All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
I like to think
(and sooner the better!)
Of a cybernetic meadow
Where mammals and computers
Live together in mutually
Like pure water
Touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now please!)
Of a cybernetic forest,
Filled with pines and electronics
Where deer stroll peacefully
As if they where flowers
With spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
Of a cybernetic ecology
Where we are free of our labours
And joined back to nature,
Returned to our mammal
Brothers and sisters
And all watched over
By machines of loving grace.
Richard Brautigan, from ‘The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster.’ (1968)
Attitudes towards technology in Habad Lubavitch messianism
The particular emphasis of this paper will focus on attitudes towards technology, in both the society and the philosophy of late, Lubavitch messianism. There has been much publicity and controversy, but little actually said to explain both clearly and intelligently the messianic philosophy of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson, let alone discuss its connection and relationship to technology. The latter is the ultimate aim of this essay. In the process, we will cover general issues raised by Lubavitch messianism.
The Lubavitch movement believes itself to be, not only the most powerful and influential Jewish force in the Diaspora but also (and for our purposes) more importantly in cyberspace. Their phenomenal growth in use of new technologies and particularly their use of the Internet did not happen over night. The use of technology is not new to this movement, but lies at the very heart of its relationship to modernity.
In addition to plotting a brief history of the movement’s use of technology, I would also like to delve into the complex philosophy and theologies behind its development. As well as discussing the current attitude, I would also like to speculate on the possible attitudes to future technological developments.
Richard P Leissner,  in his undergraduate thesis on Lubavitch messianism says that
‘Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. single-handedly transformed Habad from a small, relatively unknown group of Jews into an internationally recognized and respected religious group with tens of thousands of devotees and ties to over a million other people. At this time, Habad is the fastest growing Jewish religious group with adherents all over the world and representatives on every inhabited continent. The Rebbe is attributed with this growth both due to his amazing charisma and ability to utilize a modern and technological world.’
A short history of a modern relationship
‘These engineered messages differ from the casual or do-it-yourself product in one crucial respect: instead of being loose or carelessly framed, the engineered product tends to be tighter, more condensed, less redundant. It is highly purposive, pre-processed, pre-processed to eliminate unnecessary repetition, consciously designed to maximise, information content. It is as communication theorists say, ‘information-rich.’
–Alvin Toffler, Future Shock.
Based on a famous statement of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, to “Live with the Times,” the movement has continued to adapt its message in response to the changing trends. It has been at the forefront in the use of technology in instantaneous international communication. In the late Sixties and through the Seventies, the Rebbe’s discourses were broadcast via a telephone link to several cities within the United States and many others throughout the world. This continued even until the late Eighties, where these telephone linkups were interspersed with an annual international Hanukkah satellite link up. In the early Nineties, the telephone linkups were almost completely replaced with live satellite and cable. In the Eighties and early Nineties many of the local Hassidim in Brooklyn were connected to an early warning bleeper system that would alert them when the Rebbe was about to deliver an impromptu discourse.
This use of technological developments was paralleled by carefully adapted changes to the emphasis of their propaganda campaign; which changed to mirror changes in general cultural fashions. In the late Sixties and early Seventies its rhetoric incorporated ‘meditation,’ ‘spirituality’ and ‘women’s rights,’ etc. In the Eighties at the height of the Reagan and Thatcherite years, in line with the consumerist mentality, the Rebbe started what would be his most famous campaign; “We Want Moshiach Now!” Sensing the need for instant gratification, the Rebbe directed this desire towards instant redemption and gratification on a cosmic proportion. In the Nineties the emphasis again changed speaking of the ‘dawn of a New Age,’ the Rebbe said ‘all we must do is to open our eyes and realise that it has arrived!’ Interestingly the movement is still home to many people originally from the hippie movement and in the Nineties, they were the ones to adapt the rhetoric to a more ‘New Age,’ style. There are even unofficial ‘Habad’ tents at Rainbow Gatherings. Selected teachings of the Rebbe have recently been translated in to a distinctly ‘New Age’ liberal language and published, by a self proclaimed techno guru who was originally part of the hippy movement, although now officially a Rabbi.
Attitudes towards technology
As an example of Habad’s unique approach to technology and to the world in general is the recent controversy regarding the recent worldwide ban on use of the Web, at home, by it seems every conceivable rabbinic authority, some of them even allegedly claiming that “it’s the worst thing to happen to Judaism since Creation!” The following brief excerpt of an article highlights the issue.
Ban the Web? Not Lubavitch Jews! by Mike Kamber
Despite a recent Internet ban by a group of prominent Israeli rabbis, Brooklyn ‘s Lubavitch Hasidim have no plans to scale back their extensive presence on the World Wide Web, a presence that now includes 700 Web sites in 52 countries. But the Lubavitch, the largest Jewish outreach group in the world, are concerned about a conflict with the ultra-orthodox rabbis and deny any contradiction between their decade-old Internet presence and the ban. “We’re very sympathetic to [the rabbis'] concerns,” says Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a Lubavitch spokesperson. These concerns revolve around the Internet acting as a conduit for pornography, particularly to Jewish children. But, unlike the ultra-orthodox, the Lubavitch emphasizes the use of physical objects as tools to spread their word. “It’s not the medium itself that is kosher or not kosher,” Shmotkin explains. “It’s how it is utilized.”
