Friday, June 1, 2007

Avodah Zarah or Aish Zarah?

Growing up in Western Culture I never really got a true grasp of what Avodah Zarah (idol worship) was. With great difficulty I was able to imagine libations of wine to different gods, maybe a temple orgy, but realistically it was hard to conjure up. My reading of Socrates and some of the Greek tragedies in high school and college filled my imagination with idol worship, the pageantry and pagan rites, but unless you experience it, it is hard to imagine. It sort of like describing what a good succulent steak tastes like to someone who is a vegan from birth. Idol worship and pagan belief simply was not part of my religious-cultural experience on any level. Couple that with the fact that my teacher Rav Aharon Sooveitchik, z”l ruled that for all practical purposes there was not any Avodah Zarah in the west.

Was he ever wrong! Right under my nose, within a short distance from my home, and even closer to my office is one of the biggest lairs of idol worshippers in my city. They actually are in competition with the Hindus for first place. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. 770 Eastern Parkway, the neo-Gothic home of the 6th -7th Lubavitcher Rebbes since 1940, is now in the center of a lawsuit, a legal fight which places idol worship at the center of the storm. The outcome of this lawsuit may define who and what Chabad/Lubavitch believes in and their ideological commitment to normative Judaism. Two groups are fighting for control of the shul (chapel) and since neither side had a solid case, it is going to trial.

Basically the two sides represent the split image of a movement struggling with its identification with normative Judaism and the meaning of substantive Jewish values. On the one hand are the mishichistim and the other are the bureaucrats (global leaders). The mishichistim, who see the previous rebbe as the personification of the messiah are determined to redefine the Jewish value system along the lines of Avodah Zarah and in the tradition of the other false messiah movements in previous ages. The bureaucrats are undecided, but with a predilection to bury the rebbe once and for all and thus stay within the framework of normative, rabbinic Judaism. The issues came to a head when the gabbai (sexton) of the shul, a mishichisti took issue with a plaque installed on the wall of the building referring to the rebbe in terms reserved for the honored and sacred dead. Rabbi Zalman Lipskier wrote: “the real issue in dispute involves conflicting views on how our faith views the passing of the Grand Rebbe Schneerson and whether or not at this time he may be referred to publicly as the Messiah.”

Emerging as more important than the real estate issue of the law suit is what the consensus is among mainstream Lubavitch. Up till now I believed, perhaps somewhat naively that there was only a fringe group quite marginalized who believed Shneeerson was the Messiah. Now it appears that I was totally wrong. I should have trusted my instincts. Many years ago, when I was just boy, I was introduced to a Lubavitch minyan one shabbat for mincha (afternoon prayers). I felt strange then. Perhaps it was because we were staunch misnagdim (opposed to Hassidism) from a long line of litvaks (Jews of Lithuanian decent, who pride themselves on scholarship and study). For whatever reason, I didn’t like the place, and felt awkward. Perhaps I tucked away those feelings, assigning them to my tender age and upbringing in an American home far from the European experiences and Yiddish inflected English.

I should also have sensed years ago that Lubavitch was a definite anomaly, another hiccup in False Messianic Jewish history, a la Shabtai Zvi, when I first noticed a replication of 770 Eastern Parkway just outside of Lod, not far from the airport -- a real eye sore. At the time in the mid 1970’s I had no idea that they were already ovdei avoda zarah(idol worshippers). But from then till now an additional 13 replicated buildings of 770 Eastern Parkway were established across the globe (Italy, Canada, Brazil, Agentina, and Australia). In my mind is the imagery of thirteen miniature mishkans (tabernacles), for Lubavitchers to pray in, otherwise, who knows, maybe Hashem (God) won’t accept their tefillot (prayers). It sort of reminds me of the plague of the Bamot (personalized altars for sacrificial worship) during the prophetic period, when it was nearly impossible to restrict Jews from setting up their own Bamot for sacrificial worship. Not until King Josiah, the great reformer king made it absolutely verboten.

What is appalling about the entire phenomenon is that the replicas were all built during the lifetime of Rabbi Schneerson. He enabled the proliferation of the pagan ritual. So the question is whether one thinks that this whole thing is the real McCoy, Avodah Zorah, or perhaps it is nothing more than Aish Zarah (strange fire). If it is Avodah Zarah, we are in big trouble because there doesn’t seem to be another reformer King on the horizon on the order of King Josiah. So that leaves us with a Aish Zarah and we know that Nadav and Abihu fried for offering an Aish Zarah!!!!!