- Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson
In Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, Elliot R. Wolfson explains sympathetically and with careful documentation the apocalyptic vision of the last Rebbe of the Ḥabad ḥasidic movement. He covers the major ranges of the Rebbe's messianism and mysticism, suggesting how these views could provide a secure emotional foundation for faith and halakhah, often leading to a sense of exaltation among his more scholarly followers, thereby confirming their faith. Wolfson's clear exposition of esoteric Kabbalist ideas, giving excellent translations of the Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic sources, should continue to recommend this work to anyone who wishes to understand Ḥabad ḥasidism.
Wolfson shows that these views, ostensibly orthodox, contained ideas that could easily have become subversive and heterodox. While the presentation of the Rebbe's theosophic views is the central goal of this work, Wolfson has several secondary goals in its publication. He is looking for an alternative direction in the study of Jewish philosophy and hopes that Open Secret could serve as a paradigm for this next stage of Jewish philosophy. A major methodology in developing this future philosophy is literary analysis, and he argues that explanations of divine and mundane reality involve paradoxical thinking. Wolfson hopes that with this development the experience of the Jewish universe will again incorporate a sense of the divine.
Wolfson collected and analyzed Rabbi Mena.em Mendel Schneerson's cosmic perspective from the many published writings, epistles, and collections of his discourses, augmented by the teachings of the previous six Rebbes in the Lubavich dynasty. Previous scholars have shown that Jewish mysticism in general, and Ḥabad mysticism in particular, involved aḥdut ha-shaweh, the paradoxical unification of opposites, in the ascent to God. Such a mystical stance occurs in many religious societies. It is found in Taoism, Gnosticism, and Sufi Islam. A similar paradoxical pattern was maintained in Christian mysticism and Process Theology. However, there are basic differences among these forms of mysticism. In contrast to the Kabbalist perspective, Process Theology questions the omnipotence of God, and recognizes the universe to be the body of God. Wolfson noted that similar paradoxes are found in Buddhist mysticism (pp. 109-114). Buddhism differs from the Kabbalah in its views on divine discourse. In many ways nirvana in Buddhism is equivalent to the ayin in Kabbalah. Yet, while Buddhists recognize that bodhisattvas (individuals on the path to enlightenment) communicate with their fellow humans before their final assumption into nirvana, they deny any such discourse from nirvana. In contrast, [End Page 264] Judaism and its Kabbalah affirm that God continues to communicate through the Torah and prophets with the religious faithful.
In Open Secret Wolfson shows that the seventh Lubavich Rebbe continued in many ways the paradoxical stance set by his predecessors (pp. 2-3, 102-103, 247). The Lubavich leaders described publicly the divine communication of the secret Torah. For them these esoteric teachings were secrets that should be revealed to all of Israel, and to the Ḥabad membership in particular. Part of the time they are so secret that the secrecy itself is kept secret (pp. 28-65).
The esoteric process of creation involved "apophatic embodiment," combining the formless invisible ayin (nothingness) with the embodied universe, this corporeal world within which the Jews fulfill the embodied mitzvot. The universe is a phenomenal one emanating from and founded upon belimah (nonexistence). The authorized rites involve corporeal acts that emotionally and rationally eradicate corporeal reality (biṭṭul ha-yesh), subordinating the worshipper to ayin (nothing), the ayn sof (infinite) from which all reality emanates.
Time and space and corporeality are all negated by converging "the opposites in one subject" (p. 145). The worshipper incorporates the exoteric Torah (torah hanigleit) with the esoteric Torah (satim de-orayyta) (pp. 171-179), the Torah revealed publicly at Sinai with the Torah that both existed before the revelation and will be the messianic Torah leading...