The difficulty that the orthodox Jewish community has with technology is not about technology per say, but mainly about assimilation, and the Hellenisation of Judaism by the west, which began millennia ago. Traditionally the ultra Orthodox-Hasidic world has viewed science as the child of Greek philosophy, and therefore not kosher. This mistrust of science and technology reasserts
‘…Some long-standing differences and tensions between certain Hasidic courts have only been exacerbated during their years in America . The most famous feud is between the Hungarian Satmar and the Russian/Polish Lubavitch, who divide over issues of outreach, openness to modern and secular customs and technology, and Zionism…’
During the 18th century with the rise of enlightenment, the opening of the ghettos, Jews were exposed to secular education; the main stays of religion were under threat. Orthodox Judaism’s main protagonist ‘the Science of Judaism,’ used ‘scientific’ methodologies to disprove and undermine the very fabric of religious belief and life style.
With the advent and popular use of electricity in the early part of the twentieth century, many people, even Rabbis, mistakenly (only in hindsight) used electrical appliances on Shabbat, some even in Synagogue on Shabbat. However, in a short time, the rabbinic authorities ruled against it. This example, although it may seem rather trivial and insignificant, nonetheless, reveals the difficult relationship between religion and technology. Technological advances where not to be trusted, until they were proven to be ‘kosher,’ and divorced from their ‘scientific’ and, therefore, non-kosher dogma.
Professor Branover a Follower of the Rebbe and Russian Scientist, explains:
‘The Torah versus science dispute, as an either/or issue, is millennia old. Among the many chapter in this conflicts are, in a sense, the events which led to the Hanukka miracle more than two thousand years ago. The Mityavnim or Jewish Hellenists admired and worshipped the culture of Greece , including its philosophy and science. They were ready to sacrifice the Torah in favour of Greek philosophy and science (or to “adjust” the Torah by denying its Divine origin) in order to embrace Greek culture. The revolt and victory of the Maccabees led to the resolution of the conflict between the Hellenistic and the Torah-observant Jews. After the restoration of the Temple service in Jerusalem and the miracle of the single vessel of pure oil burning for eight days, the Hellenised Jews returned to the authentic wisdom of the Torah.’- 
The battle for the souls of the Jewish people was underway, the parallel drawn and comparison made between the Hellenisation of Jews by Greek culture and the plight of Jews in modernity. The Rebbe saw his Hassidic philosophy metaphorically as the ‘small jug of pure and uncontaminated oil,’ that was found in the temple courtyard and that helped to restore the kingdom of Israel , in the story of Hanukah. He claims his philosophy not only fights against assimilation, but also is the authentic wisdom of Torah, that is intrinsically miraculous/supernatural and will ultimately be the reason for the rededication of the Temple .
Talking of the Rebbe, Professor Branover says
‘…since Maimonides there probably has not been another Torah scholar with as encyclopaedic a knowledge of the sciences and the philosophy of science as the Rebbe. This is only partially related to the fact that in the 1930′s he received doctoral degrees in science, philosophy, and engineering from some of the best universities in Europe – the Sorbonne, the Polytechnic Institute of Paris, and the University of Berlin. This academic background, combined with mastery of the “open,” Talmudic meaning of the Torah and the “secret” esoteric meaning of the Torah and the special vision of a righteous man enables the Rebbe to resolve the Torah versus science argument and put it into proper perspective…’
It is interesting and almost ironic to note that the Lubavitch movement sees their religious and historical ‘Messiah’ amongst other things as a ‘scientist.’ (Professor Branover’s need to emphasise the Rebbes credentials as a scientist share a common theme with other attempts to claim that Lubavitch as a whole is generally more technologically advanced, than other Jewish groups. This is not only a desire for outreach, but a psychological reaction to being confronted with modernity, even at times to the detriment of actual education of their own.) This reaction is not just limited to its followers but shares an interesting and profound philosophical connection to the Rebbe himself, and ties in quite neatly with part of his general attitude toward conflict and also his beliefs on the messianic era. An interesting but undocumented theme runs through and explains some of the Rebbe’s thoughts and actions. His desire for Jewish religious/philosophical world supremacy saw an increasingly absorbent and all-encompassing worldview, even incorporating some seemingly heretical ideas but expressing them in the language and guise of Hasidic philosophy. This approach and policy of absorbing the opposition’s views and calling them your own, is now quite common in political arenas, and by doing so the opposition ceases to exist. This general trend even went as far as the clothes he wore, traditionally the garbs of the opponents of Hasidic philosophy, namely Lithuanian and German Jewish dress. 
Therefore, by studying philosophy, qualifying as a scientist and engineer, this Hasidic Rabbi was also able to absorb philosophy, science and technology into his Hasidic worldview. Toward the end of his life, the Rebbes attitudes towards the secular sciences and even philosophy, radically changed, this mind you was only due to the inevitable eschatological, ‘there is nothing to fear, the Torah is true, and in search of truth you must leave no stone unturned.’ This ability to fuse science, technology and an ancient mystical tradition distinguished and continues to distinguish him from his contemporaries. He uses of scientific phenomena to express deep, almost mystical insights about life. One such example of this fusing of science and religious ideals to inspire his followers is the example of a chemical catalyst and he uses this to describe the function of his followers in the world.
