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The tendency toward self-delusion - R.H. Joseph

Though destined to pass without much notice by an America absorbed in any number of significant distractions, there was an astonishing advertisement in The New York Times of Sunday, April 13.

The Lubavitcher sect of Hassidic Judaism is establishing a write-in campaign to have its former leader, the relatively recently departed Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, declared "Melech HaMoshiach," which, literally translated, means King Messiah.

It is the desire of those who placed the advertisement to facilitate "the acceptance of Moshiach's (Schneerson's) Kingship over the Jewish people and the total commitment of the Jewish nation to their King."

To say this is provocative understates the situation. More than that however, it does provide an opportunity to address issues regarding the common desire among religious extremists not simply to await some sort of messiah, but to repeatedly proclaim various charismatic individuals as just such an avatar.

There have been any number of alleged avatars, incarnations of the divine, during the course of Jewish history. During the 17th century many passionate believers attributed miraculous events to Sabbatai Servi, a man described as a messiah by the faithful at the time.

He is forgotten now by all but scholars such as Gershom Scholem (See: Scholem, Sabbatai Servi, the Mystical Messiah, Princeton University Press, 1973.).

It appears the greater the religious passion the more inclined one is to assert the physical object of one's devotion is in fact just such a transcendent manifestation.

This is particularly curious in the case of ultra-orthodox Jews. It is part of the Jewish tradition n and, in fact, evident in the Lubavitcher advertisement n to refrain from writing the word God or Almighty. In the case of the Lubavitchers, these words are written G-d or Al-mighty.

No doubt such traditions were established in antiquity to prevent concretized representations of the inexpressible. You cannot say the name of God for the universal truth is just that, apparent to all and, to quote Anselm, "something than which nothing greater can be thought." In other words, unbounded.

Therefore, to describe some particular individual or object as a manifestation of the divine denies the universality and inexpressibility of that common experience that compels humanity to acknowledge an absolute truth.

While it may be said that all that is perceived is a manifestation of the divine, to say that Schneerson stands alone as such suggests the passion of faith clouds the eyes (and wisdom) of the believers.

Despite the universal tendency of fundamentalists to concretize the common experience of the sublime, to give it a name or personify it, Judaism has incorporated a second method of emphasizing the essentially unbounded nature of this luminous oneness at the core of our awareness.

To illustrate this it is sufficient to quote a few lines of dialogue from Oscar Wilde's play "Salome" (to be reviewed in these pages April 26).

Second Soldier: "The Jews. They are always like that. They are disputing about their religion."

First soldier: "Why do they dispute about their religion?"

Second soldier: "I cannot tell. They are always doing."

In the very act of such debate regarding the nature of truth (also common to Tibetan Buddhism) it becomes evident that the immeasurable is incomprehensible to the intellect, and yet the spontaneity of debate enhances awareness of the topic.

Such wisdom contravenes assertions by the orthodox that they are able to characterize truth, or a particular manifestation thereof. It denies assertions that a particular way is the only way.

Yet it is the universal way of the orthodox to codify truth, to assert that it resides in particular teachings which must be obeyed religiously. As might be expected, it is among these groups that we find avid proselytizers.

Because they have convinced themselves of the divinity of that individual or object to which they are devoted, they are equally convinced of the need of others to affirm the reality of their belief.

So it is that the Lubavitcher Hassidim may be seen proselytizing in many American cities, though, admittedly, only amongst Jews. As is common among the orthodox, they perceive their less severe brethren as little more than pretenders to the true realization of the faith.

Such is the arrogance of the dogmatic.

In response I would declare that the essence of the assertion that Schneerson is the "Melech HaMoshiach" is a faith-dependent apostasy evincing an undeniable ignorance of the nature of truth?

R.H. Joseph is a longtime employee of the News Daily. His column appears on Wednesdays. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 252, or by e-mail at rjoseph@news-daily.com.