Believing in Moses Doesn’t Mean Sending Mail to the Deceased
By Shmuel Y. HaCohen
Recently, a rejoinder to my previous essay - against worshiping God through a man - posited that a God-fearing person should follow the one Moses of his generation. In this the writer means, I presume, his dead rebbe, M. M. Schneerson.
He supports this contention by citing the Zohar and the line in Exodus “And the nation feared God, and they believed in God, and in Moses, His servant.” (Ex. 14:31). I’d like to explore a few differences between following the original Moses and following their dead rebbe, especially in terms of Noachide practice. I would also like to point out some community problems that arise whenever there is an emphasis on following a single, human leader who’s accepted as being beyond reproach.
An obvious difference between the original Moses and the purported “Moses of the generation” concerns direct revelation. When the Jews believed in God and Moses, there was, it appears, a direct revelation of God. We are told that the least of Jews could “see God.” For example: “You, yourselves have seen that I talk with you from heaven” (Ex. 20:18).
By contrast, our belief in any long dead human is by reputation only, and reputation can be built up very high by a concerted publicity campaign. The original Moses was accepted during his life because there was direct reason to think his instructions were truly godly, or truly of God; not so with the modern Moses.
A second difference concerns reproach; when the original Moses erred in his teaching, as even he did, there was a public counter-balance. Moses not only accepted, he recorded the reproach he received from God, from his father-in-law, and from his brother Aaron.
Reb Schneeson had no public mistakes or accepted reproach, according to his followers. Anyone who accepts the guidance of his deeds of without reservation assumes he was greater than the original Moses, and rather like God himsef, in human form.
Finally, the Bible tells us “they feared God”, that is they accepted direction only because it came from God, and prayed directly to God, not through a fallible human. By contrast, followers of the new “Moses” have instituted a practice of sending request letters to the grave of their new Moses, a continuation of his practice of passing on letters to the grave of his dead father-in-law (see picture below).
M. M. Schneerson leaves for father-in-law’s grave carrying request letters.
Why should anyone send requests to a dead man? The intent behind it, it must be supposed, is either that the dead man will pass the requests on to God, or that the prayer letters should be answered directly by the dead man. The first intent would be a violation of the second of the Ten Commandments, having intermediaries to God (see previous essay); the second, in a sense, is worse. It violates the prohibition against necromancy, trying to contact the dead for advice and tangible direction (Deut 18:11), a practice prohibited to both Jews and gentiles, as will be described below.
Doing anything to communicate with the dead is forbidden in the Torah. See Deuteronomy 18: 9-14: “ ...thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations [the nations God is expelling]; there shall not be found among you … one who uses divination, a soothsayer, or …one that consults a ghost, or a necromancer. For because of these abominations the Lord [HaShem], thy God is driving them [the nations] out from before you.”
Following the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin), Maimonides, the Rambam, explains the prohibition against necromancy as being violated whenever one does ANY act to get a dead person to advise him, or to get the dead person to appear in a dream to speak to him (Laws of Avoda Zorah, Idol worship, 11;13). That the prohibition applies to both Jews and gentile Noachides is seen from the wording of the prohibition. Necromancy is classed as idolatry, and is seen in the Bible as an abomination; and as a reason for driving out gentile nations.
This desire for ghostly advice seems like a major motivation for those who are told to send letters and faxes to a gravesite in Queens, New York. A similar desire seems to motivate telling people to address their most pressing personal questions, regarding marriage, job, and school, or whatever, by sticking a knife into a book of this dead individual’s letters. To do so is necromancy, and it is insulting to the living God who instructed people to use their own brains in combination with advice from the Bible and from LIVING wise men.
Beyond being forbidden and insulting, these practices don’t even work. Would any sane person expect to play winning chess by sticking a knife into a book of chess moves? Would any sane person expect to build a safe bridge from steel selected randomly by sticking a knife into a steel catalogue? The Rambam says (Idol worship 11:16), “These practices are all false and deceptive, and were a means of the ancient idolaters to deceive the peoples of various countries and induce them to become their followers.” That this is so should be obvious to everyone.