In one of the last satellite link ups the Rebbe talked of the almost messianic anticipation that this new technological development implied.
“Recent inventions in our world give the Jew a better understanding of how we can ‘connect heaven and earth,’ and how to connect various parts of the world to one another. One can see every corner of the world from his own home, and can even speak to somebody in another part of the world. This we see also in the satellite technology we are using right now, which enables Jews in Moscow, and Jews in New York, Jews in India, Calcutta, Jews in Japan and Jews in Israel to all unite to light the Menorah at once.”
In another example, he uses advances in laser science as a spiritual metaphor for enhanced spiritual achievement, personal development and interaction, he says: -
‘Until recently, directing a ray of light or heat over a distance was impossible, because the ray becomes diffused as it travels from its source. Its greatest intensity exists at its point of origin, and diminishes proportionately as the rays spread. Laser beams, however, do not diffuse; in a vacuum, they remain as intense over long distances as they are at their source. The photons in a laser beam all move in the same direction, so they can be precisely focused. This focus concentrates enormous energies on a tiny spot, allowing “mere” light to vaporize even steel. Maintaining direction without deviation, and the ability to focus one’s concentration, are factors which also determine spiritual penetration. The realms of Torah, mitzvahs and prayer provide a coherent direction for a Jew. When he channels himself in the direction that Torah establishes for him, then “even a wall of iron does not separate him from G-d.” He can even reach others and influence them to live a life of Torah.’
Sichat Kodesh, Chanukah 5730
What these quotes have in common is a messianic air and excitement about them, as another example shows: -
“…the actual diffusion of electromagnetic waves carrying words of Torah throughout the world very tangibly realizes the [messianic] vision of Isaiah (11:9) that “the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord…”
Materiality and the future
The key to understanding the Lubavitch way of viewing technology is found when examining its attitudes towards materiality and the future. Generally, the material world is seen in a neutral light neither good nor bad; everything, in theory, has the potential to be raised into the camp of the holy. As long as there is a positive potential in something then it must be used for good. In the more traditional understanding of Hasidic philosophy, this is called ‘the raising of the divine sparks.’ The eschatological redemption is brought closer through this raising of the sparks, by realising the positive potential in all things and ultimately the entire world, and therefore the world becomes redeemed. Everything in the material world, with few exceptions has the potential to be redeemed, either by its use or by abstention from use. Once again, even in the realm of Hasidic philosophy itself, the Rebbe is distinct from his contemporaries. He explains that this divine service of the ‘raising of the sparks’ was completed and that it was no longer necessary because the world was already in a state of redemption. This declaration in theory radically changes the fundamental status of materiality, from a almost panentheism doctrine where sparks of God are found within each physical thing, but the physicality itself is something separate and almost imprisons the God that is found within, to a pantheistic one where the world itself is absorbed in God and physicality itself becomes wholely God.
Materiality as a revelation of (if not) the Divine Essence
‘Materialism, n. The theory that there is nothing in the universe but matter, that mind is a phenomena of matter, and that there is no ground on assuming a spiritual First Cause; regard to secular to the neglect of spiritual interests…Materialise, v.t. To make material, to invest with matter or corporeity; to cause (a spirit) to become material or to appear;’
–New English Dictionary by Ernest A. Baker, Published 1932.
To understand this, we must first discuss the relationship between the divine essence and the Ego. This discussion must first take into account the primary distinction between two aspects of Lurianic kabbalah; the primordial womb and the infinite light of God, which lies beyond. This primordial womb is in theory void of God’s light, whereas that which is beyond this void, God’s light is revealed and diffuse. This could also be described as a primary something-ness and nothingness. Put in psychological, Gnostic or existential terms, a ‘fullness of being’ and ‘the inner void’; Yesh and Ayin, I am, and I am not.
Unlike traditional Habad Hassidic philosophy (here I referred to such works as the Tanya, written by the founder of the Habad dynasty), which regard the body and ego as negative, and anti godly existence, encouraging self-denial and self-nullification, in order to experience unity with God. The Rebbe has a fundamentally dialectic and contrary opinion about how unity with God can be achieved. He sees that this denial of the self as inherently dualistic and unproductive, and prefers the inclusion of every aspect of the self into the divine service, even the ego itself. Here he could be compared to the original founder of the Hassidic movement, who (with regard to prayer) encouraged the devotee not to ignore and banish the disturbing thoughts that stopped him from concentrating fully in his prayers, but rather to investigate and then fully understand their primarily spiritual cause. In so doing this unites those thoughts into his general service of the divine. But this approach was later to be strongly discouraged and disturbing thoughts were to be “pushed out with both hands!“ The ego as well as the body were to be crushed, in line with the Zoharic verse which says ‘the body is like a piece of wood, if it does not reveal the light of God it must be crushed! ” Moreover, the ego is seen as a primary source of all evil, the cause of arrogance, pride and idol worship.
