Identifying Chabad
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A fairly recent baal teshuva who was drawn into Lubavitch initiated this exchange (which has been heavily edited and reorganized) through the web site. While the dialog contains little that is novel or particularly stimulating, it should nevertheless help illustrate some important dimensions of the Chabad problem. In particular, how quickly new followers adjust to the liberal standards of Chabad's "anything goes" rhetorical style.
How Chabad theology expands to influence such fundamentals as prayer and our understanding of the most basic Torah texts (not to mention our grasp on the world's physical realities) are also worth noting.
My correspondent's words - and my editorial contextualizing - are presented indented and in red. My own responses are in black.

Moshiach in History

My correspondent justified his attachment to the teachings of Chabad by observing that, even if "it's all good, regardless of how i feel," he "really [doesn't] see much good coming to the world without Moshiach and the revolution that He will lead. "

You don't see much good? But didn't G-d Himself cause you and I to be born into this world, the way it is? Could you imagine that He would have made a mistake in putting us here without the opportunity to fulfill the perfection promised through perfecting our middos through mitzvos and Torah learning? Isn't perfecting our middos good?

In responding to the criticism that Lubavitchers "play god" when they order G-d to send Moshiach which will be addressed below), my correspondent explained that "I'm telling Him, I want this to end, be merciful and send Moshiach. "

Ironically, according to the Chofetz Chaim (as reported by Rav Yechezkel Levenshtein), we don't really want moshiach to come! Think about it: the clear and close presence of G-d at that time will make our Torah observance nearly automatic. Since we will have very little doubt about how we are to behave, and since there will be so few obstacles between ourselves and mitzva observance, it will be, for all practical purposes, as though we have no free will. Without free will, there is virtually no reward - and even more importantly, virtually no opportunity to raise our spiritual level. Wherever we happen to be when the messianic age arrives is essentially where we'll be forever.
So why, according to the Chofetz Chaim, do we daven that G-d should send moshiach? Because the Jewish people as a nation need it so they can perform kiddush Shem shomayim!

This was, understandably, confusing: "I'm not sure I understand how we could not want Moshiach. Everything we do is geared towards this goal...I mean that's my opinion. I could be wrong, but isn't the Geulah the climax of this whole experience?"

I'm not sure that quite everything we do should be geared to moshiach. After all, the Torah seems to recommend other focuses for our attention. For instance, see Devarim 10:12 or Koheles 12:13. See also Rambam in his Laws of Melachim 12:2 who writes:
    "One should not spend too much time on midrashim on this topic or topics like it, nor should you consider them of crucial importance, because they will not bring (you) to either fear or love (of G-d). You should similarly not calculate end times..."

But isn't "the whole siddur written with this event in mind?"

It is certainly true that a great deal of the siddur is focused on the geula. However, I will note that virtually the entire shemona esrai (which is, of course, the core of tefila) is written in the plural form. It's not about ourselves as individuals, but the needs of the nation as a whole. I know that that is an idea that requires some retooling of our thinking, but it is nevertheless eminently true. Of course, we must daven for our personal needs using our own words, but the structure given to us by the chochomim is entirely community-oriented.

"To wish the golus to continue just so i can earn more points doesn't seem like the right attitude to me. "

There is logic to what you are saying. And, indeed, we should fervently wish for the very best for klal Yisrael. However, there is nothing petty and selfish about striving to emulate our Creator and fulfill His wishes by struggling with our moral free will to serve Him as He desires. That is an avodah that will effectively disappear once moshiach has been sent.

Ordering G-d Around

My correspondent signed off from one of his first emails with the popular Chabad slogan: "Moshiach Now! " I replied:

It's my feeling that G-d is smart enough to know when He should send moshiach and that He doesn't need us to tell him what to do.

"I'm sorry to hear you think it useless to pray and ask the Eibester for our needs."

Prayer is a most precious activity that has the potential to create a profound and special relationship with G-d. However, "Moshiach now!" - especially with its explanation point - is not prayer. It's a command. Mortal beings have no business telling G-d what to do.

