On any given Tuesday at the Habad nearest my home there is a diverse gathering of Jewish and sometimes non-Jewish seekers learning Torah at Formica and vinyl folding tables in the lower level of a home owned by a young rabbi and his wife. It’s advertised as “Torah & Tea.” My Styrofoam cup was empty. Not being a tea drinker, I fumbled with the hot water dispenser for an awkward moment before giving up. Knowing that I had arrived at this place with the intention of presenting my thoughts to a guy I had never met, I was a little anxious. However, I quickly realized that the rabbi was more nervous than me. As it turned out he and his wife had only recently moved to the area and this was his first public lesson.
I tried not to let myself be distracted by the rabbi’s uniform, the black hat and coat generally associated with classical Judaism; instead I made a conscious effort to see the whole picture. He wore well made designer shoes and trendy rimless glasses, but I got the feeling that his wife had made the purchases. He seemed a bit distant and distracted. The rabbi had only recently left Crown Heights which is the epicenter of Habad culture and serves as a comfortable incubator for members of this spiritual tradition. Looking beyond the unkempt beard I realized that this new rabbi was no older than me. We were in our late twenties, and none of his previous preparations had readied him for a conversation like the one we were about to have—not on the first day.
I asked the rav if he was a meshichist…if he believed that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the messiah. He was reluctant to speak openly about the subject, but after a short hour of discussing admitted his convictions. I asked him if he had ever known any Elokists in his movement; he played dumb. “What’s an Elokist?” This question was at the same time ridiculous and understandable. On the one hand he was dodging me, on the other he was forcing me to define the term, to pry at my understanding. I intentionally provided the most abrasive definition, “It’s someone who believes a man can be God.” With that he opened up, simultaneously denying the existence of elokism and proclaiming the insanity of those who hold the view; he accenting his outrage with emphatic and wild gestures. I replied that if they’re insane then they exist. Defending his community he was persistent in renouncing the doctrine. “What if they’re not totally crazy,” I asked? He was surprised by the comment, halted his rant, and asked what I was intending to say. “Well,” I responded, “the fourth chapter of the Tanya talks about the relationship between God and the completely righteous…” He interrupted, “Perhaps you mean the third chapter? The fourth chapter is discussing how the Infinite is contracted into this world and is found in the Torah.” So I explained my line of thinking, that a perfect tzaddik, a completely righteous person is nothing less than a living Torah, and I quoted the Tanya saying, “The Torah and The Holy One Blessed be He are one and the same”. We spoke together about the subject for nearly three hours. We spoke at depth regarding the Alter Rebbe’s parable about the king and his many robes and how the truest rebbe, a sinless and perfect soul, would be nothing less than a conduit for the divine. At the end of our talk the rabbi sat back in his chair. He said, “If this is what someone means to say when they speak of a divine moshiach (messiah)…this is Judaism…this is hasidus.” Then, slapping his hand on the table he punctuated the thought exclaiming, “And everybody knows it!” Leaning forward and with a voice pitched just above a whisper he said, “But just because we know something doesn’t mean we should put it on a billboard.”
The thought hung in the air for a minute. The rabbi’s face lightened. He continued, “I have a verse from Torah to prove it.” Opening one of the books we had been learning from earlier, he turned to Exodus 14:31;
[T]he people believed in the LORD and in His servant Moses.
The rabbi explained the line, “Now, it sounds like idolatry doesn’t it? The Torah says here that the people believed in Moses…in the same way they believed in God, they believed in Moses.” He continued, “But its not idolatry, because Moses was nothing, he was nothing at all…just a vehicle. To believe in Moses was to believe in God.”
“Interesting,” I said.