In contrast, the Rebbe posits that the ego is primarily an expression of the ultimate ego, i.e. God. The Ego that shouts ‘I am!’ is a reflection of the true ‘I am’ and therefore something potentially holy, previously Hassidic philosophy had described physical Existence and the world as claiming an independence of being, from that of God, almost as if it said ‘I have no creator!’ The Rebbe on the other hand saw this not as something that was in opposition to God but as a primarily expression of the Godhead itself. The long-standing question within Hassidic philosophy, about the source of physical existence is answered by the Rebbe. He explains that physical reality cannot have been created via an evolution, of course and effect from the infinite Godhead to finite materiality. Rather there is a quantum leap from the essence of the divine, bringing into creation the physical. The result of this conclusion is that there is a unique and intrinsic relationship between physicality and the divine essence. The connection of this idea with the general messianic theme is only understood when one realises that, this ‘reality’ is only revealed in the messianic era, where the physical itself reveals this divine essence. The Rebbe instructed his followers to ‘open their eyes’ and realise that the messianic era had already begun and encouraged them to ‘live with Moshiach.’ Having taken this onboard one is left with the idea that physicality is itself ultimately a greater and more primary expression of God than any ‘spiritual’ revelation. This is confirmed by another teaching of the Rebbe, which explains that in the messianic era the soul will no longer nourish the body rather the body will nourish the soul. The self and world will be glorified; the world’s previous antagonism towards spirituality and godliness is now seen as a construct the falsehood of which can only be seen in hindsight. The self and the body are no longer to be castigated and denied, but rather celebrated and cared for. In a world that is redeemed and God revealed there is no need for division of physical and spiritual, the spiritual becomes physical and physical spiritual. The transcendent becomes immanent and immanent, transcendent. One is left with a magical world that has infinite potential. This is clearly a western form and expression of mysticism which contrasts strongly with his predecessors clearly more eastern forms, in which it believed that there was no ‘self.’ Obviously the subject is not as simple as I characterise it to be, but in short will suffice in aid in understanding the Rebbes unique view on materiality and therefore also technology. There is even an oral tradition that in the messianic era Hassidim will learn physics, instead of Hassidic philosophy, before prayer, this is because the physicality and therefore also the natural sciences become descriptions of and explorations into the divine. The secrets of the physical universe, of existence are the secrets of the Essence of God.
This connection and correlation between the divine and material world is not something new to Hassidic philosophy, but its significance and corresponding relationship to the main messianic theme which runs through the Rebbes works cannot be underestimated. And comes to a fore in the eschaton.
The future is going to be Good
With its emphasis upon messianic consciousness and the anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah and the messianic age, this community has a uniquely positive outlook towards the future. They now hope for the resurrection of their Rebbe, the fulfilment of his prophecy, as well as the biblical prophets; the proof that they where right all along. However, this apart there is a genuine longing for a deep and complete peace and universal harmony that will be ushered in, in the not too distant future. The future is not something that should be feared, but trusted, something that must be celebrated even in the present. There is a sense, at least in the Rebbe work, that the future must be brought into the now. In effect attempting to actualise the futures potential, by realising all the dreams of the future can be experienced now, as in the adage ‘and if not now when’ and if the moment past, in the next moment or the one thereafter. This anticipation of the future is so important that, it is something that has even seeped into the unconscious mind people dream of anticipate the redemption, of it imminent arrival. The community, is in a time-warp between, living in the past, keeping memories of the of the Rebbe alive and dreaming of the future. They are very rarely present in the now, this is unfortunate and may have been what the Rebbe wanted them to do, and maybe what he meant by saying that: –
‘Now all we must do is to dance with joy at the appreciation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah and messianic era, so much so that the streets themselves dance.’
– Simchat Torah 5751.
‘The service of purifying the world, is over, the missionary activity is over, everything is done, now all we must do, is to accept and realise that it [the Messiah and the Messianic era] are actually here.’
– Safer Ha Sichot 5752
The Future is almost present; it holds the taste of all sweet things of peace, happiness, and fulfilment. The future holds unbounded joy, continuing exponentially ad infinitum, and both personal and global utopia. Hoping, praying that some supernatural power will save them from themselves, they call out to the Rebbe and he points back to them saying, ‘I’ve done all I can, now its up to you.’ It is easier to trust in the future and live with a dream that in the not too distant future everything will be good.
The Industrial Revolution and the Birth of Hasidism
‘Two thousand years ago, the holy Zohar (I, 117a) foretold this great explosion of knowledge: [commenting on the Biblical verse, than Noah was in his sixth hundredth year when the flood came?]
In the 600th year of the 6th millennium (approximately  1730) the gates of knowledge above, and the fountains of knowledge below, will be opened, and the world will be prepared to enter the seventh millennium.”
The “gates of knowledge above” refers to the wisdom of Torah; “the fountains of knowledge below” is secular knowledge.’
- Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson Likkutei Sichot, Vol. XV, p. 42. (1966)
If we are to agree with the assumptions and inferences made above (that the Zohar was prophesising of both the rise of Hassidism and the industrial revolution, as Rabbi Schneerson wishes us to believe,) we must say that not only Hassidism is intrinsically messianic, but also that science and the industrial revolution are also both potentially equal partners in the fulfilment of the eschatological plan. This exegesis of the Zoharic verse, seems to claim that there is a parallel between, and an interrelationship with science and technology at the very heart and formulating fabric of Hassidism, that both together (not independently) will lead ultimately toward the redemption. This view of history is by definition eschatological. Rather than equating the two fountains of knowledge, further explanations of Rabbi Schneerson interprets them theocentricly. He explains that the more the ‘gates of knowledge above…open’ then the more the ‘ fountains of knowledge below, will be opened.’ It is therefore, the advances and developments of (Torah through) Hassidic philosophy that bring about the possibility for scientific and technological development, and not visa-versa. Lubavitch Hassidism sees itself as being intrinsically interconnected with, possibly even the spiritual counterpart, of the explosion of scientific knowledge and discovery as well as the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution. It is consequently not at all surprising (from its perspective) and is no mere coincidence that its Renaissance pre-empted and corresponds to the ‘cybernetic’ revolution.