What is Prayer?

Expanding on the "Moshiach Now!" theme, my correspondent sought support for harsh talk with G-d. "I'm sure you are aware of the many instances where the Yidden have cried out Enough! "

I'm not aware of any, offhand. The Torah's ideal Jewish response to great suffering is that of Aharon the Kohen (Vayikra 10:3) - he was silent.

"I was taught that this is not a command but a plea, albeit an emphatic one, it has been long enough, and i am not required to "suffer with dignity" and sit idly by while we are led like sheep to the slaughter. "

There's a very thin line between "command" and "emphatic plea". But, in any case, I think this brings us back to an earlier point: why do we daven? In fact, it's undeniable that G-d knows us and our needs better than we ever will and that He is merciful and will do for us what is really and truly best for us. So why do we need or even want to ask for what will, in many cases, be the wrong things? On the other hand there is, under certain circumstances, a Torah mitzva to ask for our needs. Why?
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (echoing the words of much earlier authorities) observed that the word "tefila" is actually related to "pelilus" - which denotes the act of judging. A judge must observe and then absorb the evidence, and then formulate within his own mind some decision (see also Beraishis 48:11). Tefila, therefore, is the act of studying the profound words of the siddur as a lesson in Divine revelation, thinking about them, and then applying them through a renewal and quickening of our love for and loyalty to G-d.
I think it self-evident that any manner of impatience or anger with G-d could hardly represent a positive application of these exalted ideals!

"Do you think no one in the camps should have cried, Enough! "

I am in no position to judge Holocaust victims for the way they reacted. I have no idea how I would stand up under such pressure. However, it is my business to know how I should think and act. And that must be informed by Torah values!

"In light of all that's happened, maybe we need to start letting Him know we've had enough."

Trust me. He already knows. See Tehilim 91:15.

What is G-d?

In his efforts to find a model for prayer that would be compatible with his theology, my correspondent what he considered to be the very highest level of prayer: "We know that tefilla is compared to a ladder, and the first rung on this ladder is indeed judging myself. but the top rung is attaching to Elokus."

You would have to be very clear that you only mean that metaphorically, because proposing that anything can actually be attached to G-d in any form is a negation of at least the second and third of the Rambam's thirteen fundamental principles of faith. That is, that G-d is infinitely simple and internally indivisible and that no physical quality or location could possibly be attributed to Him - both of which lead to the conclusion that He is entirely distinct from the physical universe that He created. We are aware of Him and we are beneficiaries of His kindness and watchfulness, but we cannot be in any way "attached."

This launched us into a detailed conversation about G-d's nature (and in particular, as He relates to the physical world He created - we'll return to that below). But my correspondent also spent quite some time and energy trying to demonstrate that the word תפילה (prayer) somehow actually encompassed connectivity to G-d. The lengths to which both he and those guiding him behind the scenes went to support this contention are revealing. Here's how it began (with an argument drawn from the Internet): "Tefilla can be seen to be derived from the verb "tofel" as it's used in the Mishnah Tos.Pesachim 5:9. "

I looked up that Tosefta and "tofal" does mean connect, but it is actually spelled with a tes (rather than the taf of tefila) - it's a word unrelated in any way to tefila. Here's the text: ואין טופלין אותן בחרסית ובאדמה

Undaunted, he continued: "Perhaps it will be made more clear from this, in Kesubos 62b there is a discussion about a women being attached to her husband where i think the lashon is tefillos,"

It's actually "tiflus." However, I really hope that this isn't being held up as an ideal: the word means foolishness and immorality - see its identical use in Sotah 20a where it is the opposite of perishus (moral discipline). The Rashi in Kesubos who writes "to be with her husband" is not translating the word "tiflus", but explaining its consequences.

...And continued: "And i think in keilim 3:5 "

That one is, again, spelled with a tes, not a tav and so is not the same word.
I will comment that I believe you are smarter than a lot of the sources on which you are relying. It's not your fault, you simply haven't had the opportunity yet to improve your Hebrew/Aramaic. But I am confident that your growth will soon bring you to a place where you can do independent and productive research.