With this as a background, I’d like to discuss the Zohar (the Mystic Book of Light/Spendor), and the extent to which it can justify the current attempt to get every living person to follow this one, dead individual, “the Moses of the generation.”
One should first understand that the Zohar is not representative of the rabbis of its time, but is the product of a single view, that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and of his followers.* Other rabbis differed on a great number of matters. Shimon bar Yochai indeed states that, in his generation, there may have been as few as one great Tzadik (great man) on whom the world depended. He then goes on to assert that, in his view, HE was that great Tzadik (Talmud Succah 45b), though he mentions two other rabbis who, he believed, were in his class. The other rabbis of the Talmud disagree and claim there are many tzadikim in every generation, with at least 36 of them hidden. These are the so-called lamed vovnicks (lamed vav = 36), a popular topic of Jewish literature. See, for example, the great Sholem Aleichem story, “Simon the Silent,” and its portrayal of one of these great men as a person who hardly ever speaks.
Even Shimon bar Yochai, who believes there may be fewer than 36 key supporters of a generation, on whom the world depended, presents no indication that anyone will be able to figure out who these rare people are. Thus, for practical purposes, like getting advice, even R’ Shimon accepts the tradition that one is to “cling to” the revealed scholars of our generation, and to follow the dictates of the judges in our gates. Note that “scholars” and “judges” are both stated in the plural, indicating that there must be many in any generation (e.g. Rashi on Lev. 19;32). The Talmud states (Chulin 92a) that there are never fewer than 45 at any given time, distributed between Israel and the diaspora. There is no requirement that these must be hidden, and the Midrash Rabba (another classic text of the day), shows that even R’ Shimon bar Yochai appears to agree with this in terms of practice.
Besides the legal argument against pushing everyone to follow a single, revealed, leader, there are several community advantages that derive from accepting the opposite view, that everyone should be free to follow any of the many leaders of a generation, with some of these hidden, and others revealed but equally legitimate. In a community that believes in many leaders, two people can be good friends though they have different rebbes, and even if the rebbes disagree about something. This was the case with the students of Hillel and Shammai, the two greatest leaders of the early first century. By contrast, a community that believes there must be only one great, revealed Moses, will always be at war with anyone who follows a different Moses.
Disputes along these lines have been bitter enough among Jews, but they have caused worse bloodshed among the gentile nations. I refer, for example, to the schismatic wars of the Catholic Church that arose over which individual had the rightful claim to the papal-leadership, and to the centuries-long wars between Shiite and Sunni Muslims (wars that had, as their origin, a dispute over who was the rightful leader of Islam).
It is the great irony of religion that all major religions preach, as a central tenet, that one is to “love your neighbor as ones-self.” (See, e.g., Lev. 19:18). And yet, most religions find themselves at war with each other - a major cause of the wars being that each wants the other to accept their teacher and approach to the “love-of-neighbor” message. If the rabbis of the Talmud had no other reason to oppose R’ Shimon bar Yochai, this ironic lesson alone would surely suffice.
The whole world mourns with a community that has lost its leader without leaving an obvious successor. Still, this mourning does not imply acceptance of the practice of encouraging the living to contact him for advice and blessing. Though the practice helps keep the community together and attracts new people “to become their followers,” it is Biblically prohibited to all, and an abomination to Jews.
Centuries ago, a small group created the Christian religion by treating their dead leader as if he were alive, and the Jews did not follow. Before that, a golden calf was used as stand-in for a leader who was believed to be dead - and Jews did follow. We must not repeat the mistake. We must be willing to accept living leaders in each generation, and accept that different people will need many living leaders, realizing that the messiah -- may he arrive soon—may appear to us as the most inconsequential person among them.