In this particular brand of Hassidic philosophy God is equated with Unity/Oneness/ and the All, whereas that which is negative is seen as divisive, multiple and dis-unified. So perceiving the Oneness of the Torah and also the world, one is seeing the Oneness of God. In the redemption, all are aware of the Oneness of God/Existence. As it says ‘on that day [referring to the messianic days] the Lord will be One and His name One.’
The Rebbe explains
‘By revealing the Oneness and Unity within Hassidic philosophy, one reveals the Oneness and Unity within the Torah, even the mundane aspects of it, and [because Torah is the Blue print of Creation] the Oneness and Unity of the world is also revealed, till finally the ultimate Oneness and Unity is revealed in the final and complete redemption.’
– Hag ha Shavuot 5750+1, and the pamphlet ‘Torah Hadasha.’
The formula is quite clear, there is an evolution of messianic knowledge from Hassidic philosophy to Torah and from Torah to the world. So science and technology reveal or help to reveal the Oneness and unity of the world, and contribute most practically to the redemption which is primarily physical. However, this evolution cannot be understood simply as a direct movement of ideas, as they evolve and are disseminated throughout the world, although this is ultimately the Rebbes desire. Nevertheless this relationship between Hassidic thought and science and technology is understood as being something more primary than mere osmosis, the divine influx and new insight that is discovered by the pupil and moreover, by the Rebbe, in tern elicits a corresponding response and discovery or insight by the scientific community.
Each scientific and technological development is seen as bringing the redemption one step closer. There is almost a latent excited anticipation, a sense of waiting, to see the future unfold before their eyes, seeing the era of redemption slowly but persistently being ushered in. It has even been described as ‘a memory of the future,’ as the prophesy of old are brought to life in the world of new technologies. So on one hand the Rebbe sees the general influx of new scientific information as part of a messianic plan, yet on the other he believes that individuals and humanity at large, still have choice about how they use this information and technology. But as we have seem there is a more intimate relationship between redemption and technology, in as much as science is the ‘lower fountains of knowledge,’ and is seen although initially as potentially either, it has by definition an innate and intrinsic relationship with the fulfilment of the messianic hopes and prophecies of this type of Hassidic Judaism.
The connection between technology and redemption
“We must force the Gentile governments to adopt measures which will promote our broadly conceived plan already approaching its triumphal goal by bringing to bear the pressure of stimulated public opinion which has in reality been organized by us with the help of the so called ‘great power’ of the press. With few exceptions, not worth considering, it has already fallen into our hands.”
The Seventh Protocol, Protocols of the Elders of Zion .
‘the simple lesson regarding the actions which a Jew must do to further hasten the Redemption is: – …to reveal that God is the Master (Alfo) of the world – in the world and in every part of the world, particularly through making use of all aspects of the world “for the sake of heaven” and in “knowing Him,” so that everything in the world reveals “the glory” of God…’
– Emor 20 Iyar 5751 Rabbi. MM Schneerson
The above teaching is based on the Hebrew word ‘Aleph’ which means has the numerical of One and has come to represent, the One God, this is taken very literally by an almost pantheist Hassidic belief in the omnipotence of God. The point of interest for us is that the messianic era, is at least according to Hassidic philosophy, and is primarily a revelation of One God. This translates into meaning that in the messianic era the ‘One’-‘the underlying unity of the universe’ is revealed throughout the entire world, fulfilling the verse ‘the glory of God fills the entire earth’ and there is no place void of Him.’
Maimonides writes in his laws of Kings-
‘it shouldn’t rise in your heart, that in the Messianic days that any of the ways and customs of the world will be abolished, or that there will be any [miraculous] innovation in the act of creation, rather the world will continue as it is, it customs will remain its customs, and this that Isaiah said about the Wolf lying in with the Lamb,… is only a metaphor…[because] the Sages say that the only difference between now and the Messianic days is subjugation to [foreran] kings…etc.
The Rebbe interprets ‘customs’ to mean the laws of nature. Therefore at least in the first stage of the messianic era, any ‘miracles’ that happen, happen naturally. The Rebbes interpretation of Maimonides is quite important as the Rebbe explains that in the first part of the messianic era, there will be no miracles, and yet the things described by Maimonides later on in his treaty sound miraculous. The Rebbe understands this to mean that through science and technology miracles are possible and yet are considered completely natural. In this way nature expresses and is a vehicle for the supernatural. This is ultimately the revelation of God in the world, that the world itself realises its innate divinity. And therefore fulfilling ‘God’s desire for a dwelling place below.’ The approach and interpretation of new technology and particularly the Internet is one of fulfilment of the eschatological; moreover, as a revelation of a deep and profound spiritual reality. His interpretation of the miracles of the future and therefore to some extent even the present are clothed within nature helps us to understand his approach toward technology. He sees Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the swords been beaten into ploughshares in not of just as the use of military technology in the aid of the world’s starving, but also in the general demilitarisation of technologies for civilian use. As the continuation of the verse ‘and no longer shall they learn war.’