"as for our discussion on "tofel", i asked my mashpia, and he told me it is by using a process called "temurah", by which letters are exchanged to reveal deeper meanings. i looked into this, and it's part of a larger process that includes gematria and notarikon, both of which are used by Rashi and other meforshim, al pi nigleh, and pnimiyus."

Gematrios exist in the Gemara and there is even a Torah law that is built on one (the assumed length a nazir must observe his prohibitions is thirty days). However, just playing around with the letters seems a bit much to me. Once you can exchange letters then there's really nothing you can't discover. In fact, if you look around the Internet, you will find Christian missionaries and deniers of the Torah of various stripes who have made creative use of "gematrios" to "prove" their claims.
I'm sure that your rabbis will claim that whoever came up with your proofs didn't just randomly exchange letters, but followed some secret protocol to which only a few are privy. That might work if you're telling me some D'var Torah about being kind to people in shul or something else equally obvious. But if you're trying to prove something controversial - that pantheism is a legitimate part of Judaism for instance; something that stands in the face of the Rambam's explicit prohibition, then defending your proofs with the "trust me, it's a mystery" line just doesn't cut it.
Calling it a "mystery," after all, is the traditional approach of the Catholic church to things they can't explain.
Either way, I maintain that secret protocols for Torah study could NOT POSSIBLY exist within Torah tradition! Take a look at Devarim 30:11-14 and particularly verse fourteen:
    "For this thing (the Torah) is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to do it."
In other words, every single Jew, if he is willing to work VERY hard, has access to every nuance of HaShem's Torah. There is nothing that requires an intermediary (besides, of course, teachers to transmit it).

"This isn't a "secret protocol" or "code" that only the initiated know. i don't claim to know very much and maybe this keeps me objective. if you are telling me you completely understand all the rules for Torah interpretation, than I will take your word for it, but that sounds like a mighty big claim.

The reason that I don't know all the rules of Torah interpretation is because I'm lazy and haven't spent the time and resources that I should have. But they were available for me had I been more committed. On the other hand, while I may be wrong, I nevertheless kind of doubt that there is an easily accessible explanation that would justify the kind of liberties your sources take with gematrios.

"Finally, I have an intersting source for you on tofel. This very word spelled with a tav, is used in Devarim 1:1 and explained by Minchas Yehudah to mean just what I've been arguing, that tofel means to connect!"

I'm not familiar with the Minchas Yehuda, but I can tell you what Rashi said it means: foolishness and immorality (just as it did in Kesuvos 62b). That is, foolish and evil things were said about the manna. It certainly doesn't mean "connect" in any way I can discern.

"Wait, there's more, if we look at Tehillim kapital 119:69, we will see toflu, with a tes, being interpreted the same way. And who's the parshan here? Rashi! He tells us the word is related to another word in Iyov - titpol - with a tav."

Well you've certainly got all the right letters in one place...unfortunately your understanding of Rashi is incorrect. Hebrew verbs are all made up of roots (shorashim) and prefixes and suffixes. The prefixes and suffixes are only added to the root to specify its grammatical construct in that particular instance. They do not, however, have any bearing on the meaning of the verb itself.
To illustrate: in the phrase "she was running", "she" and "was" modify our understanding of what kind of running was going on at the time, but they do not add anything to what we know about running itself. Similarly, the root of the word Rashi quotes is "tofol (tes-phe-lamed). The tav in front is only a modifying prefix.

you say that tofel with a tes isn't related to tefilla, what is your source for this?

I need a source to prove that two words with no etymological connection of any sort are not related? That's bizarre.

Having exhausted the conversation about the word "tefila", we can now return to Chabad's understanding of the relationship between G-d and the physical world. My correspondent proposed that man's connection to G-d is absolute (in fact, I would surmise, my correspondent would claim that they are indistinguishable). Prayer, therefore, "is designed to help me realize this connection. I mean this in a very literal way. Either He is, or, He isn't. and if He is, than it all must be Him ."

