;3). But - he did not.
If these pictures were just for decoration, they would be permitted, by the way,
but you’ll quickly recognize that they are not decoration. Look at how they are used and
the way they are sold, from a messiah store, or handed out. Look at the stern look on the pictures' faces, and at the lighting: how the gaze is focused on you, or on a single ceiling light bulb (God’s light). Another sign of the holy status: observe how a follower treats his worn-out
pictures. They’re not tossed on the trash along with the empty sardine tins, but buried like
a holy sefer [like a volume of Torah] or pair of tefillin [containing the Holy Name].
Another obvious place where the Rebbe elevated a human to gateway status
involved his father in law. In the course of his career, the Rebbe brought sacks of request letters
to his dead father-in-law’s gravesite: obviously teaching that, even after death, he could intervene to get the prayers heard in heaven. Now that the Rebbe is himself dead, he’s elevated to this same status - and even higher! Jews are encouraged to write letters that are then mailed or faxed (!) to the Rebbe at his tomb. For really important issues, Jews are told to travel great distances to pray at his tomb, as if God were using the Rebbe’s mouldering corpse as a drop-box for mail and prayer messages.
Perhaps you have heard clams to the effect that these practices are the fulfillment
of a mystic teaching (kabala) that was formerly known by only the select, holy few of
each generation. Please allow me to point out that there is absolutely nothing new in people worshiping God through the bodies of their dead saints. Indeed, it’s mainline Christianity.
We can trust the great Sephardic rabbis (Rambam, Ibn Ezra, etc.) when they say that countering such practices is a main foundation of the Jews’ mission. Jewish shuls - synagogues - have never been located among gravesites until now; but Christian churches are, very commonly. It adds, supposedly, to their kiddusha/holiness!
It is notable that Moses’s grave is hidden (Deut 34;6) as a fence to make sure that people don’t come to worship there after his death. The difference between Jews and these followers, it has been said, is that the former know Moses is dead, but don’t know his grave site, while the latter (the Rebbe's followers) know their Rebbe's grave site, but don’t know that he’s dead!
And this, dear reader, is why I don’t have a picture of the Rebbe, or a picture of
any rabbi, any place before me
PS. My hope is that these practices will disappear soon, so that someday none will
ever believe that a group of learned Jews who did so much good - credit where credit is due to all the pious Jews who did indeed serve God and man as chassidim, and particularly as Lubovitcher Chassidim - could ever have worshiped in this way. Then the messiah really will come. Soon; in our days.
First in a Series: From the Office of the Priest (Erev Yom Kippur 5771, September 17, 2010)
* Shmuel ben Aaron HaCohen is a Torah student, husband, father and son who supports his family as an earner-learner. He graduated from University with a PhD, but never graduated from Torah studies. His children study in yeshiva-schools.
Copyright 2010, First Covenant Foundation and Shmuel Yitzchak ben Aaron HaCohen
* Rabbi Scott Israel Seldowitz writes:
Do you see that it is normative Judaism to belief and accept that there are special people, known as tzaddikim?
Is it Jewish to Believe in a Person?
Judaism does NOT accept attributing deity to any human being. As Maimonides clearly writes in the very beginning of his Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, Book of Knowledge, Mishneh Torah, that faith and trust in the Creator ranges above the creation and created beings.
However, Judaism not only accepts, but advises Jewish people to both believe in G-d, and to believe "in his servant, Moses."
As the holy book of Zohar teaches us, a servant like Moses exists in every generation. That servant of G-d helps us reach a tangible connection to G-d Himself. We don't worship the servant, has v'sholem [Heaven forbid]. We worship G-d Alone.
Yes, we believe and put our full faith in G-d. But we believe too in a special human being. This special human being is a Tzaddik [a saintly person, a person of great tzedakah: righteousness, justice, and charity].
Rabbi Seldowitz also writes:
I know personally the author of Think Jewish [the book cited in the article], Rabbi Zalman Posner, shlita [blessings upon him], formerly of Nashville, Tennessee.
He related in "Think Jewish" a basic concept in Judaism about the role of a Rebbe in a Jew's prayers to the Al-mighty.
Unlike the concept of an intermediary, a Rebbe assists a Jew reach his or her prayers to G-d by lifting them to the correct door for response. This is not an idea unique to Lubavitch, to Chassidism, but rather very widespread among all observant Jews.
To deny the role of a Tzaddik has no place in Orthodox Judaism.
Rabbi Seldowitz also writes:
Regarding the author's statement: "They passed out prayer pictures of the Rebbe with instructions to move the picture along in the prayer book, praying to God while gazing intently on the picture. I would have wished that the Rebbe would have reminded his followers that there’s a prohibition against even making such images (Ex 20;4), and certainly against praying through them (Ex 20;3). But - he did not."
This - the allegation that anyone advised people to pray while gazing at the picture of a mortal man, even a Tzaddik - is simply not true.