‘The telephone and radio, for example, fired as with palpable models that enable us to visualise the concept of ‘an eye that sees and an ear that hears.’ Moreover, it foreshadows the promise of the above quoted verse, that ‘all flesh will see….’ From the physical sound simultaneously around the world.
When the radio, is used to disseminate Torah knowledge worldwide, it pre-echoes the universal diffusion of knowledge in the future time: ‘for the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the ocean bed.’ ‘That time will also reveal the way in which God’s unity finds expression in the unity that is inherent in all creation.’
In these short exerts, there is an intrinsic relationship being expressed between science, technology and unity. This in itself doesn’t seem to be or imply anything messianic, but a closer observation of the relationship between unity or oneness and redemption make the relationship between redemption and technology slightly more apparent.
‘The advance of scientific understanding is increasingly revealing the inherent unity in the universe, as expressed in the forces of nature.’ Being aware of this can serve as a preparation and prologue to the Era of Moshiach, for at that time the Creator’s simple, uncompounded Unity will become evident.’
In the messianic era the divine presence is revealed with in the world and science and technology in this light can be seen as expressions of the divine.
Science, Technology, the Holocaust and the Rebbe
Calvin- ‘Well Hobbes, I guess we learned a valuable lesson from this duplicating mess.’
Hobbes-‘And that is?’
Calvin-‘And that is, um…it’s that, well… OK, so we didn’t learn any big lesson. Sue me!’
Hobbes-‘Live and don’t learn, that’s us.
-Scientific progress goes “Boink,” a Calvin and Hobbes collection by Bill Watterson.
I would suggest that one of the possible reasons for the Rebbes overly positive attitude towards technology is precisely because he was aware of its fundamentally negative use in the 20th century. He compared science and technology to gold, a curious comparison, but nonetheless insightful; he explains that the entire purpose for the creation of gold, was for it to decorate the vessels and ornaments of the Temple . But as he points out gold, precisely because of its inherent spiritual potential, has been used in the service of idols. Should we therefore abolish the use of gold? Of course not! Quite the contrary, one must redeem gold by using it in the service of God. In doing so ‘transforming darkness [itself] into light.’ So too, with science and technology, it has been used negatively, but its previous use cannot stop its ultimate destiny, for which it was created, and brought into being, to reveal God, and bring about the messianic era.
Society and Alienation
It is my belief that amongst other factors there is a fundamental schism between what the Rebbe said and what his followers actually believe. The Rebbe said that the Messiah had arrived, but in the eyes of the majority of his followers, this statement conflicted with their personal experience of reality and therefore, there was and still is much confusion and an unwillingness or inability to assimilate this idea with the reality they see around them. This, amongst, other factors, causes them to prefer the virtual outreach and an alienated form of communication of cyberspace to ‘real reality’ since in cyberspace they have the possibility of creating a virtual redemption with a synthetically digitised and re-mastered and eternal Rebbe. The Rebbe may actually be one of the first individuals who has every known detail of his life downloaded, both his biography, philosophy, personal writings, photographs and video footage and continued presence both in ‘real life’ and in cyberspace, will be the reason why he continues to inspire his followers, even after his physical passing. ‘The internet is fast becoming one of history’s most potent educational tools; and Habad-Lubavitch in Cyberspace is committed to enriching the internet with the vast and invaluable resources of the Jewish heritage and culture. In the “Age of Information,” knowledge is our most precious commodity – knowledge that will facilitate the fulfilment of mankind’s highest aspirations.’
Possible dreams of a techno utopia
‘In that time …the only occupation of the entire world will be to know God exclusively. Israel will thus become great sages and will know the hidden matters and will grasp the knowledge of their creator according to the capacity of each individual as it says “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the ocean bed.”’
-Maimonides in the conclusion of Mishneh Torah
This has been interpreted by at least one prominent Hassid to mean that each person will have there own portable computer, each investigating the mysteries of the Torah and universe via the internet to all libraries in the world. And has been used to explain the verse that ‘no longer shall a man teach his fellow, because all shall know Me.’
‘…there will be thousands of thousands and myriad upon myriad of people… how [then] will it be possible for one person [the Messiah] to be able to teach and advise each and every individual personally [throughout the entire world simultaneously] about their own [particular] path of God?’
Rabbi Y.Y. Schneerson . Chelek Beis, Hag Ha Shevuoss Part 2, Shavuot. P.836
During the act of conception the couple are supposed to think pure and holy thoughts, thus the more enlightened the thoughts, the more refined the child and the higher the soul of the child. The interesting and ironic thing is that the word used for refined, ‘Adle’ also means of fair completion, light skinned, and I imagine that this trend will be continued, and if possible with the use of genetic modification. Altering the characteristics of offspring would eventually be embraced, just as their acceptance of GM foods now, that they interpret as being the beginnings of the fulfilment of the prophecy that ‘And all the trees shall bare fruit.’ This has been used in defence of genetically modified products, as they see it as a fulfilment of the eschatological. Hoping that it will in tern will fulfil Maimonides prophecy of a world in which there is no famine etc. In addition, and along these same lines other statements could be interpreted in light of new technologies. There is a Midrashic fable, which says the Forefathers (spiritually) made a kid and ate it, with out having to slaughter it because it was not born. Which hints to the possibility of artificial wombs and would seems to make another Midrash make sense that ‘In the future to come women will be able to give birth even nine hours instead of nine months.’