That is something which the Rambam felt was a complete negation of the Unity of G-d. If someone were to propose that the entire physical world is somehow G-d himself, then you are saying that He is somehow physical (encompassing, as He would, all of nature) and is internally divided!
This the Rambam fiercely rejected.

Seeking evidence for the further claim that there is nothing in the universe besides G-d, he offered "Ein Od Mil'vado, correct?"

Not to my knowledge. Ein od milvado simply means that there no power in the universe that can stand up to G-d's Will. If you look up the passage in its context (Devarim 4:32-35), you will see that that is the simplest and most coherent reading.

Ignoring my advise that he take the passage's simple meaning into account, he replied only that "the pasuk from Devarim is the foundation of the whole Tanya."

I can't say much about that, but I always recommend that we read and understand a possuk in it's natural context and simple meaning. That is G-d Himself speaking to you. And this possuk speaks loud and clear.

are you also suggesting we read "an eye for an eye" this way as well?

Absolutely. Because if you read that verse (Shemos 21:24) in its original Hebrew, you will see that it doesn't say the word "for" at all. It says "tachas" which means "in place of." Now, as Rabbi S.R. Hirsch points out, taking out one person's eye will most certainly not serve "in place of" the one that was lost, so the very simplest reading of the verse in it's natural context teaches us exactly what the Oral Torah said it would.

Does G-d Have Parts?

My correspondent offered further Tanya-based information, observing that, from Tanya, "we learn that the Jew is a chelek Elokah mimaal."

That's odd. Those words are a direct quotation from Job (31:2), which, if you look it up, refers to man's lot in life being the direct product of G-d's Will: the chelek(=portion) from the G-d above. Anything else is effectively a lighthearted play on words. Again: why not let the Torah speak to us rather than artificially imposing upon it external theological positions?
The real problem with such a formulation, however, is that it relegates G-d to a divided, finite and mortal creation (chas v'shalom). It claims that He can somehow be divided (one part for each person's neshama) and that those parts were not always in existence (remember what we say in the morning davening: "Elokai, neshama..." "the neshama You placed within me...You created it"! That is to say (according to your claim), G-d created part of Himself!!!

Hashem's achdus is in no way affected by this. therefore, the question is, how can anything not be, chelek Elokah?

Because, as I've said before, if physical things are "part of" G-d, then He is physical. I believe the Rambam (and every other ranking Torah authority) was rather outspoken on that subject!

My correspondent repeated his adopted position of neo-Spinozian pantheism (that the physical world is only an illusion, and that there is nothing but G-d), along with a tangential reference to "separation": "Chelek Elokah... is not making a separation, it's confirming that nothing isn't G-dliness."


In an apparent further effort to "prove" to me that the physical world is nothing but an illusion masking G-d, my correspondent asked a leading question: "What exactly is the "world" made of in your opinion, or what do you think the Torah says the world is made of? "

Fortunately, the Torah is very clear about that. All the ingredients (water, earth, vegetation etc.,) are helpfully listed in chapter one of Berashis. I suppose there are other possibilities, but I prefer the Torah's approach.

Breishis tells what the earth was made with, but not what those things are made of. So the question stands, what is creation made of?

Subatomic particles. And you will, no doubt, next ask, so where did THEY come from? Here, fortunately, the Rambam steps in to help: the world's first matter was created by G-d yesh m'ayin (something from nothing).

Now for what the world is made of. What's next? And what the Rambam says, yesh m'ayin, doesn't answer the question? where did it come from, because Torah tells us, there is no such thing as "nothing". if that were the case, then there was a time when He didn't exist.

No. The Rambam, with "yesh m'ayin," is saying that there most certainly was nothing before G-d created the universe. That's what the words "yesh m'ayin" mean. Of course G-d existed, but that was (and is) entirely independent of the physical universe. Remember, He's not physical.