‘In the future to come houses will be made of precious stone, diamonds and rubies and the like, in line with the verse and ‘all the precious commodities will be like the dust of the earth.’
–Rabbi Roni Greenburg, in a class on the prophecies concerning the redemption.
Could this be prophesising of the use of the atomic structure of precious stones to build lightweight materials?
‘The Messiah will come lowly and riding on a donkey.’ Zechariah 9.9
The Rebbe interprets the Hebrew word for donkey ‘Chamor’ to mean course physicality, ‘Chomer.’ Although in this example, a direct connection between course physicality is not made nonetheless, in light of what was mentioned above concerning the revelation of the Divine Essence in physicality and it connection to technology, I feel it is a connection that is in some way justified. Surprisingly this metaphor of the Messiah riding on the back of the donkey has an interesting although speculative connection with the previous example in the Zohar. In the Zoharic image, there is a corresponding relationship between the Messiah and technology, Messiah and the messianic philosophy of Habad philosophy is understood and corresponds to the fountains of above which elicit the fountains of below… However, in the example Zechariah, the metaphor is even more poignant. The Messiah and therefore Hassidic philosophy metaphorically ‘ride on the back of the donkey,’ which is science and technology. There is a unique advantage that the donkey has even over the Messiah himself, because he is dependent on it to move him forward and travel to its eschatological destiny. Previously, Hassidic philosophy was the source of developments in science, now technology takes its tern to provide Hassidic philosophy with its ride to the virtual utopia.
Problems in defining Habad as a post-modern phenomena
This particular group or movement cannot be categorised as ‘fundamentalist’ in the traditional sense. There does not necessarily seem to be a return to a primary text of the bible as its foundation, or a return to tradition in a normative sense. Whereas there is a call for a ‘return’ to ‘tradition,’ the specific rituals and particular philosophy (outside of the general orthodox practice,) which it presents as being authentic and original, and to some extent more important than orthodox practice, have by and large been invented by its leader, from the 1950’s onwards. Although it could rightly be classified as primarily, a religious movement, this fact itself does not justify it being regarded as having an all out rejection of enlightenment values. Quite the contrary it prides itself on being an intellectual movement, based on the tenants of reason, with strong universalistic values that are base on messianic ideas and beliefs. During his lifetime, it seems that the Rebbe was a totalitarian figure. Although despising communist totalities and singing the praise of the American Liberal democracy, his organisation was, and still is to some extent, hierarchical. (The particular dynamic relationship with totalitarianism may need a separate chapter in itself.) While the Rebbe’s rhetoric was at times possibly highly individualistic, encouraging the individual to reach his/her particular potential, at least towards the very end of his life, (as I see it,) the structure of the organisation did not encourage this radical individualism rather preferred a more traditional and community oriented rhetoric. Until his passing, the rabbis that the Rebbe had appointed had almost supreme authority over the congregation, although this authority slowly began to ebb even during the Rebbe’s lifetime. As I was informed by a young drunken Talmudic scholar in the main synagogue of the worldwide headquarters on one of the high-holidays in 1990: – “The Rebbe is a Tzaddik, and everyone else (i.e. in the community) is a piece of shit!” This must to be understood in its context, but does express a fundamental feeling that was prevalent at the time. This trend continued and after his passing, there has been an almost complete and total disregard for authority figures. (This was mainly due to events that took place towards the end of the Rebbe’s life, when political backstabbing ruled, politics between differing factions and splinter groups erupted in all out political anarchy. The community, in turn, lost their trust and, in some instants, outright rejected the hierarchical structure that had now been shown to be a farce.) As a result, the totalitarian and hierarchical aspect of the movement may have originally fitted into a fundamentalist definition, it no longer does. Although there are still remnants of hierarchical structures within the organisation, it is mainly to do with politics, money and power, in contrast to its original religious ideals of hierarchy, where power and influence was based on religious or spiritual accomplishment. This rejection of the hierarchical structure was almost pre empted prior to the Rebbe’s death when he said “I’ve done everything I can to help bring Moshiach, now it is up to you! Do all you can!” Now everyone is equal partners and equally responsible for bringing the messianic era.
Although in theory the Habad Lubavitch movement claims to be a doctrine of ‘truth,’ it is almost post modern in its approach and is not a doctrine of absolutism. It does not completely disregard opposing opinions but rather prefers to incorporate them into its doctrine and even flirts with relativism. The Rebbe once said, ‘it is better to loose an argument and win a friend than win the argument.’ He did not encourage a fundamental transformation of the organisation of society, rather he encouraged consumerism and entrepreneurialism, but, arguably, he may have encouraged a fundamental change in people’s perception of the world. The Habad Lubavitch is primarily an intellectual/religious/mystical movement converting people to its views or just spreading the message of its leader. It is in this sense of ‘mission’ that it can be paralleled with Christian evangelical and other fundamentalist movements, but its distinctive characteristic is its obsession with the personality of its leader, in some instants and even after his passing could rightly be called a ‘personality cult.’