Does the Sun Orbit the Earth (as the Lubavitcher Rebbe claimed)?

In response to my rejection of highly speculative interpretations of Torah passages (like the mooted connection between the words tefila and tofol), my correspondent replied: "Just because something sounds improbable doesn't mean it's impossible. "

That is certainly correct. But so is this: just because something is possible doesn't make it true. When you are trying to prove a controversial claim (like, for instance, that G-d somehow encompasses the physical world - which is soundly rejected by all mainstream Torah authorities), then it's not enough to offer some source for evidence, saying "it MIGHT prove my point...after all, it is POSSIBLE to imagine the source taking that meaning." For your source to count as a proof, you have to demonstrate that it MUST mean what you claim; that there is NO OTHER reading of the source that is equally likely.
Remember, there is a nearly infinite variety of POSSIBLE readings of any possuk. But none of them is worth two bits as a proof unless you can convince me that that was what G-d had in mind.

"Copernicus claimed heliocentrism using methods that were thought to be suspicious at best and heretical at worst, and look what we have today. interestingly, this isn't the model Torah recognizes as 'true'."

I would not be so quick with that one. It is true that the Lubavitcher Rebbe famously said that Copernicus was objectively wrong and that the sun actually orbits the earth. But he was quite alone on that. And, as a friend of mine once pointed out, quite vulnerable to a rather obvious problem (please forgive me for this, I just can't resist).
Think about it. If the sun's apparent daily movement is actually its orbit of the earth, that means (bearing in mind that the distance between the earth and the sun is around 93 million miles = one astronomical unit) that it travels 584 million miles every day. Which translates to around 24.3 million miles/hour. Which is nearly 7000 miles/second. Not very likely.
But that's nothing. Because according to the Rebbe's astronomical model, the stars are also orbiting the earth each 24 hours. Now the closest star to us is 271,000 times further from the earth than is the sun (or, 271,000 astronomical units). That means that the closest star travels 1,701,880 astronomical units each day, or 19.7 astronomical units each second. 19.7 astronomical units equals 1.8 billion miles/second. You will recall that the speed of light is 286,000 miles/second. That means that, knowing what we now do about astronomical distances and middle school geometry, our nearest star is actually smashing all the rules of physics at every moment!

It's the Torah that claims geocentrism, not the Rebbe.

There is no such claim in any Torah literature I've ever seen. There are a few sources that suggest a geocentric model and a few others suggesting a heliocentric model, but absolutely nothing conclusive either way.
I don't have any personal opinion on these subjects. I know that the Torah is true (although I might sometimes not know exactly what it is that the Torah means) and I also know that Science is, by and large, pretty good at describing the way the physical world appears to work. I'd be a fool to disregard either. But one brings no glory to G-d, His Torah and His people by insisting that the sun orbits the earth in the absence of ANY clear Torah source one way or the other.

how do you know the earth is round? have you ever done the necessary experiments to verify this?

My cell phone works. If the world was not round, it wouldn't.

how do you know the earth revolves around the sun? have you ever done the necessary experiments to prove this?

I actually am familiar with the primary evidence (the aberration of starlight) that demonstrates that the earth is orbiting the sun.

since there is no clear statement one way or the other in Torah, how did you decide who to follow?

As I said before, I never made any decision at all. This isn't something that requires a personal decision.

it can be argued that Rambam was a geocentrist, does this make him an unreliable authority?

Not for halacha. But I certainly wouldn't rely on his science.

provide support for how you can ignore the Rambam, and how this section of his work is not halachic.

I would never ignore any Rambam. As to whether the contents of the first four chapters of Hilchos Yesodai HaTorah are considered halachic, I think we can rely on the words of the Rambam himself who wrote (at the end of the fourth chapter) that these first four chapters addressed the matter of "Pardes" which one should avoid before one has filled himself with "bread and meat - and that is to know what is forbidden and what is permitted..."
The subject of the first four chapters, on the other hand, concerned what we would today call cosmology - which the Rambam himself called "Maaseh Merchava" (see 2:11).