Unlike the Christian approach to the apocalypse Habad Lubavitch and their interpretation of Judaism’s ‘End of Days,’ generally have a very positive and utopian idea of the future (and is a subject I wish to address and discuss in more detail further on.) The Messiah is a bringer of peace; he settles family disputes, as well as rabbinical arguments. He neither judges, condemns or embarrasses people that believe they are Jewish, but who are actually not, and ushers in an era of peace.
The emphasis on a New Jerusalem
‘The Promised Land is a state of mind …I’m going to the Promised Land…’
- Robert Marley 1968
‘No wonder that Jewish writers, viewing this unprecedented prosperity, this unchecked growth in wealth and power, exclaim enthusiastically that the United States is the Promised Land foretold by the prophets, and New York the New Jerusalem. Some have gone even further and described the peaks of the Rockies as “the mountains of Zion ,” and with reason, too, if the mining and coastal wealth of the Jews is considered.
One thing that radically distinguishes members of the Lubavitch movement from world Jewry is their main point of spiritual and religious focus. Unlike the traditional Jewish view, someone living in the Diaspora feels that their heart and spiritual home and focus in their religious lives is Jerusalem, the Lubavitcher on the other hand, may be standing in the land of Israel, and even in Jerusalem the holy city, nevertheless their spiritual focus and home is always Crown Heights, Brooklyn New York. The clear distinction between the Holy and the mundane becomes blurred, with the case of Israel and the Diaspora, the focus is inverted, the Diaspora become Holy and Israel the mundane, in comparison. For the Lubavitcher (and here I am not making a generalisation but merely an observation,) there is almost an inability to understand and/or a rejection of the overly obsessed fixation with the ‘Land’ of Israel . It is quite understandable why this group has been banded with other Jewish fundamentalist pro-Zionist groups, this does have some basis in reality but this is a far too superficial and inadequate understanding of its views and role with regards to Zionism and the Arab-Israel-Palestine conflict. In contrast to the ‘Khannah’ or ‘Gush’ pro-Zionist groups it is to the far left, at least in theory, Some may accuse me of being overly apologetic and or ‘liberalising’ the Rebbes more pro Zionist message. I think (as I hope to prove) that the Rebbe is much more of a radical humanist and Universalist than previously thought, possibly even by his followers. It is true that a small but influential group of Lubavitchers are very much involved in the politics of the ‘land’ of Israel . It is my belief and understanding that this is an acute minority group that are by and large ostracised by most Lubavitchers in the Diaspora, who see them as Zionist extremists, who do not understand the Rebbes emphasis.)
As opposed to what they would consider more important issues like the (non demographic and more universalistic) ‘soul of Judaism,’ as opposed to the biblical literalism of religious Zionist that claim true Judaism can only take place in the land of Israel. As well as attempting to halt or slow down assimilation in the Diaspora and transforming the world, into a dwelling place for God.
A story told of a Hassid of the Ba’al Shem Tov who wanted to travel to the land of Israel , demonstrates the point well. The Ba’al Shem Tov was against the idea of this man travelling to Israel, but after many years of him requesting permission the Ba’al Shem Tov agreed to let him and his family go, but on condition that he took a ritual bath, immersion prior to his journey. The Hassid eagerly agreed and hurried to organise the logistics, and in his excitement and preparations almost forgot to take his ritual immersion. He got down from his cart and went to the bathhouse and he immersed himself. As he did so, he [probably hit his head or had a mystical experience and] passed out and saw himself travelling the long road to the Holy land . He felt the joy of reaching its boarders. He travelled to the holy city and was in awe of its beauty. He went into the temple, and marvelled at its glory. He continued into the holy sanctuary, and then to the holy of holies, were he opened the Ark of the Covenant and dared to peer inside. To his horror, it was empty, and he cried out ‘where are the Ten Commandments and the original Torah?’ A voice explained that the contents of the ark where to be found in Mezibush, his hometown with/in the Ba’al Shem Tov. He then awoke a little dazed and returned to see the Ba’al Shem Tov, where upon the Ba’al Shem Tov enquired, ‘did you find what you where looking for?’ This story told to me as a verification of the religious authenticity of a ‘Rebbe,’ and The Rebbe in particular, explaining that the Rebbe is not just the embodiment a living Torah but of the divine will itself.
This I hope will help explain why, even in 1994 when the Rebbe was sitting at the back of the synagogue, there was a genuine question whether one prayed East or West, i.e. towards Jerusalem or towards the Rebbe. The congregation was undecided, and approximately half east half west, there where others who were undecided and faced north or south. This emphasis on the Rebbe transformed New York into the New Jerusalem. This also fits in well with another the Rebbes famous sayings “make here the land of Israel .” This idea of transforming the Diaspora into the land of Israel has parallels with the general Hassidic principle of the sanctification and transformation of the mundane into the holy. More strikingly and possibly, more obviously with a Midrashic myth concerning the future land of Israel explains: –
‘In the future to come, the holiness of the holy of holies would spread to include the Temple ; the holiness of the Temple will spread to engulf the entire city of Jerusalem . Jerusalem the entire land of Israel and the borders of Israel will encompass the world.’- Midrash Rabba
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The following links were visited on the 16th of May 2000 to verify their contents.